10 Self-Made Things Spanx Founder Sara Blakely Did to Become a Billionaire
NPR recently released an audio interview that Guy Raz conducted with self-made billionaire Sara Blakely as part of their new “How I Built This” innovation podcast series. Sara is the founder of Spanx, an intimate apparel company that became popular through its hero product: an undergarment that trims lines and bulges under clothing. She still owns 100% stake in her business, which earns more than $250 million in sales annually. Here are the ten ways that Sara used her tenacity, optimism and dedication to build a successful company from scratch – like a true BAUCE.
1. She took a leap of faith.
After failing the LSATs twice, Sara took a job as a ride greeter at Disney World and then began selling fax machines door-to-door. It was after several rejections and during the most unfulfilling point of her life that Sara realized she was destined to do something more meaningful.
“I would feel very defeated and many times I would get in my car and drive around the block multiple times just trying to convince myself to walk through the door. I stumbled my way through it…. When I was selling fax machines door to door I kept feeling like ‘I’m in the wrong movie’, ‘Where’s the director?’, ‘Where’s the producer?’ ‘This is not my movie!’ I was really determined to create a better life for myself.”
2. She stacked her coins.
Sara wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she didn’t allow the lack of a trust fund to keep her from becoming a business mogul.
“I had set aside $5,000 in savings from selling fax machines door-to-door and that’s what I started Spanx with. The first thing I started doing was to research if the idea existed and I went to the Georgia Tech library in Atlanta every night after work for a week and a half researching every pantyhose patent that ever existed.”
3. She didn’t let her haters or doubters get to her.
Confidence was key for Sara to not doubt herself and to continue pushing past rejection with her idea. For that reason, she made a definitive decision to not let too many people’s opinions distract her growth and vision.
“When I came up with the idea, I kept it a secret for one year. I did share my idea with people like manufacturers, lawyers, or people I thought could help me bring my product to life. But I was very careful right away, it was just a gut feeling I had to keep it to myself because I believe ideas are the most vulnerable in their infancy and its instinct to turn to your right or left in that moment and tell a friend or tell your husband. When you do that instantly ego is invited into the mix and then you spend all your time defending it, explaining it and not pursuing it. So I needed to be at the place where I knew I wouldn’t turn back no matter what I heard. “
“I’d invested enough of my time and I had enough sweat equity into the idea that I told people and the thing I heard was ‘Well, honey, if it’s such a good idea why hasn’t somebody else already done it?’… that was all coming from a place of love but I feel like if I had heard that the night I cut the feet out of my pantyhose I would still be selling fax machines.”
4. She didn’t allow her lack of knowledge to stop her.
Sara knew nothing about the industry she was venturing into but still remained optimistic as she worked on her invention and through her weaknesses. Instead of allowing lack of knowledge to force her to give up on her idea, she acknowledged her faults and used those moments to find experts that could guide her.
“I’ve never sewn, I have never taken a business class in my life, I didn’t have anybody in the industry or even know anybody who worked in fashion or retail. What happened is that when I came up with the idea I just started taking other pantyhose and went to Hancock Fabrics down the street and all these different arts and crafts stores and just started trying to paperclip different pieces of elastic to the bottom and different pieces of lace. Obviously I didn’t get very far and my idea needed to be made on a machine. I really needed a manufacturer to give me the time of day to see if I could even make the prototype.”
5. She taught herself what she didn’t know.
Sara knew that there were several legal and business steps that would make it necessary for her to sell her new invention. And when she needed to find a patent attorney in Georgia and kept getting quoted super high prices to help, she took matters into her own hands.
“They all quoted me between $3000 to $5000 to patent it so i decided to write it myself. I went to Barnes & Noble on Peachtree in Atlanta and bought a book called “Patents and Trademarks” and I wrote the patent and my mom’s an artist so I asked her if she would sketch me in the prototype for the patent…. I went back to the one lawyer who gave me a little bit more time of day than the other ones and I said, ‘Listen…I have written my own patent, I have done all of the work except for the claims…that is the part I am not trained for…please I need your expertise. Is there any way you can do it for a discounted price? He was blown away.”
6. She kept her day job until she knew her idea was profitable.
Sara knew she was on to something when big retailers started showing interest but she didn’t jump the gun until she started making the right amount of sales. She continued working at her sales job while developing the Spanx business.
“I needed the money coming in and the health insurance and all the things that come with that so I was working on my idea at night and on the weekends.”
7. She never took no for an answer.
Sara was met with a lot of reservation and push back from her idea but remained bold and steadfast about building a huge apparel brand for women. She literally made cold calls and remained persistent to get the answers that she wanted.
“My very first account that I called on was Neiman Marcus. I called them! I went in the Yellow Pages and I looked up the Neiman Marcus number in Atlanta and said, ‘Hi, I’m Sara. I invented a product — can I come show it to you?’ And the lady laughed and said, ‘Uh, ma’am, we have a buying office and it’s in Dallas.’ I said, ‘Oh well what’s their number?’ She gave me their number and I started calling them and I kept calling and trying to get to the hosiery buyer and I called for days at different times and she answered the phone and I took my shot and said, ‘Hi, I’m Sara Blakely and I invented a product that’s going to change the way your customers wear clothes and if you give me a few minutes of your time, I’ll fly to Dallas and show you.’ And she said, ‘If you’re willing to fly here, I’ll give you ten minutes of my time.”
8. She remained authentic and unconventional.
Throughout the entire process of inventing her product and selling, Sara remained true to herself. She didn’t pretend to be someone she wasn’t – and that optimism took her a long way.
“I jumped on a plane and I flew to Dallas. I was in the meeting with [the buyer] and she was this beautiful woman — impeccably dressed. I’m at the Neiman Marcus headquarters, I have a Ziploc bag from my kitchen with a prototype in it, a color copy of the packaging that I had created on my friend’s computer, and my lucky red backpack from college that all of my friends begged me not to bring. They said, ‘Sara you cannot go to the Neiman Marcus headquarters with that red east Pac old dingy backpack!’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s my good luck charm — I have to!’”
9. She didn’t allow her first win to be her last.
After luring the hosiery buyer at Neiman Marcus into a bathroom to sell her on the idea of Spanx, she sealed the deal at Neiman Marcus. But she didn’t simply rest on her laurels after landing a huge client. She knew she was in the big league, but she didn’t start telling herself that she “made it” quite yet.
“Oh my gosh — that’s the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make! That is when the work begins!”
10. She was confident and didn’t allow the fear of failure to stop her.
Even though she dealt with tons of rejection, Sara knew the market needed her product and never believed that her business would fail. She kept her eye on the prize and remained committed to her mission.
“I was always nervous but I was always so connected to the product. I was so creating this before it happened when I was selling fax machines door to door. I was thinking about it, I was writing about it, I was visualizing it, I was preparing for it. I thought, you know, I don’t have the most money, I don’t have a business degree, I have no idea what I’m doing in manufacturing or retail. But I do care the most so let’s see what happens.”
Take a listen to the full interview below!