In this edition of Business Class, Savoir Flair profiles Sara Blakely, the founder and owner of Spanx, who took the relatively simple idea of footless pantyhose and turned it into a USD 1 billion business. As the youngest self-made female billionaire on the Forbes Rich List, it’s common to hear Blakely referred to as a personification of the American Dream, which is no wonder considering the fact that the entrepreneurially minded Blakely turned USD 5,000 of savings into an internationally recognized brand selling over 200 products. Today, the company offers everything from slimming apparel and swimsuits to bras and men’s undershirts. So what’s the secret to her success?
In this incredibly rare interview, Sara Blakely opens up about her billion-dollar idea, the importance of failure, and how she revolutionized women’s undergarments.
How did you come up with the idea for Spanx?
The idea for Spanx popped into my head when I found a solution to a wardrobe woe. I wanted to wear white pants without a VPL (visible panty line) and unsightly bumps, so one night I cut the feet from my pantyhose, tried them on under my white pants, and ta-da! Spanx was born!
How did you create a business out of that idea?
I had never attended business school or fashion classes, but I had determination and a belief that, if I benefited from this product, other women would too. I continued with my job of selling fax machines door to door and spent my nights researching patents and ways to produce my invention. After obtaining a patent, I spent tireless hours cold-calling vendors and requesting ten minutes of their time to show them my product. Three weeks after a rather unorthodox buying appointment at Neiman Marcus, in which I physically tried on the prototype in the restroom for the buyer, my products were stocked on their shelves. Oprah later named the product one of her “favorite things” and the word was out: Spanx were women’s new best friend!
What was the biggest obstacle you faced when starting your business?
The biggest obstacle was getting people to believe in and understand the product in the beginning. This product was the first of its kind for women, so a lot of men at the hosiery factories, law firms, and buying departments weren’t able to comprehend its use. It was only a matter of time before the smart women in their lives passed along their approval and excitement regarding the product.
What’s the best piece of business advice you ever received?
To only share my idea with those people that can make it happen. If you have an idea that’s in its infant stage, it can be very fragile, and negative feedback can deter you from pursuing it actively. Family and friends may often express concerns or fears out of love. Surrounding yourself with likeminded people who can help your idea take flight is key!
My dad always preached that if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.
I once read that your Dad used to ask you every night over dinner what you had failed at that day.
My dad always preached that if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. Before I created Spanx, I forced myself to take part in stand-up comedy. I may not have been the next Jerry Seinfeld, but it taught me the importance of capturing an audience’s attention and keeping it. That skill was vital during my first few meetings with skeptical buyers who were unaware of the powers of Spanx.
What advice would you offer to business-minded women who are trying to set up a company?
What you don’t know can be your biggest asset, so trust your gut and use resources around you to explore opportunities. Through experience and practice, your gut can be a powerful tool in decision-making!
What qualities do you look for when hiring new employees?
We’re always looking for bright, intelligent women and men who can work hard and laugh at themselves. We surround ourselves with a product that’s fun and functional, so we look for people who reflect that spirit in the work force.
What are your goals for Spanx?
Ever since the very first pair of Spanx was created, I’ve been on a mission to make women everywhere look and feel great about themselves. We are constantly growing at Spanx and are pleased to offer products at all price points so women all around the world of all shapes and sizes can look and feel their best. Through this growth, we’ve maintained our motto of “keeping your butts covered,” which will consistently ring true to our brand.