Conan’s Newsletter No. 16

Shoe Dog — A Memoir by Nike’s creator Phil Knight; Flying geese paradigm and the dilemma of Globalization;

Web version

Book of the Week: Shoe Dog

I typically recommend a book only if it's worth reading multiple times. Shoe Dog by Nike co-founder is one of such books. I finished reading this book a few months back when my manager recommended it and completed another pass when I was on a road trip to Death Valley. Every read gives me fresh thoughts because Phil is a great storyteller, and Shoe Dog is not a typical memoir.

The book starts with a vivid description of Phil's world trip right before he founded Nike. In the 1960s, German products dominated the American sports shoe market. As a former track runner at college, Phil envisioned that Japanese running shoes would become significant competitors to German shoes. During his stop in Japan, he made contact with a Japanese shoemaker Onikusa. When Phil returned from his world trip with a contract to distribute Onitsuka shoes in the U.S., he started his legendary Nike journey.

In the early days of Nike, Cashflow has always been a bottleneck for its growth. Although the American venture capital was booming then, most of them were in Silicon Valley, far away from Nike's headquarter in Portland. Besides, the Shoe business is not the high-growth field V.C.s were looking for. As a result, Nike had to grow from bootstrapping and from bank loans. For the first five years, Phil had to keep a day job to earn Nike cash and work on Nike in the evenings and weekends. Nike was continuously groaned by its bankers and almost fell into bankruptcy in 1975.  

Nike rides the tide of Globalization. From Nike, you could see how Globalization (particularly Japan) have profoundly influenced the United States in the 1970s. Nike was initially just a distributor of Onikusa in the USA. Later, when it started selling shoes, it relied on loans from Nissho, a Japanese trade company.

Flying geese paradigm

The history of Nike is also a history of supply chain outsourcing from the U.S. to east Asia. Despite that it is the most famous sports shoe brand globally, Nike itself manufactures nothing and entirely relies on a global supply chain, which gave Nike the edge over Adidas. Nike's supply chain was first in Japan, then was moved to Taiwan and later to China. Nike is not alone. A lot of other American companies (such as Apple and Tesla) followed the pattern.

Japanese scholar Akamatsu's came up with a concept of Flying geese paradigm for the phenomenon that the Asian countries would catch up with the West like flying geese because the production of commoditized goods would continuously move from the more advanced countries to the less advanced ones in the region hierarchy. 

The flying geese paradigm is the reason why there are so many economic miracles in east Asian in the past few decades (Japanese economic miracle, Miracle on the Han River, Taiwan Miracle)

Then why Asia? Some crucial reasons are the region's social and cultural characteristics: hard-working ethic, Collectivism, and low labor cost (initially), which are somewhat very different and complementary with the Western culture. You could get more context for the difference in this excellent documentary American Factory.

However, the social and cultural characteristics that help the countries catch up with the West are a double-edged sword. Although the flying geese paradigm created economic miracles in those countries, it also makes them prone to the "technology snapshot trap,"--- a phenomenon in which a society develops involutely in a "snapshot" of the outdated technology because it fails to learn from outside or generate innovation innately continuously.

For example, Japan developed an advanced automobile and Electronics industry in the 1970s but failed to lead the personal computer revolution. Korea and Taiwan picked up the semiconductor industry but missed the Internet. Recently, "Involution" also became a hot topic in China social media. More and more people complain that society starts to stagnate and more and people have to face more fierce competition on limited resources.

In east Asia, the working population suffers from severe over-working (e.g., 996, Karoshi) in the catchup process. Over-work culture will prevent people from learning new things and reduce fertility rates, which will drive up labor costs and reduce the competitive advantage of society in the long run. The obedient culture in the region also reduces the diversity of ideas and disruptive innovation within itself.

Companies like Nike combine both ends' advantages by leveraging the West's marketing and sales creativity and delivering high-quality yet cheap products using the Asia supply chain. However, this fundamentally drives the tension on both ends and is the inherent reason for a couple of trade wars. 

We are facing a dilemma for Globalization. American people complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs, and Asian countries complain that the West captures most profits. We are at the crossroad of deglobalization, and the pandemic adds fuel to the process. A healthy society needs to strive for the right balance between the two cultures. Both ends should learn more from each other and take the opportunity to transform their culture and industry structures.