“This is the raw stuff.”
Stefan Olander, head of Nike’s three-year-old Digital Sport division, is watching a group of his engineers hack an experiment together. They’re using a pair of Nike trainers with embedded sensors. The sensors measure pressure created when the shoes, which happen to be on the feet of a lanky product manager named Brandon Burroughs, strike the ground. The data are collected and then fed wirelessly to an iPhone; the iPhone is plugged into a MacBook; the MacBook’s screen features a program that is busily imitating a 1987 Nintendo video game called Track & Field II. Which brings us to the ostensible goal of all this madness: finding out if new-age sensors and wireless devices work with an ancient video game.
One of my fears is being this big, slow, constipated, bureaucratic company that’s happy with its success.
That’s why Burroughs, who is outfitted head to toe in Nike attire, is crouched in anticipation like a runner before a starter pistol is fired. Suddenly, a whistle screams from the MacBook–it’s the game’s signal that a steeplechase “race” has begun–and Burroughs starts sprinting in place. It isn’t pretty. He’s panting heavily. He’s been at this for a while and is clearly spent. His feet thud against the carpet like a clumsy drumroll as his crude avatar lurches forward on screen. And he’s doing all this in a big, clean, stark corporate lab full of engineers, which isn’t very glamorous. But the experiment is working, sort of: As his avatar nears the first hurdle, Burroughs leaps too late, leading his digital self to trip and tumble into a pixelated pool of water. “Arrrrrrr!” yells Burroughs. “Come on!”
Olander, who bears a distracting resemblance to Matthew McConaughey and looks fit enough to have cleared that hurdle with ease, jokes that the only problem here is that Burroughs “is not very fast.” He actually loves that the group is “just mucking about and having fun,” as he puts it. “Really cool stuff can come from the opportunity to test without constraints.” And that, in sum, is innovation, Nike-style: a messy, exhausting process culled from myriad options and countless failures.
Nike CEO Mark Parker. Photo by Art Streiber; Fashion Styling: Melanie Leftick; Grooming: Juanita Lyon
In 2012, Nike’s experimentation yielded two breakout hits. The first is the FuelBand, a $150 electronic bracelet that measures your movements throughout the day, whether you play tennis, jog, or just walk to work. The device won raves for its elegant design and a clean interface that lets users track activity with simple color cues (red for inactive; green if you’ve achieved your daily goal). Press its one button for a scrolling stock ticker of how many calories you’ve burned, the number of steps you’ve taken, and your total NikeFuel points, a proprietary metric of activity that Nike encourages you to share online. The FuelBand is the clearest sign that Nike has transformed itself into a digital force. “Nike has broken out of apparel and into tech, data, and services, which is so hard for any company to do,” says Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.
The other innovation is the Flyknit Racer, featherlight shoes that feel more like a sock atop a sole. Created from knit threading rather than multiple layers of fabric, it required a complete rethink of Nike’s manufacturing process. The result is a shoe that’s more environmentally friendly and could reduce long-term production costs. “Flyknit could turn the [shoe] industry on its head,” says Nike sustainability VP Hannah Jones.
To produce even one of these innovations in a given year is a rarity for any company, especially one with 44,000 employees. But Nike CEO Mark Parker knows he can’t just rely on celebrity endorsements and the power of the swoosh when confronted by big-name competitors such as Adidas and upstarts like Jawbone and Fitbit. “One of my fears is being this big, slow, constipated, bureaucratic company that’s happy with its success,” he says. “Companies fall apart when their model is so successful that it stifles thinking that challenges it. It’s like what the Joker said–‘This town needs an enema.’ When needed, you’ve got to apply that enema, so to speak.”
Every CEO says this kind of thing (minus the enema part). The difference is that Parker delivers. Last year, Nike’s annual revenue hit $24 billion, up 60% since he took over the reins as CEO in 2006. Profits are up 57%, and Nike’s market cap has more than doubled. This story is about how he has achieved that growth, and how he has driven a commitment to the company’s culture. Nike is a business with much corporate lore, that lovely, misty story of how a bunch of renegades with a waffle iron bucked the system and revolutionized an industry. But a close examination of the development of Flyknit and the FuelBand, based on interviews with top Nike executives, current and former designers, engineers, and longtime collaborators, reveals four distinct rules that guide this company, that allow it to take big risks, that push it to adapt before competitors force it to change.
