From a failed pursuit in a career in Law, to becoming Forbes youngest self- made female billionaire, this week’s founder is none other than Sara Blakely, owner of revolutionary shapewear company, Spanx.
As a young girl, Sara wanted to make the same career moves as her father did and become a prominent figure in the law field. Following her passions, she debated in high school and studied law at university, majoring in legal communications.
When it came to passing the LSAT to get into law school, she failed (twice) after weeks of preparation and decided to call it a day. She soon after took a part-time job in Disney’s Epcot where she ended up being a ride attendant.
After feeling like she had no point of focus, she ended up working in the sales industry selling fax machines door-to-door.
“Most doors were slammed in my face. I saw my business card ripped up at least once a week, and I even had a few police escorts out of buildings,”Sara’s interview with Make It magazine
Perhaps it was this first-hand experience, in one of the harshest industries in business, that geared her up for the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship.
“During my fax-selling stint, I would spend much of my free time trying to figure out what I really wanted out of life and what my strengths were,” she recalled … I knew I was good at selling and that I eventually wanted to be self-employed. I thought, Instead of fax machines, I’d love to sell something that I created and actually care about.”
So how did Sara actually conceptualise the $1.1 billion company that is known today as Spanx?
She shares how in the pursuit of looking better in fitted pants, she cut the feet out of a pair of tights and wore them underneath her clothes. She instantly realised that they created a more slender, lifted physique as well as still giving her the option to wear sandals, as her feet were kept bare.
In a lightbulb moment she decided that this was the idea that would be her big break. She created Spanx from the ground-up. Her mission was to create a unique type of body shapewear which was comfortable and invisible enough to wear under clothes.
What’s even more mind- blowing about Blakely’s story is that all of the start-up capital she initially invested comprised of her own savings. In 1998, She bootstrapped the company from a $5,000 personal investment and has had no outside investment since. She stands as the 100% sole owner of the company to this day.
Within its first year of business Spanx made a whopping $4,000,000 in total revenue. By 1999, Sara got her products distributed in Neiman Marcus, the American chain of luxury department stores. Even then, her hard work took no back seat. She mentioned in an interview that she used to buy all her own products off the shelves and amusingly paid all her friends to buy the Spanx products.
After being branded by Oprah, in the year 2000, as her favourite product of the year, Spanx’s sales hit $10,000,000 in revenue. What started as a simple spur-of-the-moment idea, soon made Blakely one of the wealthiest women alive. So what can we learn from the advice she shared with us:
- Never take failure for granted
Sara’s father used to ask her and her siblings what they failed at during the week. If they responded with ‘nothing’ he’d appear disappointed. She was taught from an early age that failure was essential in growth as that is when you have truly explored every possible option which will inevitably guide you to the right one. After all, she is adamant that Spanx wouldn’t have existed if she didn’t fail the LSAT twice over.
- Don’t feel guilty for looking towards outside inspiration for motivation
“Take the time to learn how to think … Nobody really teaches you how to think. So you have to take it upon yourself to be your own teacher, in order to reach your potential. The only place I could find that was helping to teach me how to think were motivational, inspirational CDs. It wasn’t a course in school I could take.” She credits Wayne Dyer‘s inspirational talks for her profound visualisation and manifestation. Maybe all those Instagram motivation pages aren’t completely useless after all…
- Be wary of your focus and your ‘Why’
Blakely’s constant questioning was one of the reasons Spanx was brought into the world. She found herself asking why were pantyhose shaped the way they were? Was there a more efficient way of making them?
Her continuous search of her Why made her realise that her true passion was to help women, which inevitably was the driver behind her huge success.
- Business doesn’t have to mean war
After being told countless times by her peers that starting off in the world of business is brutal, Sara adopted a more organic approach. She shifted her focused towards the customer and how she could add value. This ties into point no.3. Her Why and gentle attitude towards others made her a unique player in the game.
- Act upon your whims
“Everybody has a multimillion-dollar idea inside them, Edison said, ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ The same holds true for innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship.”
I hope you’ve had as much fun reading this week’s edition of the Founder’s Series as much as I had writing it. Sara Blakely’s refreshing approach to entrepreneurship gave me a different perspective on failure and how purpose can make or break your business.