What I Learned Working At Nike

What I Learned Working At Nike

My experience working for Nike in its earliest years showed me how passion and the desire to create a superior product for people who really wanted it could fuel a team of dedicated entrepreneurs. Nike was a “go as you grow” type of business in the early days, and it was this unique combination of creative freedom and team drive that helped create one of the most successful brands of all time.

Nike, now worth over $30 billion, did not always have the wealth of expertise and innovation resources it does today. It was conceived by a small group of elite runners who were frustrated with their options, and wanted to create the best running shoe on the market. They knew nothing about the technical know how of building a shoe. What they did have, however, was a strong and hungry team that was devoted to the dream and to each other. Truthfully, it was Nike’s early shoot-from-the-hip process was the secret to their success.

Left to right: Brent James, Phil Knight, and Casey (owner of the Sportsman's ClubBar) Korea,  1977 Left to right: Brent James, Phil Knight, and Casey (owner of the Sportsman’s ClubBar) Korea,  1977

 

A Culture of Freedom

When I began my career at Nike in 1976 as employee number 102, there were no footwear experts or industry authorities in the company – we were all going through the learning process together. No one could claim to have advanced knowledge or expertise because it was unchartered territory for everyone. Even though Adidas, Puma and Converse had been around for decades, none of our team members came from these organizations.

One thing that set Nike apart was an unusual degree of freedom around the office. The team operated with minimal supervision and no practice of politics. There was an unspoken trust that everyone had the best intentions to excel and thrive. We all had an athletic background with a common knowledge that success only comes from hard work and discipline – that the only way to survive is to embrace your passion and love of what you were doing. We all felt that we were part of something meaningful and exciting. That was the basis of our uniqueness.

Faith and Calculated Risks

As a university athlete, Steve Prefontaine was my spiritual leader prior to his shocking passing in May of 1975. He was a true visionary, convincing my mom and I to open Seattle’s very first running shoe store. Our dream became a reality as we cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Super Jock ‘N Jill in November 1975. The odd thing was, Adidas and other major brands in the industry were refusing to sell us shoes. However, Nike and their regional sales representative, Al Miller, believed in us and agreed to stock the shop.

Brent James wearing NBA player, Bob Lanier's size 23 shoe as part of his costume for the first Cascade Runoff. Portland, OR 1981 Brent James wearing NBA player, Bob Lanier’s size 23 shoe as part of his costume for the first Cascade Runoff. Portland, OR 1981

After a few months in operation, I stopped by the corporate office in Beaverton, Oregon one afternoon to express my appreciation and gratitude to Phil Knight (founder of Nike). I thanked Phil for having faith in us and gave him a gift to show my appreciation, which I believe he still has in his office to this day.

In a bizarre series of events that day, I was pulled into a corporate meeting to discuss why Nike’s runners aren’t at the top of the list in publications like Runner’s World. I got pelted with questions by a room full of Nike’s top decision makers. I suggested that they set up a testing program using local runners to gather their feedback prior to launching. Two hours later, after the meeting had adjourned, Ron Nelson (VP of production) pulled me aside and asked “Hey, so what are your plans…would you like to come work for us?”  I was blown away. I said yes, but I told him there was a glitch: I hadn’t finished school yet. Ron says “No problem. Show up the day after you graduate.” Which of course, I did.

Promptly after graduation, I began my career at Nike creating a process for independent runners to test our designs. That swift introduction to the industry was just the first of many unexpected and serendipitous opportunities: Three months after I started, Ron Nelson came to me again and said, “Hey, we need you to go live in Korea to oversee production.”  I was 21 and thinking, ‘What do I know about shoemaking?’  Nevertheless, 30 days later I was in Korea overseeing a factory of 30,000 workers. It sounds unorthodox and extreme, but that’s how you rolled at Nike. They gave young and eager people like me the chance to prove themselves. Needless to say I made plenty of mistakes but everyone knew that is how you learned.

Competition And Sportsmanship

Passion and conviction ruled the way Nike operated in those days. Meetings were loud and led by the loudest of all – Rob Strasser, second in line to Phil, and affectionately named “Rolling Thunder” due to his burly, 6’5” stature a voice that could summon an avalanche.

