Billionaire Under Armour founder Kevin Plank aims for nothing less than having his company become the US leader in sports apparel and equipment.
Under Armour is expected to report another successful year, with $3.91 billion in estimated 2015 revenue, up 27% from 2014, and $408 million in profit, up 15%, according to the Motley Fool.
But it was a lesson he learned when he was at the absolute bottom, with a product prototype and not a dime to his name, that has helped drive him through any hurdle.
Plank launched Under Armour with its flagship synthetic fiber athletic shirt in 1996 with his $16,000 in life savings. After he and his friend, and now Under Armour CMO, Kip Fulks found some collegiate customers, he partnered with a textile source and manufacturer to get the business going.
Plank soon found himself with $3,500 to his name and $6,000 of bills that needed to be paid. In what seemed like a good idea at the time, he took all but $100 out of the bank and headed over to Atlantic City to gamble. He lost every cent.
Plank found himself on his way home to Maryland from Atlantic City, stopped at the toll booth of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, begging for mercy from the toll operator. “It was the single worst moment of my life, having to face that poor toll booth operator, waiting for her two dollars,” he told “Shark Tank” investor Daymond John for Johns’ new book “The Power of Broke.”
“I was so broke, I couldn’t even check for loose change in the ashtray, in the seat cushions,” Plank said.
He told John that he couldn’t keep himself from crying. The whole experience stands out in his memory, however, because of what happened next.
A day after his blackjack trip, Plank dropped by his mom’s house for dinner. He told her the business was going great, but he was thinking that he’d just made the biggest mistake of his life.
After eating, he went to the post office to check the P.O. box he was using for Under Armour, and inside was a $7,500 check from the Georgia Institute of Technology — the athletic director had owed him the payment for awhile, but Plank didn’t expect to get it in time to cover his own bills.
As he told Men’s Journal about the moment in 2013, “That was the last time I doubted the company.” He told himself, “Wipe the tears away, stand up, be a man, run your business, find a way.”
It taught him two fundamental lessons that he continues to pass onto new entrepreneurs: Don’t blame forces outside of your control for misfortune, and tough it out in the early days rather than taking on investments and giving away equity.
He’s taken his optimistic view to Under Armour’s global team, as well. “Everywhere you go, you hear people talk about how the world is falling apart,” he told John. “Everybody is an expert. But at Under Armour, I want people to control what they can control. Leave the pontificating to everyone else. Leave all that negative talk to everyone else.”