Sporting pedigree

The global sportswear market is big business – an estimated US$270 billion big according to recent research by Morgan Stanley. Not suprisingly, Nike dominates in the US, and abroad. Spurred by strong sales across most categories and geographies, the company’s annual revenues reached US$30.6 billion in the fiscal year ending 31 May 2015.

But the playing field is changing. Last year, Under Armour overtook adidas as the number two sportswear brand in America. Quite remarkable considering Under Armour's relative youth.

I’ve been watching Under Armour’s growth for a number of years. When we started Gimono, the concept of performance fightwear didn’t really exist but Under Armour had defined and created the broader category of performance apparel a few years earlier, so it became our bellwether.

Kevin Plank, the company’s founder and chief executive, started Under Armour with a simple idea: to make a moisture-wicking t-shirt. His experience as a former University of Maryland football player had taught him that sweaty cotton t-shirts impacted athletic performance. So he went about designing a better alternative.

Today, driven by its mission ‘to make all athletes better through passion, design, and the relentless pursuit of innovation’, Under Armour generates annual revenues of almost US$5 billion and has a market cap of around US$17.5 billion. It may not be biting at Nike’s heels just yet, but is showing signs of having what it takes to do so. 

What fascinates me about the Under Armour backstory is not that an entrepreneurial sportsperson with a good idea has built a great business. It’s that the story itself is so similar to the one behind almost every successful sportswear brand in the world. Most are borne of a desire to improve athletic performance in some way or form and are founded by an athlete or two with the passion to find a better way through innovation.

In Nike’s case, founder and track coach Bill Bowerman’s quest was to develop a lighter, more durable running shoe. A born tinkerer, Bowerman used his spare time to experiment and prototype different shoe designs, eventually inventing the now famous ‘waffle trainer’.

For adidas, it was Adi Dassler’s desire to give athletes the ‘best possible equipment’ for their respective disciplines that drove major early innovations, such as football boots with screw-in studs, and runner’s shoes with spikes.

More recently, Australian compression brand 2XU was started by three athletes who recognised that clothing designed to compress parts of the body could improve the blood-flow, performance and recuperation of athletes.

We don’t play in the same league as the examples I’ve cited, but the founding principles behind Gimono aren’t all that different.

We started with an idea to design and make a breathable, lightweight alternative to the heavy cotton uniforms (gi) traditionally worn in judo, jiu jitsu, karate, and other martial arts. Just like Kevin Plank, we knew all the pain points and drawbacks of cotton, and went on a mission to solve them. We did it by developing a proprietary, high-tech performance textile made from a merino-polyester blend.

When we launched, plenty of people were skeptical about the idea of a gi made from anything other than cotton. But we’ve been able to prove otherwise. At a third of the weight of a double-weave cotton and around 20 times more breathable, Gimono gi are now being worn by practitioners all over the world.

We still have a way to go, though. International competition rules for judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu still stipulate that contestants must wear uniforms made from cotton or cotton-like fabrics. Meanwhile, athletes in almost every other sport in the world have embraced performance apparel and gear. 

Over time, we hope and expect the prevailing mentality in the more traditional martial arts will change. For now, we'll continue to challenge the status quo.

In a 2010 interview with Entrepreneur, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said: “I think entrepreneurs are like juvenile delinquents who say, ‘This sucks. I'll do it my own way.’ I'm an innovator because I see things and think I can make it better. So I try it. That's what entrepreneurs do.”

I think that sums it up well. There is a certain amount of comfort that comes from knowing we are not freaks of nature to have embarked upon this entrepreneurial journey. We saw a problem with the old way, so we went and developed a new way.

Only time will tell whether we got it right.