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What Nike can teach us about having a side hustle…

Last Updated:

April 6, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #45 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? You need a side hustle!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Nike, the sports apparel company with $55 billion in annual sales, started out as a side project.

It’s 1959 and Phil Knight, a college student at The University of Oregon, was running track and field under coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman, while working full-time as a college track coach, had a quiet side project: shoemaking.

On the side, Bowerman created prototypes of lightweight, inexpensive shoes for his athletes—equipment that was not yet available in the USA. Knight, as one of Bowerman’s athletes, became an early tester. Here’s what happened next:

  • 2 years later, in 1961, Knight, now a student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, took an entrepreneurship class where he was told to come up with a business plan. Inspired by Bowerman, Knight “developed a blueprint for superior running shoes produced in Japan”—and realizes “this is really what [he] would like to do.”
  • 1 year later, in 1962, Knight graduated from Stanford and took a trip to a Japanese shoe factory called Onitsuka. This factory produced a lightweight shoe called “Tigers”: similar to Adidas but produced at a much cheaper cost. Knight secured a distribution deal with Onitsuka to bring Tigers to USA-based runners.
  • 1 year later, in 1963, Knight worked as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand, then Pricewaterhouse (now PwC) by day. By night, he and Bowerman—who became his business partner—imported and distributed the Tiger sneakers from Onitsuka. They did so under the company name, “Blue Ribbon Sports.” 
  • 6 years later, in 1969, Knight reached a staggering $1 million in sneaker sales. Timing was on Knight’s side, too: This era was the “dawn of the jogging boom” and Americans took to running as a hobby for their leisure and health. In response, the demand for shoes—particularly lightweight, inexpensive ones like Tigers—grew.
  • 2 years later, in 1971, Knight left his accounting job and his partnership with Onitsuka. With Bowerman’s help, he turned “Blue Ribbon Sports” from a part-time project into a full-time design and manufacturing company.

So, the next time you find yourself seeing an opportunity but not having the courage to quit your job and pursue it full-time, remember Knight and Bowerman—who side-hustled as an accountant and track coach… and then changed the world of athletics and apparel forever.

L to R: A young Phil Knight with early Nikes (via Jenns Day) and a young Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight wearing early Nikes (via ShoePalace).

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? You should have a side project!

Society has a way of forcing us to commit, whether it’s in terms of a college, a major, or a career. (If you’ve ever been asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” you know what I mean.)

But, as my wife Shuo and I shared in a recent podcast interview, you don’t have to pick between “this” or “that” because you can (and maybe should) pick “this” and “that.”

Commit to one thing as your “main hustle,” whether it’s school, a job, or caregiving. Then, pick a “side hustle,” something that brings you joy, whether it’s community service work, content creation, an Etsy store, and, yes, even a shoe brand.

Then, spend time on it—and use it to develop your interests, grow your skills, and expand your network. Once you’ve “de-risked” the venture and see enough potential in the idea to pursue it full-time, go for it!

Not sure where to begin? Ask yourself:

(1) What’s one activity that I’d like to try (or that I’ve tried and loved)?

  • E.g., “I’ve loved giving people advice on what to do with their lives.”

(2) What is one goal I can set for myself for the next month that turns this into an ongoing project?

  • E.g., “I can try to mentor one new person per week… and then see how things go.”

You don’t have to pursue this project full-time. Most people don’t. The important thing isn’t to build the next Fortune 100 company as Nike did (unless that’s your goal). The important thing is to find something aside from your “day job” that gives you joy.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I didn’t just heroically quit my job and become an author. I actually wrote the first draft of The Unspoken Rules as an MBA student as an independent project!

Find a side project!


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