A show about the backstories of people who changed the world. Each episode is a mini historical biography filled with life lessons and actionable insights.

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SEASON 08 / EPISODE 03

The Runner Up

This is the story of how one man created a product that could change the world… but only if you use it.

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Buck enlisted in the Army for a year, finished his service, and was now spending another seven years in the Army Reserve. During his daily morning walk to the track, he thought about his military training and his college degrees. Despite all of it, Buck still felt like a child. He had learned about the world, but he hadn’t actually done much in the world.

The one thing he had done was start a business (albeit only part-time), and his day job was in accounting.

As he continued his walk, a mischievous smile crept over his face. Maybe he hadn’t done much up until this point, but everything was about to change.

As he tightened the hood on his jacket, fog and light rain blew around him.

It had rained almost every day that winter.

Buck walked through the mist to the stadium. Inside, he strolled past the bleachers until the track came into view. On the track, a low fog hung over everything. Only two figures were present.

Buck blew on his hands to stay warm. He watched a runner sprinting through the cold air. Occasionally, the other man with the stopwatch would yell out times.

Watching the runner and his coach training, when no one else would brave the morning cold, made him smile.

The runner, Steve, was a sight to behold as he sprinted the last leg of his morning run. The coach was Buck’s good friend and mentor.

Steve was an incredibly talented runner, who dedicated his life to the sport. But getting Steve a financial return from the dedication was tough.

He needed money to live, train, travel and recover. And in those days, making money from athletics was nearly impossible. As Buck would later say:

“The know-nothings and oligarchs who governed American amateur athletics at that time decreed that Olympic athletes couldn’t collect endorsement money, or government money, which meant our finest runners and swimmers and boxers were reduced to paupers.”

In his spare time, Buck did what he could to lift up aspiring athletes and Olympians like Steve. On that cold morning, he made Steve a job offer.

Steve became Buck’s Director of PR for his side business. In those days, Olympians even making money outside of athletics was frowned upon. Whenever Buck would introduce his new Director, people narrowed their eyes in skepticism. Buck didn’t care. He would narrow his eyes and stare right back.

Buck’s business had never been traditional. The idea had come about back in college when he wrote a paper about a macroeconomic business opportunity. Later, he and his friend went on a trip to Asia to explore. Things were as he had predicted and after one handshake with the CEO of a partner company, Buck returned home with a business plan — and a license to sell that company’s products in the Western U.S.

For many years, Buck grew his side hustle while still maintaining his day job as an accountant. Eventually, he made the leap to working full time at his startup… and it was just in time. His company had developed its own product line, and was selling it in his partners’ territory without their permission. This partner grew angry; a lawsuit followed.

Suddenly, Buck was left with 30 employees and almost nothing to sell. The only product they had to sell was their own experimental line Buck had been developing on the side.

No stranger to adversity, Buck kept going.

Barely able to pay himself or his workers, loans from his father and a small group of local investors were the only things that kept them going.

That, and the “why” behind what he was doing.

For him, part of his “why” was a personal protest against the madness of the Vietnam war. He served in between the Korean and Vietnam wars and watched with horror as he saw the conflict unfold.

At college, he encountered a famous quote about the power of commerce:

“When goods don’t pass international borders, soldiers will.”

Much later in life, Buck would reflect that:

“Though I’ve been known to call business a war without bullets, it’s actually a wonderful bulwark against war. Trade is the path of coexistence, cooperation. Peace feeds on prosperity. That’s why, haunted as I was by the Vietnam War, I always vowed that someday [we] would have a factory in or near Saigon. By 1997 we had four.”

But all that was yet to come. For now, Buck’s business was growing, but the margins were slim to non-existent. And their business name, Blue Ribbon — wasn’t resonating with anyone.

There was a small victory on the horizon, though. Thanks to his father’s help on the legal case, and an attorney who took the case as a contingency, Buck won the legal battle.

Still, Blue Ribbon sales were not inspiring, and rejections were mounting.

At night, after long days on the road struggling to sell anything, he would arrive home and immediately go on a six-mile run. After those runs, his worries would subside. The clarity from the run and the shower afterward would allow him to think of new ideas to solve his challenges at work.

This cycle of rejection, run, shower, rejection, run, shower taught him some of his greatest lessons. One day, while driving home after making a large sale, everything came together in his mind. He would later reflect that:

“Driving back to Portland I’d puzzle over my sudden success at selling. I’d been unable to sell encyclopedias, and I’d despised it to boot. I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.”

Soon after, facing the lack of money, the lawsuit, and the brutal challenge of making sales, he had to face the facts.

People were calling his ideas and his business crazy. His employees quit, urging him to stop. A look at the books suggested that he close up shop…

The year before, they barely broke even. This year, they lost money.

$57,000 to be exact. It was a small bump in the road, but Buck had a hard time explaining that to his investors. They reacted with panic, and it was instantly clear to Buck that he couldn’t accept belief from people who didn’t have all the context. Even his investors.

Because what he did have was something all the naysayers didn’t have:

Belief in the direct experience, and the benefit of using his own product.

The journey of building the company wasn’t an easy one, but in some ways, it was realized when Buck made a promise to himself. Looking back, he would say:

“So that morning… I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy . . . just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

Buck is Phil Knight.

Phil’s conviction in his product held strong, and his team and Blue Ribbon grew. Later, the company would rebrand and change its name. They chose the name Nike, after the Greek Goddess of Victory.

Phil Knight would go on to lead Nike in becoming one of the most iconic brands in the world.

His service in the military, and perhaps most importantly, his service after the military offer a wealth of lessons for anyone looking to carve his or her own path in life.

Whatever challenge you’re facing, no matter how far you are into your run, or how daunting the next run may be, just do it.

Don’t stop. When the thought of stopping enters your mind, keep going, because it is at exactly those moments when it is most critical you push through all resistance. Sometimes, it feels like we are battling outside foes and opponents, but one of the most important pieces of wisdom from Phil reminds us of the truth:

“Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.”

As Phil proved, naysayers can only bring you down so much. In the end, the real enemy is the weaker version of yourself. Each of us has of the power to transcend weaker versions of ourselves. Each of us can keep going until those around us are shocked at who we’ve become. And when you feel like you can’t keep going or face the day’s challenges that lie ahead, remember…

Just do it.

That’s his story, what’s yours going to be?

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