Written By: Brett Golliff
Wait, what? How does that happen? It happens when an innovator is eating.
Bill Bowerman is the reason any of us have sneakers to wear. He is the reason Nike is the think tank and innovation company it is and all started by him not being satisfied with the running shoes he and his team wore. Bill was a runner by nature but gained notoriety in the running world as a Track & Field Coach.
He was always contemplating how to make his athletes better. He would work on his own footwear designs honing in on how to improve the running shoes his athletes wore. He would then write to the companies that his team wore sharing his ideas to improve their product. However it led to no help as the manufacturers would ignore his input on how to make their running shoes better. So in the late 1950’s he took matters into his own hands.
He took his athletes shoes and started modifying their sole units to shed weight and most importantly improve the traction on them. He did this by deconstructing shoes and learning how to cobble them back together. He would then have his athletes on his track team, the Oregon Ducks; test out his latest concepts. One such athlete was Phil Knight. Phil began testing out his concepts and giving input to Bill. Thus leading to Phil working with Bill to create his company Nike after he graduated from the University of Oregon and Stanford School of Business.
One mantra that Phil learned from Bill was, “a shoe must be three-things. It must be light, comfortable and it’s got to go the distance.” This mentality became the ethos that Nike’s foundation was created on.
As Bill kept finessing his concepts he took his cobbling further, molding his own rubber sole units. One goal of his was to create a shoe that could be without metal spikes but still have excellent traction on all surfaces. To do this he was going to have to mold his own sole units.
For those that have never seen or used a mold before, it is not an easy process to master. And it is the most expensive part of creating a shoe and is very dangerous to make. There are a few ways to do it but one way is to have the mold shape burned out in acid. Acid to burn chunks of metal tends to not be a material that most people have around their house. So, Bill looked to options he did have laying around his house when he was ready to explore his concept.
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, well one breakfast Bowerman had led to the most important meal of Nike. As Bill was eating waffles the idea struck him to reverse the pattern of the waffle. A waffle is a grid pattern with debossed squares to hold butter and syrup and whatever else you put on your waffle. But if you flip the script, the grid pattern becomes embossed and therefore would push puddles, or the environment, away. Bill immediately transitioned the family’s waffle iron into his first shoe mold. As opposed to the delicious recipe I laid out at the opening of this article, he chose urethane over sugar. This created a substance that was flexible and lightweight and absorbed the environment around you. Thus creating the first rubber traction outsole.
That innovation would go on to make Nike mainstream in the footwear world as it was applied to a shoe called the Waffle Trainer, pretty cleaver nomenclature. But what that innovative process really did was set the tone for what would become is arguably the most innovative footwear company at all time.
Design is a process that is full of delicate balances. You have to blend aesthetics and science or form and function to create a product that improves the world around you. No good idea is created solely on paper. It takes a kitchen of tools and minds that don’t settle. Minds that fight. Minds that rebel. Minds that never except the status quo. Those minds have to constantly be looking for what is next and what can be improved on. In this case it came from looking at waffles but the most important part of the waffle inspiration was that was created to improve the lives of athletes. It was not created because it looked cool, that was a happy coincidence. Bill never lost the voice of the athlete through his whole process and because of that they created a product that revolutionized the running world, again.
From day one Bill Bowerman set the stage for what would become a groundbreaking business. And he never intended to. All he intended to do was make his team better at running. He didn’t plan an Air Jordan or an Air Max. He planned to win Gold Medals. And he was willing to do whatever he needed to do to make that happen.
Who would have thought a waffle iron would become the single most important piece to athletic footwear history?
Lesson of the story, always be open to the world around you. You never know when innovation is going to strike or how a recipe is going to evolve to success.