If a broke college kid can turn a sweaty T-shirt into a multi-million dollar company, what could your experiences garner you?
Whether you’re a high school, college, professional or weekend athlete (or just want to look like one) you know the tag line “We must protect this house!” and probably own the Under Armour it advertises. In just nine years it’s become the “must have” in compression wear for young and old alike. But even more interesting than the product line itself is the company’s founder and developer Kevin Plank.
Kevin was a business major at the University of Maryland, a walk-on football player who later earned a scholarship and became the special teams captain. He’d always had an entrepreneurial spirit, running several small businesses to earn money including selling roses at Valentines Day each year. “He always had something going on, like the roses,” recalls Eric Ogbogu, Dallas Cowboy defensive end and former teammate at Maryland. By the end of Kevin’s college career he’d amassed $20,000 with “Cupid’s Valentine.”
During his senior year, Plank became convinced that he could find a better t-shirt to make his workouts more comfortable. The gray cotton tee was fine, but it held on to sweat and felt heavy. He experimented with women’s lingerie material, manufacturing a couple of shirts for his teammates to try. They loved them. Sweat evaporated so quickly that they didn’t feel the weight or discomfort of cotton.
Shortly before graduation, Plank turned his full attention to the T-shirt. He’d heard of “smart fabrics” that had not yet been applied to football.
He went to the garment district in New York and bough one bolt of a polyester-Lycra blend fabric. He asked a tailor to fabricate some T-shirts, which he distributed to his NFL and college teammates, requesting their suggestions, complaints and opinions.
Bottom line, he believed in the product he’d developed. He spent the year following graduation working on the business in his grandmother’s townhouse. He kept inventory and a hotplate in the basement, using the more impressive first floor as a sales office.
Kevin himself says, in an interview with USA Today, that he thought his success would have been much faster and easier in part due to his many contacts in professional football. It may not have been as fast, or easy, as Plank had envisioned, but what started with a single, shimmery, T-shirt (white, black or navy) now employs a work force of 450, a line which includes 300 products, and is due to earn $200 million in sales this year.
Plank shared three tips for success with USA Today readers:
Know your market. Under Armour was prepared to release it’s ladies line, only to find it ill-fitting and cheap looking. He hired a few women and tried again.
Set realistic goals. In his senior year Plank decided that he would double the number of rose bouquets he’d sold the previous year…he failed. Later he rented out half of a warehouse for his young company with the option to rent the other half in the event he needed it.
Worry later about patents. Prior to selling even one shirt, Kevin spent thousands of dollars on lawyers to patent his product. Those close to him advised that he quit spending his precious funds on lawyers. He revisited the patents when the money started flowing.
Interestingly enough, I sat next to a division sales executive for Under Armour in the first class cabin on a morning flight to the mid-west. What started as a discussion about the University of Maryland, where my son indicated an interest in attending, turned into a history lesson on this company, and leader, for which he’d conveyed a genuine belief and affection.