As told to Mark Hyman
Kevin Plank's unremarkable career as a college football player hardly ranks him with the greats of the gridiron. But Under Armour, a bright idea hatched during his days as a walk-on fullback at the University of Maryland, has taken Plank, 31, to the end zone in the sports apparel industry.
This year, Under Armour Performance Apparel, the seven-year-old company Plank launched from his grandmother's townhouse in Washington, D.C., ranked second on the Inc. 500 list and will top $110 million in revenue. Its perspiration-wicking clothing is worn by baseball stars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, countless other sweat-soaked pros, some 100 college football teams, and the cast of ESPN's sports opera, Playmakers.
I've always been a hustler. I don't mean that in the literal sense. When I was 14 or 15, my brother Scott, who works with me at Under Armour, came back from Guatemala with a bunch of knitted bracelets you see at Grateful Dead shows. Scott had this proposition for me and my brother Colin: "Listen, there's a Dead show coming to town. We'll go down and sell these bracelets and make a lot of money." We took the subway down. At noon, Scott said, "We'll meet back here in three hours." Later, we meet up. Colin--he's a writer, works for Disney in L.A. now--said, "I sold the first two. Then I started feeling guilty about how much money I was charging, so I gave the rest away." Scott, who's more of a finance guy, loves the Wall Street thing, says, "I made about 70 bucks." I say, "I have about 580 bucks in my pocket. And I need more bracelets." Right there, I knew I was pretty good at this.
My first real business was bootlegging T-shirts--I was just a dumb kid. You go to a concert and pay $25 for a cotton T-shirt that says "Rolling Stones," "Lollapalooza," or whatever. On the outside they're 10 or 15 bucks. We were the guys selling them for 10 or 15 bucks. I started with a friend at Maryland. He'd buy the T-shirts at $3 and sell to me at $4. I'd put on this vest, a big floppy hat, and grow my beard out for three or four days. Then I'd walk around and sell T-shirts. Eventually, some real Dead heads figured me out: "Hey, you're not a Dead head, you capitalist pig. Get out of here!"
One of my clearest memories of college is my strength coach at Maryland saying, "Plank, stop worrying about all this other [business] crap and just commit yourself to playing football. You have the rest of your life to do these other things." But I could never stop. I remember thinking how much fun it would be just to sit at a desk and think, "All right, how are we going to make a buck?"
The idea was to create a T-shirt that wouldn't hold moisture--more important, that wouldn't hold the moisture's weight. As I developed the prototype, I began to get samples out to a network of college and pro players I had access to. From high school and college, I knew guys like Jermaine Lewis and Frank Wychek and Eddie George, players who had gone on to play in the NFL. I remember reading about this small [apparel] company that sent Mike Tyson a hat, back in the early '90s. Out of nowhere, he put the hat on during a post-fight interview. These guys ended up getting orders for a quarter of a million dollars. There was a little of that to my thought process.
I probably had about 20 grand in the bank when Under Armour started. A lot of money for a college kid. I ended up going to just under $40,000 in credit card debt spread across five cards. In the summer of 1997, I was totally broke--so broke I needed to go to my mom's house to ask if she minded cooking dinner for me. I needed for her to feed me. Then all of a sudden I started getting my first round of orders.
In September of 1996, the phone rings. It was the equipment manager for the Atlanta Falcons. He says, "Hey, I was in the Georgia Tech equipment room"--where I'd made my first sale--"and I love the product. Do you make the shirts in long sleeve?" My response was: "Of course we make it in long sleeve." Then I get in my car, drive to the contractor, and try to figure out how to make the shirts in long sleeve.
My response was, 'Of course we make it in long sleeve.' Then I tried to figure out how.
I was sitting around the house and the phone rings. It's the equipment manager from Arizona State: "Do you guys make anything for cold weather?" Of course we make something for cold weather.
The vital nature of our product is word of mouth. You send a sample to one guy. The next thing you know, the guy in the locker next to him is making fun of him. By day two, he's scratching his head. By day three, he's asking if he can wear it also. I don't ever see losing that.
We don't pay athletes millions to wear our brand. We don't have to. Our model is getting to the athletes--supplying them with great product that helps them perform better. Which helps a guy like Barry Bonds make $18.5 million a year. My contractual relationship with Barry Bonds says: If I ever pay anybody more than I'm paying Barry Bonds, I have to pay him more. Right now there's not an athlete on our payroll that we pay $5,000 on an annual basis. Roger Clemens wears our product. He's done two photo shoots for us and appeared in advertising. Mainly, we compensate him through charities he supports.
We're getting a lot of exposure with Playmakers. They were looking to authenticate the series as true football without having use of NFL marks. Using our product does that. The perception is that Under Armour is where the pros are.
We're not going to be happy being a $100 million company or a nice $250 million family-run business. One of our first customers asked me recently how big we want to be. I said I want to be really big. Later it bothered me that I answered that way. Now I say I just want to be a great company.
Mark Hyman writes frequently about sports and business.