Check out the latest episode of our podcast as Chad Knight discusses leveraging technology to land an exclusive roll at Nike.
Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33. During the last year and a half, we've been talking about resiliency, flexibility, and creativity in our business lives. I met Chad Knight, a great illustration of those things, and he’s my guest today. He leads a 3D design team at Nike, but his overall life journey is fascinating. Chad, welcome to the podcast. Please take us on your journey, including where you started and how you got where you are now.
Chad Knight: Thanks for having me, Carl; it's a pleasure. I was set up for an exciting life. My parents are incredible and supportive, although from different angles. My father believes you should always try harder, do better, and never settle. My mother, who’s into psychology, believes you should always be nice to yourself. I had these conflicting views growing up, but it's been a perfect marriage because it made me empathetic, kind, and grateful for what I accomplish and receive.
Chad Knight: But complacency is a bad thing, and one of my biggest fears is becoming complacent or obsolete. The first memory my mom tells of me is being at a red light. The cars started honking, and she looked around but didn’t see anything – until she noticed my car seat was empty. I'd gotten out and climbed onto the roof. I used to climb out of my crib, too. I also have several learning disabilities and an extremely active mind. Much of my story happened because I'm always chasing something to shut up my head or get a rush.
Chad Knight: Constantly seeking that high led me to skateboarding. I grew up in Ohio, and in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, skateboarding wasn’t cool, or even publicly acceptable. It was people who were up to no good. But then people got into it for its sport, creativity, and art. That’s another theme throughout my life: when I do things, I do them for passion.
Chad Knight: I didn’t have a goal because the industry was so young. But I continued skateboarding and got sponsored when I was 13 by a company in California. That was the first time I had set out to do something and accomplished it. But it was an indirect result of what I was actually trying to accomplish, which was doing what other people had done and what I felt I should be able to do. That’s what got me there. When I graduated from high school, I moved to California to pursue skateboarding as a career. Back then, professional skateboarders made $400-$500 a month.
Chad Knight: That’s not a sustainable income, so even though I moved out there for that, it’s clear I was in it for the love of it. And skateboarding taught me many fundamental things I’ve carried through my life, which were also the things that drew me to it. Like when I got my skateboard, it was just me and it, nothing else. There's no one to help me, no instruction manual, nothing to watch that would make my balance better. There were no rules, no playbook, no court, no coach, no time limit. Whatever I came up with on that skateboard was possible, and that was appealing.
Carl Lewis: It's interesting that the passion drove it. That you were doing it for fun.
Chad Knight: Yes, but I'm also always chasing that adrenaline rush or something to get me out of my head. And there's this huge level of competitiveness toward myself. Which I think is better than being super competitive with everybody around you.
Carl Lewis: I agree. And I understand where you were. When I was a kid, I learned to play tennis. It was my passion. We were overseas, and there were no instructors. I don't know where I even got the idea that I wanted to be a tennis player. It was just me, the racket, the ball, and a wall. I watched everything I could and saw other people playing, and I got to do that. I could do it 12 hours a day, so I understand what you mean.
Chad Knight: There's something magical about self-teaching. When I got into 3D, it was the same thing. I wanted to transition out of skateboarding but didn’t want to lose everything I’d learned from it. I knew shoes well, and I was introduced to 3D software from a skate park design gig I had going. When I saw that, I thought, "This is like skateboarding. You can do anything you can think of in this virtual environment."
Chad Knight: There was no coach, no one to teach me – there weren’t even courses. You can't get a degree in 3D. Or maybe you can, in engineering, film, or gaming. I got bootleg software and locked myself in a room with the mentality of “If someone else can do this, so can I.” I watched YouTube videos for three to six months until I was comfortable enough in my skills to do a shoe. Then I approached some of the skateboard shoe companies I had worked with or had as sponsors about doing 3D for them. And it just so happened to be when 3D printers were coming out and being used in the footwear industry to review samples from Asia.
Chad Knight: But because it was a small company and a new role, there was no one to onboard me. I was creating the role, learning the software, and learning about shoe development and design simultaneously. But I thought if you knew everything about 3D, you knew everything. So, I learned everything: Rhino, which is CAD for pulling G code out and mill molds, simulation, animation, VFX, motion graphics, the whole gamut. It’s been helpful, but since you take a different approach when you're self-taught, you can miss things. I think I missed some fundamental stuff, but I’m a unique asset because I’m different from everyone who went to school and learned the same barriers and the same things repeatedly.
