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Innovation: Phil Knight’s “Not Exactly Textbook” Moves

How Laika Entertainment came to be is an intensely personal story. I was fascinated by how Nike founder Phil Knight and his son Travis, who didn’t share his father’s passion for sports growing up, wound up working together – in stop-motion animation, which is Travis’ passion. The Knights’ Tale, which appears in our July/August issue, chronicles that family journey and explores the relationship between father and son.

How Laika Entertainment came to be is an intensely personal story. I was fascinated by how Nike founder Phil Knight and his son Travis, who didn’t share his father’s passion for sports growing up, wound up working together – in stop-motion animation, which is Travis’ passion. The Knights’ Tale, which appears in our July/August issue, chronicles that family journey and explores the relationship between father and son.

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Today, to kick off our new blog feature, Innovation Wednesdays, I thought I’d look at the business of Laika. The world’s best known sneaker mogul didn’t create his movie studio the way you might expect. After all these years, Phil Knight still considers himself an entrepreneur, one who makes moves that are “not exactly textbook,” as he told me when we met in Portland.

And why not? Remember, Knight built Nike (originally Blue Ribbon Sports) a little differently when he took on industry giants Adidas and Converse. He relied on a band of diehard accountants and lawyers along with some key experts, namely Bill Bowerman, his former track coach at the University of Oregon. Knight is doing the same thing with his latest underdog. Henry Selick who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, is the industry veteran in charge of the creative side at Laika. Dale Wahl – a Hollywood outsider, movie novice, and Nike veteran – runs the studio.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned from my other life is that there’s no sneaker school,” Knight says. “There’s no exact formula on how these things work. It’s not a science. You just rolls the dice and takes your chances.”

A year and a half ago, over lunch in the cafeteria of the Mia Hamm building on the Nike campus, Knight offered the CEO job to Wahl. “You’re nuts,” Wahl replied. “I wouldn’t know Finding Nemo if it hit me in the face.”

But for Knight, the move made perfect sense. Wahl, an accountant by training like Knight, was hired early on at Nike to run the footware division and over 18 years oversaw HR, warehousing, IT, investor relations, and Japan operations — jobs he wasn’t prepared for in the conventional sense. “At Nike, you learn to thrive on chaos and challenge,” he says. Knight’s confidence in him was both motivating and terrifying. Despite Knight’s insistence that there isn’t a film school that can prepare people for Laika, Nike certainly played that role for Wahl.

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He also sees some parallels between making shoes and movies, such as managing creative talent and executing a long-term production process. At one point in my interview, Wahl went to his white board and charted the timelines for a shoe, from sketch to store shelf, and a movie, from screenplay to screen (and eventually DVD). A new shoe takes about two years, an animated movie a year or so longer than that. Aside from the enormous challenges of making the right creative choices on a film, much of the work is good old-fashioned project management. Meeting deadlines and budgets. And when it comes to that, says Knight, Wahl’s the guy. “You can sleep on that,” he says.

What did Selick think of Knight’s decision to put a Hollywood newbie in charge? “Puzzlement,” Selick says with a smile. “I thought, Phil Knight’s an utterly mysterious man.” A year and half later, after working with Wahl to start production on Laika’s first feature, Coraline, and hire scores of new employees, Selick sees him as a rarity in the movie business, a talented and even-tempered administrator with no outsized ego. “Dale’s the most amazing thing that’s happened to this place,” Selick says.

Another roll of the dice by Knight. Another lucky seven.

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About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.

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