Sara Blakely

Founder of Spanx

Sara Blakely: How a Pair of Tights Became a Billion-Dollar Industry

When you hear the word ‘inventor,’ who do you think of? Many think of Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, but few imagine Sara Blakely, the brain behind many women’s best-kept secret.  

Sara Blakely’s success in the $5 billion women’s shapewear market is remarkable. And to think, it all began with failing the LSAT.

In 1997, Blakely was just a college student with dreams of becoming a lawyer, but these dreams were squashed when she failed the LSAT.

Blakely worked odd jobs, including a short stint at Disney World in Orlando, until she accepted a job as a door-to-door salesperson for a fax machine company. Sales proved to be Blakely’s strength, and she was promoted quickly through the firm.

Despite her success, the role posed a big problem. Blakely says, “It’s Florida. It’s hot, and I was carrying fax machines.” Her pantyhose and professional skirt didn’t fare well in the humid weather.

She bought a pair of nice slacks for a party one night in 1998 and had an idea. “I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath. But they rolled up my legs all night. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make this.’ I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist.”

That was her ‘aha’ moment. She “knew this was something women needed.”

Blakely relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. For the two years that followed, she invested $5,000 in savings and hundreds of hours into developing her idea.

Blakely presented her plan to hundreds of hosiery mills around North Carolina, but no one took her seriously. She says, “I'd get kicked out of buildings all day long, people would rip up my business card in my face. It's a humbling business to be in. But I knew I could sell, and wanted to sell something I had created.”

Blakely’s success lies in her perseverance and salesmanship. She says, “My training in cold-calling and everyone under the sun telling me no, and my keeping going, was a huge part of the first two years of Spanx.”

Shortly after returning to Atlanta, Blakely received a call from a mill operator who offered to support her. His reason? His three daughters convinced him to give Blakely a shot.

Another critical component of Blakely’s success is her frugality. Ever thrifty, Blakely saved $3,000 in legal fees by writing her own patent.

Blakely struggled to come up with a name for her product. She had a few “terrible” ideas but settled on Spanks. She says, “The word ‘Spanx’ was funny. It made people laugh. No one ever forgot it.”

Her mind toward sales proved useful when she landed a meeting with Neiman Marcus. They gave her a deal to sell in seven of their stores. Bloomingdales, Saks, and Bergdorf Goodman followed suit.

Blakely’s eyes are always peeled to opportunity. She sent a basket of products to Oprah Winfrey’s show, and, in 2000, Winfrey named Spanx to her list of “Favorite Things.” Spanx’s popularity skyrocketed, and she earned $4 million in sales that year.

Early on, Blakely operated as a one-woman show, handling all aspects of her business. She says, “I’ve never paid to advertise, so grass-roots marketing was vital to the success of Spanx…I took a lot of public speaking courses. Both helped me with my speeches and TV appearances.”

In 2001, she signed a deal with QVC, boosting sales even more. Spanx did $10 million in sales that year, and Blakely resigned from her job at the fax machine company.

The firm’s popularity soared throughout the early 2000s thanks to Blakely’s philosophy:  DIY and be the best salesperson you can be.

2006 marked the beginning of Blakely’s philanthropic career. She launched the Sara Blakely Foundation, which funded scholarships for young women worldwide.

In 2012, she was on the cover of Forbes with the headline “The Youngest Self-Made Female Billionaire in the World.”

Blakely is still the Executive Chairwoman of Spanx. Today, her net worth is $1.3 billion.

Here’s what we can learn from Blakely on mistakes, sales, and frugality.


Embrace mistakes and reflect on each one. “My dad encouraged us to fail. Growing up, he would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn't have something, he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome; failure is not trying. Don't be afraid to fail.” One of Blakely’s strongest qualities is her reliance on failure. Failure colored Blakely’s early adulthood: She failed the LSAT, then failed to garner interest in her product more times than she could count. She knows that failure breeds insights that success simply can’t. Success covers up mistakes, but failure reveals them. As a manager, Blakely is open about failure. She says, “At SPANX, to encourage people to fail, I’m bringing up my failures in front of the team often . . . I’m always openly talking about it . . . If you learn from it and if you can laugh about it, then it’s all worth it.” Mistakes are her raison d’etre. Blakely says, “It's important to be willing to make mistakes. The worst thing that can happen is you become memorable.”