Carl Lewis: When you're learning from somebody else, the boundaries are what they know and their rules. But when you're by yourself, you don't know what those boundaries are, and you don't know the right way to do it, so any way is the right way.
Chad Knight: Yes.
Carl Lewis: You weren't just another skateboarder – you were at the top of your game and won prizes and competitions. People know you. My wife knows you. My only experience with skateboarding is I once put on a big event for kids where we brought in a team of skateboarders and put up a giant half-pipe in a convention center. We had about 12,000 kids and did a skateboarding demonstration, which the kids adored. I get crazy ideas about events; I love them. And I know the power they have to attract audiences. You have that. You love the audience and the roar of the crowd and all of that.
Carl Lewis: Did you stop skateboarding because your mind said, "I want to do something else now," or something else?
Chad Knight: There’s not a simple answer. It starts with the $500 salary. I'd saved money before I moved to California, but that’s not a lot. Then, when skateboarding caught on again in the early ‘90s, I got a shoe deal where I had a signature shoe, made six figures, and was on top of the world at 21. I thought, "I came here to be a professional skateboarder." The next thing I know, I'm on a team of elite skateboarders, and I've outpaced where I thought I would go. I surprised myself for the first time. Like, "Wow, maybe I'm capable of more than I thought."
Chad Knight: That’s what skateboarding taught me more than anything – that there are set boundaries, but when you don’t know them, you can push things further. Every time a new generation starts skateboarding, they do what the last generation thought was impossible. They see it and assume they can do it, so they do. It's mind-blowing how good they've gotten, how they’ve progressed because their perception is different. That's why I'm so passionate about skateboarding: it taught me so many things.
Chad Knight: It taught me about resilience, although I also credit my dad for that, as he gave me a strong stick-to-it-and-don’t-give-up work ethic. I was always chasing something to shut my brain up, and all that success turned into drinking and partying. Eventually, I was living in my car and staying on friends’ couches. I had gone from nothing to achieving great success, being in the video of the year, having a signature shoe, and winning contests to being down again.
Chad Knight: So, there were several reasons to transition out of skateboarding. I was a little too old for it; I couldn't keep up with the new generation. And financially, I needed to move on. In 2000, which was when I got that shoe deal, I had a son. He's an amazing kid, and he’s a blessing, but it adds another layer of complication to everything. It wasn't just me deciding I needed a new career – I had a son to take care of and set a good example for. I got sober, buckled down, got a computer, and taught myself all this stuff. That's when everything started going well for me again.
Carl Lewis: Which company gave you your first 3D design job?
Chad Knight: DC Shoes.
Carl Lewis: DC Shoes. I remember that. But you've grown with those skills and worked at several other companies, including where you are now at Nike. Were there stops in between?
Chad Knight: Yes. I joined DC Shoes with the skill of 3D printing and working with the factories. But I was more interested in visualization and animation, so I continued to learn that. Vans, another skateboarding company, was literally across the freeway. It's a small industry. They had a job open and made me an offer. DC was losing steam because of its parent company, so I went to Vans. It was a great opportunity to experience managing a team, but since I didn’t do much creative work, I committed to doing one piece of my own art every day.
Chad Knight: It wasn't necessarily art – it was just something. I wanted to post something on Instagram every day as a public commitment to do this and be accountable to someone somewhere. I like innovation, new ideas, and forward-thinking, and Vans didn't offer that for me. It’s a great product, but the design is simple and not as innovative as I was craving. Then Nike contacted me about a role helping them benefit from 3D tools.
Chad Knight: That was my initial role at Nike. And everything I’d learned was super helpful because when you go into companies or industries that don't know 3D that well, they often want the wrong thing. It was helpful to offer course correction and guidance.
Carl Lewis: That’s fascinating. Are you helping Nike with these skills to design shoes and other products? How are they using 3D?
