Sara Blakely — Business & Life Lessons From a Self-Made Billionaire
In 2012, Forbes named Sara Blakely as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. Actually, after founding SPANX, Sara Blakely’s net worth is now more than $1 billion. As a self-made billionaire, there are obviously some business & life lessons you can take from her successful success story.
There are many paths to success in business, but the best journeys are authentic.
Sara Blakely launched her company with just $5,000 of personal savings, overcame numerous roadblocks, and stayed true to her personal values and product vision throughout. While it’s difficult to imagine the funny, vibrant, smart, and candid entrepreneur destined for anything but greatness, Sara Blakely’s journey wasn’t a straight shot. In fact, it is one founded in heartache and loss.
Sara Blakely had an unusual path to her renowned credit.
She 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 standup comedy, then sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years before she had the idea for SPANX.
Sara Blakely is a hugely impressive entrepreneur.
A curious and extroverted individual. And an incredibly committed and shrewd businesswoman. She has made a career out of thinking differently, and became one of the world’s youngest ever self-made female billionaires in the process. She’s a bit of an inspiration.
Below are Sara Blakely’s top business & life tips for starting your own business and live your life at its fullest, no matter what you have in mind as a purpose.
But, apart from being a successful businesswoman, Sara Blakely is also an incredibly insightful one too. And here, I want to share some of the business & life lessons from Sara Blakely that I have learned personally.
Rule #1 - Embrace Failure
Most of us don’t enjoy failing, even go to great lengths to avoid it. But the real failure lies in not trying. Instead of seeing failure as an outcome, try to view failure as evidence that you tried. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
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. Focusing on failing big allowed Sara Blakely 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. Failing big was a good thing.
Failure is often viewed as a negative. Next time you experience failure, don’t view it as a negative but as another opportunity to grow.
As we go through school, “failure” becomes unacceptable and a hindrance to our development, but in reality failure is an essential component to growth. Think of a child learning how to walk or talk. They try and fail, try and fail, try and succeed. It’s how we learn in life. Hopefully, Sara Blakely was taught at a young age to embrace a failure mindset and this type of thinking had a tremendous impact on her success.
Sara 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 on Instagram. Just because you are Captain of your ship doesn’t mean you have all the answers all the time, particularly during a crisis. Business leaders face a tremendous amount of challenges, many of which may seem insurmountable. But each leader has the power to decide how they handle things.
When building SPANX, she had no knowledge of manufacturing and no knowledge of the clothing industry.
However, with a real determination and a willingness to commit herself to finding out everything she needed to know, she put the company on a trajectory of growth. As Sara Blakely acknowledges, if she’d never acted, she’d have never made the improvements that her customers suggested. Every so-called failure would become a ground for a future improvement. The obstacle would become the way.
Rule #2 - Break The Mold
When Sara Blakely 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, 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.
Before SPANX, women found themselves wrestling with how to create a seamless illusion underneath their clothing. Blakely was beyond familiar with the frustrations of trying uncomfortable solutions to the problem of visible undergarments. While the concept of shape wear isn’t new, Sara realized just how out of touch the entire industry was with its target audience. Although her solution to this problem was simple, it was still a one-of-a-kind, innovative idea that solved a real problem.
Get curious. Be open to the possibility that your way could be a better way.
Ever sit listening in a meeting, hearing a talk, watching a video or talking with a friend and have a question you want answered? Ask it. Don’t worry about how you might come across, let your curiosity get the better of you. Sara urges us not only to ask questions but to really listen to the answers and be open to responses we might not expect. It’s all about working hard to stimulate your ideas, and eventually bring them to life.
When Sara Blakely talks about “white space,” she’s talking about an unexplored entrepreneurial arena.
White space represents a lack of solutions to a problem — a place where no product or great idea currently exists as an answer to a dilemma. To make sure there’s both a need and a white space for your product, you have to do some research. Ask around. Sara performed a sort of ad hoc focus group to address these queries, going from shop to shop and asking female sales associates what female customers wore under white pants to combat panty lines. She also asked the shop owners if they had anything in their stock that would address the issue of panty lines.
Sara Blakely has always been someone to come up with loads of ideas. She has always been a hugely prolific ideas-person.
However, one of the most important lessons from Sara Blakely I’ve learned is the importance of recording those ideas. This is crucial. Imagine a problem that you solve in your business. But you don’t record what you did and what led up to the problem. There’s no chance of you being able to prevent it happening again. If you record the solutions to the problems that you face, you won’t have to spend time considering them again in the future. And your staff will know what to be doing too.
Rule #3 - Never Stop Hustling
Sara Blakely spent two years trying to convince manufacturers to take a chance on her before a mill owner in North Carolina agreed to help her. He had been convinced by his daughters to take on this invention, which they told him would be a “goldmine.”
She didn’t let the word “no” deter her from pursuing her vision. She continued to push forward until she heard “yes.”
In 2000, The Oprah Winfrey Show shared Sara Blakely and SPANX with the world. During her interview, she told the talk show host that after a year of product development she almost gave up. In a last-ditch effort, she asked the universe for another sign to keep going. That day, she flipped on the television and Oprah was on, telling her audience she cuts the feet out of her pantyhose, especially when wearing sandals. She said after this, there was no turning back. She was making SPANX happen, despite the constant rejection she received.
In the beginning, SPANX was a one-woman operation and Sara was in charge of every department at her new company.
She was the packer and shipper. She was head of sales. Sara Blakely 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. Don’t stop yourself from pursuing an idea because you don’t think you have what it takes.
Sara Blakely trusted herself and the value and benefit her product brought to customers.
