Sunday, 25 May 2008

First-million story #4 - Sometimes a big risk pays off

When most kids are seniors in college, they're writing résumés and cruising toward graduation. Not Kevin Plank. Nine years ago, when Plank was in his last year at the University of Maryland, he began developing sportswear that now outfits most professional and college sports teams and makes a fashion statement on high-school playing fields. As the founder of Under Armour, Plank, 32, presides over a Baltimore company that employs 450 people and grossed more than $200 million last year.

Plank owes a debt to sweat. As a player on the Maryland Terrapins' football team, he wore a cotton undershirt that turned into a soggy liability during games. Already an entrepreneur (he was running a thriving floral-delivery service out of his dorm), Plank began searching fabric stores for a lightweight material that would fit snugly, wick away moisture and replace the undershirt.

Once he had found the perfect fabric, Plank paid a tailor $400 to come up with several prototypes and asked his teammates to try them out. "They said the shirt was great for football -- and baseball and lacrosse, too," says Plank. "I realized this wasn't just a shirt but a marketing opportunity."

Plank hit New York City's garment district and returned with enough fabric to make 500 undershirts, which he promoted to players on major college and NFL teams. "I would ask them to try this product, and if they liked it to give one to the guy in the next locker," says Plank. Eventually, teams on both sides of the field were wearing Plank's "compression apparel" -- and showing it off on TV.

After graduation, Plank raised start-up money by maxing out his credit cards to the tune of $40,000. He tried to patent his idea, but gave up after racking up $7,000 in legal fees. For the next several years he took no salary from the business, and he lived and worked rent-free in a house owned by his grandmother. He later got a $250,000 loan from the Small Business Administration and used almost half of it to repay debts.

Under Armour is now the official supplier of compression apparel to Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, and its garments are worn by about 30 NFL teams and nearly 100 Division I-A college football teams. It was a high-stakes gamble for a kid barely out of college, but Plank thinks youth worked in his favor. "When you're 22 or 23, there's no better time to take a big risk. Sometimes it pays off." In his case, the rewards have included buying a Cadillac at age 26 and gaining VIP access to major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl. "For someone who is passionate about sports, that's a big part of my payoff."

TIP #4: Go for broke. Just out of college, Kevin Plank ran up $40,000 in credit card debt to launch Under Armour, his sports-apparel company.

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