You take on the 800-pound gorilla at your peril.
Nike is the 800-pound gorilla of athletic shoes and apparel, especially in Memphis. It has 1,500 employees here and a warehouse that processes 53 million pairs of shoes a year. It has MJ and Tiger, Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. It has an $11 million deal with the University of Memphis. It has even bigger deals with most of the Southeastern Conference schools, except a certain school in Knoxville. It even has deals with high schools. It has $20 billion in annual revenue.
But no guts, no glory. Hell, Nike started with Phil Knight selling track shoes out of a van and Bill Bowerman making urethane soles in a waffle iron in his kitchen. Which brings us to the made-in-Memphis documentary film, Sole of a Hustla, which was released in September.
Produced by venture capitalist and filmmaker Bob Compton (who also did the schools critique Two Million Minutes), it tells the story of Game Time Athletics and four young Memphis men with very little business experience or higher education and a good idea.
The idea was custom-made sneakers that could be designed and delivered in small batches to local schools and sold for $60 a pair as a fund-raiser, the same way kids sell wrapping paper or chocolate bars.
A few years ago, Compton got a cold call from Checliss "Big C" Rice, who dreamed of if not being like Mike at least being a little bit like Nike.
Compton, a Harvard-educated venture capitalist, thought a black-owned company selling shoes to local schools seemed like a great idea that would fill a missing niche in the Memphis economy.
So he made a big bet on Game Time Athletics and "Big C" Rice and his three partners.
The initial successes, surprises, and eventual disappointments are unflinchingly chronicled in Sole of a Hustla. Inspired by the phenomenal popularity of "Air Jordan" shoes, Game Time started its own line of shoes manufactured in China and pitched them to high schools, including Mitchell, Kirby, East, and Northside.
The brightly colored creations were called "spirit" shoes.
Rice predicted sales of $50 million within five years. But there were problems almost immediately. Bookkeeping was shoddy, orders went unpaid, and some of the football shoes had design flaws that made the cleats come off. Compton eventually lost $350,000. The movie ends with Compton and Rice in a tearful embrace in their empty office in downtown Memphis.
"Every time you go into a startup, there is a high risk of failure," Compton said in an interview this week. "We didn't fail because of a lack of creativity or energy on the part of Big C or the team but because the team was spread too thin and because we were pioneering a new concept. So it took longer for customers to understand the value proposition.
"Starting a business is hard," Compton added. "Starting a business if you are African-American is really hard. There are no role models or avenues to financing sources, and they didn't really have the strong math skills you need to manage cash flow and balance statements."
Surprisingly, the shoes sold better at some private schools than they did at inner-city schools.
"Students at inner-city schools don't feel much school loyalty," Compton said. "It turned out to be a very hard sell. By the time kids are in high school, Nike has locked their brand into their brains. They would rather have an Air Jordan."
Game Time, which once had deals with 20 schools, is a T-shirt company today. One partner founded his own shoe design company, another started a catering business, and a third is managing a retail store. Compton and "Big C" are still friends.
"Everyone found other opportunities," said Compton, who has moved from Memphis to Washington, D.C. "And everyone learned from the experience."