The KOBE 9 may mark the end of the Black Mamba’s on-court career, but, sad as that would be, this stunning shoe would represent one hell of a closing act.
As I noted when I re-booted Kicksology.net last September, I won’t be writing any new performance reviews—the reason being that my body is too broke-down to play anything beyond a game of H-O-R-S-E these days. If you’re looking for thorough on-court assessments of the latest kicks, check out Nightwing, Mr Foamer Simpson or the guys at KicksGenius.
But the end of my playing days doesn’t mean the end of my irrational exuberance for footwear. So I’ll continue to highlight shoes that pique my interest, whether it’s for a clever design element, or the introduction of an important new method-of-making or an unusually beautiful fusion of form and function. The KOBE 9 Elite just so happens to deliver on all three of these counts, which is why I was willing to empty out my wallet and harvest all the change from behind my sofa cushions to purchase a pair of the Elite Lows via NIKEiD (yes, they’re spendy).
It might seem strange that I should post this on the day that Kobe’s next signature shoe, the Kobe X, is officially unveiled. But the X won’t hit store shelves until February 7th, so any sneaker aficionados out there who’ve slept on the KOBE 9 Elite still have a brief window to cop a shoe that I believe will go down as the most important chapter in a storied line of signature kicks. And it’s worth noting that I’m not alone in my admiration for the 9: None other than Tinker Hatfield—he of Air Jordans III through XV, amongst many other icons of sneaker history—described the KOBE 9 as “one of the most iconic, most beautiful shoe designs I’ve ever seen” in an interview with Complex TV’s “Quickstrike” crew.
So, what’s so great about the 9? Well, for starters, as Tinker observed, it’s just drop-dead gorgeous. Yeah, yeah, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that. But the allure of some works transcends individual subjectivity: Take Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor as one example, or the Jaguar E-Type as another. Like those universal classics, I’m convinced that the soul-stirring beauty of the KOBE 9 Elite High and Low will be recognized far-and-wide for decades to come.
A critical enabler of the KOBE 9 Elite’s transcendent design is the innovative manufacturing method underpinning its upper: Nike Flyknit. For the past several centuries, shoe uppers have been constructed using a process industry folks call cut-and-sew. As the name suggests, this involves cutting small panels of material out of larger sheets, and then sewing or glueing those panels together to form a finished upper. The longevity of this basic process speaks to its utility, but there are some downsides.
First, joining panels of material together—whether through sewing or glueing—invariably introduces stiffness along the interface where those panels meet. Related to this point, it can be very challenging to add targeted performance features via cut-and-sew without sacrificing comfort. Say, for example, you want to build stretch into one region of an upper and support into another. This would require disparate panels of materials with the necessary properties to be joined, but the more panels you introduce, the greater the potential for discomfort along the stiffened seams where those panels meet. Finally, this process is inherently wasteful because it’s based on cutting small panels of non-uniform parts out of large, uniformly rectangular sheets. Manufacturers have developed clever software that enables them to maximize the parts yield from each large sheet, but, because shoe parts tend to be oddly shaped, there’s always some material left over (the scraps can be recycled, but there’s cost and energy associated with the recycling process, so it doesn’t fully mitigate the waste produced at the cutting stage).
What makes Flyknit remarkable from a design and manufacturing perspective is that it addresses all of these issues. Rather than attempt to explain this myself, I’ll turn to two people with much greater expertise on the topic: Nike CEO Mark Parker and Eric Avar, the creative mind behind the KOBE 9 and a footwear design legend in his own right.
Mark Parker: Flyknit is, in many respects, game-changing in terms of performance, in terms of design … It used to be largely cut-and-sew construction for many centuries, which is more of a collage, where pieces come together. Today, we’re working at a fiber level and at a pixel level … down to the millimeter. On top of that, it changes the game of manufacturing. You’re taking one of the most labor intensive parts of the manufacturing process and simplifying it. There’s a sustainability factor and in this [KOBE 9 Elite High], there’s about 50% less waste than in a conventional basketball shoe. If you look at running [models], it’s potentially 80 to 90% less waste.
