How EO Atlanta’s Sara Blakely Shaped an Industry
A lot can happen in 12 years. Just ask EO Atlanta member Sara Blakely, who with US$5,000 in life savings and an innovative idea, changed the face of business and the lives of women everywhere.
Recently recognized by Forbes as the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world—she was also listed in Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list in April 2012—the inventor of revolutionary shapewear, SPANX, has given new meaning to EO’s core value, “Make a Mark.”
In this special interview, Sara sits down with Octane to talk about starting a business from scratch, the magic of marketing and the importance of trusting your gut.
Disney World greeter. Fax machine salesperson. Stand-up comedienne. You’ve had an eclectic work history before Spanx. How has your past employment influenced you as an entrepreneur?
“Working at Disney World and selling fax machines for Danka, I spent a lot of time in pantyhose because it was required dress code. Thanks to those jobs, I learned about the benefits of control-top pantyhose, which helped me develop SPANX Footless Pantyhose. Cold-calling fax machines also taught me to never take no for an answer. So when the manufacturers all said no to me the first year I was trying to get my product made, I was unfazed.
“Stand-up comedy taught me that there’s humor in the ‘k’ sound (an old comedy rule), which I included while naming my invention. I also used a lot of my comedic writing in the marketing of SPANX. For example, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered.’ And lastly, working at Disney World taught me that I didn’t want to walk on a moving sidewalk for a living!”
You’ve never advertised or pursued outside investments to grow your business. How did you promote your product so successfully?
“I’ve always believed in the power of PR and word of mouth. My third employee was a full-time PR girl with no prior experience, but she had a passion for the product. Passion goes a long way. I also stood in department stores for the first two years of the business, listening firsthand to the customers. And I hosted in-store morning rallies about SPANX with the sales associates. I quickly tried to win them over. They became my sales force. The best kind— not on my payroll!
“I also knew that I needed my packaging to stand out. I strategically made it red (which had never been done before in hosiery) and used cartoon illustrations of women instead of photography. My slogans were honest and very casual. I always write and market as though I’m telling it to three girlfriends over dinner. This girlfriend-to-girlfriend approach made it OK for women to talk about shapewear, including celebrities! I sent a basket to Oprah Winfrey right after I got my first batch of prototypes, and it ended up on her ‘Favorite Things’ list in 2000. Since then, we’ve covered the butts of many outspoken celebrities, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Jessica Alba.”
You’re in the business of helping people hide their gut, but you talk a lot about the power of listening to it. How has doing this helped you excel as an entrepreneur?
“Listening to your gut means everything! I believe that what you don’t know can be your greatest asset. If you don’t know how it’s always been done, and you aren’t afraid to trust your instincts, chances are you will come up with a better way. I didn’t know the first thing about the pantyhose industry. I just knew the shapers available had always been too thick and binding, and they showed lines and bulges under clothes. They didn’t solve the problem.
“I quickly recognized what I would do differently to make them better, and pursued it. I had never taken a business class. I bought a book on trademarks and patents, and wrote my own patent. I researched hosiery manufacturers online and eventually found one to make a prototype for me. From naming the product to designing the packaging and getting SPANX in stores, my best resource was, and continues to be, following my own gut.
“One tip I have for cultivating your gut is to be quiet with yourself and really listen. Identify where and when your mind roams most freely. I add an extra 30 minutes to my morning commute just driving around (my office is four minutes from my house) because I recognize that driving my car is one of my best times to think.”
You’ve made an incredible impact in your industry. What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs eager to make a similar mark?
“I think it’s important to visualize where you want to be. I always visualized a different life for myself while selling fax machines door to door. I wanted to be self-employed and financially independent. I wrote down my goals and was ready for an idea. Also, differentiate yourself in everything you do. Make sure you know why you’re different and that your customer does, too— preferably in 30 seconds or less. And don’t be afraid to use humor. Humor opens doors, makes you memorable and usually gets you another 30 seconds!
“I also like to remind entrepreneurs not to share their idea too early. When you tell people your idea right away, the ego gets involved. Then you spend more time having to defend your idea and explain it, rather than pursuing next steps. Share your idea once you’ve invested enough of yourself in it, to the point when you know there is no turning back.
From US$5,000 to a billion-dollar business offering 200 products in 40 countries— what a journey! Looking back, what is your greatest lesson learned?
“I learned it’s important to hire your weakness! For someone who’s never taken a business class or managed anyone, to all of a sudden be a business owner and manager was shocking. I recognized I wasn’t good at certain things quickly. Instead of beating myself up about it, I decided, ‘It’s OK if you’re not good at this, hire someone who is.’ One of the smartest business decisions I made was to hire a CEO. It’s best to let go of control in the areas that aren’t your strongest, and focus on the areas that are.”
Success through EO Support
Sara has been a member of EO Atlanta since 2002, and credits much of her success to EO. Her Forum, specifically, has made a big impact on Spanx.
“EO has provided me with a great, trusted circle of friends. I have been in a Forum for 11 years, with primarily the same 10 guys. I attribute so much of Spanx’s success to the advice I’ve received from these brilliant business owners in the trusted, confidential EO format. They’re like brothers to me now. When I got married, they took me out for a ‘bachelorette’ night, and as a surprise, they dressed in drag … and they were wearing SPANX!”