Spanx a billion! 6 Lessons learned from Sara Blakely
Sara Blakely has made the Forbes billionaire’s list for her undergarments for women, Spanx. Twelve years ago Blakely, took her life savings of $5,000 and invested in her vision of comfortable womens undergarments. She started from her one bedroom apartment in Atlanta, GA. Today at 41, she is the youngest woman billionaire on the list and she achieved this status with no assistance of a rich husband or an inheritance (You go girl!). Blakely has also hit billionaire status without ever having to pay for advertising and she owns 100% of her company.
Humble Beginnings…The Spanx website tells Blakely’s very inspiring startup story. During the day she was a sales trainer and by night was a stand up comedian. Blakely admits that she had never taken a business class and she knew nothing about the panty hose industry (except that everything on the market at that time had no solution to her panty-line problem). To learn how to patent her idea Sara spent many a night in the Georgia Tech Library researching trademarks and patents. She approached lawyers to assist her with her idea and they thought her idea was insane (what did they know?!?!). To keep her initial costs down she wrote the patent herself and then later located an attorney to assist her. Blakely trademarked the name SPANX online.
After the hurdle of patents and trademarks, Blakely had to deal with yet another dilemma, finding a manufacturer that would be believe in her product and produce it on a large scale. She admits to driving around North Carolina literally begging mill owners to assist her with her idea. They all thought her idea made no sense and that it would never sell. They also thought it was crazy that she represented herself, financially backed the project and, they did not know of her. As fate would have it two-weeks after she begged the mill owners to believe in her idea, one had a change of heart. He had shared Blakely’s idea with his daughters and they thought her idea was a very good one. From there the prototype was born, it took a year to perfect.
Once the prototype was perfected Blakely called a Neiman Marcus buyer in Dallas, TX and informed them that she had a product that “their customers would not want to live without.” The buyer agreed to meet with her. When Blakely got to Dallas, she escorted the Neiman Marcus buyer to the ladies room to show the before and after effect of her undergarments. Within three weeks Spanx were on Neiman Marcus shelves. She repeated this process to get on the shelves of stores like Saks, Nordstroms, etc.
With no advertising budget, Blakely hit the road and did in-store promotions. She also contacted the media outlets for coverage. Oprah Winfrey featured Spanx as one of her favorite things and her sales really took off. The Spanx brand has also received endorsements from celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow.
In 2006, Blakely received a $750,000 check from Sir Richard Branson to start her own foundation to help women business owners in less fortunate places around the globe.
Lessons from Sara Blakely and her Spanx brand:
- Believe - If you have a good idea, stand by it. There will be naysayers (haters) like the attorneys and mill owners that looked at Sarah like she has four eyes and six thumbs, but she continued to believe in her product. She did not let the naysayers deter her dream. Plus many naysayers are not billionaires or even millionaires (keep this in mind).
- Research - Blakely spent hours on end in the library researching relevant things to get her idea to the market. She even wrote her own patent until she could afford assistance. Additionally, although she never went to business school she has tons of business smarts. A lot of thought was put into the naming of Spanx. From being a stand up comedian she knew that that the “K” sound makes people laugh so she wanted the name to have that sound in it for good luck. She also took note that major companies such as Coca-Cola and Kodak had that sound as well. Finally, through her research she discovered that made-up words are easier to trademark and they do better for products (smart lady!). No business degree can teach some of the innate entrepreneurial instincts found in Blakely, but she also does her research!
- Word of mouth - via word-of-mouth (hands down the BEST form of advertising) only Blakely has built a billion dollar industry. If you have something great get people talking about it.
- Never give up - The road to success can be a long one but one has to always believe in themselves and their product or service. Sara could have agreed with the naysayers that her product was crazy and perhaps she would have been super successful in her sales career or her comedian gig, but it is highly unlikely she would have made the Forbes billionaire’s list. She knew without question her idea was a great one and she continued on until someone else agreed!
- Large investments are NOT required - Blakely owns 100% of her company and has not needed to take out any investments. Although it is perfectly okay to utilize financial investments, Blakely makes it clear (through her example) that it is possible to succeed in business with no investors at all.
- Be charitable - Giving back is so important, not only does it have the potential to strengthen a brand, it also provides the opportunity to really make a difference in the world.
- ALL big businesses start small - Blakely began her business in a one bedroom apartment and now she could buy the whole block! Every big business has started small and usually with limited resources. Don’t get discouraged get creative and motivated!
Small Biz Diamonds is super inspired by Sara Blakely, she’s the youngest female on billionaire’s row and she did it ALL on her own! Do you know of any small biz owners with big business potential (I do). Please leave your small biz diamonds below or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
**Update** This post has been mentioned in the #1 small business resource website SmallBizTrends.com roundup article, “Entrepreneurs Face Challenges, Share Resources” ~ Small Biz Diamonds is honored!
Have a successful day!