Total failure (the story of Under Armour)

Kevin Plank got kicked out of high school. Then he grew up, started Under Armour, and became a billionaire.

Hi. I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably, my new regularly published email about “the story behind other stories.”

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A few years back, when I was working on my book about Harvard Business School, I was surprised (naively, in retrospect) to find that alumni were falling all over each other to be featured in it.

So many people wanted to be profiled, in fact, that I came up with a series of standard weeding-out questions to ask.

I asked them to write to three people who knew them from different parts of their lives, for example—cc’ing me, and authorizing them to speak to me candidly about anything they wanted to know.

And, I asked them to describe for me an important time that they failed at something.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I asked the question, but I later realized that the best answers were the ones that seemed 100 percent honest—and that also demonstrated how their failures led to other opportunities.

Under Armour

With that preamble, let’s talk about Kevin Plank, the self-made billionaire and founder of Under Armour.

On Tuesday, his company announced he’ll be stepping down as CEO. He’s had a heck of a run, and his story is well know in entrepreneurial circles:

  • Chapter 1: Walks on to the football team at the University of Maryland in the early 1990s.

  • Chapter 2: Grows frustrated by how his uniform becomes sopped with sweat, and comes up with the idea for moisture-wicking shirts,

  • Chapter 3: Maxes out his credit cards, starts working from his grandmother's basement, and ultimately builds a publicly traded athletic company that’s as well-known as any brand on the planet.

There's another piece of the story that’s less well-known, however, and it has to do with a giant failure. It’s that long before any of this, Plank was basically kicked out of high school. 

"I was a knucklehead back then,” he told told Forbes, which reported he was forced to leave Georgetown Preparatory School after he “failed two classes and got into a drunken brawl with some Georgetown University football players.”

Fortunately for Plank, he found another high school, as the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail explained:

Nearby St. John's College High School accepted him, thanks to his ability to play football, and once there, he cleaned up his act.

Yet his pugnacious attitude stuck with him all through college (you need a certain amount of self-assuredness to walk on to a Division I football squad), and he eventually applied it to his company.

Never the end of the story

Plank graduated from St. John’s College High School at age 17. He hoped to play Division I college football, but he wasn’t getting recruited.

So, he spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy first, which is a prep school known for getting students into top college football programs.

As Sports Illustrated later pointed out, it was while at Fork Union Military Academy, playing with these elite athletes, that, "Plank made the contacts that, a few years later, would form the foundation of his customer base," when he started Under Armour.

It’s usually not exactly a mark of achievement to get kicked out of high school, of course.

But if Plank hadn’t been kicked out of Georgetown Prep, it’s likely he would not have wound up at Fork Union, playing alongside people like future Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Eddie George.

No matter what else you think of Plank and Under Armour, it’s a good reminder: Failure never has to be the end of the story.

As long as you can read this, you’re probably still writing yours.

Photo credit: University of Delaware Alumni Relations