Rule #1: TO DISRUPT, YOU MUST GO ALL-IN
What makes Flyknit so truly disruptive is that it isn’t a shoe–it’s a way to make shoes. As the team members who spent four years developing the technology like to say, they’re “breaking the sewing machine.” The old Nike model involved cutting rolls of prewoven material into pieces, and then stitching and assembling them. But with Flyknit, a shoe’s upper and tongue can be knit from polyester yarns and cables, which “gets rid of all the unnecessary excesses,” says Ben Shaffer, studio director at the Innovation Kitchen, Nike’s R&D center. The Flyknit Racer, one of the first shoes in the Flyknit line, is 5.6 ounces, roughly an ounce lighter than its counterparts. Nike uses only as much thread as it needs in production, and the shoe can be micro-engineered–tightened here, stretched there–to improve durability and fit.
Parker clearly has big expectations for Flyknit, telling shareholders it “is one of those technologies that has incredible potential, not only within running, but across multiple categories.” That’s a massive bet given Nike’s dominance of the athletic-shoe business, where, for example, it owns half the running market and a whopping 92% of the U.S. basketball shoe business. And Nike has gone all-in on that bet, building a whole new manufacturing process around the product. “Does this change our business model in some cases, or our supply chain? Absolutely,” Parker says.
Shaffer shows me some of the 195 major iterations the Flyknit went through as we tour the Kitchen. Some appear as rudimentary as a ballerina’s slipper. The prototype that marathon runner Paula Radcliffe marked with scribbles now looks like a rejected Project Runway design. Nike’s ambitions for Flyknit can be seen in the trays full of feet that live in tall carts around the Kitchen. The disembodied wooden lumps–most generically sized and others made by scanning some of the actual feet of the thousands of professional athletes that the company sponsors–are all waiting to be fitted, like Cinderella, with the perfect prototype shoe.
“Flyknit is a platform,” Nike’s Jones says. “We’re reimagining the upper, the bottoms–the whole caboodle.” In addition, as materials such as rubber become harder to come by because of overharvesting or climate change, “we’re going to be able to navigate the volatility of these resources,” she adds. Then, perhaps reminded of the fierce competition Nike is in with Adidas over knit shoes, Jones stops short and wavers, “I can’t say anymore.”
Rule #2: ANTICIPATE A PRODUCT’S EVOLUTION
Before the FuelBand, a product called Magneto was, briefly, Nike’s next big thing. You’d tape magnets to your temples and then clip futuristic eyewear onto them. “Perhaps we went too far with that idea, because we actually started to make it,” admits global brand EVP Trevor Edwards. Parker decided the product was impractical, and he killed it.
That sounds like an obvious call, but Parker reputedly approved Flyknit after being shown only a tube sock stitched to a rubber sole. Early on, great ideas can resemble bad ones: They both sound ridiculous. “Steve [Jobs] had a good bullshit meter, but also an open mind,” Parker says. “It’s that bullshit filter that says, ‘Really? Is this really compelling?’ We kill a lot of ideas.”
Parker says he often feels like Tom Hanks in Big–a kid at a toy company whose job is to approve only the products he has fun with. In the FuelBand, Parker saw what athletes would instinctively value. As a “smart” version of the already popular Livestrong bracelet, the FuelBand would give users their own digital coach to motivate them. They could connect with other users and with their friends and family via social media to cheer them on, whether it’s to lose weight or train for a marathon. Nike would benefit from this community, thanks to the ongoing connection with its customers, as well as every user promoting Nike with each post or tweet of their activity report. Plus, people were already comfortable with wearing a silicone wristband, unlike, say, face magnets.
As if to prove the point, when Parker and I meet, he’s wearing a FuelBand on each wrist–exactly double what any user needs. “I don’t normally wear two,” he says, beaming, “but I have to admit, I’m obsessed.” The company is now working to extend that obsession to others. In December, Nike partnered with the startup mentoring firm TechStars to woo entrepreneurs to launch companies that will build on top of Nike’s digital platform. Nike has already announced games built on Fuel points.
