Kevin Plank, the founder and former CEO of Under Armour, has always been a hands-on leader. In fact, he believes that the only way to control your destiny is to dive in with everything you’ve got. While his story wasn’t always smooth sailing, the bones of his success started early. See how Plank got his start, how he dug himself out of a hole, and what it took to build a billion dollar business.
Under Armour started with some sweat. Or to be more specific, a lot of sweat. A soggy uniform after his college football games was an indication that something was very wrong with the clothes he is wearing. While some students in the 1990s might have just lived with the annoyance, Plank maxed out all of his credit cards to start his own company in a relative’s basement.
After using his savings plus racking up $40,000 in debt, he found himself broke. This was about a year after he started designing clothes that would pull moisture away from the body, so players of every sport could be a little more comfortable. Right when things seemed their worst, he made his first sale to Georgia Tech. It wasn’t long before the NFL came calling and the company’s revenue started exploding.
A Hard Road
Plank’s story sounds like the garage stories of countless entrepreneurs that we’re so used to hearing, but there’s a bit of twist. Plank didn’t drop out of school to make this fortune — he was virtually kicked out. Admitting his failures with total honesty, he’s spoken out about his poor grades in high school and a drunken altercation with football players from Georgetown University.
He eventually found another school to accept him, largely because of his commitment and skill on the field. He didn’t waste his second chance there. He developed a work ethic during practices and games that he was able to carry with him by the time he started Under Armour. He went on to achieve a BA and an MA in business admin from the University of Maryland.
Kevin Plank might not have been a household name as a sports star, but all that time spent developing skills was more worthwhile than even he could have imagined. Plank had built his original savings by hawking souvenirs to concert-goers, outselling his brothers and constantly developing new schemes. He took that business sense and combined it with the grit he’d already honed during his games.
Clothing the Pros
Under Armour has always been known for what it does more so than what it is. On the outside, it might just look like a regular shirt, but the concept was for it to attract moisture without the shirt becoming heavier. He sent samples out to both colleges and pro players as a way to promote his product (and in hopes that someone might wear it on TV after a big win).
When coaches started asking if he had specific kinds of clothing for their players, his automatic response was to say yes and then figure out how to make it afterward. His best form of marketing came through word of mouth.
Kevin Plank’s products created such an impression on the wearer that he couldn’t have stopped the momentum even if he tried. It doesn’t hurt that players are happy to wear his clothes — without having to be paid a dime.
Just because someone isn’t making millions on a pro team, doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate quality clothing when they’re exercising. Part of Under Armour’s success came from supplying clothing for the movie Any Given Sunday, starring Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino.
The company augmented that publicity by taking out a half-page ad in ESPN magazine, a move that boosted sales by $750,000. Plank had to convince his team to put their paycheck on pause in order to take out the ad. That takes more than just a passionate speech to accomplish: his team had to believe in his product as much as he did. Luckily, the quality and efficacy of what he had to offer was never the issue.
If you travel to the headquarters of Under Armour in Baltimore, you’ll find Plank’s motto throughout the premises: “Think like an entrepreneur. Create like an innovator. Perform like a teammate.” If you want to know how he racked up a billion by the time 2010 rolled around, all you have to do is consult this philosophy.
When Under Armour went public in 2005, the IPO doubled on its first day of trading. That was the first time a US-based company had done that in five years on the NASDAQ. Today, the company continues to push the boundaries of what it can do. From fitness apps to non-performance lines, the company has expanded into new markets whenever it saw a need.
“Think like an entrepreneur. Create like an innovator. Perform like a teammate.”– Kevin Plank
Kevin Plank has clearly made a name for himself in the sports world, even if it wasn’t as a fabled quarterback or honored linebacker. He used his innate talents and then built upon them brick by brick. By accepting his weaknesses and playing to his strengths, he was able to create Under Armour, a brand that would go on to make countless athletes a little more effective in what they did and a lot less annoyed by how they did it.