Sara Blakely, Spanx, Woman Entrepreneur

Sara-BlakelyI have wanted to meet Sara Blakely, the entrepreneur behind Spanx, for a long time and a few weeks ago we sat down to have coffee.  Spanx is a game changer for women everywhere.  The idea, the branding, the whole shebang is brilliant and who knew what a void it filled.  Sara is an incredible entrepreneur who not only came out with a article of clothing that ends up we all need but she worked her tush off (no pun intended) to build her company and her brand. 

Sara grew up in Clearwater Florida.  Her mom is an artist with a bend towards water colors.  Her father is a ferocious litigator.  Her parents are divorced.  After graduating high school Sara went on to attend the University of Florida.  First semester of her sophomore year Sara went to school in  London. The London experience was pretty amazing.  Two of Saras closest friends today were two women she roomed with there.  One went to school at Davidson and the other from Gaucher.  After two years at University of Florida she transferred to Florida State…for a boy. 

Sara tried to get her father to believe she was transferring because of the debate team but both her parents knew exactly why she transferred.  She was on the debate team in high school and college. Sara had her eyes set on becoming a lawyer.  She would go to watch her father countless times growing up doing his closing arguments in court.  Legal communications was her major.  She took the LSATs twice and bombed.  Sara says she is a terrible test taker. 

Now she had to think about plan B.  She got in her car, drove to Disneyworld and tried out for the part of Goofy.  She is 5'7" but you have to be 5'8" to get the role so instead they offered Sara the job of a Chipmunk.  Disney has a rule that if you already had a job there when you try out for another role you have to stay in the first job for a least three months before transferring.  Sara was already working as a ride attendant at the World of Motions and Horizon ride.  That particular ride was all about the future.  She went back last summer to find the ride but the ride had closed.  The job was humbling seeing people you knew in line wonder what you are doing as the ride attendant. 

She never made it to the Chipmunk job because she left to take a job selling fax machines door-to-door.  She thinks she got the job because she had a pulse.  They gave her a cubicle and a phone book and four zip codes to work with.  She cold called for seven years.  She got a business card ripped in her face at least once a week.  She would go to sales meetings and see people start to cry because they couldn't make their quota.  Truth is that this job laid the groundwork for Spanx

She had to wear pantyhose at work even under pants.  She hated the look with an open-toe shoe so she cut off the foot of the hose.  Sara realized how much better her butt looked when she wore the hose under her pants but wanted to get rid of the foot.  They would roll up and she figured there must be a better way.  She did some research that nobody made something like this so she took the $5K she had in her savings account and funded the prototype herself.  She did not even know she could get funding for an idea.

The process took two years which she did while she worked selling fax machines.  The first year she spent calling mills and begging them to make it.  It took an entire year for a mill to say yes.  She created the packaging on her friends computer.  She wanted the packaging to be red with a cartoon character on the front.  She knew if she got a chance to be on the shelf that this would make her product stand out.  The package was her marketing.  The name Spanx came to her one day when she was sitting in traffic.  She wrote her own patent because she did not have money for a lawyer so she bought a book in Barnes and Noble to teach her how to do it.  Then she went out on the road to start selling.

First she went to Neiman Marcus in Florida to try and sell the product.  They told her that she had to call on the buying office in Dallas.  She did not even know there was a buying office.  This is a woman who sold fax machines for seven years so she picked up the phone and got the buyer in Dallas on the phone.  She said if you come to Dallas I will give you 10 minutes.  Sara got to Dallas and had a meeting with the buyer.  After about 2 minutes in she could tell she was losing her so she asked if she would mind going to the bathroom with her to show her something.  She told her to look at her tush in the white pants she was wearing.  Then she went in the stall and put the prototype underneath her pants and came out of the stall and said now look at my tush.  The buyer saw it and got it.  Sara got her first order for seven stores in Neiman Marcus and then several stores followed.

