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!