“Believe in yourself and don’t take no for an answer.” Those are the words of the world’s newest, and also youngest, self made woman billionaire. At age 41 Sara Blakely suddenly finds herself in a very exclusive club and is still in awe at the way her life has changed from her average middle class life growing up in Clearwater, Florida. While hers sounds like a true rags-to-riches story, the background goes a little deeper. Always an achiever in school, she was active on the high school debate team and was also a cheerleader. And she and her brother learned the power of failure early on from her father who encouraged them to try new things so they’d get used to failure and wouldn’t be afraid of it. She says her father used to ask them when they came home from school, “What did you fail at today?” Sara credits her father’s persistence in pushing her and her brother as an important building block in her drive for success.
From Concept to Reality
She never set out to invent anything, and the idea for Spanx came from sheer frustration after she had worn an expensive new pair of white pants out one night. The pants were fitting a little snug, and to eliminate visible panty lines she put on pantyhose and cut out the feet so she could wear them with open toed shoes. The idea worked fine except that the pantyhose kept rolling up her leg all night. Suddenly she realized she’d uncovered a big problem that faced women everywhere, and she was immediately determined to find a solution, as she stated “I’ve got to figure out a way to make this.”
After her job transferred her to Atlanta, she decided to take her entire savings of $5000 and give it a go, and over the next two years she continued to work her day job selling fax machines, while spending nights and weekends secretly working on a solution to the footless pantyhose problem. She didn’t even tell her friends and family about it for the first year, quietly sketching designs, sewing mockups, and even studying fabrics with different weaves and blends which would look and feel natural while eliminating perspiration. Even though she had no experience in fashion or retail, she plodded along, reading up on every hosiery patent ever issued. She saved $3000 by writing her own patent with the help of a how-to book. She borrowed a friend’s computer and designed the logo herself, settling on a cherry red color with a cartoon ponytailed blonde girl as the graphic. And she settled on the name Spanx because having done open mike standup comedy, she knew crowds laughed more often at the sound of the letter “K”. Spanx would bring a smile to faces and make women remember it. It worked.
The Oprah Effect
After two years in development, she was ready to begin calling hosiery plants to get a first run made, only to repeatedly be told no. Not to be deterred, she began making cold calls in person with no appointment, again with no success. Then surprisingly, the manager of the Highland Mills hosiery factory in North Carolina called her back after initially refusing her and offered to take her project, ostensibly because his daughters had convinced him of the need for her product. After signing with Neiman Marcus as her first customer, the orders started coming in, with her doing her own shipping from her kitchen table after coming home from work at night. Then she got the idea to ship a box of Spanx to Oprah Winfrey’s hair stylist Andre Walker with a letter telling her backstory. Before she knew it, Oprah called, Sarah quit her day job, and two weeks later she appeared on Oprah’s show with Spanx featured as Oprah’s best new product of the year in 2000. Within 10 days over 30,000 orders were received. Sara says that was the turning point, and credits Oprah for the launch of Spanx. That first year Spanx did $4 million and the next year sales rose to $10 million. At age 29 she was suddenly a millionaire, but the party had just begun.
Spanx Grows Huge
Not one to rest on her laurels, the product line has expanded over the years and there’s now even a line for men, with swimwear and sportswear in the works. Spanx runs an amazing 20% net margin on gross revenues, now above $250 million per year. The Spanx brand has grown to over 200 products sold in 11,500 stores in 40 countries around the world. She retains 100% ownership and the company has no debt. And astoundingly, she’s never spent anything for advertising. And Sara says she’s just beginning. On becoming rich, she says that money really doesn’t change a person, it merely makes life more fun. She says, ““If you’re an asshole, you become a bigger asshole. If you’re nice, you become nicer. Money is fun to make, fun to spend and fun to give away.” And she has indeed been philanthropic, giving over $17.5 million to charity since beginning her nonprofit foundation, largely to organizations that empower women and children.
Sara’s Five Tips For Success
- Visualize your future. Write down your goals and visualize your success.
- Don’t take no for an answer. Believe in yourself. You only need one yes.
- Don’t ask for validation from friends and family. Out of concern, they may tell you all the reasons your idea won’t work. Only listen to people who want to help build on your idea.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Hire smart people to do the things you aren’t good at.
- Never stop evolving. Keep changing and growing your idea. Spanx has over 200 products.
As one of only three self made woman billionaires in the United States (along with Oprah at $2.7B and Meg Whitman of eBay at $1.3B), Sara Blakely is an inspiration for women and men everywhere who have a dream. That $5000 was a pretty good investment. Does it encourage you to pursue your secret project?