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Boot camp is in session for local entrepreneurs

Kevin Plank

Kevin Plank (File photo)

If Kevin Plank told you to raise your game, you’d do it.

That’s why the CEO of Baltimore-based Under Armour Inc. was the perfect person to lead the first session of Startup Maryland’s “Raise Your Game” boot camp, organizers said. The series, which invites early-stage entrepreneurs to learn the ins-and-outs of managing a company directly from experienced business leaders, kicked off Thursday evening at Betamore, the business incubator and co-working space in Federal Hill.

The session, which was generally focused on how to be a strong CEO, was introduced and moderated by Julie Lenzer Kirk and Mike Binko, co-chairs of Startup Maryland, a chapter of Startup America, a national organization that promotes entrepreneurship. The local group will hold five more monthly sessions through the end of this year on topics including how to run a virtual business and how to raise investor capital. All sessions will be led by other recognizable names in business.

Plank talked about why Baltimore was a great place to start a business and told the attendees they are responsible for launching the next wave of great companies in the region. But Plank didn’t sugarcoat his message; he told the crowd being an entrepreneur is often lonely, sometimes dangerous and always challenging — but that’s OK.

For startup companies, Plank said it’s crucial to zero in on — and perfect — one core product or service rather than go toe-to-toe with established companies in the same industry. Under Armour, for instance, started with one kind of T-shirt; it took years before the company branched out to offer other kinds of clothing and, more recently, footwear.

“I hate to break this to you,” he said. “But your competitors have hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Plank knows a thing or two about that many zeros. His presence at the boot camp was well-timed: Earlier on Thursday, Under Armour announced second-quarter net income of $17.6 million, or 16 cents per share— more than twice its earnings during the same period of last year and beating analysts’ estimates of 14 cents. The company expects to bring in between $2.23 billion and $2.25 billion in revenue this year.

Before Plank took over, Binko and Lenzer Kirk set a lighthearted tone for the evening by introducing Startup Maryland — which they said is the second-most active chapter in the country in terms of the number of startups — and their vision for cultivating a thriving business community in Baltimore.

“Startup Maryland is about you guys,” Lenzer Kirk told attendees. “It’s about what you need and what we can give you to be successful.”

Binko said the group wants to establish a dense, peer-driven community where entrepreneurs help each other work through challenges as they arise and keep one another on track.  Betamore, which opened in December and will host the entire boot camp, is an important cog in the overall ecosystem, he added.

Mike Brenner, one of Betamore’s three co-founders, then explained how the business incubator/co-working space works — it’s a for-profit enterprise that charges members a fee for using the space to develop their companies — and their future plans, such as launching “Betamore Academy” training sessions. Brenner envisions Betamore as a central hub for the tech community, describing the space with one of his go-to phrases: “It’s like a gym for entrepreneurs.”

(The analogy works, but it must be the most laid-back, well decorated gym you’ve ever been to. The walls are painted in punchy colors, eccentricities line the shelves and the expansive windows offer sweeping views of the city. For more about Betamore, see my coverage here and here, and a photo tour here.)

It felt more like walking into your buddy’s place at the beginning stages of a party than entering a business mentoring forum led by one of the area’s most well-known CEOs. Synth-pop tunes played at a just-right volume as the crowd of mostly twenty-somethings mingled around the snacks or settled onto a large sectional sofa. They even had the red cups and free beer.

Well, not technically free — event tickets were required. Three options are available: $175 for one session (the “Rookie” level); $300 for three sessions (Varsity); or $750 for all six (“Going Pro”). Attending at least five of the sessions also comes with membership into the “Raise your Game” alumni community, which organizers say is the most valuable aspect of Boot Camp.

Binko said when planning the boot camp, he asked entrepreneurs for input about what they thought was a fair price. Also, the sessions are cheaper than or comparable to other business training sessions.

Binko said organizers really wanted the sessions to be affordable for “bootstrap entrepreneurs” as well as their more deep-pocketed peers.

Still, it seems to me a steep price to pay for sitting on a couch and listening to someone tell stories. But of course, it wasn’t just “someone” Thursday — it was Kevin Plank, a guy many of the attendees likely aspire to be, or at least someone they respect. And his anecdotes seemed to really hit home for many people in the room.

Kevin Plank

Kevin Plank speaks at the Startup Maryland event. (Alissa Gulin/The Daily Record)

Some of Plank’s stories were about the low points, the hardships he faced as a recent college grad and new CEO in way over his head. Like the time he sat in his car at a Delaware tool booth, too broke to pay the $2 toll, humiliated at the line of honking cars behind him and wondering whether his decision to manufacture T-shirts had been horribly misguided. Or the time he lie awake questioning whether he had been right to refuse a request from the Miami Dolphins for free shirts, which would be worn on national TV.

Both decisions were right — Under Armour has become a force to be reckoned with in the athletic apparel market, and the Dolphins official eventually called back to cough up the cash.

Those stories crystallized one of Plank’s overarching messages: that entrepreneurs need supreme confidence in their product or service, and in their own ability to deliver quality.

One of Under Armour’s slogans is “I Will,” which at first was unveiled as the reply to the company’s more well-known catchphrase: “Protect This House.” But “I Will” is more than that, Plank said. It represents his overall attitude toward setting goals, ignoring “the haters,” and striving for excellence.

“You’ll be defined by your conviction,” he told the crowd.

One comment

  1. This story inspires me