Kevin Plank—founder of the projected-$3-billion-in-sales company, Under Armour—started in his grandmother’s townhouse in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. In a Q&A (and video) on The Washington Post site a few days ago, Plank tells a story about one of his early marketing coups, when director Oliver Stone needed shirts for his football movie, Any Given Sunday.
“I sent them some samples, and they loved the product, said it was some of the best they had seen and they asked us to send them a thousand of these, a thousand of those,” Plank said. “I thought, ‘this is great,’ but then I asked where to send the invoice. They were like, ‘Invoice, are you kidding?’
“I’m looking around Grandma’s basement, yelling turn down The Price is Right [their constant background noise], thinking we have a big order on the line. It’s a little-known fact, but…for all the exposure that we got from Cameron Diaz to Jamie Foxx’s jockstrap with the Under Armour logo in the center of it, that was something they paid over $40,000 for all the product that they bought from us.
“What I hear over and over again is ‘this is good marketing,’ ‘you gotta give it away,’ or ‘I’m giving it away only for a little bit.’ Don’t ever, ever devalue your product. Ever. It’s the worst thing anyone can do to hurt your brand. I had people threaten that if we didn’t give it to them, they wouldn’t wear it. But I’ve found that, if you make a great product, and you charge a fair price, there will be a market for it.”
Here are 9 business lessons from Plank’s interview:
1. It’s worth repeating—“don’t ever, ever devalue your product. Ever. It’s the worst thing anyone can do to hurt your brand.”
2. Perception can be reality. The National Football League called Plank one morning early on and said they’re in Washington and want to visit his office. Instead of inviting them to Grandma’s basement, Plank suggested lunch at Morton’s on his dime. (He had to rush out to the bank.) “Everything was about projecting yourself as being more—the company you see yourself as, not the company you were.”
3. Remember the basics. Plank thought that when USA Today featured athletes on its cover wearing Under Armour mock turtlenecks it would be his breakout moment. But “nobody knew what it was or how to get a hold of us.”
4. “Put the freaking pen down and go do something.” Plank started by taking special fabric and a Hanes T-shirt to a local tailor and asked him to make shirts like this one. “Sometimes entrepreneurs can get caught up with theorizing, hypothesizing, business, planning…Go find out if you can make your product. Once you make it, stop projecting…and go find out whether your product can sell.”
5. Limit your cash and credit outlay at the beginning. SIPA member Bob Coleman just told me about his new and successful seminar business. The rule that guided him? “Don’t do any new product unless you [can earn] cash within 30 days.” Plank would agree and advises to just “go sell…If it doesn’t sell, there’s probably something wrong with your business.”
6. “Don’t forget to sell shirts and shoes.” That’s the only slogan that Plank puts up in red ink on his office whiteboard. It’s easy to get caught up in other things—for publishers that could be social media, intricate design or complicated marketing. Remember what “rings the register.”
7. Hold on to good people. Plank doesn’t believe in the saying that you need new people to take that next big jump in your business. “It’s just the best people you know to accomplish the task at hand…”
8. Aim high. Written on the Under Armour wall: “Let’s be the greatest company in the history of the world.”
9. Grab serendipity when you see it. Plank had been toying with the name Body Armor, until his big brother came to take him to lunch one day and asked, “How’s that company you’re working on, uhh…Under Armor?” He quickly trademarked it, adding the “u” for the phone number—888-4ARMOUR.
Side note: In today’s Post, in-vogue ballerina Misty Copeland talks about her upcoming star-turn in Swan Lake for The Washington Ballet: “It’s what so great about the Under Armour ad [she stars in]…” So let’s add 10. Get free publicity.
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering diversity, Newspaper in Education, marketing and leadership before joining SIPA in 2009 , and then SIIA in 2013.