Sara Blakely Put Her Butt on the Line to Build a Brand

Sara Blakely

Born in 1971, she was raised in Clearwater, Florida. Her father would ask her and her brother the same question every night at the dinner table – “What did you fail at today?” One night she answered – “I tried out for a new sports team today…I was terrible!” Her dad responded with a big smile, an ‘atta girl’ and an enthusiastic high five. On those nights when she stated that she’d not failed at anything that day, the response was one of disappointment.

So it was that she learned from a very early age to embrace failure because it meant she was trying something new – that she was learning and growing. Accepting failure as an option allowed her to pursue her entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. One such endeavor saw her set up a haunted house at Halloween and charge the neighborhood kids to go through it.

As a teen, she experienced an inordinate amount of adversity. At sixteen, she saw her friend get hit by a car and die while riding her bike. Also that year, her parents divorced. Soon thereafter, two prom dates ended died in separate incidents. She thought of her own mortality and used the realization that life can end at any moment as motivation.

Her father had given her the audio edition of Wayne Dyer’s How to be a No-Limit Person. She listened to the ten cassette tapes so often that she memorized every word. Friends at school were hesitant to ride in her car because they knew they too would be hearing Dyer’s tapes.

She went on to Florida State University where she graduated with a degree in legal communication – her plan being to become a lawyer like her Dad. She abandoned that idea when her answer to the question “What did you fail at today?” was the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) – she failed it twice. Instead she went to work at Walt Disney World in Orlando – as a ride attendant. She endured three months at that job before answering an ad from Danka to sell fax machines door-to-door. By age 25 she had been named national sales trainer.

Invited to a party one night, she had decided to wear a new pair of cream colored pants, but was confronted with an age old problem – visible panty lines (VPL). None of her undergarments solved the issue. Not afraid of trying something new, she cut the feet off of a pair of panty hose and wore them under her pants. Problem solved – no VPL and she could wear her open toed shoes. Even though they ran up her legs all night, she knew the modified pantyhose presented a huge opportunity.

She moved to Atlanta where she continued to sell fax machines while spending all of her free time on product development – researching hosiery patents, seeking the right fabric and cold calling hosiery companies in nearby North Carolina. Her idea was rejected time after time, until one plant manager called her back. His two daughters refused to let him pass up this new product.

She had $5,000. She produced what she could and began to call on retail stores, eventually getting approval from Neiman Marcus to sell in a handful of their stores. She sent everyone she knew into the stores to buy her product – then reimbursed them. She went to stores herself and spoke directly to potential customers. She brought pictures of herself to show the difference between her product and traditional options. She sent a supply to the Oprah Winfrey Show and ended up being named one of Oprah’s favorite new products in the year 2000.

Her research showed that many successful consumer companies had names which used the ‘K’ sound. Endless ideation sessions to find a product name proved fruitless. While driving one day, the name came to her – Spanks. She immediately knew it was the one – but she wanted to make it more memorable so Spanks became Spanx.

Today, the company produces $250 million in annual revenue. The product line has been expanded to include bras, panties, jumpsuits, shorts, leggings, jeans and more. They even make items for men. The girl who was taught to embrace failure, the girl who began entrepreneurial pursuits as a child, the girl who memorized every word on Wayne Dyer’s tapes created what is now one of the most beloved companies in the world. This brand’s stratospheric success is due directly to an individual fearless brand – Sara Blakely.

Fearless Brands 

In 2012 at the age of 41,  Sara Blakely became the youngest woman ever to join the FORBES list of billionaires. She did so without an inheritance. She has owns 100% of Spanx, which is debt free. She has never taken an outside investment and has spent virtually nothing on advertising.

In 2003 she auditioned for Richard Branson’s reality show Rebel Millionaire. She finished as the runner up but gained immeasurable exposure for herself and Spanx. Importantly, she and Branson developed a keen friendship which continues to this day.

As a billionaire, there is very little that is typical about Blakely – but she’s a very typical mom. Married with a six year old son, she volunteers at her son’s school, drives a white Toyota minivan and she goes out after work for drinks with friends.

Blakely is firmly committed to helping women succeed in business. She travels constantly to give talks in which she shares the keys to her success while offering encouragement and support to women. A program called “Leg Up” was created by Blakely to help female entrepreneurs succeed in business. Participants receive one-on-one mentoring and product features in the Spanx catalog. She also has founded the Sara Blakely Foundation which is dedicated to helping women globally and locally through education and entrepreneurship.

One of the many unique facts about Blakely is that she has never taken a business course – instead, she ‘follows her gut’. Her most important tip is this “Believe in your idea, trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to fail.”

There is much to learn from Sara Blakely as you build your brand.

Believe in yourself and your ideas – If you do, you won’t let anyone or anything stop you.

Don’t be afraid to fail – There’s much to learn from your failures, even more than you learn from your successes

Brands evolve – Learn, grow, strive, improve. Branding is an ongoing process.

Face your fears – Replace your fear with faith. Take action. Blakely signed up for classes to face her fear of flying, but she was travelling so much, by plane of course, she never attended the class.

Be persistent – Every no gets you closer to the yes you seek as so eloquently stated in the book Go For No written by Richard Fenton and Andrea Waltz.

You never know where your big idea will come from – perhaps it will sneak up ‘behind you’ as it did with Sara Blakely. What’s important is to know your personal brand. Embrace your why, identify what fulfills you, know your talents – and improve on them. That way, when your ‘aha’ moment comes along, you’ll be in the best position possible to take advantage and achieve your dream results.

Friday's Fearless Brand

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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