Nike Founder Struggled Before Making It Big

When Phil Knight co-founded Nike in 1964, he was just an athlete with an idea. Now, he’s the 27th richest person in the world and the chairman emeritus of a company with revenues north of $47 billion for its last fiscal year.

Phil Knight told CNN’s Make It that he was an “average mid-distance runner” on the track team at the University of Oregon. He watched his track coach tweak the athletes' running shoes and saw what kind of impact it made on how they ran, and from there, he got an idea. After making his way to Stanford Business School, he wrote a paper on why running shoes should be manufactured in Japan rather than Germany, which was the standard at the time.

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Not long after that, Knight founded what was initially called Blue Ribbon Sports, when he worked with a group of Japanese businessmen to export their sneakers to the United States, where he had exclusive rights to sell them.

Knight quickly saw demand explode and had to hire more workers to keep up, along with ordering more sneakers, and soon, the word spread far and wide about his business. Despite financial problems galore, Knight persevered. First, two banks dropped him due to late loan payments, and then, the exclusivity agreement with the Japanese company was up in the air.

Knight, then with a staff of 45 employees, had to search tirelessly for a new factory to produce their shoes, which is when they rebranded. One of the company’s earliest employees, Jeff Johnson, came up with the name Nike, which Knight initially wasn’t in love with. But it “turned out pretty good,” Knight later told CNBC.

Years later, in 1980, Knight took Nike public and his share in the company instantly became worth $178 million. Now, Knight’s net worth is estimated by Forbes to be north of $36 billion.

When Knight speaks with young entrepreneurs, he impresses upon them the importance of being ready to deal with setbacks and issues, as he’s familiar with the struggle to get a business off the ground. With hard work and perseverance, he knows it’s possible to find the same success in business that he has.

But Knight also knows the importance of giving back. He is the most generous philanthropist in Oregon state history and has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to each of his alma maters (the University of Oregon and Stanford University) as well as Oregon Health & Science University. All told, he has donated over $2 billion to the three institutions.