By Tom Still
BALTIMORE, Md. – Unless you’ve been living in a television-free cave the past 10 years or so, you’ve heard of Under Armour, the sports apparel company that markets its high-performance gear through its often-raw “Protect this house!” commercials. What you don’t know about Under Armour is that it was launched by a guy who was then a student athlete at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The story of how former Terrapin football player Kevin Plank built Under Armour from an idea in 1995 to a company that will exceed $500 million in net revenue this year is instructive to young entrepreneurs everywhere.
It’s also a real-life example as the UW-Madison begins to work more with student entrepreneurs on its own campus, as well as other communities across Wisconsin, with the help of a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Plank’s idea was simple: He grew tired of repeatedly changing the cotton T-shirt under his jersey as it became wet and heavy during the course of a game. So he set out to develop a next generation shirt that would remain drier and lighter, thus performing better under all sorts of conditions. With money he saved from a college business (he sold flowers around Valentine’s Day) and borrowed through credit cards, Plank talked to fellow athletes, tested fabrics and produced a prototype. His teammates and other Maryland athletes clamored for more.
Basically ignoring the advice of sportswear veterans who said athletes wouldn’t buy a T-shirt that cost $25 versus $5 or $10, Plank used his grandmother’s basement as a staging center and soon began cranking out shirts. He went on the road to make sales calls, stopping first at other Atlantic Coast Conference schools. His first big order was Georgia Tech; today, Under Armour is worn by thousands of college and professional athletes, as well as plenty of “weekend warriors” across the United States and abroad.
What Plank learned along the way had much to do with the specifics of the sports apparel industry, of course. But much of his post-college education centered on the basics of entrepreneurship – and keeping faith in his own idea.
“If I had been working in sporting goods for seven years before I started this, I doubt I would have succeeded,” Plank said, because he would have fallen into the trap of thinking the market was already saturated with relatively low-cost, serviceable goods. “But we were smart enough to be naïve enough to not know what we couldn’t accomplish.”
Plank took risks with his credit. He sought U.S. Small Business Administration loans, which are sometimes overlooked by entrepreneurs. He caught a break from an early landlord once he moved the business out of his grandmother’s basement. And Plank learned how to sell by being persistent and persuading potential customers he would still be around when it came time to place the next order.
Today, Plank said he wants Under Armour to be the “thought leader” in sports apparel, which means constantly innovating and challenging the market as well as the company’s own assumptions.
“The only statement that will get you fired in our company is, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ ” Plank told about 400 people at the State Science and Technology Institute conference in Baltimore, where Under Armour is based.
Not every college student has the stomach to rack up credit-card bills while pursuing a dream. But polls indicate that many students want to be more entrepreneurial and establish their own businesses, if only they knew where to turn.
That’s where the Kauffman grant at the UW-Madison connects. The UW-Madison was one of only nine campuses nationwide to be selected by the $2 billion foundation. Over five years, and with matching dollars from a variety of sources, the UW-Madison will work with partners to help breed entrepreneurs and spur more commercialization of research statewide.
The work will start close to home, with most UW-Madison colleges or schools expanding their programming in what it takes to start a business. For example, a course called “Entrepreneurship in Society” will be opened to undergraduates in all majors. A number of seminars aimed at students have been held in Madison; the Wisconsin Technology Council will host a similar event in Ashland Nov.1.
There are more Kevin Planks out there. The trick is reaching out to them with stories and tools that will help them succeed.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.