Why Billionaire Sara Blakely Has 99 Pages Full of Business Ideas
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Women's underwear has long been revolutionary terrain: burnt bras, girdles thrown away ... But when Sara Blakely , a 27-year-old woman who sold fax machines, discovered that she was earning less than her male counterpart at the same job, she was inspired to cut a pair of pantyhose to invent what would empower panties (and whoever would wear them) and launch her own business.
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Twelve years later, this entrepreneur came to Forbes as the youngest (on her own) billionaire woman in the world. You know the story: Spanx , Sara's company, started with $ 5,000 and is now to underwear what Kleenex is to tissues. Oprah dubbed it her "favorite object" and her invention has been used without regret by many celebrities, from JLo to Reese Witherspoon. He even managed to sneak into the MoMa. Sara, who was named a Distinguished Entrepreneur last month by Babson College's Academy, continues to work and find new ways to share her wisdom.
ENTREPRENEUR (EN): What's new at Spanx? Tag spanx? Spanx for dogs? Something that is being created?
Sara Blakely (SB): There are three things that are being worked on at the moment that are specific inventions that I can't talk about. But I am very excited about our new leggings. And the denim we just released.
EN: You have done this for 18 years. Do you have any other undertakings up your sleeve?
SB: Never say never. I have an idea book. Right now it's 99 pages, single spaced, and has a ton of ideas that have nothing to do with Spanx. But what I'm working on is a new digital platform for my knowledge, because several times a day they ask me for 15 minutes of my time. And the question is always the same: How did you start Spanx? The reality is that it all started long before I cut off my socks ... it started when I started working on myself when I was 16 years old. So the digital platform is in beta mode right now.
EN: Can you share some of what you have learned as you have grown your company to almost 200 employees?
SB: Looking back over the last 10 years, my biggest learning has been to fire people quickly. It is a difficult thing to do. The other two lessons that make me stronger and more noticeable are: contract your weaknesses and stay in your lane.
EN: How is it to stay in your lane?
SB: It's about waking up every day with a What am I good for? How am I contributing to the world? I identified early on what my contributions to Spanx should be: invent, promote, sell. So if I find myself spending too much time sitting with lawyers or accountants, a radar goes on. And I wonder if this is happening because of not having the right people, or not having hired the right talent. So I motivate people to delegate and hire people to do the things that you don't do well. And realize that this awareness of What are my strengths and weaknesses? It comes when you are silent with yourself and you are listening, paying attention.
EN: You posted on Facebook about a time you sent someone a shoe with a note that said “I just wanted to put my foot in the door”. It was very funny. What other things like that have you done?
SB: On the subject of shoes, one day I went to work (as a fax salesperson) and I noticed that she was wearing a black heel and a navy blue heel. And instead of saying, "Oh my God, I have to go change," I thought, "You know what? I will bring them all day ”. And it was a very good way to open doors. People didn't take me out of their offices because I came in and said "Yes, this happened to me today." The thing to learn here is to be willing to laugh at yourself. That makes you human and that's the best way to connect with people.
EN: You and many other entrepreneurs have said that you must be willing to make mistakes.
SB: Yes. And I am also a firm believer that we should not disconnect from our inner child. The simple act of asking "Why? OK, but why? "So when I was starting I realized that they put a little elastic on all the waists that I no longer needed to go because the fibers had evolved enough. When I asked the reason they told me "It is the only way that the garments stay up". And I would say, "And have you tried it any other way?" No. "So how do you know?" We just know . So he would say, "Let's see." And there is an art to this, because you need these people, but it's also about inspiring others to think differently. Asking why can lead you to incredible discoveries.
EN: How is your business style different from that of your husband? (Jesse Itzler, co-founder of Marquis Jet)
SB: The thing about Jesse, and what I love about him, is that one day he has an idea on a blackboard and a month later it already exists. You feel more comfortable going and starting and letting everything be a breeze at first. And I'm a little more careful.
EN: And he uses Spanx?
SB: Yes, he loves our men's underwear line. Run in them.
EN: And is that line growing?
SB: We have a whole cult that follows our line of men. The men's undershirt hasn't changed since 1918. So we added some Lycra to make it better. Some things evolve quickly and others need you to watch and think: This has been the case for 50 years . And those are the things you have to pay attention to.
EN: You have four children, how do you manage motherhood while running your company?
SB: I don't do my nails anymore, I basically paint them myself. I spend the whole weekend with my family and I get very involved in the mornings and evenings with them. At the office I have many things in my way, one minute I have a lawyer telling me something, the next I am reviewing products and the next my son's teacher is calling me. Something I did that was super helpful was compartmentalizing things. So now I have a specific time each week for people who need my time or my money. I have a specific time to check my email, once or twice a week. On Tuesdays I almost always see marketing and branding. On Thursdays I check products. On Wednesdays I have meetings with all the directors. It's not a bulletproof method, but at least it worked for me.
EN: Any advice on the subject of motherhood for other female founders?
SB: The moment I became a mom, it was like someone turned up the volume on my self-criticism. I had my baby and it was like, what's going on? It has taken me several years but I have learned not to let it get out of control. I hear this voice: The other moms did remember this event, and our son is the only one who went to school with something different. You are very bad, you are a mess, you are overwhelmed. I start to go into this black hole and then I stop and immediately tell myself good things about myself: You know what? You're doing it right. You have four healthy children … It is something like reversing negative thoughts and this has helped me a lot.
EN: Did you consider any other names for Spanx?
SB: I was about to call her Open Toe Delilahs ( laughs ).
EN: It can't be! Open Toe Delilahs? Sara, what was that about? Sounds like sandals.
SB: I don't know! I dont know! But surely you wouldn't be interviewing me right now if I had put Open Toe Delilahs on my company.