Thursday, August 09, 2007

SWOOSH: Ode to Jeff Johnson

It is important that you risk trying things that you might not be very good at. It is important that you discover that failure is never final, and neither is victory.
-Jeff Johnson, NIKE Employee #1

Today I'm writing about Jeff Johnson, a little-known guy who occupies an enormous place in American entrepreneurship. As noted, he was NIKE employee #1, and he gave the then fledgling company its name. And if I distinguish here between "entrepreneur" and "businessman" that's purposeful, because entrepreneurs are the creatives, dreamers and visionaries who execute and make sculpture from clay.

There's so much to say about his entrepreneurial zeal, how he took a shoe, ripped off the sole and placed the sole from a flip-flop in it and created the first mid-sole cushioned shoe. The way he'd get t-shirts made with the name "Nike" on it before the era of big bucks endorsements, gave them away to winners of races and then took a photo of them holding a victory sign in their shirt.

The entrepreneurial genius of that move? Many a time, the runners would have adidas or Pumas on their feet.

In the '90's I started a small sports marketing company with my good friend Mitch. To call it modest is an understatement; we were young and very green. Yet, we revered Nike and devoured material about the company. I eventually asked everyone in the company who they thought really made Nike what it was and is - besides founder Phil Knight. The consensus was Jeff Johnson.

A runner and lover of sports, he met up with Knight who had concocted the scheme of undercutting adidas, the two-ton gorilla of athletic shoes, by importing adidas knock-offs from Japan, Onitsuka Tiger's to be exact. While not as quality a shoe as adidas, they were considerably cheaper and runners liked the personal touch of Johnson, who was pretty much the public face of "Blue Ribbon Sports," (BRS) the company's then operating name.

A rift would eventually ensue between Onitsuka and BRS, but Knight and company had accomplished too much - there was no looking back now, but they had some moves to make. They had a new logo; Knight had wanted "something like the 3 stripes," but could only muster what looked like a fancy checkmark from student designer Carolyn Davidson.

But they were stuck on choosing a new name. Knight threw out a name that he was stuck on, and all of the "Buttfaces" (an affectionate term for the inner circle, based upon their ability to tell one another they were full of shit) made fun of him. They broke to sleep on it - time was of the essence as they were on deadline, I believe to file articles of incorporation.

That night as Nike legend has it, Johnson, from a dead sleep, sat upright: "Nike, the winged goddess of victory! That's IT!"

It met with a lukewarm Buttface reception. In the eleventh hour, Knight begrudgingly went with it.

Among the many stories I know about Nike, at the top of the heap is this: In the early days they would attend the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) trade show, and their booth was a standard 10' X 10' with Knight and whoever seated on folding chairs and maybe some shirts. The adidas reps would walk by Nike's booth and sneer if they paid attention to them at all. But as Nike began their ascent, they heard more than one customer say to them, "Well, you have a few kinks to work out, but I like you guys a helluva lot better than those assholes at adidas."

Early on with our company, I made up my mind - I was going to fire off a letter to Johnson. I knew enough to know he was a voracious reader, loved the written word and, even with the advent of word processors, still used his old typewriter.

I called Nike and eventually got to Knight's secretary and inquired if she knew how to contact Johnson. She seemed mildly surprised that someone even knew who he was, but said that yes, Johnson still came around a couple times a year. He'd long since retired, a multi-millionaire in his forties. She said she'd be glad to forward a message to him. So I fired off a letter, but not before Mitch and I went down the street and took a picture in front of the location where Johnson set up Nike's first retail operation. The Asian Indian dude in the hotel across the street snapped the pic. I put it in the letter.

He wrote back!

From that point on, Mitch and I corresponded with him and it was, to say the least, inspiring. We had one of the founders of Nike advising us schmucks. We met once while Johnson was coaching at Stanford and Mitch and I were in the Bay area on business.

I remember soon afterwards attending "The Super Show," which is what the NSGA had evolved into. It truly is something, occupying the entire Atlanta sports entertainment complex. (The Omni, Georgia Dome, etc.) I remember talking to some really young Philly kids at some little basketball company, And 1 or something like that.

Nike's "booth" wasn't even on one of the show floors, it occupied the entire ballroom on the top floor of the convention center. As you walked past reception, the hallway was completely dark except for an enormous SWOOSH beamed down from above. As you got nearer the ballroom, you could hear the pounding of music, and upon entering it's all you can do but just stand there and gape.

The ballroom was dark and in the center were these huge, at least 20 feet tall stands, about six of them arranged in a large circle, and atop each one was an enormous video display with famous Nike Imagery. The light show and pulsating music combined with this to provide not an experience, but a total mind fucking environment.

Years later, when Nike was making their first foray into Nike retail stores, I happened to go to one of their openings. The store was all flash, but then I noticed something; there, high up on a column, was a small plaque commemorating Nike employee #1.

Today, the romance has been dulled by the harsh light of big money contracts to players like Michael Vick who screw things up and outsourcing horror stories; colonialism is still murdering and instilling miserable-ism, just in a more economic hitman-ish manner. But I do recall fondly our brush with the Swoosh.

Coda: The name Knight wanted for his new shoe company: "Dimension Six."