Search for opportunities like a salesperson would. “I didn’t realize that selling fax machines door-to-door was really laying the groundwork for me to be able to be an inventor and create a product that had never been done before and bring it to market, because doing something like that requires hearing the word ‘no’ a lot.” Before all else, Blakely is a salesperson. Salespeople constantly search for opportunities in their network, research new ventures, and have their eyes peeled for chinks in an executive’s armor. Blakely did just that: Her industry was primarily male-dominated, so she conducted relentless research on potential hosiery manufacturers, pitching to those whose network might be receptive to her ideas. Additionally, her sales background primed her for rejection. Blakely says, “cold-calling to sell fax machines was an amazing training ground for hearing ‘no.’ I just learned that there’s a formula: you have to go through a certain number of ‘no’s to get to a ‘yes,’ so don’t let it discourage you.” When Blakely got her ‘big break’ in Neiman Marcus, she “didn’t even want to rely on the sales associates in the stores. This was my big break, so I took two years and stood in the department stores and sold Spanx myself, but I felt like, ‘This is up to me to make sure it happens.’”

Sell a product that fills a large gap in the market. Blakely’s empire started with a pair of scissors and an idea. She says, “When I cut the feet out of my pantyhose that one time, I saw it as my sign.” Blakely recognized that the women’s undergarment industry was highly dictated by men with little idea of what women needed. She saw a gap in current offerings and filled it. She says, “I was trying to convince all these men to try to make a product that they didn't even wear! Or if they did wear them, they were not admitting it! There was the problem right there. No wonder their hosiery was so uncomfortable.” Businesses that address a fundamental need are the most successful. Not only that, but they also hold the most longevity. Spanx generates approximately $400 million yearly revenue, and the women’s shapewear industry’s CAGR is 6.2%. Blakely “want[ed] to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good,” and she did.

Use visualization to make your dream a reality. Blakely credits much of her business empire to her visualization practice. She “woke up one day and thought, ‘I’m in the wrong movie, call the director! What happened? This is not my life. So I wrote down on a piece of paper the things that I was good at, and one of them was sales. I just started thinking about that.” The failed LSAT was her wake-up call; Blakely began to visualize the future she wanted, and that included working for herself and owning a business. Over time, she “had a very clear vision of what my life was going to be like . . . My snap photo was to be self-employed, invent a product that I could sell to lots of people . . . and create a business for myself that would continue to fund itself if I wasn’t present.” Specificity is vital to visualization. Blakely visualizes the future she wants in detail, creating a mental image of what she desires. What works for 97% of athletes works for Blakely, too. This practice strengthens connections in the brain, allowing her to go after her intentions.

Prioritise frugality at all costs. Blakely says, “Perseverance is the key to starting a successful business.” Throughout her early career, Blakely understood that perseverance, not seed money, would determine her success. Blakely invested her money into Spanx, cutting costs as much as possible. She had no marketing or advertising budget. The firm’s marketing relied on networking and word-of-mouth. Blakely deeply understood her target customer, sending samples to Oprah to capture that market. She says, “I had boxes of product in my apartment, and I had two weeks' notice that she was going to say she loved it on TV, and I had no shipping department.” Her ‘DIY’ approach made her a jack-of-all-trades, and this single event was a key catalyst behind her success. Today, Blakely uniquely understands the niche components of her business, a key factor in her strong leadership.

Sara Blakely Quotes

On her unique story: “I've always had that gratitude that I had the opportunity to pursue my potential. So I think my story says that, when women are given the chance and the opportunity, that we can achieve a lot. We deliver. We can make the world a better place, one butt at a time.”

On intimidation: “Don't be intimidated by what you don't know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”

On differentiation: “Differentiate yourself! Why are you different? What's important about you? Why does the customer need you?”

On finding meaning: “There is a hidden blessing in the most traumatic things we go through in our lives. My brain always goes to, 'Where is the hidden blessing? What is my gift?”

On feedback: “Don't solicit feedback on your product, idea or your business just for validation purposes. You want to tell the people who can help move your idea forward, but if you're just looking to your friend, co-worker, husband or wife for validation, be careful. It can stop a lot of multimillion-dollar ideas in their tracks in the beginning.”

On failure: “Failures are life's way of nudging you and letting you know you are off course. Trying new things and not being afraid to fail along the way are more important than what you learn in school.”

On persistence: “I failed the LSAT. Basically, if I had not failed, I'd have been a lawyer and there would be no Spanx. I think failure is nothing more than life's way of nudging you that you are off course. My attitude to failure is not attached to outcome, but in not trying. It is liberating.”



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