How Did Nike Become So Successful? It Started With Breakfast Waffles | Opinion

Nike
An Air Max shoe made by Nike Inc is shown in this illustration photograph taken in Encinitas, California, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake REUTERS/Mike Blake

This originally appeared on Quora. Answered by Archie D'Cruz.

Forget powerful. Nike might not even have existed today had it not been for waffles.

Yes, breakfast waffles. It's a bizarre, little-known story that deserves retelling.

When Nike arrived on the scene in 1971, Adidas dominated the industry. And while it seems incomprehensible today, Nike's initial offerings were a disaster.

The first Nikes—a soccer cleat adapted for American football—fared so poorly in cold weather that the soles would split and crack. A Notre Dame quarterback who wore a pair that season saw his shoes disintegrate during a game.

Nike (then still called Blue Ribbon Sports; it would incorporate using its shoe brand name in 1976) desperately needed a breakthrough as it turned its attention to running shoes. As co-founder Phil Knight reveals in his biography Shoe Dog, if their new line wasn't well received at the upcoming National Sporting Goods Association show in 1972, the cash-strapped company would likely not make it through another year.

In fact, the financial situation was so precarious that Nike's other co-founder, Bill Bowerman, continued to split his time with his other job—as Oregon's track coach.

Nike
An Air Max shoe made by Nike Inc is shown in this illustration photograph taken in Encinitas, California, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake REUTERS/Mike Blake

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

In 1971, the University of Oregon installed a new artificial track made from polyurethane—the same spongy surface that would be used at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. There was one problem, though: most training shoes at the time were flat-soled with just waves or grooves, and athletes were struggling to maintain their traction. Metal spikes were not a good option as they were ripping up the expensive new track.

Bowerman, who was to become head coach of the U.S. track team at the 1972 Games, needed a solution. He obsessed over this for weeks.

Inspiration suddenly came to him one Sunday morning when his wife Barbara was making breakfast using a waffle iron. As one of the waffles came out, he had an epiphany. If the shoe sole used that same mould—except reversed so the waffle squares would come in contact with the track—it might just work.

After several experiments—the first of which ruined his wife's waffle iron after he poured melted urethane into it—he was able to get a sheet of moulded rubber which he cut and sewed to the bottom of a pair of shoes, and asked one of his athletes, Geoff Hollister, to try them out.

As Knight put it in his biography, "The runner laced them on and ran like a rabbit." The urethane "spikes" not only provided great grip on any surface, they offered a springiness that athletes would welcome.

Nike now had something that their competitors didn't: A sole that gave runners a genuine edge.

The "waffle sole" shoes were launched at the 1972 National Sporting Goods Association Show in Chicago, and immediately attracted attention from retailers. By the end of the year, it had picked up endorsements from legendary 5,000m runner Steve Prefontaine (who ran a U.S. record at the Olympic trials in Oregon that year) and tennis star Ilie Nastase.

It was those shoes that put Nike on the national map. There would be several major challenges in the next couple of years—including a lawsuit from Japan's Onitsuka whose rival Tiger shoes they were contracted to sell—but most of those were a direct result of sales going through the roof.

Within a decade, Nike's shoes would clad the feet of numerous top athletes including John McEnroe, be worn by Hollywood stars including Farrah Fawcett in Charlie's Angels, enter the huge Chinese market, go public through an IPO, and—most critically—displace Adidas as the largest sports shoe brand.

How Did Nike Become So Successful? It Started With Breakfast Waffles | Opinion | Opinion