At South by Southwest Interactive on Monday, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank recalled crying at a tollbooth about 10 years ago while trying to explain to the attendant that he didn't have the $2 he needed to drive through. Considering how his company—which was a fledgling T-shirt startup at the time—is now looking to rival everyone from Nike to Apple, the anecdote served as inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs watching his SXSW keynote.
"How embarrassed I was," Plank said. "I didn't know where I was going to get my next tank of gas."
But soon thereafter, he said, a $7,000 check came in from Georgia Tech that provided a life raft for his Baltimore-based business. Under Armour has since sold millions upon millions of pairs of athletic shoes and other gear and is now looking to become a wearables tech company. But with Nike recently folding FuelBand—a nod to the Apple Watch's health-monitoring prowess—why does Under Armour want to compete with the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook for expensive engineering talent?
"Our belief is data is the new oil," Plank said. "I think the companies that will win are using math."
Indeed, data is a major reason Plank also predicted that his company's revenues would go from roughly $4 billion today to $7.5 billion by 2018. He pointed to the 2013 acquisition of MapMyFitness, an Austin, Texas-based startup that's been the bedrock of growing a mobile audience of 140 million users for the company's fitness apps including MapMyFitness, UA Record, Endomondo and MyFitnessPal.
"I believe the companies that will make it are somehow finding a way to find and curate data," Plank said. He later highlighted several things Under Armour's app user data reveals, including that "we can tell you the walking trend in Australia."
Under Armour's engineering staff has gone from 20 to more than 500, including 350 app developers, in less than three years, according to Plank. The company's fitness-based mobile initiatives are attracting "1 million [new] people to the platform every eight days now."
More than anything, Plank credited internal company core beliefs and mottos—such as "culture eats strategy for breakfast"—as central to the exponential growth of the company, which is now attracting notable endorsers like NBA great Stephen Curry, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and ballet dancer Misty Copeland.
Fast Company editor in chief Bob Safian, who interviewed Plank in front of more than 1,000 people at the Austin Convention Center, asked him what kind of company he wants Under Armour to be.
"I do like being defined as a performance company because I think it is completely unlimiting," Plank said.
Whatever the brand is, it's definitely putting gas in the tank nowadays.