Then the real work began.  Sara knew her product did not belong in the hoisery department but on the register in the ready to wear departments where the transaction was taking place.  So for the next two years she went on the road and stood in department stores with a table from 830-6 showing the saleswomen a photo of her butt without spanx and with spanx.  She'd go to the early store rallies to talk to the salespeople and show them a video of the product.  Soon she had built an entire sales force that she did not have to pay for.  She had won all those salespeople over because they all knew that they could sell clothes much easier with a pair of Spanx. Sara never spent a dime on formally advertising, she spoke directly to the salespeople who spoke directly to her consumer. 

For the first 18 months she shipped the products from her apartment.  One day she went for a walk with a neighbor to a bagel who was espousing the virtues of Spanx.  Sara asked her if she wanted to be her PR person and she said yes.  Then she hired an assistant to help with all her logistics such as traveling.  Two weeks in she asked her if she wanted to be in product since she had been in interior design.  She said yes too.  Both of these women have been with her 13 years. 

Sara says what you don't know if probably your best asset.  Initially she really did not know how to build a company but she did it the way she wanted to.  Once the product began to take off she quit her job at the fax machine company and grew Spanx full time.  Spanx was named product of the year in 2000 by Oprah.  Needless to say the product is sold in areas where there are shoes the clothes.  She built this company from the ground up including the shipping, marketing, advertising, PR and marketing. 

Spanx is headquartered in Atlanta.  Sara hired a CEO that allows Sara to be Chairperson and the face of the product.  She believes that you hire your weakness first.  She does tons of interviews yet they still do not advertise.  What she has built is inspiring and what is more inspiring is how she went about it.  She did not take no for an answer and had a clear vision of the product she wanted to build.  What I love about Sara is she is a totally down to earth go get 'em girl for a self-made billionaire.  Oh and her CEO who has been with her the last 11 years, she met her in the hosiery department. 

Comments (Archived):

  1. My Secret Luxury

    Sarah is my business idol and very inspiring. She knew she had a good idea and she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She’s intelligent and a hard worker. Oh, and I love her chutzpah as well!

  2. ag

    Truly amazing and inspiring story; a person who seems to deserve every bit of success she has reaped.Sometimes I think having nothing to lose is a great motivator. Then again, would you spend your last 5K trying to build a company on your own without any experience?

    1. Gotham Gal

      Few would

  3. whitneyjohnson

    Smiling! I love that you did this interview!

    1. Gotham Gal

      I was so excited to meet with Sara. Truly.

  4. anneflournoy

    I’ve read Sara Blakely’s wonderful story in bits and pieces but never heard it start to finish and in detail. It’s wonderful! From Blakely’s determination and willingness to follow her heart to her loyalty to her team and her ability to delegate, I’m inspired. Thank you!

  5. Nicole Hamilton

    I love this story, too. I really admire her. She built her business her way. Having a sales job is a great experience that keeps on giving. So much of building a business is selling, and selling is communicating.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Agree. Sales sales sales. A great foundation for building a business

  6. Brandon Burns

    Great woman, great story.The fact that she didn’t advertise was mentioned a lot. Why are investors always so fascinated with businesses that don’t advertise?Yeah, I get it. Not “needing” an ad budget saves dollars. But I’d bet my piggy bank that if Spanx advertised, and did it well, they’d see a great boost in sales and revenue.I see the lack of advertising as turning a blind eye to an opportunity.So, I ask again, why are investors always so fascinated with businesses that don’t advertise?

    1. Gotham Gal

      I believe being able to sell a product that literally goes viral through word of mouth without advertising, aka selling it to the consumer, says something about how amazing the product is. There is a process to selling and if the product is so superior and such a niche that nobody else has it and you do not have to advertise the the margins are higher. Her creativity in selling the product without spending money but just hard labor is rare as there are few products that nobody else has.

      1. Brandon Burns

        I get it. I think, at times, there’s a bit of hubris attached to the “we don’t need to advertise” stories, but clearly Sarah knows what she’s doing. We can all learn from her.

  7. TanyaMonteiro

    loved reading Sara story, some how feels even better that it comes from you and not just another news article. Thanks

    1. Gotham Gal


  8. Shala

    I love this post and have come back to read it several times now. I will probably end up reading it another 10 times–what can I say but that it is genuinely inspiring. It also highlights how important sales skills are in this world regardless of who you are and what you want to create. Brilliant post!

    1. Gotham Gal

      life is all about sales.