We are back yet again with our next story in the bootstrapped heroes series, and we are excited to get started! Are you too? Our bootstrapped heroes series is dedicated to entrepreneurs who believe in their idea, are ready to put in the hard work, and have gained immense business success. We salute their wit and entrepreneurial spirit and learn inspiring business lessons from them as we decode their journey. This time we have for you the story of Sara Blakely, who successfully ran “Spanx” for 21 years and became the youngest self-made woman to join Forbes’ World’s billionaire in the year 2012, all while keeping complete control of her business.
Here are the 6 lessons businesses can learn from the journey of Spanx and Sara Blakely. Read along!
An Idea, Personal Saving of $5000, and a Ton of Hardwork – The Story of Spanx
Born and raised in Florida to an artist mom and attorney dad, Sara wanted to become a lawyer like her father but was not good with exams. She took multiple LSATs but scored poorly each time. Without losing hope, she took odd jobs of working as a chipmunk character at Walt Disney and a part-time comedian at stand-up comedy gigs.
After her short gig of three months at Disney, she got a job as a salesperson for an office supply company where she learned to be a great salesperson and sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years.
The unique idea of building Spanx struck her when she was getting ready for the party. Unable to find suitable undergarments to wear under her favourite white pants, she cut the feet off her pantyhose and wore them under the pants. “I looked fabulous, I felt great, I had no panty lines, I looked thinner and smoother, but they rolled up my legs all night. And I remember thinking, “This should exist for women,” she recalled in an interview. And this was the inception of Spanx as we know it today!
Here is a snapshot of Spanx incredible success over the years,
The journey was not as smooth as it looks, and Sara had to work really hard to be the success she is today. Her story of building Spanx is the epitome of passion, pain, perseverance, and true grit!
Here are the lessons all entrepreneurs you can learn from Sara Blakely:
Lesson 1: Think out of the box and solve a real problem
Sara was not a business graduate and did not know anything about running a business. She had no idea about the market or the pantyhose manufacturers in the USA; all she knew was the discomfort women went through as they wore uncomfortable pantyhose’s. During her research and one year of building a prototype, she discovered the reason why there were no comfortable pantyhose’s for women. “When the industry was making the product, they took the same size waistband and put it on every pair,” she recalled in an interview. Meaning every woman, despite the size difference, was getting the same waistband. This was the first change she included as she worked on Spanx’s stocking design.
Lesson 2: Get ready for the hustle
As the idea was new and quite innovative, she wanted to protect it and so thought of patenting the idea. She was a great supporter of women and thought it would be easier for her to explain her idea; so, she searched for women attorneys in Georgia but was surprised when she could not find any.
Alas, she kept searching for lawyers and met a few of them. But the legal consultation was too costly, “they wanted between $3,000 and $5,000 to patent my idea,” she recalled in an interview. With only $5000 in her savings account, she went to Barnes & Noble, bought a book, “Patents and Trademarks,” and started writing her patent. From writing a patent to doing sales, packaging, and marketing, Sara Blakely did it all as she strived to grow Spanx into a billion-dollar business.
Lesson 3: Don’t shy away from sales
Being an entrepreneur means you are responsible for every aspect of the business – from manufacturing to sales. It was the same for Sara Blakely; she cold-called various hosiery mills and even made trips to South Carolina to persuade them to manufacture Spanx.
Similarly, when trying to put her product in the luxury store Neiman Marcus, she demonstrated the product by taking the female buyers to the women’s restroom and showing them its benefits. After they were impressed and the deal was successful, Sara even went to Neiman Marcus to help the salesperson on the floor.
Lesson 4: Focus on branding
Sara did not have any money to spend on marketing activities, and she knew that she needed to be different from the products out there to get noticed. As told by her in an interview, “I wanted my product to scream, “I’m new, I’m different, check me out.” Therefore, she chose a bright red packaging with girls’ illustrations of different ethnicities- pretty revolutionary for that time. Below is the packaging she used to launch Spanx,
Sara Blakely knew she was up to something, and she wanted her customers to remember the product. She thought what better way to do it than giving the company a memorable name. She found inspiration in Kodak and Coca-cola, both big companies having a “K-sound” in their names.
Her comedian friends told her that people find the K- sound words hilarious, and she read somewhere that made-up words work better for products than real words and are easier to trademark. So, she named her company “Spanx” instead of “Spanks.”
Lesson 5: Make your employees part of your success story
After 22 years of successfully running the company, this October, Sara Bakely sold her majority stakes to Blackstone for $1.2Billion. She did not forget her employees and made them a part of the celebration by giving them two first-class air tickets to anywhere in the world and $10,000 each – a pretty inspiring offer? Isn’t it.
Lesson 6: Don’t run after investors’ money
Sara Blakely never looked for VC funding and outside money to support the business and owned 100% stakes of the company till the Blackstone deal. Keeping complete control of the business to herself, she was able to grow Spanx the way she wanted.
While we understand every business is different, and some may need the required capital. But as you evaluate your financing options, make sure you are not giving away your equity and thereby control of your company.
We, at Velocity, offer founder-friendly, revenue-based financing to growing D2C businesses with zero dilution of equity. If you are a D2C brand looking for funding to manage your inventory and marketing needs, apply here, and get funded within 7 days.
We hope you enjoyed reading this as much as we enjoyed researching and writing. We will be back next month with another such inspiring story.
PS: If you have any suggestions on which brand should we cover in our next Bootstrapped heroes story, let us know in the comments.