Sara Blakely is the CEO and Founder of SPANX, an American intimate apparel company. She has revolutionized the industry with just $5,000 and a ‘lucky’ red backpack and turned it into a global brand known for inventing more innovative, comfortable solutions. Blakely was featured on the cover of Forbes Magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire and was included in TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the world. She is also a Guinness World Record holder for having the world’s highest tea party on top of a hot air balloon. Blakely has invested millions of dollars in elevating women, and in 2013, she signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate half her wealth to philanthropic causes.
Sara Blakely was born in a beach town in Florida, Clearwater. Since a young kid, Blakely had always displayed entrepreneurial skills. Every Halloween, she would create a haunted house in her neighbourhood and charge her neighbours to visit it.
These qualities could be attributed to her father, who worked as a trial attorney and was also Blakely’s inspiration. She credits her success to him, who always encouraged his kids to fail. Blakely says, “We’d sit around the dinner table and he’d ask, ‘What did you guys fail at this week?’ If we had nothing to tell him, he’d be disappointed. He knew that many people become paralyzed by the fear of failure. My father wanted us to try everything and feel free to push the envelope. His attitude taught me to define failure as not trying something I want to do instead of not achieving the right outcome.”
She recalled, “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a trial attorney.” She debated in high school and continued in college, majoring in Legal Communications.
However, when Blakely took the LSAT, she did not clear it. Devastated, she decided to try again and signed up for an LSAT prep course; she studied rigorously and retook the test. To her bad luck, she got a score of one point worse this time around.
Blakely recalled, “In my mind, the universe was telling me to drive to Disney World and audition for the role of Goofy. That’s literally how I responded to my defeat. But Disney World only auditioned people for character roles once in a while, so in the meantime I got a job at Epcot.”
When the day of the auditions finally arrived, Blakely did not land the role as she was “too short to wear the costume.” They decided to make her a chipmunk instead, which Blakely refused.
She explained, “The way Disney worked was that you had to stay where you were initially employed for a period of time before you were allowed to transfer positions.” To climb the ladder, Blakely continued her role as an Epcot escort to help customers get on the Disney rides. Eventually, she gave in and returned home to live with her mother.
Still confused with the direction of her career, Blakely got a job selling fax machines door-to-door at a local company. “It was the kind of place that would hire anyone with a pulse,” Blakely said. “On my first day, they handed me a phone book and said, ‘Here are your four zip codes. Now get out there and sell.’ There was no list of accounts that were likely to buy from me. I had to 100 percent drum up my own leads.”
During that period, she would wake up early and start cold-calling from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “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,” Blakely recalled.
However, despite her string of failures in the job, Blakely never gave into wallowing in her misery, and soon she grew immune to the word ‘no.’ At times, she even found it amusing.
“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.”
That all changed when one day, she stumbled upon a great idea, “In the hopes of looking better in my fitted white pants, I cut the feet out of a pair of pantyhose and substituted them for my underwear,” she said. “This allowed me to benefit from the slimming effects of the pantyhose’s ‘control top’ while allowing my feet to go bare in my cute sandals. The moment I saw how good my butt looked, I was like, ‘Thank you, God, this is my opportunity!'”
And soon Spanx was born, a unique type of intimate body shapewear: comfortable and transparent under clothing with no lines showing. However, it wasn’t an easy task to establish the brand. Blakely says, “I had to take my idea, so I took my lucky red backpack with me on every step of the journey, and I went and met with three different law firms that I had looked up online. I presented my idea to them, you could see me trying to explain to the men how I’m gonna change the world, and make women’s butts better, and that this is gonna be an idea that everyone would love.” She continued, “But all of the attorneys that I met with, they wanted between $3,000 and $5,000 to patent my idea. Well, I only had $5,000 total, in my savings, to do this idea. So I decided to write my own patent.”
Fortunately for Blakely, she soon had the support of a mill owner who had previously rejected her offer; she recalled the incident, “He said, Sara, I have decided to help make your crazy idea.” And when I asked him why he had a change of heart, he said, “I have two daughters who thought your idea was absolutely brilliant.”
She soon received her patent; and decided to market the product in red, which was never done in the hosiery industry. Blakely also customized every size to fit different body types to make it more comfortable, and soon, Spanx became a hit.
Blakely has grown Spanx into a shapewear juggernaut that’s estimated to do more than $400 million in business each year. The company was profitable from day one, generating $4 million the first year and $10 million the second year.
Today, the brand’s products are available in major chains ranging from Target to Neiman Marcus. Spanx has remained a private company, with Blakely owning 100 per cent of the business. She maintains that she has never taken any outside investment beyond the $5,000 in savings she initially spent to get Spanx off the ground.
In conclusion, her advice at the start of 2022 is to have one word as an overarching goal for the year. It doesn’t matter if it is: rest, self-care, travel, productivity, success. Have a theme for your year and try to stick to it.