Eric Avar: You can design the amount of stretch and breathability exactly where you want it. Between the stitch and the fibers, you can create an unbelievable amount of performance properties. In the forefoot, where you really want some lockdown and security against all of the lateral forces, you can use a certain type of stitch and a certain type of fiber. Then, through the midfoot, where you want more of a dynamic and secure fit, you use another stitch and fiber … Knit, from a design perspective, allows us to use so many variables, and it’s essentially a blank canvas that allows us to design from a functional standpoint and also from a visual standpoint, so it’s really amazing.
These quotes come from Sole Collector, which interviewed Mark Parker, Eric Avar and Kobe Bryant at the launch of the KOBE 9 Elite last February. And, just to be clear, the stitch- and fiber-level control over performance characteristics that Parker and Avar highlight above is all built into a single layer of Flyknit construction. In the case of running applications, that single layer can constitute the entire upper, meaning that overlays and seams joining disparate materials are effectively eliminated. The net result is sock-like comfort and fit combined with precisely tuned support; the dramatic reduction in waste material is a huge attendant benefit.
Sports involving lots of lateral movement—e.g. basketball, soccer and American football—generate so much shear force that the Flyknit construction has to be reinforced to keep the wearer’s foot planted on the shoe’s footbed. But, even so, the KOBE 9 Elite completely dispenses with traditional overlays and is, instead, reinforced internally using a stitch-less process that Nike calls “Fuse.” Much as in running, the promise is an upper that fits and feels like a natural extension of the foot, but with no compromise in the support and overall protection required for court sports.
One additional benefit of Flyknit is that a reduction in seams and overlays also nets a reduction in overall weight. In the case of the KOBE 9 Elite Low, the shoe tips the scales at a gossamer 13.7 ounces in a U.S. men’s 11. In all my years of Kicksology, only one shoe has bested this: the Nike Air Flight Lite II circa 2000 - 2001, which weighed a scant 13.5 ounces. But the Flight Lite II’s weight advantage came with a significant trade-off in playability—here’s how I concluded my review back in April of 2001: “the Nike Air Flight Lite II is unquestionably a light shoe [but] that lightness is a product of compromises that make the shoe less than ideal for people who play a quick cutting, hard slashing type of game.”
What’s remarkable about the KOBE 9 Elite is that it’s a featherweight that, by all accounts, punches well above its weight. In other words, you get the benefits of an ultra-light shoe without the compromises in support and protection typically associated with ultra-light kicks.
At this point, I could go on at length about the KOBE 9 Elite’s unique Lunarlon midsole insert, but I think I’ve blabbed enough. The TL;DR version of this post is this: Get a pair of the KOBE 9 Elite while you still can because you will regret sleeping on this future classic. I know that as an employee of the Swoosh I may not be seen as an impartial observer on this topic, but I was a sneakerhead long before I moved inside the berm, and all my sneakerhead instincts tell me that the KOBE 9 Elite is a shoe that matters—the sort of shoe that, like the Air Flightposite and Huarache 2K4 before it (both shoes designed by Eric Avar, btw), will serve as a frame of reference for much that follows. If that matters to you, procure a pair posthaste!
Who’s Worn It
Kobe Bryant (G- Los Angeles Lakers); DeMar DeRozan (G- Toronto Raptors); Manu Ginóbili (G- San Antonio Spurs); Andre Iguodala (G/SF- Golden State Warriors); Zach LaVine (G- Minnesota Timberwolves); J.R. Smith (G/SF- Cleveland Cavaliers); Dion Waiters (G- Oklahoma City Thunder); Nick Young (G/SF- Los Angeles Lakers)
If you enjoyed my recent attempt to explain just what exactly a product manager does, I think you’ll really like Stratechery, a blog published by a very clever guy named Ben Thompson. I only know Thompson through his writing, which is consistently smart and incisive.
