At Nike, one of Phil’s key partners was Bill Bowerman, a star Olympic track coach and Phil’s former running coach from college. Bowerman was the mad scientist of the group, experimenting with new shoe designs and rubber formulations to produce a better running shoe. In one landmark experiment, he squeezed rubber in his wife’s waffle iron, producing the waffle sole.
Learn about the history of Nike’s waffle shoes here.
1971: The Start of Nike
Phil Knight and Sumeragi meet with factories in Japan. They visit a factory called Nippon Rubber, part of Bridgestone Tire. Knight shows them the Cortez in the morning, and after lunch they present a brand-new manufactured Cortez, Nike stripe and all. Confident, Phil describes shoes for a range of sports, including tennis, basketball, and running shoes. Within a few days, he gets samples – they’re not perfect, but they’re very good.
In a late-night creative session, Phil decides to name the shoes – the tennis shoe is Wimbledon. The basketball shoes are Blazer and Bruin. Running shoes are Cortez, Marathon, Obori, Boston, Finland, and Wet-flyte. Finally he feels proud and free, a bona fide creator.
He returns to Portland and meets with Bowerman. They comment that the outer sole of the training shoe hadn’t changed in 50 years – still waves or grooves across bottom. Bowerman thinks about how he created a new track surface out of polyurethane, just like in the Olympics.
Bowerman, inspired, sees his wife’s waffle iron and thinks about the gridded pattern. He takes urethane and melts it, and it seals shut, now useless. He’d forgotten to add releasing agents to the rubber. He keeps trying and eventually succeeds with the help of a rubber company. He sews the insoles to the bottom of running shoes, and it’s a breakthrough.
Luckily, the Nike waffle trainers are more popular than ever. They’re breaking out of athletic uses and becoming an everyday lifestyle shoe, something competitors found hard to do. Sales double again to $14 million.
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- How Phil Knight started Nike when he was just 24 years old
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