During her first big sale with a buyer from Neiman Marcus, she said the woman just wasn’t getting it. She didn’t understand why SPANX would sell. In true form, she halted the business meeting and told the buyer to follow her into the bathroom. The entrepreneur went into the bathroom stall, put on her pair of SPANX, and waited for the buyer’s reaction. Needless to say, her sales tactic was a success. The buyer was blown away by the difference SPANX made. Just like that, she instantly understood the power of her product.
She admits self-doubt was an issue for her in the early years, but every setback served as a lesson.
She says, “Resilience is like a muscle. The more you gut through challenges and not let them defeat you, the stronger your resilience will be.” Sara was determined to keep going and bring her dream to life; in spite of the initial “no” responses she first heard, she began to hear a chorus of “yes” from others who believed in her product as much as she did.
Rule #4 - Let Your Mind Wander
Sara Blakely 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.
In addition, one of the things that Sara Blakely makes really clear is about the importance of creativity in our day-to-day business lives.
Yet, one of Sara Blakely’s points is that you cannot be creative unless you have time to be creative. And we must know that when we are stressed, our creative functions diminish dramatically. What she suggests is to carve out space to think about new ideas. To work over problems and challenges creatively. To get space away from the everyday running of a business to mull over potential products — or anything else besides.
Give yourself some room to dream by putting yourself in a creative mindset.
Creating space for yourself to get away from the constant chaos of life is essential for pushing forward with your vision. Go someplace where you know you won’t be interrupted — your bedroom, somewhere in nature — and start by getting quiet. Spend a few minutes wiping your mind of other tasks and worries. Focus on creating a blank slate upon which to sketch some business ideas.
A common theme amongst the most accomplished people is they’re willing to bet on themselves. After all if you’re unwilling to bet on yourself, then who will bet on you?
Sara is one of those people who bet on themselves every time. Taking a realistic inventory of your own strengths and weaknesses is never easy but an essential component of taking the next step in your personal development. If you don’t know how you operate then how can you create a plan to help you maximize your talents? Opportunities only present themselves for those who are looking. Put in the work and stay on “high alert”.
Let’s face it: changing the way you think and act is a scary concept.
It would be a lot easier to plod along in the direction we are already heading. But Sara Blakely warns off embracing this comfort — it’s a killer of smarter thinking. Be brave, be bold, and be original. Using smarter thinking to find your big idea is one thing – and it’s a huge thing. Celebrate your success, congratulate yourself and enjoy the moment. But don’t kid yourself. Now you have your concept, a long road lies ahead. It’s time to get planning, get moving and get doing!
Rule #5 - Don't Take It Too Seriously
New employees at SPANX are required to do standup comedy as part of a training boot camp. It encourages them to feel less intimidated and to let go while embracing fun as part of the SPANX experience. In honor of that playfulness, when Sara Blakely first started SPANX, the packaging said, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your butt covered.”
She has continued to keep her company — and its products — lighthearted and fun.
A lot of people want to start big and think big and oftentimes get ahead of themselves. That can end wildly successful, but it can also cause a lot of problems. You hear of people all the time trying to come up with a business idea, something disconnected from who they are. At work, she is herself — and she has built a billion-dollar company with a culture that reflects her personality and motivation to help her customers. She isn’t trying to be anyone else or emulate the ‘qualities’ of what some view as a business person.
Besides, Sara Blakely advocates using humor to capture a potential client’s interest.
She has noted that even the name of her company makes people laugh. While you may not be cold-calling in your day-to-day life, using humor can break the ice in most conversations. It helps to put people at ease and bring down their defenses. Humor can also be a powerful leadership strategy. People attribute confidence to those who are brave enough to tell a joke.
Humor also lets us shed our barriers and walls.
Mark Twain famously said, he never let his schooling interfere with his education. Quentin Tarantino, when asked which film school did he graduate from, chuckled that he did not go to a film school, he just went to see the films. These are not just wise cracks. Our learning comes best we observe, reflect, and remind ourselves to be creatively objective and laugh our hearts out when we realize the mistakes and the bad judgments. It eases the pressure on yourself and the near and dear ones around you.
Having a good sense of humor demands from you to think “out-of-the-box” which is something goes without saying when you have a good sense of humor.
Life is not a straight line, it doesn’t come with instruction book. You have to invent yourself all the time. You have to think creativity. Develop your own style of humor: it will make you unique among the people you know, whether you’re applying for a job or just pitching you next project to an angel investor.
Not everyone is going to ask the universe what to invent and get a tidily packaged answer two years later, but Sara Blakely’s message is really about setting goals. No matter how lofty they may seem, actively setting a goal — speaking it to the universe, writing it down, mentioning it to friends and family who will hold you accountable — can subtly influence you to work towards that goal bit by bit each day.
Most of the reason we don’t do things is because we’re afraid to fail. If you believe in your idea 100%, don’t let anyone stop you!
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. Get out there and make the decision to go after what you want in life. Momentum breeds momentum.
The brand SPANX and the name Sara Blakely are renowned, few today wonder who founded SPANX.
Though she may sit atop a veritable empire now, Sara Blakely worked excruciatingly hard to get where she is. SPANX’s history is one of success, wit, and the entrepreneurial sprit. The creator of the SPANX story is similar to that of most entrepreneurs. It’s one with themes of pain, patience, passion, and a lot of hard work.
Ultimately, Sara Blakely found a problem that wasn’t addressed in her industry and owned it from top to bottom.
In doing so, she created a billion-dollar company in just 15 years and set an example that many women entrepreneurs have followed since. Her products, which have expanded to include women’s shape wear, maternity wear, leggings, and even a SPANX line for men, sell at department stores worldwide and are available to purchase in 60+ countries.
The moral of her story? Think like Sara Blakely when it comes to naming your next big idea.
How about you? What’s your view of “failure”? Do you encourage risk taking with your team? Do you have an “oops” moment that you might share with others? Let me know in the comments below!
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.