Unlike me, Thompson actually studied strategy and marketing at business school and, beyond that, he’s spent time working at both Apple and Microsoft, so he’s got the bona fides. Consistent with his background, Thompson’s posts are primarily focused on the tech sector, but I find that his insights are, more often than not, relevant across industries.
One example is a piece he published this past October titled “PayPal’s Incentive Problem,” which was the most memorable business article I read in 2014. As the lead suggests, the post focuses specifically on PayPal, but I can tell you from first-hand experience as a start-up co-founder and as an employee at some very large corporations that Thompson’s observations hold truths that apply well beyond PayPal alone, or tech companies as a cohort for that matter. Here’s the core of his analysis:
Something I’ve learned over time—and believe today more strongly than I ever have—is that nothing matters more than incentives. It doesn’t matter how much money or experience or developers you have if your incentives are not aligned to solve the right problem. This is the big advantage that startups have vis a vis corporations: a startup starts with the problem and then creates the incentive structure under which their company operates…
A big company, on the other hand, has already solved a different problem—the problem that defined them back when they were as a startup. Now that the big company is facing a new problem, they have the wrong set of incentives—incentives that are defined by the old problem, not the new one.
This means that all of the advantages a big company has—their money, their experience, their developers—are all pointed in the wrong direction, leaving an opening for the new startup who has defined themselves by the new problem.
This dynamic has existed for as long as large corporations have existed, but the advent of the Internet and, more recently, the mass availability of the always-on, always-connected pocket computer (aka the smartphone) have amplified its effects to the point that a tiny start-up like Airbnb or Uber can single-handedly disrupt an entire industry.
Thompson illustrates the pitfalls of mis-aligned incentives through the lens of PayPal, which has been the leader in peer-to-peer digital payments since the early 2000s, yet is struggling to remain relevant in the face of disruption (as catalyzed by the rise of mobile payments—there’s that pesky smartphone again!).
This is a good case study, but the core challenge he outlines—the ability to align incentives towards solving the right problems—goes well beyond PayPal and is, in my experience, the central challenge faced by every company that survives beyond the start-up stage. For the physics nerds in the house, it’s akin to a “theory of everything” for the universe of business in that it’s as applicable at the quantum level of the individual employee as it is at the Newtonian level of the corporation. And a business leader’s ability to establish and maintain the right incentives is the most consistently accurate predictor I’ve seen for future success—whether that’s at the level of a functional manager, a divisional GM or a CEO.
This is a topic I’d like to dive into more deeply, but the point of this post was not for me to pontificate! Instead, my intent was to turn you on to Ben Thompson’s consistently smart observations on the world of business at Stratechery.
Before ending, however, I should note that I wasn’t completely truthful at the top of this piece when I wrote that I only know Thompson through his writing. In fact, I’m also an avid listener to Thompson’s weekly podcast, Exponent, which he co-hosts with James Allworth, another clever bloke who, amongst other things, writes for the Harvard Business Review. Their august qualifications might lead you to presume that these guys communicate in gobbledygook business-speak, but the show is actually quite accessible to non-MBAs. What I enjoy most about it is that Thompson and Allworth aren’t afraid to forcefully debate ideas, but their conversation never devolves into chest thumping hyperbole or ad hominem attacks. Given the sad state of business commentary these days—particularly when it comes to tech—both Stratechery and Exponent are welcome aberrations.
I should start by noting that I’ve lived in Oregon for the better part of the past decade and, having come to love my adopted state, I was pulling for the U of O Ducks to bring home the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?).
As you might imagine, the Ducks’ flaccid performance on Monday night was a letdown—so much so that I did my best to avoid any post-game coverage. Consequently, I didn’t realize there was any controversy over Ohio State’s final touchdown until I came across this headline in yesterday’s The Oregonian, the paper of record here in the Beaver State: “Poor sportsmanship by Urban Meyer? Should Ohio State have taken a knee on final drive?”
Being that this was in The Oregonian, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the author’s question was largely rhetorical. To whit, the piece quotes a range of pundits from across the Intarwebs calling Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer everything from a poor sport, to class-less to a God-less hypocrite (you can’t make this stuff up).
