Success Stories

How Sara Blakely Built a Billion-Dollar Business From Scratch

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In 14 years, Sara Blakely went from being a door-to-door fax machine salesperson to one of the youngest self-made woman billionaires in the world, according to Forbes.

At the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia, Blakely shared how she built the Spanx brand, starting out with just $5,000 in savings and no experience in retail or manufacturing.

“In my case, it’s surprising how small the change needs to be to be very disruptive,” Blakely said, describing the moment in which she cut off the feet of tan pantyhose to wear under white pants.

Here are some of the top takeaways from Blakely’s speech at the Under 30 Summit:

No. 1: Don’t worry about doing things the ‘right way.’

“I had no idea how it was supposed to be done, and if you have no idea how it’s supposed to be done, you will end up being disruptive,” Blakely said. “The key is you have to … embrace not knowing.”

No. 2: Don’t get discouraged.

The road to Spanx was not a smooth one. Blakely, who grew up wanting to become a lawyer and majored in legal communication, said she failed the LSAT twice, and ended up working as a Chipmunk at Disney World.

“I made my family super proud with my college degree,” she said, helping children onto rides in a brown costume. Blakely then spent seven years selling fax machines door-to-door, before she finally got Spanx off the ground.

No. 3: Show up in person.

Blakely couldn’t get hosiery manufacturers to take her seriously on the phone, so she got in her car and drove to North Carolina to pitch her idea in person.

“Two and a half to three weeks later I got a call from a manufacturer in Charlotte, North Carolina who said, ‘Sara, I have decided to help make your crazy idea,’” Blakely said.

And when she perfected the first Spanx product, Blakely convinced the buyer at Neiman Marcus in Dallas to give her ten minutes of her time, if Blakely bought her own ticket to the office. After the brief meeting (which included an in-person demonstration in the bathroom), the buyer placed an order for seven Neiman Marcus locations.

No. 4: Be the person that cares the most.

Blakely said other hosiery manufacturers weren’t talking to real women, instead sizing products by putting them on plastic boards.

“I realized at that moment that it felt like nobody cared … I do not have the most money in the industry, I do not have the most experience in the industry, but I can raise my hand and [say], I care. I care the most and what can I do by caring more than anyone else does about the customer?” Blakely said.

Blakely said she spent two years actually standing in department stores selling Spanx and talking to shoppers.

“I got all my next best ideas by listening to the women and the customers,” Blakely said.

No. 5: Fake it till you make it.

Right after Spanx began selling in Neiman Marcus, Blakely got a call from Oprah’s team that they wanted to film her for a segment on Oprah’s favorite products. At that point, Blakely didn’t have any employees and was working from her apartment, so she called a woman who worked at Mailboxes Etc. and her friends in the neighborhood.

“They came over, we sat in a circle on my floor, and that was my staff meeting on the Oprah Winfrey Show,” Blakely said.

No. 6: Keep a sense of humor.

“Make sure you have fun, enjoy the ride … the mistakes are what make you memorable,” Blakely concluded.