In an electrifying address that was part high-adrenaline video clips, part down-home storytelling, and part hard-won wisdom, Under Armour Founder, Chairman, and CEO Kevin Plank told an audience of nearly 600 rapt listeners how he started his phenomenally successful athletic apparel company; how the company cultivates the innovation necessary for ongoing success; and what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur.
Plank’s talk kicked off the 2014 McIntire School of Commerce Spring Symposium, “Beyond the Big Idea: From Garage Startups to Global Empires.” Jointly sponsored by the McIntire School and its Galant Center for Entrepreneurship, the symposium was held April 25 at the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall. Plank’s presentation was followed by two panel discussions of entrepreneurship and innovation, respectively, featuring the lively and thoughtful commentary of a superb group of business leaders (see Spring Symposium Panels: Founders Perspectives, Inside Innovation, below).
Ready … or Not?
Plank began his address with a ringing endorsement of the practice of entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship is one of the greatest assets we have, not only in our country, but in the world,” he told the audience. “I believe it is something that can never be celebrated and encouraged enough—and if I leave you with one thing today, hopefully it will be the inspiration to compel one of you to give it a shot.”
But Plank made no attempt to downplay the very real perils of striking out on your own. “Being an entrepreneur is hard,” he said, pointing out that 75 percent of new businesses ultimately fail. Indeed, he told the audience, “There are a lot of people who will win, and a lot of people who will lose. You have to understand that, and you have to be willing to accept that risk.”
Begin at the Beginning
The key to survival, he said, is to start small and remain relentlessly focused on creating a product of unassailable excellence. Entrepreneurial success, he advised listeners, doesn’t start with saying, “‘I’m going to build a global brand.’” Rather, it happens “brick by brick, and one day at a time.”
Plank went on to offer the remarkable story of Under Armour as an astonishing case in point. As a student-athlete who had endured years of annoyance and discomfort in heavy, sticky, sweat-soaked T-shirts (Plank played football for the University of Maryland), he began to wonder why nobody had come up with an alternative to the cotton undershirt.
“I had this idea,” Plank said. “Why not make a better T-shirt? Why not make something that had synthetic properties, that wouldn’t hold moisture, and, more importantly, that wouldn’t hold the moisture’s weight?”
Newly graduated from the University of Maryland, Plank set up shop in his grandmother’s basement. Using money he had saved from a Valentine’s Day flower-delivery business he ran in college, he set about achieving a single, crystal-clear aim. “When I started,” Plank said, “my goal was simply to make the world’s greatest T-shirt for football players.” Once he had come up with a workable fabric and design, he said, “I made that shirt over and over for the first five years I was in business.”
What Plank soon discovered was that the world’s best T-shirt for football players was also the world’s best T-shirt for baseball players, lacrosse players, soccer players, runners, weightlifters, and, apparently, every other athlete and aspiring athlete in America. “The company just began to grow,” he said. “The first year we were in business, we did $17,000 in revenue. The second year, we did $110,000. By the fifth year, we were at $5 million; by our 10th year, which was 2005, the year the company went public, we were at just under $300 million.”
Last year, Under Armour—which now employs some 7,000 people around the globe and makes everything from ultralight seamless athletic shoes to backpacks to sweat-wicking, stay-cool women’s capri running pants—generated $2.3 billion in revenues. That number is expected to reach $4 billion by 2016.
Plank explained it like this: “We wanted to make the best product in the world, and we wanted to become famous for it. Becoming famous for that T-shirt allowed us to go into these other products. And most importantly, it was our consumer pulling us into these other products.”
Staying in Front
But sustaining growth—in terms of revenues, international expansion, and the continued production of cutting-edge products—will require the relentless pursuit of innovation, Plank told the audience. “There’s a tremendous opportunity out there, but it’s something we’re going to have to work incredibly hard for,” he said.
Fortunately, he pointed out, the idea of innovation—of continuing to make things better—is part of the company’s DNA. “We’ve always made products that do something,” Plank said. “They make athletes lighter, warmer, cooler—whatever the situation demands. We’re not just slapping a logo on a product.”
In fact, he explained, the company employs a crackerjack team of world-class scientists, engineers, and experts in technical fabrication; at its Baltimore headquarters, it houses a state-of-the-art innovation lab that has produced such remarkable offerings as a heat-retaining line of apparel, known as ColdGear Infrared, that makes use of the same high-performance ceramic technology as that found in the Stealth Bomber.
