Phil Knight was an accounting major who ran track in shoes cobbled by his coach. Even in grad school, Knight was thinking about running shoes—there had to be a better, less expensive product than the pricy, German-made shoes of the day.
John Schnatter made pizza in a broom closet at his father's bar and dreamed of opening his own chain, delivering pizza to homes nationwide.
Johnny Morris was a fisherman since boyhood who envied the specialized lures and high-tech tackle used by the pros in bass tournaments. When a local retailer rejected his request to carry the equipment, Morris literally wouldn't take no for an answer.
What Knight, Schnatter and Morris have in common is that they acted on their hunches and chased their dreams. Rather than letting the big idea slip by, they grabbed opportunities, took control of their lives and ultimately created business empires. Knight, of course, founded Nike; Schnatter, Papa John's Pizza; and Morris, Bass Pro Shops Inc. Here are their stories.Just Do It
Phil Knight was very much aware of his shoes while a middle distance runner at the University of Oregon in the 1950s. "The American shoes were offshoots of tire companies. Shoes cost $5, and you would come back from a five-mile run with your feet bleeding," he told a reporter. "Then the German companies came in with $30 shoes, which were more comfortable. But [Coach Bill] Bowerman still wasn't satisfied. He believed that shaving an ounce off a pair of shoes for a guy running a mile could make a big difference. So Bowerman began making shoes himself, and since I wasn't the best guy on the team, I was the logical one to test the shoes."
When Knight was working on his MBA at Stanford, he wrote a paper for a small-business class about importing running shoes from Japan, where labor was cheaper, to compete with the popular and expensive German brands. Knight later said the class was an eyeopener. After his professor defined the makeup of an entrepreneur, "I realized he was talking about me," he said. "I remember after writing that paper, saying to myself: 'This is really what I would like to do.' "
Knight nevertheless followed a traditional path after graduating from Stanford. The son of a lawyer turned newspaper publisher, Knight followed his father's suggestions and got a corporate job as a CPA for an accounting firm.
But his entrepreneurial passion remained stoked, and in the early 1960s, he traveled to Japan and negotiated a deal to become the first American distributor of the shoe brand then called Tiger. He created a company, Blue Ribbon Sports, and signed his former coach, Bowerman, as co-founder.
Knight slowly built his new company while keeping his day job as an accountant and later as an accounting professor at Portland State. He sold shoes out of the trunk of his car at track meets. He also handled the finances while Bowerman designed shoes, an employee managed the retail store in Santa Monica and another employee, who later became Knight's wife, handled the books.
In 1971, when he had trouble with his Japanese distributor, he founded a new company, Nike. His store manager, Jeff Johnson, came up with the name. A local graphic artist designed the swoosh logo. Within 10 years, jogging was hot and Nike was on fire. Nike revenue in 2008 was $18.6 billion.A Very Big Fish Story
Johnny Morris gained a love of fishing and an entrepreneurial spirit from his father. As a business student at Drury College in Missouri, the younger Morris competed in some tournaments held by the pro bass fishing tour. After seeing the pros' specialized lures and high-tech tackle, he had to have them. But when a local store known for its fishing department showed no interest in carrying the items, Morris took action.
He went to his dad, who operated dry cleaning shops and Brown Derby Liquor stores in the area, and asked if he could sell fishing merchandise in one of the liquor stores. The elder Morris wasn't too interested; he had tried unsuccessfully to sell bait. But his son was insistent and persuaded his dad to give him 8 feet of shelf space and to cosign a $10,000 loan to buy inventory.
After graduation in 1971, Morris hit the road to buy regional fishing lures. The bass fisherman knew his market. He talked to customers and traveled to tournaments to see which lures the winners used. His Bass Pro Shops took off with word of mouth. People began calling to buy by phone, so he started a catalogue company that eventually gained a reputation as being the bass fisherman's bible.
Within a decade Morris was also selling exclusive products to independent sporting goods stores, had expanded into boat building and sales, and was designing his first showroom: Outdoor World.
Intended as a place where customers could handle the merchandise, Outdoor World morphed into a 300,000-square-foot superstore, a Disneyland for outdoorsmen. In addition to fishing gear, Outdoor World offered all sorts of sporting equipment, as well as boats, cutlery, wildlife art and gifts. With a four-story waterfall, indoor cabin, gun and archery ranges, taxidermy shop, and even a trout stream meandering through it, the Springfield store became the largest tourist attraction in the state. Revenue for Bass Pro Shops, which remains publicly held, was estimated at $2.6 billion by Forbes in 2006, the most recent year figures were available.
Today, the catalog and Internet business is still going strong and there are 52 Bass Pro Shops in the United States and Canada. Not bad for an enterprise that began with 8 feet of shelf space in a liquor store.Delivering Success
Like every other college kid, John Schnatter loved pizza. But his interest ran deeper than most. From high school on he worked in pizza restaurants, starting as a dishwasher at a family-owned place in his hometown of Jeffersonville, Ind. As a student at Ball State University, he worked at a local Greek's Pizza and almost quit school to buy his own franchise.
Instead, he waited and began dreaming of his own national pizza franchise. Another student who lived in his dorm helped him with the name: Papa John's.
And, after earning his business degree, Schnatter started business in 1984 on his own terms; selling his prized, 1972 Z28 Camaro to buy $1,600 worth of used restaurant equipment, and serving pizzas out of a renovated broom closet in the back of Mick's Lounge, co-owned by his father in his hometown. The bar patrons were brutally honest about what they liked and didn't like, and Schnatter took advantage of the feedback.
When a retail space opened next door to the bar, he opened his own restaurant. "We built a sit-down restaurant, but the people wanted the pizza delivered," he told an interviewer. "The customer kind of told us that was the way we needed to go; we just listened to the customer."
In his heart, Schnatter knew pizza delivery was the way to go, too. In the next 15 years, Papa John's saw tremendous growth, becoming the third-largest pizza chain in the country. Benchmarks came in 1993 with the 300th store and an initial public stock offering netting $18 million. The following year, the Louisville, Ky.-based chain opened its 400th restaurant and made its second public offering, with $22.4 million in proceeds.
Today, there are more than 3,000 Papa John's with $1 billion in sales in 2007. Even Schnatter says he didn't see it getting quite so big—as he sold pizza out of that broom closet at Mick's Lounge, he imagined maybe 100 stores. Today he thinks, why not 5,000?