Chad Knight: We use it traditionally, like every other company. I oversee a team of 3D designers. They’re 3D footwear designers, industrial classically trained, but they use 3D tools instead of 2D tools. They work with the product designers to bring their vision to life with 3D tools. We're a creative partner, not just an idea translator, and we expose and identify new things in 3D that you don't see in 2D. There's a lot of creative opportunity for the team.
Carl Lewis: So, you were still posting something every day. Did you need to be sure you were continuing to develop the creative side of yourself and do something with it? Was that pushing you along?
Chad Knight: Yes. But my audience associated me with skateboarding, and I felt a void without that. Secretly, I think maybe my ego wanted attention. I'm not a huge extrovert, but part of what I wanted was to interact with a larger audience or community again. But the intention was to continue learning and learn new techniques and tools so I could always be at the forefront and know what was happening.
Carl Lewis: I've seen some of your 3D art. It’s beautiful and creative, and when you see it, you think, "How did he do that?" It's remarkable. When was the first time you felt like you had something you wanted to share with the world?
Chad Knight: The first time I created what felt like a piece of art reflected something I wanted to communicate. It looked like what I wanted to say but couldn't accomplish with other mediums. It was seven years ago, but it clicked. I thought, "Holy cow. You can do anything in here as long as you have the power, the software, and the idea."
Carl Lewis: That's the key marriage right there. The software can do a lot, but it’s the software, your creativity/imagination, and brain together that make your artwork so dramatic.
Chad Knight: A lot of it is technique-driven. And that, again, inspires a lot of the work. Learning a new technique will create a new look, which will take it in a direction that will lead it to a certain place.
Carl Lewis: You've had great success at almost every stage of your life. You've conquered your demons at some point.
Chad Knight: Daily.
Carl Lewis: I like that. Audiences are a demon for me. My wife has seen me on stage, like a master of ceremonies. One time I invited her, and she said, "No, I saw 200 people kiss your ass last year. I never want to see it again." But it's energizing to me.
Chad Knight: Yes, it is.
Carl Lewis: It’s interesting that your skateboarding life and the art world are different ways to access that audience. There's still an audience, and it still has the affirmation to be appreciated. I understand that totally.
Chad Knight: Skateboarding moved in the direction where now it’s just an Instagram post of a trick, similar to an Instagram post of a piece of art or something you made that day. But when I was growing up, that didn’t exist. We had to send VHS tapes to people and move to the town where the magazines were.
Carl Lewis: And there weren't skateboard parks. You were building it as you wanted it.
Chad Knight: And it was very frowned upon. Illegal everywhere. It wasn't the easiest sport to do.
Carl Lewis: Now kids have special backpacks to carry their skateboards all the time.
Chad Knight: And their dads skate with them.
Carl Lewis: My grandson has one, but I'm not touching the thing. One fall for me is the last fall! Chad, you've had great transitions that took you from one thing to another. But I bet you’re not done yet. You need the creative part to quiet yourself, so I imagine there will be another stage. You seem like an individual who did what many businesses over the last year needed to do: make changes, pivot on a dime, add new products quickly, go to market differently. They never had ecommerce before, and suddenly, they do.
Carl Lewis: But some businesses are struggling. How can they adapt and move on to the next thing like you've been doing your whole life?
Chad Knight: It's different for every company based on their industry, current position with technology, etc. But there's a huge shift toward easy-to-use interfaces, interactions, and experiences for consumers. The biggest thing I see with those who are frustrated or aren’t getting it right is that they haven’t come to terms with how expensive and difficult this stuff is. They overestimate what software can do and underestimate what experts can do. They need to find an expert they trust. Otherwise, if you don't know the subject, it's hard to navigate.
Chad Knight: Especially when we call things weird stuff, like digital. Digital is like how my clock is digital, and it's been around forever. You have thresholds and technology. There's a great TED talk about how we go from tool to system to automation to a new threshold. Then we use what's made from that as a new medium. You had pneumatic, then electricity, then digital, and from digital, we can make a medium: virtual. When people discuss digitizing things in their business, they must first understand what they want, what it means to them, and learn the space better.
Chad Knight: Many organizations still trust the software companies too much, which may be a little over-promise when two people who don't understand the problem or the opportunity are discussing needs and solutions.
Carl Lewis: Absolutely.
