UCLA Anderson hosted a very inspiring talk by Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour clothing brand. The hour passed by like a minute, and many of the lessons and stories Kevin communicated resonated deeply with me. Below are my main takeaways from the talk, which hit points ranging from entrepreneurship to team structure to marketing to philosophy. Overall, an awesome talk.
- Always say "thank you." This is the very first thing that Kevin said (he first said "thank you" to our dean who introduced him, and then he told us to always say "thank you.") I immediately felt his humility and appreciation, and he earned my respect from the start. I'm reading Good to Great right now, and I can see now that Kevin is a perfect example of a Level 5 leader, combining total humility with unwavering desire for results.
- No Loser Talk. He said this was their philosophy at UA. They hate any talk that includes "in spite of the current economy" or "because of the current economy." He says that's total BS. Losers blame things on external factors; leaders take responsibility for mistakes and know that the burden is on them to adapt and change. This is like the mirror/window metaphor that Jim Collins writes about in Good to Great.
- "Protect this house. I will." He played us a number of their promotional videos and explained that "I will" is not a response to the request to "protect this house." It represents the power of the individual will and determination to make things happen. Don't depend on the right hire or some external factor to come save you.
- Passion, Vision, People. This was their cornerstone philosophy for success. They had a clear mission statement and a clear vision of where they wanted to go. Their current vision is simple: "build the biggest baddest brand in world."
Their outlook on life is "why NOT do that?" Instead of looking at obstacles and the economy, they think, "Why not us? Why can't we be the best brand in the world?"
- "You don't live at Travis's house." Like "No Loser Talk," this is another one of their philosophies (inspired by Kevin's dad). Even though others like "Travis" (his childhood neighbor) may have advantages and resources you don't have, you have to do great with what you have and not worry about what others have or are doing.
A corollary philosophy is "Make $1 spend like 3." This means exercising care with respect to marketing spend but always being up to date on new media.
- The 4 pillars of their strategy: Build a Great product, Tell a great story, Service the business, and Build a great team. Kevin told us how he started UA by just giving a stretchy cloth sample to a tailor to make shirts out of and giving those shirts out to athletes he knew for some basic customer testing.
They decided to go after a larger market and supplier instead of a small niche but they had a point of view. This was the critical factor Kevin discussed. Sometimes it makes sense to attack a niche, gain a foothold, and grow from there: it often makes sense to be a big fish in a small pond with respect to having power of your suppliers. But at other times, having a key big supplier get behind and support you can make all the difference, as it did for UA. The way Kevin managed to convince a large supplier to work with them was through their unique story and point of view.
In order to create a sense of uniqueness and differentiation, they decided to price their shirts at much higher prices. This distinguished their product as premium and created demand (he said their product also cost more to produce).
Kevin also recommended finding out if a product can sell before worrying about patents or attorneys' fees. Build your product, and get it to market quickly so you can get feedback from actual users.
In terms of strategy once the product is out, he urged to never use a defensive strategy, but a full-time offensive strategy. Sports metaphors aside, the key here is to continuously innovate and work to reinvent yourself and not take success for granted. Related to competition, Kevin said that others making your product validates your business and market and should be encouraging.
- Focus on your next moves. Crossing $1 billion in revenue was not a big deal for him; he was always focused on the next move. That's why he told us they "didn't pop a bottle of Dom Pérignon because they still weren't done." However, he did say that it's important to acknowledge your team and their hard work.
Their core attitude is that winning begets winning. They actually want each new product segment to be bigger than their previous segments. When they started women's athletic clothes, they at first failed miserably (with men having designed the products). They scrapped their initial ideas early on (writing off a lot of inventory and hard work) and quickly put the right team (of women) in place.
- "We have not yet built our defining product as a brand." This extreme philosophy of innovation is striking but also very exciting and motivating. For all the current employees, the here-and-now represents the forefront of where innovation is happening; they are more critical to the company's success than any prior employees. Now that's motivating.
Their goal is to define their product not by its logo but by its improved function and innovation.
Their main areas for growth are split between new product categories (e.g., footwear), new distribution channels (e.g., stores at the mall), and new geographies (e.g., Japan).
- UA success is really about culture. After watching Kevin speak, it shocked me how eerily similar the vibe was to Tony Hsieh's talk about Zappos. Whereas Tony explicitly spoke about the corporate culture being the key driver of Zappos' success, I feel that Kevin Plank implicitly communicated the same message. I realized this when Kevin told us how UA store associates ask incoming customers, "What do you want to be?" Their clothing fulfills their customers' sports dreams and identities (the light, airy, sweat-blocking qualities of the products are just means to an end). Also, just like Zappos, UA used a campaign of cool, fun videos to communicate its message and inspire almost a tribal passion for its brand. That was really cool to see, especially given my recent reading about culture and tribal leadership.