You can thank a waffle iron for today’s modern running shoes.
How a Sunday breakfast inspired the famous Nike® sole.
For its first eight years, Nike® was just another athletic shoe company. That changed one Sunday morning in 1972, when Bill Bowerman and his wife Barbara were making waffles.
Bowerman was a University of Oregon coach when he and Phil Knight, a former track star, joined forces in 1964. With $1,000 and a handshake, they started Blue Ribbon Sports, dedicating themselves to finding and selling better running shoes.
At first they did just that — sourcing shoes from Japanese manufacturers, and selling them at track meets from the back of Bowerman’s car. They did that for about five years. But then, they began making shoes of their own, applying science to footwear design. They changed their name to Nike (the Greek Goddess of Victory), and for $35, got themselves a logo – the swoosh — which would become an iconic symbol all by itself. A parade of innovations followed, but the very first innovation was born in Bowerman’s kitchen in 1972.
That year, the University of Oregon resurfaced its Hayward Field track with urethane, and Bowerman started experimenting with new shoe soles. He thought if he could make a sole with just the right pattern, it might grip the track better.
Inspiration struck one Sunday morning when he noticed the waffles coming out of his wife’s 1930s waffle iron. It created a pattern of nubs that protruded from the waffles like tire treads.
Right then and there, he grabbed the appliance, ran out to his shop, and poured liquid urethane into the waffle iron. The result was the first “waffle sole.”
That year, Knight and Bowerman introduced the first Nike branded footwear – the Moon Shoe, with a waffle sole. To get it to the people who would appreciate it, they distributed it to athletes competing for the US Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
They continued to refine the design, and in 1974 they introduced a shoe called the Waffle Trainer. A small purple wedge, inserted just above the sole, marked the end of the era of flat-soled running shoes.
Faster than a speeding sprinter, the Waffle Trainer became the best selling training shoe in America.
A parade of innovations followed, including wedged heels, cushioned mid-soles, and nylon uppers. Nike became a powerhouse in athletic apparel. Soon, big name athletes signed endorsement contracts such as John McEnroe and ultimately Michael Jordan who took Air Jordan basketball shoes to a whole other stratosphere of revenue.
By the time Bowerman died in 1999, Nike was on the road to being a $20 billion company. But much of the creativity that fueled its growth began that Sunday morning in Bowerman’s kitchen. In 2010 the Bowerman family unearthed that long-lost waffled iron on its property.” Business historian Scott Reames called it “Nike’s holy grail” and compared its discovery to finding the Titanic. That same year, an old Nike test shoe was unearthed in a rubbish pit at the Bowerman ranch. It now rests in a display case at Nike headquarters.
Bill Bowerman exemplifies one of our Axioms for Entrepreneurs: Solve a problem in your profession. He looked everywhere for ways to improve running shoes, and found the answer in a waffle iron.
Now Why Didn’t I Think of That?