Bill Bowerman and the Waffle Trainer Story

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The Nike Waffle Trainer Story

The best way to remember a story is to remember the main points and then tell it in your own words. The Nike Waffle Trainer Story is a powerful way to introduce ideas about innovation, or valuing ideas, or never giving up.

  • A Sunday in late 1971
  • Bill Bowerman University of Oregon’s legendary athletic coach and cofounder of Nike. Bowerman was famous for trialing new ideas in shows and clothing for his athletes. He had trialed fish skin shoes, kangaroo skin shoes, snakeskin shoes, and running shorts made from parachute silk. 
  • He watched his wife Barbara cook breakfast in their kitchen.
  • The track at Univ. of Oregon had recently been changed from ash to artificial service meaning that Bill was on the lookout for running shows that didn’t need metal spikes.
  • As one of the waffles came out, Bill said, ‘You know, by turning it upside down — where the waffle part would come in contact with the track — I think that might work.”
  • So, he took the waffle iron, went downstairs and brought back two cans of chemicals and mixed them to make urethane.
  • He poured the urethane onto the waffle iron.
  • But it was a disaster, the waffle ironed ruined because Bowerman had forgotten to spray a nonstick solution onto the iron before pouring on the Urethane.
  • Unable to open the waffle iron back up, Bowerman abandoned it and went into town to fetch new waffle irons for his experiment.
  • Barbara threw out the waffle iron.
  • After hundreds of iterations, Nike’s Waffle Trainer debuted in 1974. It didn’t tear up the track the way metal spiked shoes did. It worked for every type of surface. Being light, cheap, comfortable and looking good, it was embraced not only by passionate runners but also by weekend runners. The Waffle Trainer’s success cemented Nike as an iconic brand.

Business Point: Nike says – It’s a perfect example… of how we find innovation, where we look for it, how it can come from the most mundane or unlikely sources. That’s an important message… we can find inspiration in literally anything.”

P.S. In August 2010, Nike executives received a stunning email from the Bowerman family. “It said, ‘we found, what we believe, is the original waffle iron.’ Bowerman’s son, Tom, lived on the family property in Coburg and decided to expand the carport. Digging alongside the house, he came across the scrapheap of his father’s experiments. There were crudely cobbled-together shoes, old prototype metal plates, cracking rubber soles, peeling molds, and a rusty old waffle iron.

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