Sara Blakely is currently the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world. She founded her company – Spanx – 14 years ago with one product and a dream, and has grown it to the now billion dollar undergarment company that services the needs of both men and women.
She tells the story of her journey to success, from being forced to give up her dream of becoming a lawyer when she repeatedly failed the LSATs to working as a sales person for a retail company. She began by working part time on her idea, unfunded and working out of her shared apartment, and grew the business from one to three employees in under two years. She personally pursued business contacts, and took over a year to really think through her idea and settle on a name. Here are some of the main takeaways from her journey to success, as told by her at a women entrepreneur’s empowerment conference:
1. There’s no such thing as a bad idea.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. The four words a speaker at a conference she attended used to demonstrate his point – that any idea, no matter how farfetched, cannot be a bad idea until proven to be bad. She, however, sought to prove it in two words: footless pantyhose. She took an existing product and customized it to first meet her own needs, and meet the needs of those around her, building her customer base by meeting a need they didn’t know they had.
2. Take matters into your own hands and believe in your product.
She called every manufacturer she could find in the phone book and got turned down by every single one of them. Instead of giving up, she drove around to each of the manufacturers and got turned down in person. “I got the same 3 questions: And you are? And I would say, “Sara Blakely.” And they’d say “And you’re with? And I’d say, “Sara Blakely.” And they’d say “You’re financially backed by? And I‘d say: “Sara Blakely”. And they’d thank me for coming by and walk me to the door.”
Every manufacturer she called said it couldn’t be done. Instead of losing hope, she started making homemade versions of her product and used them as prototypes. Eventually, one of the manufacturers called her back and became her first partner.
3. Be detail oriented and be different.
The name “Spanks” came to her after thinking of really bad names for about a year. “I knew I wanted my product to have a fabulous name but I just didn’t know what it was. The word Spanks came to me while I was sitting in traffic and I knew it was it. At the very last minute, I changed the “ks” to an “x” because I had done research and I knew that made-up words do better for products than real words do, and they’re also a lot easier to trademark.” She had no idea what her products would be called, yet she had gone ahead to do massive research into the process itself so that the moment she chose a name for it, she was ready to move forward.
She didn’t have enough money to advertise so she knew she had to stand out. Product differentiation was essential to the growth of her business.
“I knew that I wanted my package to be bold, be different and grab people’s attention. I had no money to advertise, so I chose red for my packaging which was extremely unconventional, and I put three different looking illustrated women on the cover, instead of the standard woman in pantyhose that was in every other package in store. I worked on this package at night and on the weekends at my friend’s computer for about 3 months, and I got it just the way I wanted it to be.”
She used packaging that made it feel like it was a present to herself, and went out of her way to make sure the packaging stood out from all the bland standardized packages that made the hosiery department such a bore to shop in.
4. Research. Research. Research.
She bought 10 different brands to check what was written on the packaging, just to be sure that she had covered all her legal bases, and to make sure she wasn’t missing anything crucial.
“I asked myself: What if there’s supposed to be something on this package for legal reasons that I don’t know about? So I went to a few different stores and bough ten different pairs of pantyhose, came back to my apartment and put every single pair on the floor. I looked through the backs, and if the same thing was on all ten, I remember thinking “It must be legal”, so I added it.”
The lesson? Better to learn from other’s mistakes than to make your own. It may seem counterintuitive to pick up your competitors products, but it doesn’t hurt to indirectly benefit from their research, and to look into current industry standards that you need to meet in order to be taken seriously in whatever field you’re pursuing.
5. There’s no shame in starting small.
“I had sent a gift basket of my very first prototypes to the Oprah Winfrey Show, and I got the call that Oprah had chosen Spanx as her favourite product of the year. You can imagine that for an entrepreneur with no money, that was the call of a lifetime. They flew down to film me for the segment, and they all showed up at my apartment to film me in my “headquarters”, having a staff meeting. I called a few friends and told them to come to my apartment and look like they work for me. We all sat in a circle n the floor of my apartment and that was my “staff meeting” on the Oprah Winfrey Show.” And now she runs a billion dollar company. It shows that it doesn’t matter where you start, so long as you keep a clear vision of where you’re headed and put in the work to get there.
6. Hire your weaknesses
“When I could afford to hire my weaknesses, I did early on. Delegation is a huge gift to yourself as an entrepreneur, because in the early days of running a business you have to be every department and you learn fairly quickly what you are and are not good at. I have a great team, an amazing CEO who runs the day to day and this contributes greatly to my company’s continued success.”