After my first four years at Nike, the company had rapidly grown to over $400 million, and I was managing several categories of products including Running. At that point, Nike had opened a development and design center in Exeter, New Hampshire. The center was an isolated think tank for innovation and research. R&D teams could work without oppressive management, free to create incredible new designs in their own way. However, the Exeter team wanted to see their designs constructed in the US, and were not keen on overseas manufacturing. Nike was on fire, but the Portland executives realized that we needed to get products to market faster. This meant moving production to Asia for designs determined to be the most “commercial.” The New Hampshire team had no trust that the Asian factories could execute these designs, and so refused to let them go. Thus, the visions of the teams quickly fell out of sync and this incongruity became apparent in the notoriously heated quarterly meetings.

The matter was resolved on one auspicious day, when Rolling Thunder finally threw down the gauntlet. Teams from Oregon had flown out to the east coast to meet with the New Hampshire team. That morning we walked into our facility, and over the loudspeaker came what sounded like the voice of Darth Vader. The New Hampshire designers had developed a whole skit about how the dark side was arriving to tear the heart out of the company. It was classic. The meeting began with Rolling Thunder leading the charge, being his usual obnoxiously brilliant self.  I can’t recall what exactly sparked it, but in the middle of the meeting, some of the Exeter team members suddenly begin grabbing handfuls of the the jelly-filled doughnuts that were piled in the center of the conference table, and began pelting Rob. It was an onslaught!

In response, Rob just burst out in laughter. After the incident subsided, instead of dismissing himself to clean up, he decided instead to wear the jelly and powdered sugar mess with pride for the rest of the day. It was gross – he had this large beard filled with goo – and yet the meetings proceeded, amazingly, in full co-operation! His decision to wear the goo succeeded in sending the message that this is what it takes to get the job done and that we are all in this together. He wanted to show by example that the team had to be willing to do what takes to bring great product to the marketplace.

No one ever forgot “the jelly doughnut incident,” and we all became more united because of it.

There Is No Such Thing As A #1 Shoe

Brent James presenting for the 1978 sales meeting in Sun River, OR Brent James presenting for the 1978 sales meeting in Sun River, OR

Many people don’t know that a large majority of Nike’s initial success was credited to their account with Sears and J.C. Penny’s. This income is what paid the bills, but these designs made more of a fashion statement than a performance statement. We were not being perceived by consumers as a technical athletic shoe company at that point.

Although we had popular running shoe designs, we never held the #1 spot on the coveted Runner’s World list. We felt that there were different types of runners so there could not be such a thing as a #1 running shoe. Athletes came in all shapes and sizes and had completely different needs. Some pronated, some supinated, and they needed varying degrees of support. We threw out the idea of a “one shoe fits all” belief system and began to rethink how different styles can cater to different athlete’s needs. This idea is still deep in the culture of Nike today and is now an industry norm.

Conclusion

While reflecting back on my time at Nike I feel that trust played a significant role in holding us all together during the early days. There was a huge level of trust bestowed on all of us.  Mistakes were expected but we were able to work through them because of the great degree of transparency we had and support we felt from one another.

What Nike had more than any company in the industry at the time was passion. Everyone felt extremely lucky to be working at Nike. It was a dream opportunity for us. We all worked like crazy and partied regularly like rock stars. The stories were legendary and were fortunate to get away with much of the shenanigans that went on. There were several resorts that we were kindly ask not to return to again. Nike’s early success stemmed from a shared passion for athletics and a mutual vision to make greatness.

Company retreat to the Avenue of the Giants, Hombolt County, CA.  Left to right: David Kottcamp, Kirk Richardson,  Nelson Farris, and Brent James Company retreat to the Avenue of the Giants, Hombolt County, CA.  Left to right: David Kottcamp, Kirk Richardson,  Nelson Farris, and Brent James

This shared connection attributed to a culture of openness. Meetings were lively and heated at times but the issues on the table were rarely tabled for a later date. Challenges were dealt with that moment, hashed out and deliverables set.  To be truthful Nike was growing so rapidly that there just was no time to overthink things.  Some times I didn’t always leave a meeting happy but we all understood that it was part of a process to move forward. Just do it!

I do feel so accidently fortunate to arrive at Nike at just the perfect time for me and am so grateful for all the opportunities that Phil and the rest of the leadership team provide for me. The amazing energy of Nike in its startup phase affected the way I have lived my life.

Thanks for reading!

Brent James
Founder at Concept 21

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