Start Small, Think Big, Scale Fast
Sara Blakely grew up in Clearwater, Florida, and wanted to be a lawyer like her father. She did well in school but was a terrible test-taker and scored poorly on the LSAT multiple times. Instead, she tried stand-up comedy, then sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years before she had the idea for Spanx. With no business degree, she launched Spanx in 2000 with $5,000 in her savings account and took no outside investments; today she still owns 100% of the company. In 2006, she founded the Sara Blakely Foundation to invest in women by supporting organizations in education, entrepreneurship, and the arts.
Spanx has solved the wardrobe woes of women around the world by designing bras, underwear, leggings, and other intimate apparel in a way that has changed the way women feel about their bodies.
When Oprah Winfrey named Spanx a “Favorite Thing” back in 2000, it resulted in a significant rise in popularity and sales. Since then, Blakely herself has significantly risen in popularity and wealth, with a net worth of $1.1 billion, according to Forbes.
Anyone who’s heard Sara’s story knows it’s exhilarating and motivating, but to see her live brings a new dimension to her story. She’s fresh, exuberant, funny and completely passionate about helping women feel and look their best, and about reforming all of the misguided trends that have kept in women in painful and ill-fitting undergarments over the last 50 years.
She’s been flashed at concerts, cocktail parties and even the White House. (Blakely’s keeping mum about who the D.C. flasher was, but it’s worth noting that at a speech Blakely attended there, Michelle Obama hinted at the fact that she wears Spanx.)
Almost every entrepreneur in the U.S. knows the story of how Spanx started. The idea came about in 1998, when Blakely wanted to eliminate panty lines showing through her cream-colored slacks. She cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose and wore the cropped hose underneath her pants to smooth out the lines. Thus, Spanx was born.
Practicality is kind of her thing. Blakely readily admits that she wasn’t the first woman to cut the feet off her pantyhose and wear them under her form-fitting clothes. But for Blakely, it was her aha moment, the big idea she had been waiting for. She determined in that instant to make a prototype and put it into production.
Interestingly, the Florida State grad, who has never taken a single business class, didn’t initially tell anyone what she was up to. She worked on her idea at night and on weekends, often skipping dinners, parties and other fun events to research patents and visit clothing manufacturers.
Her friends and family knew she was working on something; they just didn’t know what it was. “They’d just say, ‘Sara’s working on some crazy idea,’ ” Blakely says.
She kept the project secret for a year. Blakely toiled until she was satisfied that she had invested enough time and done enough homework to share her idea with friends and family. Her hesitancy to reveal her idea wasn’t for fear of its being stolen; she didn’t feel the need to tell people just to get the validation.
Her friends and family laughed when they found out the idea Sara had been pursuing for more than a year. And the mill owners she pursued to make a Spanx prototype thought it was a waste of their time. But Sara persevered and taught the world something new.
Ironically, despite earning Gold Medallion status on Delta Airlines, Blakely hates flying. That and public speaking. But those are frequent job requirements for the owner of a global brand with $400 million in estimated annual sales. To reach that level, to be named the youngest self-made woman on Forbes’ billionaire list in 2012, Blakely had to address her share of personal obstacles.
The Success Formula
How can I make this better? This question has fueled innovation and given birth to countless great ideas throughout human history. When Henry Ford invented the assembly line, making the automobile accessible to average Americans, he did so only after asking himself how he could improve on the existing models of car manufacturing.
When Sara Blakely invented Spanx undergarments, she did so after asking herself how she could create an undergarment that helped women feel more confident in the clothes they were wearing.
In addition to her innovative mind, Blakely’s willingness to embrace failure and her unconventional approach to entrepreneurship are what helped to turn Spanx into a household name and a multimillion-dollar company.
What are her non-conventional lessons that fly in the face of all the best business school advice we received from the business pundits and gurus?
1. Fail Big
Sara’s beloved father followed Wayne Dyer’s guidance in teaching his children the power of failing big. Each day, her father would ask – “So, what did you fail at today.” And if there were no failures, Dad would be disappointed.
And this freedom to fail is what inspired her to try stand-up comedy in her twenties, a skill she later found useful when she was trying to explain the Spanx concept to potential buyers. Blakely credits her views on failure for her ability to stay in the sales world for so long despite constant rejection.
But failure also taught Blakely about mitigating risk. As much as she hated selling fax machines, she didn’t quit her day job until long after Spanx had made its first big sale. And that first big sale only came about because she threw the rulebook out the window and dared to be different.
Focusing on failing big allowed Sara to understand that failure is not an outcome, but involves a lack of trying — not stretching yourself far enough out of your comfort zone and attempting to be more than you were the day before.
A key tenet of Blakely’s leadership style is admitting to her mistakes and giving her employees room to do the same. She even schedules “oops meetings” at Spanx where employees stand up and say how they messed up or a mistake they made, usually turning it into a funny story. Failing big was a good thing!
2. Visualize It
Sara is a big fan of “visualizing” your big goal, in specific, concrete ways. She saw herself clearly on the Oprah TV show 15 years before it happened. She simply knew it would happen. She’d see in her mind’s eye sitting on the couch with Oprah having an exciting conversation, and wondered, “What are we talking about?” The rest was just “filling in the blanks” to get there.
While money is a great motivator to invent something incredible, monetary incentives were not necessarily what pushed Blakely to be the best. Years ago on that piece of paper in her journal, she had written that she wanted to create a product that people wanted to buy.
Blakely says it is this underlying purpose that continually fuels her to make Spanx the best it can possibly be. Whereas many entrepreneurs build up a company only to sell it a few years later, Blakely still owns 100 percent of Spanx.