Plank said the company also remains keenly aware that some of the best ideas—such as a magnetized zipper that allows for one-handed closure—come from outside of the company’s laboratories.
“We want to be a safe haven for entrepreneurs,” Plank said. “We want them to bring us their ideas first—because we know that if we continue to innovate, we will win.”
Looking to the Future
But what will it take to really stay on top—to dictate, rather than merely respond to, the demands of the future? The answer, Plank said, lies in the integration of technology into the maintenance of everyday health and comfort.
“We believe that biometrics and predictive analytics are the wave of the future, and that technology and innovation will be tied into our apparel,” Plank said, calling technology-enabled proactive health products “the next massive industry in the world.” “If we’re sitting around just making sneakers and sweatshirts, we’re the ones who are going to look like we’re still making typewriters.”
Stating that he was unwilling to cede the “wearable” technology space to the established tech companies, Plank told the audience that Under Armour had begun seriously working toward becoming a leading player in making the “smart” clothes of the future.
“Imagine a world where you wake up, and you no longer have to adjust the thermostat—you have apparel that allows you, with a swipe of your wrist, to adjust the microclimate that exists between the apparel and your skin,” Plank said. “You can create and change the music that surrounds you. You’re in control. That is where the future is headed, and we’re pushing Under Armour in that direction.”
What to Do
Plank closed his address with some advice for entrepreneurs that—for all the super-futuristic high-tech talk—was comfortably down-to-earth.
First, he again told the audience, a laser-like focus on excellence is essential. Second, he said, find out if your product can sell. Noting the tendency of many entrepreneurs to waste valuable time and money on patents and licensing before a product has even launched, he advised would-be entrepreneurs to jump right in. “Save yourself some time,” he said. “Put your product in the store. Find out if the consumer is willing to pull out their own hard-earned cash from their pocket and hand it to you for your good or service.” Third, he advised, don’t believe in all the rules. “I like to say that I was always smart enough to be naïve enough to not know what we could not accomplish,” he joked.
But ultimately, Plank said, the success of an entrepreneurial venture is largely a matter of sheer will. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the entrepreneur,” he told the audience. “It comes down to the decision to say, ‘I’m going to make it happen.’”
Along these lines, Plank continued, “I have a saying that I use at Under Armour: ‘Employees get things done. Partners get things done done. But owners get things done done done.’”
If you’re going to start your own company, Plank advised, “make that commitment to excellence—to truly getting things done done done.”
Spring Symposium Panels: Founders Perspectives, Inside Innovation
“Beyond the Big Idea” also featured two superb panel discussions of the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurialism, and the up- and downsides of working to generate innovation within established corporations, a task that has come to be known as “intrapreneurship.”
The first panel, titled “Founders’ Perspectives,” offered audience members the chance to hear from successful entrepreneurs Robert Daly (McIntire ’92), CEO and Co-Founder, 4moms; Andy Forch (McIntire ’07), Co-Founder, Huckberry; Mark Galant (McIntire ’80), Founder and former CEO, GAIN Capital, and Founder and CEO, Tydall Trading; and Nancy Twine (McIntire ’07), Founder, Briogeo Hair Care. The discussion—adeptly moderated by David Touve, Assistant Professor, McIntire School of Commerce, and Director, Galant Center for Entrepreneurship—covered such subjects as when and how the panelists had decided to embark on an entrepreneurial course; how their earlier, more traditional careers might have prepared them for entrepreneurial success; and how they cope(d) with the “dark periods” that all entrepreneurs inevitably face.
The second panel, “Inside Innovation,” featured leading intra-corporate innovators Alison Hillhouse (McIntire ’99), Vice President of Insights Innovation, MTV; Mark Jamison, Chief Digital Officer, Capital One Bank; William McComb, former Chairman and CEO, Fifth & Pacific Companies (now Kate Spade); and Martin Yudkovitz, Head of Strategic Business Innovation, The Walt Disney Company. The panel was expertly moderated by Jeneanne Rae (McIntire ’84), internationally recognized thought leader and expert in innovation management and President and CEO, Motiv Strategies. In an engaging, honest, and reflective conversation, the panelists discussed subjects including the differences—for good and ill—between entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship; how innovation and insights emerge; what it takes to move well-established organizations in the direction of change; and what, when they looked back on their careers, had brought them joy. Notably, the panelists were unanimous in their response to the final question: Mentoring young people, and watching them grow into their potential—a process McComb called “putting people in touch with their own unstoppability”—had proven the most rewarding.