Spanx’s Sara Blakely Shares 5 Tips for Building a Billion-Dollar Idea

Friday, January 17, 2020

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
 5-minute read

A photo of three women wearing Spanx athletic wear next to Spanx founder, Sara Blakely.

In short:

  • As the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, Spanx founder Sara Blakely shared stories from the growth of her company in a talk at NPR’s How I Built This Summit 2019.
  • Blakely said her training as a door-to-door salesperson and her ultimate dissatisfaction with that job were a launchpad for her life as an entrepreneur. 
  • She credits the success of Spanx with a reliance on visualization and the ability to overcome rejection and doubt, among other factors that you’ll find below.

 

Sara Blakely in the iconic founder and inventor of Spanx, an undergarment company responsible for creating footless, body-shaping pantyhose. 

Since launching in 2000, Spanx has grown to become one of the most well-known undergarment brands for women, offering bras, underwear, leggings and activewear. 

Today, Blakely is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of her generation. In 2012, Forbes named her the youngest self-made female billionaire. That same year, Blakely was listed as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. Oh, and the brand itself was valued at $1 billion too, in 2012.

At NPR’s How I Built This Summit 2019, Blakely spoke with Guy Raz, sharing tips on how she built her brand.

 

The origin of Spanx: Sara Blakely’s billion-dollar idea 

In 1998, Blakely was getting ready for a party. She’d picked out the perfect pair of cream-colored pants for the event, but she faced a problem: She didn’t have the right undergarment to achieve the smooth look she desired.

Her solution? She slipped on a pair of pantyhose under the pants and then proceeded to cut off the feet.  

“I looked fabulous, I looked great, I had no panty lines and I looked thinner and smoother,” Blakely said in a 2012 video describing the creation of Spanx. 

The novelty of the idea was not lost on Blakely. She believed her creation, footless pantyhose, was a product millions of women would want.

Spanx founder Sara Blakely

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by SPANX by @SaraBlakely (@spanx) on

For a year afterward, Blakely worked on the project by herself, speaking about the idea to no one except a patent lawyer and people in the undergarment industry. 

Then, in 2000, armed with samples and a patent to protect her invention, Blakely revealed her product to friends and family. That same year, Blakely nabbed Neiman Marcus as her first retail account. She also received a call informing her that Spanx was going to be featured on "Oprah's Favorite Things.”

The momentum behind the Spanx brand and the ingenuity of its products continues today. Blakely still owns 100% of the company which, according to CNBC, generates over $400 million in annual sales.

 

Blakely's tips for growing a big idea

 

1. Get comfortable with rejection.

Blakely sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years before founding Spanx. The experience gave her a wealth of sales experience — and very thick skin. 

"I got kicked out of buildings," Blakely said. "People would rip up my business card in front of my face."

Selling fax machines taught Blakely how to think on her feet, how to win someone over and how to get to the heart of a matter quickly.  

"I believe cold calling is one of life's greatest lessons," Blakely said.

She also believes that hearing “no” isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to launching a product. 

“If you’re an innovator, it means you’re doing something different,” she said. “And you’re going to hear ‘no’.”


"If you’re an innovator, it means you’re doing something different ... you’re going to hear 'no.'"

 


Instead of fearing the word, Blakely believes entrepreneurs should learn to embrace it. Gleaning insights from potential customers can help you figure out what they don't understand about your product and how to make it, or your sales pitch, better. 

2. Use the law of attraction and visualization.

After a particularly bad day selling fax machines, Blakely determined she needed a life change. 

“I’m in the wrong movie,” she recalled thinking. “This is not my life.”

That night, Blakely made a list of her strengths. Sales was at the top of her list. Then she investigated deeper, wondering what it was about the sales process that appealed to her the most. 

"I realized I loved selling something that would improve somebody’s life,” she said.

To merge her sales instinct with her passion for helping others, she wrote down a declarative statement: “I want to invent something that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good.” 

Blakely didn't have an idea then, but a mere two years later, she cut the feet off her pantyhose and the Spanx story began.

“I believe ideas are gifts from the universe … They are very precious,” she added. 


“I believe ideas are gifts from the universe … They are very precious.”

 



3. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

After scoring Neiman Marcus as her first big retail account, Blakely walked into the store and found her products on display near the back. Unannounced, she moved them up toward the cash register. It wasn’t fearlessness that drove this action, Blakely explained, but courage. 

“Being courageous is doing things despite the fear,” she said. “You build your courage muscle by continuing to face your fear.”

Blakely advocates risk-taking.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by SPANX by @SaraBlakely (@spanx) on

Blakely sees courage as crucial to the entrepreneur's DNA. She considers it a prerequisite to launching any business. 

“You have to be willing to ask for forgiveness, not permission,” she said. 

4. Hire your weaknesses as soon as you can afford to.

Blakely wore several hats when she first founded Spanx. Her roles included “head of sales, head marketer, head packer and shipper and the before-and-after butt model,” she explained.  

But like most entrepreneurs, she wasn’t skilled at every aspect of a business. Although she excelled in sales and marketing, she admitted to struggling with business operations. 

“I didn’t enjoy the day-to-day management, the inventory, the logistics,” Blakely said. “I needed to invest in an operator early-on.” 

Blakely focused on her strengths and hired a team to fill roles that were difficult or unenjoyable for her. It’s a crucial step for long-term stability and growth in your business. 

5. Overcome self-doubt. 

Blakely admits that self-doubt has plagued her throughout her career, particularly in the early stages of Spanx.

“I doubt myself often,” she said. “I still do.” 

But she has developed a routine to overcome negative self-talk. Whenever she goes down the negative self-talk spiral, she realigns by listening to inspirational teachers or podcasts. 

“I’ve been listening to Wayne Dyer since I was 16 years old,” Blakely said. “He’s been a mentor for me.”

She also suggests getting together with uplifting, supportive friends who can bring you back to a state of positivity. However you do so, overcoming self-doubt is critical to business success, Blakely explained.

“I identify [self-doubt] … and then I redirect it,” she added.


 “I identify self-doubt, and then I redirect it."

 


 

 

The bottom line

Blakely’s entrepreneurship story shows that you don’t need experience in an industry to develop a product and a record-smashing business. All you need is a good idea, the courage to pursue it and a hefty dose of faith.  

If you haven’t found your big idea yet, keep paying attention. Ideas can strike at any time — like when you’re getting dressed for a party.