It seems clear that my take on this is in the minority—particularly amongst Oregonians—because when I read the piece, the first thing that jumped to my mind was this:
For those who aren’t able to see the image above, it depicts Steve Prefontaine, a distance running phenom from Coos Bay, Oregon who, coincidentally, ran for the University of Oregon in the early ’70s under famed coach and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman. The image includes one of Pre’s best known quotes: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Pre absolutely lived by that credo: Much to Bowerman’s chagrin, he ran his guts out from start-to-finish of every race. The concept of ever going easy on his fellow competitors was completely alien to Pre. In his view, doing so would have been disrespectful to himself, his competitors and his sport. It was this attitude, and Pre’s ability to back it up on the track, that made him a legend.
As an Oregonian, as an athlete and as a fan of sports, I believe Pre had it right. So, to those who exclaim that Urban Meyer exhibited poor sportsmanship by encouraging his athletes to go all out for the full 45 minutes of the National Championship game, I say you’ve got it upside down. Taking a knee would have been the most disrespectful thing he could have done to the Ducks, his own players and to college football. It would have said that it’s okay to give less than your best in a game that the 122 other Bowl-eligible Division I teams spent the past season bleeding, sweating and crying to be a part of.
So, bully for you, Urban Meyer! You exhibited a spirit of sportsmanship that would have made Pre proud, even though I’m sure he would have been pulling hard for his Ducks.
And to those who view Meyer as a class-less, God-less hypocrite for not taking a knee, do you apply the same standard to other facets of life? For example, do you think Nike should shut it down for a month to give adidas a chance to catch up? Or should Google’s search engine team stop development for fear that Microsoft’s Bing team might start feeling inadequate? I’m guessing that most Meyer haters would answer no to both of these hypotheticals, which leads me to one last question: Why should the values you live by be different from the values you play by?
I’m genuinely interested in hearing viewpoints that are contrary to my own, so let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter @edotkim.
It’s a good question. Before joining Nike back in 2007 as a product line manager, or PLM, within the company’s Running Footwear category, I had no idea that such a job existed. What a designer does is pretty straightforward: he or she designs a product, which includes a strong say into how that product works. What an engineer or developer does is also largely self-evident: he or she figures out the best way to realize a product concept, whether it’s with bits or with bolts. But a product manager: WTF?
Before diving in, I should note that this piece is based largely on my experiences at Nike. But my years in the digital design and advertising worlds gives me the confidence to say that the description below applies across industries, and spans the digital/linear divide as well. In other words, the broad strokes of what I describe below are as applicable to a product manager at a physical goods company, such as Proctor & Gamble, as they are to a product manager at a digital goods company, such as Twitter.
Okay, so if a designer designs and a developer develops, what does a product manager do? The most succinct answer I can give is this: A product manager defines the job that a product must do in order to succeed.
What does this entail? Usually, this definition is captured in the form of a brief, which defines the what of the job, along with relevant information regarding the target audience, context on market positioning and an indication of success measures (e.g. brand impact, sales, downloads, engagement, etc.).
Critically, what a good brief does not do is address the how of the job. That’s because any good product manager recognizes that the how must be left to the designer and developer to define. This is an enormous oversimplification, but one way to think about this is that the product manager outlines a job opportunity in the form of a question—e.g. Can we solve problem X for customer Y?—and the designer and developer apply their domain expertise towards answering that question in the most compelling way possible.
An example I’ve used in the past is that the designers and developers at Nike are so good that they could create a shoe that looks like a boat, yet still offers the performance and comfort of cutting edge athletic footwear. But if it turns out that there’s no market for shoes that look like boats, that product would fail—regardless of its beauty or functionality. In short, it doesn’t matter if the answer is right if the question you set out to answer is wrong. It’s the job of the product manager to ensure that the product team is working to answer the right question(s).
Now, a question you may be asking at this point is: Does a company really need a person dedicated to the product manager role? Couldn’t a designer or developer figure out the job that their product must do on their own? Well, yes and no.
