Jeff Johnson and Nike: A Key Early Employee

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Shoe Dog" by Phil Knight. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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In 1965, Nike founder Phil Knight hires his first full-time employee, a fellow Stanford runner named Jeff Johnson who will sell shoes in Los Angeles. Jeff Johnson has a messianic view on running—believing running done right is akin to enlightenment—and Phil hasn’t met anyone with his passion for running.

This is the story of Jeff Johnson and Nike, from Phil Knight’s book Shoe Dog.

1966

Blue Ribbon’s first salesman, Jeff Johnson has a personality quirk – he sends Phil mountains of letters, detailing his every development, every sale and notable customer. (Shortform note: Just take a minute to remember that business used to be done entirely through phone and letters, not email). Jeff Johnson sends advertising ideas (Phil doesn’t believe in advertising), shoe designs (Phil already has enough to deal with with Bowerman), and his insistence on opening a retail shop in Los Angeles. 

Phil feels smothered and rarely replies to Jeff Johnson’s letters. From studying war heroes and generals, he holds a virtue: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

And Jeff Johnson delivers results. His customers love him, depending on Johnson to solve their problems in both running and life. Even when he gets in a car crash and breaks his skull, he continues to sell shoes. Phil even issues him a challenge – sell 3,250 pairs of shoes in a few months, and Johnson could open his retail space in LA. And sell he does – now Blue Ribbon has an official runner mecca in Los Angeles.

At one point, Jeff Johnson sends one letter that Phil can’t ignore. One of Johnson’s customers says that he can start getting Tiger running shoes from another seller – a wrestling coach somewhere in the East Coast. That same wrestling coach from 1964 who was supposed to stick to wrestling shoes.

There’s only one person crazy and passionate enough to do this at a moment’s notice – Jeff Johnson.

1967

Jeff Johnson does leave for the East Coast, but not without a fight. His father, a salesman himself, pushes Johnson to ask for more – a partnership in Blue Ribbon, $600 in monthly salary, and a third of all profits after 6,000 pairs sold.

Neither Phil nor Bowerman, the only owners of Blue Ribbon, want to give up their equity. So Phil flies to Jeff Johnson and his father to negotiate. Despite the arguments of Johnson’s father, Phil holds steady – he would give Johnson a $50 raise, and that was it. Jeff Johnson looks torn, but he doesn’t want to quit. He needs Blue Ribbon, and despite Phil’s refusal to answer his letters, Johnson feels like he thrives.

Blue Ribbon moves out of Phil’s apartment and into its first real office. It’s a fixer-upper, with tissue thin walls and broken windows. Jeff Johnson has settled on the location of their first East Coast office – Wellesley, MA, a place where runners seemed to abound and the Boston Marathon runs through.

Jeff Johnson and Nike: A Key Early Employee

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Here's what you'll find in our full Shoe Dog summary:

  • How Phil Knight started Nike when he was just 24 years old
  • The lawsuit that almost ended Nike
  • The ups and downs of Nike over 20 years of business

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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