The Entrepreneur - Sara Blakely's turning points - Founder of SPANX

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

When you talk about Sara Blakely you have to mention her company Spanx, an American intimate shapeware maker that sells undergarments, leggings, swimwear and maternity wear in over 50 countries.


Sara Blakely launched Spanx in 2000 just a year before the end of the Dot com bubble. By 2012 Forbes magazine named her the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.


This article explores the turning points in Sara's entrepreneurial journey that took her from selling fax machines at Dank to becoming the world's youngest billionaire and owner of Spanx.

Sara Blakely
Photo from NY Magazine

Turning point one: Sara takes a leap of faith

Everyday millions of ideas are buried six feet beneath the ground, but that wasn't the case for Sara Blakely.

Its 1998 and 27 years of old Sara, is working for a company called Danka. At the same time, she begins researching and developing her hosiery idea over the next two years with $5000 of her personal savings.

There are two lessons to learn from this turning point:

  1. No matter how great your idea is, you've got to do your research. You've got to do your home work to ensure your idea is deliverable and scalable. Most importantly, do your research to eliminate your own subjective biases in your idea.

  2. Secondly, bootstrapping doesn't mean no-strapping. You spend money to make money. In this case, Sara didn't borrow money, she used $5000 of her personal savings on researching and developing her idea. This is what we call "the law of affordable loss". Spend only what you can afford to lose when you bootstrap.

Sara Blakely
Image from newyorker.com

Turning point two: Sara’s determination trumped her credibility

One of the biggest problems entrepreneurs face is the mountain of credibility they have to climb. Businesses only want to do business with established individuals or organisations.


Around the same time Sara Blakely was developing her idea, she drove to North Carolina to present her idea to a number of hosiery mills. Guess what? She was turned away by every hosiery mill. Two weeks after leaving North Carolina, she received a call from one of the mill operators based in Asheboro, North Carolina. He offered to support Blakely's concept, because he received strong encouragement from his three daughters.

This was not unsurprising because these companies only deal with established businesses and individuals. At that point all they saw was a young lady that lacked any credibility.

Then again, these hosiery mills were predominantly owned by men who didn’t understand the value proposition her idea offered because they don’t use such products.


Key lessons to learn:

  1. Make your own luck. It would be folly to assume that Sara Blakely was lucky, and if she never received that call from the mill operator then her idea would never have matured into anything. She made her luck by reaching out to the hosiery mills in North Carolina so go make yours.

  2. Some times determination trumps credibility but don't count on it always. While Sara's determination was a catalyst for moving her idea to the concept phase, there are alot of business ideas that have failed because the idea's originator lacks credibility.


Sara Blakely
Photo from Time Magazine

Turning point three: Sara was brave and confident in her solution

If you don’t believe in your idea or product, don’t expect anyone else to.

Reading through different sources of Sara’s entrepreneurial journey, one would point out how confidence oozed from her early decision making. She used her savings to fund research, she used her credit card to purchase the "Spanx" trademark on the USPTO website for US$150.

When she secured a meeting with Neiman Marcus group, she was so confident in her product that she went into the ladies restroom to wear it, in the presence of the Neiman Marcus buyer, just to prove the benefits of its innovation.


If this isn't evidence enough, Sara Blakely is so confident in her products that she loves flashing them, especially at events. Now I know this sounds weird but not in this context. Below are photos of Sara Blakely flashing those legs, sorry I mean, flashing her hosiery product, which is usually part of her marketing strategy and it works like hell.


Sara Blakeley flashing at Vanity Fair
Photo from Daily Mail

Sara Blakely Flashing
Image from Huffpost
If you believe in your value proposition put your heart into it.

Turning point four: Send Oprah Winfrey free products 😂. Seriously I am joking.

Yes, Sara Blakely sent a basket of her products to Oprah Winfrey’s TV programme, with a gift card explaining what she was attempting to develop. She didn’t get an immediate response but in November 2000, Ophrah Winfrey named Spanx one of her "Favorite Things". This was nothing short of an endorsement which led to a significant rise in the popularity and sales of Spanx products.

Out of all the turning points, this was one of the most significant in Sara’s entrepreneurial journey. Immediately after Oprah’s endorsement, Sara resigned from her day job and Spanx went from being a side hustle to a million dollar plus company.


The key lesson to learn here is to get your marketing strategy right and ensure you have a great product that can sell itself, when opportunity arises. It isn’t easy to get Oprah Winfrey to endorse anything. Trust me, we have reached out to her team on different occasions for a magazine cover feature and we never got a response😂. Well we didn’t get one from Sara Blakely either.


Some times a business needs that jolt that would boost their brand visibility. In some cases it could be an investor or an influencer/celebrity. But if Spanx‘s products were bad then Oprah would have never endorsed it. So quality over profit should be the number one goal of any startup or side hustle.
Sara Blakely and Oprah Winfrey
Photo from Oprah.com

Turning point five: Sara knew her limitations and strength.

Most founders stay at the helm of their business for years before hiring a CEO, well not Sara. From 1998 to 2000 she did everything to get her idea to market. She stayed at the helm of her company till 2002 before appointing Laurie Ann Goldman as CEO. The growth of Spanx has been largely attributed to the decision of Sara Blakely to appoint Laurie Ann Goldman as CEO.


Appointing the right leadership early, to grow your business is very important. Why? Although Spanx will always be associated with Sara Blakely, it is not reliant on her. By appointing a CEO two years after Spanx was launched, Sara proved that her business could survive without her day to day involvement, and this is the first step to building a self sustaining empire like Richard Branson’s Virgin group.


Ask yourself these questions:

  1. If something were to happen to you that prevented you from working, would your enterprise collapse or will it keep going?

  2. If you had negative press would the damage on your company’s value be minimal or extreme?


Business sustainability is more than just having a great balance sheet, it’s about establishing a brand that sells itself like Spanx, Virgin Group, Amazon, Netflix, Google etc. These companies will survive with or without their founder’s involvement. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in having a founder that flashes her products or one that flies into space😂. Good press can’t hurt.

Sara Blakely and Laurie Ann Goldman
Photo from The Denver Post
Key lesson to learn here is never try to do it all yourself if you don’t need to. Understand your limitation otherwise it will limit the growth of your business. Always invest in the right people to move your brand forward, which is exactly what Sara did.

Conclusion

Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Spanx is the most important turning points that made Spank what it is today.

No matter how great your product is, the fastest way to grow your business is to get endorsement from business leaders with strong credibility. For Sara Blakely that was Oprah Winfrey.


Lastly,

Focus on the quality of your value proposition first then think about profit afterwards. It’s a question of ensuring your product or service can market itself when the opportunity arises. If you sell goods of poor quality to make a quick buck, you will damage your brand and your company won’t last the distance before going under.
Sara Blakely Entrepreneur
Image from Forbes

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed and published in this article are those of “The Business Anecdote“ and not Sara Blakely, Spanx or Oprah. If you dispute any versions of our narrative or require any changes to it please get in touch at magazine@thebusinessanecsote.com

Credit for all Photos have been provided, if we have made a mistake please contact us and we will rectify it.

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