Say you’re a very small operation with an equally small product line that doesn’t change very often—for example, the boutique watchmaker Autodromo, which introduces just one new product per year. In such cases it’s often necessary for staffers to wear multiple hats, and it’s also very often the case that people who start passion projects like Autodromo enter into such endeavors with a clear preconception of the products they intend to create. A dedicated product manager would be superfluous in this context.
But then you have bigger companies—e.g. Nike, Apple, Facebook, et al.—that offer a wider range of products, in higher volumes and in fast moving industries. In such cases, if a designer or developer were to try to keep up with all of the inputs underpinning the job that their product must do on a version-by-version basis, he or she wouldn’t have any time left to design or develop. It’s in these contexts that a dedicated product manager becomes essential.
Before moving on, I’d like to dispel a couple of common misperceptions about the product manager role. First, the product manager doesn’t simply hand-off a product brief and then kick up his or her heels until the designer and developer come back with a concept. Creating a product is an iterative process—a path that seems promising one day may prove to be a blind alley the next, and it’s not unusual for a team to debate the core tenets of a brief well into this journey. A good product manager will remain engaged from start to finish, answering questions as they arise, re-assessing assumptions when warranted and doing whatever it takes to get his or her team the resources they need to effectively deliver on the brief.
On the flip side, the designer and developer aren’t just passive consumers of the product manager’s brief. In every successful project I’ve been part of, the ultimate product brief was created in collaboration with my teammates in design and development. As noted above, it’s impractical to expect the designer or developer to keep up with markets and user needs to the degree that a product manager must, but it is imperative that the designer and developer believe the core question they’re being asked to answer is the right one. And the best way I’ve found to cultivate this shared belief is to formulate that question in partnership with the people who will be asked to answer it.
Okay, so a product manager defines the job that a product must do in order to succeed, and his or her primary deliverable is a product brief. What kind of knowledge base is required to deliver on these responsibilities? I’m glad you asked. The product manager role demands expertise across a few key domains, as illustrated below:
I know, I know, Venn diagrams are très cliché, but it’s a useful construct to illustrate the fundamentally multi-faceted nature of the product manager role.
Know Your Market
As mentioned above, a product brief typically includes context on market positioning. In some cases a product may create an entirely new market segment, but, most of the time, it will compete against other, similar products within an existing segment. For example, as innovative as Apple’s iPhone was on its introduction in 2007, it was entering a pre-established smartphone segment within the larger mobile phone marketplace. Steve Jobs’ original iPhone keynote made it clear that he recognized this, as his argument for the superiority of iPhone was built atop a dissection of the shortcomings of the existing market leaders, with Jobs specifically name-checking products from Motorola, Blackberry, Palm and Nokia.
While a company’s sales and merchandising teams typically develop the deepest marketplace expertise, it’s essential for a product manager to understand the overarching dynamics of the segment that their product will occupy. For example, what are the leading brands and products in a given market segment, and why are those players succeeding? What are the opportunities within that segment—i.e. are there needs that aren’t being met, price points that aren’t being served? Are there key gatekeepers within the segment that stand between your product and your customer? A good brief will be informed by answers to questions like these because marketplace dynamics can play a huge role in the ultimate success or failure of a product.
Know Your End-User
Next, a product manager must develop a deep understanding of their target user. Why do they buy the type of product you intend to create? What job does it fulfill in their lives? Do they have functional or emotional needs that aren’t being met by existing products in the marketplace? This may all sound a bit fluffy, but small nuances in the motivations of your end-user can mean the difference between success and failure.
I can provide an example here from my own time as a product manager, or PLM, in Nike’s Running Footwear category. I was the PLM for what would eventually become the Nike LunarGlide+ and, in the early stages of that project, my team and I struggled to deliver on our shared brief for a no compromise running shoe targeting a new generation of runners.
