Points North

What the Film “Air” Says About Taking Risks in Business

on Sep 17, 2023 in Business

The movie Air opens with the following statistic – the 1984 Basketball sneaker market share breakdown is as follows – Converse: 54%, Adidas: 29%, and Nike, in last place, with 17%.

“People don’t know what Nike is.”

Sonny, a basketball guru/wizard, is challenged to get more Basketball players in Nike sneakers. His colleagues want to spread the budget across three or four players, but Sonny wants to spend it all on one player – Michael Jordan.

What is also outlined throughout the movie is Nike’s 10 Principles, and although they are from the 1970s, they are still applicable today in 2023. Let’s break them down and learn more about how Nike saw the risks and challenges that come with running a groundbreaking business, and how that same mindset can still be applied in today’s landscape.


1. Our business is change.

At Points North, we believe that good design can change the world (it’s literally at the core of everything we do and why we do it). Having an innate belief that you can create a change for good in the world is one thing, but taking the steps to make it happen is the risky part. We can’t put a science behind this feeling, it’s just something you know and no one can tell you differently. It’s these types of people, the movers and shakers, that bring forth new ideas and ways of thinking, and sometimes change the course of our history.

Having the foresight to predict change and act on it is also a risk. With the NBA, the league is driven by player decisions, and Sonny and Phil had the foresight to see this and made history by offering Michael Jordan a percentage of gross revenue as part of his deal. This was unprecedented and changed sneaker fashion and sports forever.


2. We’re on offense. All the time.

To be “on offense” means to be in or into a situation or position in which one attacks or fights against someone or something.

In the movie, being on the offense meant Sonny took an unplanned fight to North Carolina to meet with Jordan’s parents. He was on the offense against Adidas, and he knew a phone call wouldn’t cut it. He boldly played offense.

What bold actions can you take while you’re on offense? Actions that might seem crazy to others but is the only path to getting what you want?

As Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2000 years ago: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” In other words, the obstacle is the way. For Sonny, Adidas was the obstacle he had to overcome, what’s standing in your way?


3. Perfect results count — not a perfect process. Break the rules: fight the law.

By any means necessary? Kind of. In Air, Sonny broke the rules by reducing the white composition of the shoe they were designing. The player wearing it would be fined, and Nike would cover those fines. They were breaking the rule, and in turn questioning why it was even a rule to begin with.

Sometimes in running a business or reaching a goal, you break a few eggs to make your omelet. That could be something small like choosing a bold color for a client logo, or something huge like shooting your shot on an RFP against much larger companies. Nike summed this mentality up perfectly with their “just do it” slogan.


4. This is as much about battle as about business.

“How the hell are you gonna get Michael? Michael is an Adidas guy. He loves Adidas. That’s all he wears.”

Are you ready to fight for what you believe in? Grit is necessary when you’re at the helm just as much as business smarts are.

You’re going to have to be strategic to get what you want, and you’re also going to have to fight for what you believe in. This fight could be with your board of directors, with your investors, or with your vendors. Luckily, you were built for this.


5. Assume nothing. Make sure people keep their promises. Push yourselves, push others. Stretch the possible.

The Nike team pushes themselves by going to a great effort to prep for the Jordan meeting in Air (i.e. staying up day and night and sleeping at the office to make the presentation). Michael Jordan himself represents an idea of sheer willpower.

Leaders are inspirational. They are built differently. You believe in the mission, and you also have to inspire others on the path with you and hold them accountable. Great leaders help their team see the change and connect the path ahead to something bigger – what’s at the end of this journey and what we are all driving towards.


6. Live off the land.

This principle isn’t really alluded to in Air, and can be even more controversial if you dig into Nike’s labor practices. Instead of camping off-grid and only consuming what you grow and make, I like to think this principle highlights the goal of being self-sufficient.

And mind you, it’s just a goal to aim towards. Being self-sufficient in this day and age is nearly impossible. When it comes down to the wire, if something needs to get done, you are fully capable of doing it yourself.


7. Your job isn’t done until the job is done.

This principle compliments #5, specifically “Push yourselves, push others. Stretch the possible.” If it’s Friday at 5pm and the job isn’t done, you’re not clocking out. Sometimes being a leader doesn’t fit nicely into a Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, weekends and holidays off schedule.

The sacrifice now will have its rewards later. You also have to understand that there will always be more work to be done! You aren’t at your best if you are burned out, and as a leader you have to set an example for your team that rest is of part of the process.


8. Dangers…Don’t get too many things on the platter.

As a leader or business owner, have you ever felt like you’re wearing one too many hats? It’s risky knowing when is the right time to start to delegate tasks. Focusing too much on individual trees could cause you to lose sight of the forest, and a leader has to always have that in view.

The other risk of bringing other people into the fold is that they’re now on this ride with you. In Air, Sonny was betting it all on signing Michael Jordan. If it didn’t work out, he wouldn’t be the only one who was going to be out of a job, it was likely going to impact the entire team and the company’s reputation. That’s pressure.


9. It won’t be pretty.

You can try to be cute while kicking ass and taking names in the business world, but things are bound to get ugly from time to time.

In the pitch meeting with Jordan, there are times when the team stutters and looks disorganized, but they push forward and keep it going. Sonny describes that the path to greatness isn’t always pretty, and is about learning to succeed even after failure.

When you look at Michael Jordan’s career, some parts were ugly too. Failure is inevitable, the risk isn’t in failure, the risk is in getting back up. That part isn’t pretty, but it makes all the difference in what you do next and how you do it.


10. If we do the right things we’ll make money damn near automatic.

In Air, Nike decided to share a percentage of gross revenue on Jordan brand sneakers with Michael. This action, which was essentially the “right thing to do”, made the deal extremely profitable for everyone.

Essentially what’s being laid out here is if you do the right thing, you’re going to make money. If you lead with that, your conscience will be clear and money will come to you automatically.

Now, that might be oversimplified, but you can apply it to running a business. If you treat your customers well, you’ll get loyal customers. If you charge honest prices, your business will grow. Bottom line, you get back what you put out.


I guarantee you already knew how Air was going to end before watching it, but that didn’t make it any less of a compelling movie. Jordan signed with Nike, and the rest was history. The end of your story, or the path that lies before you, might not be so clear. That’s ok.

The risk of failure is not what should keep you up at night. Failure is inevitable. In fact, fail fast and often. All stories, from great athletes to business professionals to doctors to actors and every profession in between has a part that did not go as planned.

It’s the part right after, the path to redemption and success, that’s the part that will have people on the edge of their seats when you get the chance to tell your story.


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