Negative self-talk is a very real thing–and a very self-limiting thing holding people back. How bad is it, exactly? In 2005, the National Science Foundation published an article about research that found that the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. The alarming part? Eighty percent of those thoughts are negative and fear-based!
3. Don’t share your fragile idea with the world too soon
Sara explains that ideas are vulnerable, fragile things. Wait until you’re completely read to move forward before you share it with people. Meaning well, they’ll shoot it down, offering all the reasons why it won’t work. But when they do, you’ll be ready to deal with it.
Blakely is no stranger to vulnerability. In addition to admitting to her mistakes, she’s open about her process with her customers and shares intimate details about her life as a wife and mother of four on Instagram.
When she started Spanx, instead of talking at her customer, she wanted to talk to them. she felt other companies were like, ‘We need to be perfect, and you need to see us as the authority. That’s how we’re going to sell you a product.’ They weren’t really talking to her, and she didn’t necessarily trust them. Instead, she made herself vulnerable. She was like, ‘Hey, I’m one of you. Here’s what it does for me. This is why it works.’ She used her own butt in the before and after picture. And she felt like customers became really connected and loyal.
She called the offices of important buyers over and over again. She never left messages, but she would call until an assistant answered the phone. At this point, she would always say something sensational like, “I have an idea that is going to change the way your customers wear clothes.” Eventually, after offering to fly to Dallas if she could get ten minutes to present her idea, a buyer for Neiman Marcus agreed to meet with Blakely.
4. Hire people you like and trust
Sara hired a head of Product Development and a PR director who had been friends and supporters from the beginning. Neither knew anything about the functional areas they were hired to oversee, but Sara trusted they’d be fabulous at their new roles, and they were.
She also suggests “hiring your weaknesses” as soon as you can afford to.
At Spanx, new employees go through a training boot camp, and one of the mandatory activities is doing standup comedy. Blakely does this because it helps employees let go of their fears, loosen up, and use humor when selling Spanx products.
5. Don't Underestimate Hard Work
In the beginning, Spanx was a one-woman operation and Blakely was in charge of every department at her new company. She was the packer and shipper. She was head of sales. She wrote her own patent to save on legal fees.
Sara knew absolutely nothing about women’s undergarments, patenting a new product, manufacturing, marketing, product development, website development, online commerce, and more. But that didn’t stop her. She researched what she needed to, hired out what she couldn’t do, and marched forward with undying commitment and energy.
Sara worked tirelessly from her apartment creating her product, avoiding investing in outside office space or other marketing and business tools until the product had taken off. She didn’t have a formal website until she made it on the Oprah show and needed one. Anything that wasn’t essential to building the product and getting the name out there simply wasn’t a priority.
Don’t stop yourself from pursuing an idea because you don’t think you have what it takes.
Breaking the mold is a good thing. When Sara began to research undergarments for women and how they’d been made for the last 50 years, she was astonished. From the absurd sizing protocols, to how products were tested (on manikins not real people), Sara saw that the undergarment industry needed a female perspective – insights from a real woman wearing these items to shape the product development direction so the products were useful, effective, and as comfortable as possible. She broke the mold, and developed a completely new approach to developing women’s undergarments.
6. Break The Rules
Blakely has never asked permission to do things her own way. She heard “no” for two years from manufacturers before getting her first Spanx product made. She also didn’t like how masculine the traditional business environment felt, so she turned tradition on its head.
In every conversation she had with potential manufacturers, she was asked three questions:
1) Who are you?
2) Who are you with?
3) Who is backing you?
When the answers to these three questions remained, “Sara Blakely,” no one wanted to take a chance on her, until one manufacturer called her back and said “OK.” Why? Because he had gone home and told his daughters about the idea, and they said, “It’s brilliant!”.
Another time, when her product wasn’t in a visible space at Neiman Marcus, she took matters into her own hands. The product was back in the corner and nobody was going there. She immediately went and bought envelope dividers, put Spanx in them, and ran around Neiman Marcus and put them at every register. By the time somebody figured out that nobody else had approved it — because everybody thought somebody else approved it — it was so successful that the head of Neiman’s said, ‘Whatever this girl’s doing, let her keep doing it.’”
Later, speaking to college friends and even friends she hadn’t seen since the fourth grade, she told them that if they would go to Neiman Marcus and buy a pair Spanx, she would send them a check reimbursing them for the cost. This unconventional plan worked wonders. Store reps were calling Blakely stunned that Spanx were flying off the shelves.
The Oprah Factor: Spanx has never spent a dollar on advertising. It hasn’t needed to. In 2000, two years after Blakely first snipped those pantyhose, she sold her product to her first buyer, Neiman Marcus. When the inaugural batch of Spanx arrived from the manufacturer, Blakely sent some to Winfrey, whose stylist suggested the Queen of Daytime TV try them on. It was Blakely’s big break. Winfrey chose them as her product of the year for her popular “Favorite Things” episode. Other celebrities also have helped catapult the brand. Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and dozens more have been spotted with Spanx peeking from under their designer fashions.
Sara Blakely came up with the idea for Spanx by thinking differently about hosiery, and she continues to generate ideas for new products, more recently a fitted men’s undershirt and Spanx Arm Tights to wear under shirts and dresses.
What started as a simple idea to cut the feet off of pantyhose has now turned into a product that brings in an average of $400 million each year, proving that, if you have the right attitude, you can transcend your current situation and create something truly amazing. All you need is creativity, a willingness to embrace failure, and the courage to do things in your own way.
Above all, Blakely wants to empower women and reinforce the message that they are beautiful in all forms.
In the end, Sara Blakely’s story shows us what’s possible when we believe, when we’re resourceful beyond measure, and when our passion and commitment to something outside ourselves brings us to a calling.
What are you most afraid of failing at? Will you get in the cage with your fears and take a step toward your dream today?