Our “Aha!” moment finally arrived after several months of on-the-ground research: We realized that, when our target runner told us she wanted a “simple” shoe, she actually meant she wanted a shoe that was “understandable.” We then had to dig into what “understandable” meant in the context of a running shoe, but this seemingly subtle distinction in the meaning behind a word completely changed our design direction and—I’m not exaggerating here—enabled us to progress from prototypes that runners hated in one round to samples they loved in the next.
We would not have reached this epiphany had we not spent an enormous amount of time engaging with our target user. As in the case of marketplace expertise being “owned” by sales and merchandising departments, some large companies will have consumer insights teams dedicated to the study of consumer needs and behaviors; but even in these instances, a product manager must develop a profound familiarity with their intended end-user within the context of the product they intend to create. In the case of the LunarGlide+, I had to understand the role running and running gear played in the life of our target runner, but I also had to know her well enough that I could appreciate the meaning behind her words. This connection was fundamental to the ultimate success of the product.
Know Your Brand
Finally, a product manager must maintain a deep understanding of the values underpinning their own brand. This probably sounds incredibly obvious, which may explain why so many product managers seem to forget it.
A good recent example is Amazon’s Fire Phone, which is widely recognized as having been a flop of epic proportions. Fast Company magazine was so interested in understanding why it failed that their February 2015 issue devotes 5,425 words to explaining what went wrong. They identify a number of factors, but it really boils down to this conclusion:
“Bezos, insiders say, was ‘the product manager’ on the Fire Phone [and] what makes the Fire Phone a particularly troubling adventure is that Amazon’s CEO seemingly lost track of the essential driver of his company’s brand. ‘We can’t compete head to head with Apple,’ says a high-level source at Lab126 [Amazon’s secretive R&D division]. ‘There’s a branding issue: Apple is premium, while our customers want a great product at a great price.’”
So, Jeff Bezos, a very smart man who is the CEO of Amazon and, according to many insider accounts, was the de facto product manager for the Fire Phone, failed to recognize that a successful product must embody the values of its brand. Goes to show you that this can happen to the best of ’em.
For counter examples, witness Apple’s refusal to offer a sub-$500 Netbook, which many industry “experts” insisted the company must do to remain competitive in the PC space back in the late-2000s (meanwhile, Apple just keeps setting Mac sales records, while the rest of the PC industry shrinks). Or their continued refusal to offer a cheap smartphone, again, against the entreaties of armchair pundits who exclaimed that Apple “would be stupid not to” release a low-cost phone (meanwhile, Apple just keeps setting smartphone sales records, while also growing market share).
Apple has refused these calls to go low-end because the company’s leaders know that to do so would be antithetical to the promise of their brand, which is founded on aspiration, innovation and a desire to surprise-and-delight. Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, made it very clear that he understands this in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek:
“There’s always a large junk part of the market,” [Cook] says. “We’re not in the junk business ... There’s a segment of the market that really wants a product that does a lot for them, and I want to compete like crazy for those customers. I’m not going to lose sleep over that other market, because it’s just not who we are.”
Cook’s forthrightness is doubly impressive to me because this interview took place in September of 2013, at the height of the “Apple is doomed if they don't release a cheaper iPhone” mania. It reflects a deeply internalized understanding of the truth at the core of his brand—something every good product manager must develop and have the discipline to stick to.
This post has ended up far, far longer than I had intended, but, for the two people who’ve actually made it this far down, I hope it’s helped you to better understand what a product manager does, and the areas of expertise that he or she must develop to be successful in the role. In a future post, I’ll answer the question I most often get from people who already know what a product manager is: How do I become a product manager?
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a video of the best product manager of our generation brilliantly demonstrating all of the skills and domain expertise I’ve outlined above. Note how the presenter begins with an overview of his company’s target market (starts at the 1 minute mark), moves on to a discussion of user needs (starts at about the 8 minute mark) and then closes with a discusses of the attributes that set his product and brand apart from the competition (starts at about the 14 minute mark). This is going to sound terribly geeky, but I periodically re-watch this video to remind myself what it means to be a great product manager. Enjoy!
Agree? Disagree? Have questions? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter @edotkim.