“There’s an entrepreneur right now who is making excuses about starting a business. There’s no such thing as a good time to start. Get out of your garage, take a chance and start your business.” Kevin Plank
1997 – Washington, D.C.: Kevin Plank’s fledgling T-shirt company was in trouble. He had $3,400 in his bank account and $6,000 in unpaid bills. He had borrowed money from his mother and maxed out five credit cards. Then Kevin got a wild idea. Desperate to keep his struggling business afloat, the 25-year-old entrepreneur took the $3,400, drove to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and entered a blackjack tournament.
The $3,400 turned into $4,000 and then $6,000, but before the night was over Kevin lost it all. He left the casino without a penny in his pocket. On the drive back to D.C., he didn’t have money to pay the $2 toll at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. He begged the toll operator for mercy, but she called the police, and they wrote him a ticket. He cried out of frustration and wondered how he could have been so stupid.
Kevin grew up in Kensington, Maryland, the youngest of five boys. His father was a successful land developer and his mother served two terms as Kensington’s mayor before serving in President Ronald Reagan’s administration in Intergovernmental Affairs. As a kid, Kevin loved to make money, whether shoveling snow, parking cars, mowing yards or selling T-shirts with his brothers at rock concerts.
Kevin was an outstanding 5’ 10” 200-pound fullback at Gonzaga College High School, but there were no scholarship offers. After playing for one year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, he walked on at the University of Maryland.
While at Maryland, Kevin started Cupid’s Valentine and sold roses for special occasions. He also continued to sell T-shirts at concerts and other venues. An assistant football coach told him, “Plank, you could be a good football player if you would stop all this business crap and commit yourself to football.”
Despite the coach’s comments, Kevin got an idea for another business. Tired of wearing sopping-wet cotton T-shirts under his uniform, he wondered if there was a better material than cotton. He visited the New York City garment district and a textile mill in Virginia searching for fabrics. After discovering a lightweight synthetic micro-fiber that could wick moisture away from the skin, Kevin produced a sample shirt and asked his teammates to try it. They liked the feel and the look of the shirt.
After graduating from Maryland, Kevin took the money he saved from selling roses and t-shirts and started a company in his grandmother’s basement in Washington, D.C. He named the business Under Armour. He drove up and down the East Coast peddling his innovative T-shirt out of the trunk of his car.
The disastrous trip to Atlantic City was the low point in Kevin’s life; but the following day when things seemed darkest, he went to the mailbox and discovered an order and a check for $17,000 from Georgia Tech. Under Armour had new life.
After making the Georgia Tech sale, Kevin sent sample shirts to several college and professional football teams. In 1998, sales reached $100,000, then rose to $700,000 the following year. Under Armour’s big breakthrough came in 1999. Kevin asked his employees to forego their paychecks for a few weeks so Under Armour could buy a $25,000 ESPN commercial. As a result, there was an avalanche of orders. Within two years, sales skyrocketed to $100 million.
Today, just 25years after Kevin Plank sold T-shirts out of the trunk of his car, Under Armour is a $5 billion company headquartered in a former Proctor & Gamble factory on the Baltimore waterfront. Under Armour produces pants, shorts, shirts, underwear, hats, socks and a variety of other items. Players from all 32 NFL teams, all 30 Major League Baseball teams and 100 college football teams wear Under Armour gear.
“I never knew exactly what Under Armour was going to look like, but I knew we were going to make it if I didn’t give up,” Kevin says looking back. “We wanted to make the world’s greatest football undershirt. Our challenge was to convince big, tough football players to wear what was essentially women’s lingerie. But once they tried on the product they were sold.”