Chad Knight: It’s coming fast, and many people don’t realize it's like the internet. In the ‘90s, tons of organizations thought they didn’t need a website. But it was the future of doing business. And now everything's going virtual. Virtual reality, virtual intelligence (aka artificial intelligence), virtual information-sharing, and virtual connectivity like you and I are doing right now. There are virtual versions of everything popping up; they just haven't come together yet. And when that happens – and it will be soon – it will affect every business. If you're not looking at this gamification or these game engines and this new layer of reality that's coming, you won’t be ready.
Carl Lewis: Businesses used to get a great product idea and put everything together to build, sell, and distribute it. And that's all they did. We did our innovation, it was done, we had our good idea, and people went there and worked for 30, 40 years. That doesn’t happen anymore. It seems like businesses must recreate themselves constantly just to survive. And more of us than we realize, as individuals, are in the same process of remaking ourselves. It’s part of what intrigued me about your story.
Carl Lewis: You started as a skateboarder and ended up in computers, and I went to theology school and ended up in computers. Originally, I wanted nothing to do with technology, but that's the opportunity life presented. I met with some college kids a while back, and they asked how many jobs I've had. It made me think, and I wrote them down. It was 17. Some are part of the same career, but that dream of doing one thing your whole life isn’t reality anymore.
Chad Knight: I agree. And it comes back to the thresholds of innovation. We’ve innovated so much already in this physical world that we're running out of stuff to do. And there are only so many things you can do with digital, aside from creating a new language and simulating things. But if you look at materials, there are only so many elements and only so many things you can innovate in the physical world. That's why so much is moving into that new space. Even the new science fiction is about moving into a virtual space because that's where we're headed.
Chad Knight: We have a problem as humans with thinking things won’t change from here. It's so hard to wrap your head around the fact that in two years, something dramatically different might change. Without a doubt, change is the only constant. So yes, I think you absolutely must reinvent yourself constantly.
Carl Lewis: What I also appreciate about your story is that, despite all that change, when you talk about where you've come from and where you've been, you’re still Chad Knight. You're true to yourself; you understand your need to be excited and looking at the next thing and to be a person who fosters change all around you. That's a lesson for businesses too. You can be who you are, but you're still changing, growing, doing all those things. I found your life story fascinating. Chad, where can folks look at your artwork today?
Chad Knight: As you mentioned, there's another phase coming: the NFT (non-fungible tokens) space. That’s where digital artists can sell their work, similar to how physical artists can. There's been a lot of recognition and respect for these artists for a long time, and even though this technology of being able to buy their products is late to the game, it's changing everything already. NFTs are basically a vehicle to take any digital asset that's a file and attach it to a blockchain, where it then lives. Then, no one can mess with it – no one can take it down or change the information that's tracked about it.
Chad Knight: You can prove ownership of it that way, like you prove ownership with a physical contract. If you can prove ownership, you can prove scarcity, which means you can have value for something. Many collectibles are moving into the space now. In theory, it's just a marketplace for that metaverse that's coming because it's a way of proving you own something digitally. And since the technology came late, the money people pay for products seems ridiculous to us artists. It went from zero to a hundred overnight.
Chad Knight: But it's an opportunity for those of us who want to do this and have ideas we want to dive into but have full-time jobs. There are people chasing freelance work all day who now have the finances to explore some of that stuff. It will push the envelope in terms of what people are creating and expedite the whole transition to where we're headed.
Carl Lewis: Interesting. So, I went to the internet, put in your name, and got a lot of results. But I think I saw most of it on Instagram.
Chad Knight: Yes. Instagram is my home base, but I’m also on Twitter. I have a website you can find via my Instagram page, chad-knight.com. And you can Google me, depending on what you want to find – shoes, skateboarding, art, etc.
Carl Lewis: That's why I say got a lot of results. That's how I learned about you – by reading a bunch of different things. I thought, "This guy's done everything." Chad, thank you so much for being my guest. I rarely interview individuals like you, but your story is inspiring, and I wanted to share it with my listeners. Best of luck to you in this new endeavor.
Chad Knight: Thank you for having me on; it was a pleasure to talk to you.
Carl Lewis: You're welcome. And for everyone listening, until next time, stay connected.