This three-steps-ahead thinking is important for any product. Flyknit is not only valuable because its technology will help Nike make all kinds of lighter, better-fitting shoes, but also because it fits into the company’s global growth initiatives. With Brazil hosting both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, Sterne Agee analyst Sam Poser believes Flyknit will help Nike reorient how it makes and sells shoes in such an important international market. “The duties importing from China [where Nike does much of its manufacturing] to Brazil are absolute craziness–way too cost-prohibitive, and the [manufacturing] in Brazil is so expensive,” he says. “But Flyknit is much less labor intensive. If they can go into Brazil and set up [knitting] machines, they win.” Poser goes further, imagining that Flyknit will one day allow customers to digitally personalize shoes to match the exact shape of their feet.
Great ideas have something in common with bad ones: Early on, they both sound ridiculous.
Parker wouldn’t be blamed if he had passed on Flyknit after seeing a modified tube sock, but if Nike doesn’t bet on crazy ideas, its rivals will. “They’re like sharks,” says Poser. “If they stop swimming, they die.” Adidas, also after four years of research, launched its Primeknit line only months after Flyknit’s. Nike then dragged Adidas to court over patent-infringement claims related to knit technology.
Rule #3: DIRECT YOUR PARTNERS
Stefan Olander has barely ushered me into his neatly arranged office when he invokes FuelBand lore. He has an early prototype at the ready, the very one that his team used in 2010 to pitch the idea to CEO Mark Parker. “We pulled up [our sleeves] and revealed this,” he says, sliding his fingers over the white leathery Velcro bracelet marked with green calculator-like numbers. “Mark is so consumer-driven that instinctively he said, ‘Go do this now.’ His first question was, ‘How fast can you build this?'”
The tale is burnished to a high gloss, which is a shame, because an idea as big as the FuelBand does not get cooked up in a single lab. It doesn’t become a sophisticated, beautiful product just because Parker admired a leathery wristband. Nike doesn’t like to discuss the gritty details of how something like the FuelBand gets made, but the real story shows how messy true innovation is.
In a world of rapid disruption, companies no longer must–or can–own all the skills required to thrive. Just as Google needed Android to attack mobile and Apple needed Siri to give it a foothold in search, successful businesses need to constantly evolve, either through partnerships, new talent, acquisitions–or all three. “You can’t have a barrier or restriction,” says lead Nike engineer Aaron Weast. For the FuelBand, Nike had to open its doors.
The FuelBand’s road to reality began in March of 2010, when a three-person Nike team flew to San Francisco to share their idea with the industrial design firm Astro Studios. “They had this concept of a tennis sweatband with an electronic watch,” Astro design EVP Kyle Swen recalls, as he sits in the same third-floor conference room where the meeting took place. “They wouldn’t even leave us the pitch; it was super confidential.” Nike also consulted engineering firms Whipsaw and Synapse, and longtime digital marketing agency R/GA.
This team of outside partners created hundreds of prototypes, imagining concepts for displays that resembled an Amazon Kindle screen; bands that fully illuminate with color; ones that fit over your leg or upper arm; and even a fastening system modeled after a gas nozzle.
“Everything was custom, custom, custom,” says Astro designer Anh Nguyen.
Olander played the shepherd. “You will never get good work out of anyone if you hand over a brief and go, ‘We have no clue what we want, but why don’t you just do it for us,'” Olander says. During the FuelBand’s development, for example, Nike’s specific requests to partners included its red-to-green color scheme; the idea of Fuel points, which Olander felt would encourage competition among users regardless of their sport; and a dead-simple interface without excessive metrics. The team learned that last insight from its experience with Nike’s earlier digital products, for which 30% of users turned off calorie tracking.
Nike’s role was between a coach and a traffic cop. Nike designer Jamian Cobbett describes it as an “ebb and flow.” Astro’s Swen relates how engineers from other parts of Nike’s assembled team would see what the designers had in mind: “They were like, ‘No fucking way,'” he says, laughing. “But that’s innovation: full throttle, hit the brakes; full throttle, hit the brakes.” The effort produced several breakthroughs, such as when Whipsaw embedded 120 LED lights in the bracelet (to look like an old-time scoreboard) and Synapse developed a curved lithium battery. Both are key features of the final product.
BY: AUSTIN CARR