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3 Sales Lessons I Learned from Nike Founder, Phil Knight

Last Updated on February 16, 2021

Nike - Phil Knight sales lessons

Phil Knight was a scrappy kid from Oregon. He wasn’t supposed to change the world, but nobody told him that.

What started as his own self-proclaimed “crazy idea” led to the creation of Nike – one of the most successful companies in the world. And in the process, it transformed him into a multi-billionaire.

He details the journey of his (and the company’s) beginnings in his new memoir, Shoe Dog.

It’s packed with many impactful lessons – and some hard-hitting lessons in the sales realm. Those sales lessons are what I’ll share in this post.

Give Your Salespeople Room to Flourish

Phil Knight based his management style on this quote by General George Patton:

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

In doing so, he refused to micromanage his employees and salespeople. Instead, he gave them room to flourish, surprise, and impress him. And it worked.

His salespeople took ownership over their success, and would often go above and beyond his expectations, crushing their sales numbers.

As a sales manager, it can be tempting to micromanage. But consider this management style instead. When you hire the right people and give them a little bit of freedom, they problem solve. They create new and improved ways of doing things.

Show confidence in your salespeople and their decisions, and they might just surprise you with their results!

Believe in What You Sell

Knight started his sales career selling encyclopedias door-to-door in Hawaii. And he wasn’t very successful at it.

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He’d spend hours going door to door, yet he’d have very little to show for it at the end of the day.

However, when he started selling shoes, everything changed. He loved running, and truly believed in the running shoes he sold. He got more and more excited with the sale of every shoe, and really felt like he provided value to people.

The result? He sold tons of shoes when he got started, and started building a reputation for his shoe company.

When you believe in what you sell, that passion and belief shows – and it’s contagious. It becomes much easier for your prospects to believe in it too.

So, how do you build that belief?

It starts by creating a great product or service. Then you find people who have an interest (or passion!) for it as well. You train your employees (or yourself) on its ins and outs. You examine its benefits, and its advantages over the competition.

These are the building blocks of enthusiastic, confident salespeople.

Solidify the Company Culture

Knight always kept the company culture in mind. This was one of the biggest keys to Nike’s success.

He hired people who believed in and loved shoes, just as he did. They weren’t just working for the money – their values aligned with those of the company, and they were driven by a deeper purpose.

When you build the right culture with your sales team and your company in general, you’ll keep morale high, employees will be excited to do great work, and the team will feel like a family.

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To build that right culture, aim to hire rock stars for your sales team. Here’s how you can do that:

  • During interviews, ask questions that give you insight into the candidate’s behavior
  • Ask your current sales rock stars for referrals
  • Offer competitive pay
  • Understand the vision and deeper purpose for your company, and communicate that during employee interviews


Whether you’re managing a sales team or selling yourself, knowledge is key. Applying core lessons from success stories like Phil Knight is a great way to learn, overcome obstacles, and set yourself and your team on the path to success. These are 3 great lessons that can be applied to virtually any sales organization.

Have you read Shoe Dog, and if so what other sales and/or life lessons did you learn? Let us know in the comments below!