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Under Armour’s road to sweat equity

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

For Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour, the journey to leadership began with a vexing problem he had personally experienced: As a walk-on player with the University of Maryland football team, he perspired a lot.

So, after he finished playing with the team, he decided to find a solution to his sweat problem. His mission: to create a no-drip T-shirt.

He spent the next several months shuttling between his final classes as an undergraduate and a nearby tailor shop, where Plank tested fabrics for their sturdiness, water-repellent qualities and comfort.

The result was the first form-fitting, moisture-wicking Under Armour shirts. 

To sell it, he turned to 13 of his former school buddies who’d become professional football players. He sent sample shirts to them, and made the rounds to athletic equipment managers at various colleges, all the while living on $16,000 he had in savings.

Eventually, his former teammates started talking up the shirts with other players. And one of Plank’s big breaks came when an athlete wore an Under Armour shirt in a photo on the front page of USA Today.

Under Armour started slowly. In 1996, Plank accrued only $17,000 in sales. But by 2009, the company had hit the $1 billion mark in sales. The brand is now a household name.

But were it not for his pure, kid-like focus on a problem he’d experienced firsthand, he might never have reached his goal.

“I was always ... naive enough to not know what I could not accomplish,” Plank says. “If I had been out in the industry instead of being a college kid who had an idea for another T-shirt, I would have been too scared to do anything.”

Lesson: Never lose touch with your inner kid, the one who’s too naive to believe in limits.

— Adapted from “Under Armour’s Kevin Plank: Creating the Biggest, Baddest Brand on the Planet,” Knowledge@Wharton.

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