In the last lesson, we talked about how the swoosh was created. About the time that Carolyn Davis was drawing the swoosh, Knight had another problem. He also needed to come up with a name for his new shoes.
If the story of the swoosh was remarkable, the story of the company’s name is a cautionary tale—one with a number of compelling lessons if you pay attention.
More Back Story
To recap, when Knight found out that the Japanese were going to either push him out or take over the small shoe distribution company that he started, he sought out a new factory in Mexico and he produced his own athletic shoes. He paid a college student $35 to create the logo, but he still didn’t know what to call the shoes.
Knight wanted to call the shoes Dimension Six. Seriously. Your beloved Nikes could be called Dimension Six. Or maybe, the name would have been so awful, that you never would have had a chance to experience the comfort of a pair of Nikes—I mean Dimension Sixes.
Mercifully, Knight had assembled a team and more importantly, he listened to them. Because I cannot improve on the dialog, I am relating Knight’s recollection of how they decided on the name below:
Now we just needed a name to go with this logo I didn’t love.
Over the next few days we kicked around dozens of ideas, until two leading candidates emerged.
And Dimension Six.
I was partial to the latter, because I was the one who came up with it. Woodell and everyone else told me that it was god-awful. It wasn’t catchy, they said, and it didn’t mean anything….
Hour after hour was spent arguing and yelling, debating the virtue of this name or that. Someone liked Bork’s suggestion, Bengal. Someone else said the only possible name was Condor. I huffed and groused. “Animal names,” I said. “Animal names! We’ve considered the name of just about every animal in the forest. Must it be an animal?”
Again and again I lobbied for Dimension Six. Again and again I was told by my employees that it was unspeakably bad.
Someone, I forget who, summed up the situation neatly. “All these names . . . suck.” I thought it might have been Johnson, but all the documentation says he’d left and gone back to Wellesley by then.
One night, late, we were all tired, running out of patience. If I heard one more animal name I was going to jump out a window. Tomorrow’s another day, we said, drifting out of the office, headed out to our cars.
I went home and sat in my recliner. My mind went back and forth, back and forth. Falcon? Bengal? Dimension Six? Something else? Anything else?
THE DAY OF decision arrived. [The factory] had already started producing the shoes, and samples were ready to go in Japan, but before anything could be shipped, we needed to choose a name. Also, we had magazine ads slated to run, to coincide with the shipments, and we needed to tell the graphic artists what name to put in the ads. Finally, we needed to file paperwork with the U.S. Patent Office.
Woodell wheeled into my office. “Time’s up,” he said.
I rubbed my eyes. “I know.”
“What’s it going to be?”
“I don’t know.”
My head was splitting.
By now the names had all run together into one mind-melting glob. Falconbengaldimensionsix.
“There is . . . one more suggestion,” Woodell said.
“Johnson phoned first thing this morning,” he said. “Apparently a new name came to him in a dream last night.”
I rolled my eyes. “A dream?”
“He’s serious,” Woodell said.
“He’s always serious.”
“He says he sat bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night and saw the name before him,” Woodell said.
“What is it?” I asked, bracing myself.
“N-I-K-E,” Woodell said.
I wrote it on a yellow legal pad.
The Greek goddess of victory. The Acropolis. The Parthenon. The Temple. I thought back. Briefly. Fleetingly.
“We’re out of time,” I said. “Nike. Falcon. Or Dimension Six.”
“Everyone hates Dimension Six.”
“Everyone but me.”
He frowned. “It’s your call.”
He left me. I made doodles on my pad. I made lists, crossed them out. Tick, tock, tick, tock.
I needed to telex the factory—now.
I hated making decisions in a hurry, and that’s all I seemed to do in those days. I looked to the ceiling. I gave myself two more minutes to mull over the different options, then walked down the hall to the telex machine. I sat before it, gave myself three more minutes.[i]
Ultimately, as you know, they decided on Nike. How? Read the next few lines and you will find out:
“What’d you decide?” Woodell asked me at the end of the day. “Nike,” I mumbled. “Hm,” he said. “Yeah, I know,” I said. “Maybe it’ll grow on us,” he said.
Maybe it will grow on them? Compared to Dimension Six?
What is the moral of the story? There are a few. First, Knight didn’t think he had to have all the answers. Leaders often make terrible decisions because they think that that are supposed to have all the answers. But Knight didn’t fall into that trap. He could have said, “I am the boss, and I am making an executive decision,” but he didn’t.
More to the point, the name Nike wasn’t even Knight’s idea. It was Johnson’s idea. But the truly remarkable thing in the story was that when a member of his team had a good idea, he listened. He really listened. He overrode his own preference because he was willing to listen to the ideas of others.
Finally, Dimension Six is a terrible name for athletic shoes. It is probably a terrible name for anything.
It is hard to overemphasize the importance of this sequence if you are in any sort of leadership position. Here are the key takeaways again:
- Be humble. You don’t have to have all the answers.
- Be open to others’ ideas.
- Listen to your team
- Dimension six is a terrible name.
What about you?
Are you humble enough to know that you don’t have all the answers? Are you open to ideas that are not your own? Do you listen to your people? If not, I hope you think about Dimension Six every time you lace up your Nikes.
[i] Knight, P. (2016). Shoe Dog: A memoir from the creator of Nike. New York: Scribner. (pp. 181-183)
[ii] Knight, P. (2016). Shoe Dog: A memoir from the creator of Nike. New York: Scribner. (p. 184).