How Sara Blakely Went From Disney Goofy to Spanx Billionaire

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Faced With Constant Rejection And Without Business Experience, Blakely’s Amazing Story Is One Of Grit, Determination, And Mindset – And We Can All Learn From It.

We have pretty strong beliefs about business, here at StartupGeek.

We believe that the world has become incredibly small over the last couple of decades, and international business should be embraced more than ever. We believe that over the next decade or so, AI will replace millions of jobs, which is unfortunate, but will also serve the process of launching a business tremendously. We believe that climate change, whether you believe in it or not, will play a central role within the strategy of many startups.

We have many beliefs, observations, and views, just as you do, and these beliefs sometimes chop and change. But we remain resolute that despite the looming economic crisis, global supply chain issues, and general financial uncertainty, there has never been an easier time in history to create a successful startup, without any real business experience. 

Evidence of this rather positive view is everywhere, in our opinion. Seriously. This is the age of the digital entrepreneur. The gritty content creator. The budding tycoon. Everyone seems to be at it, and despite all the doom and gloom, a fair chunk of startups seem to be doing very well indeed.

Bloggers are making millions. Young sportswear founders are worth billions. Students are launching beauty cream products out of their parent’s garage and retiring at 30. SaaS subscriptions are flying out, courtesy of shoestring startups, and a whole new era of entertainment-based content has emerged with YouTubers, influencers, and even TikTok movers and shakers cleaning up profits. 

The list is endless and falls into a huge range of categories, but something quite prevalent currently is that a growing number of entrepreneurs are creating successful businesses on a tight budget, without experience, armed only with a bright idea and plucky resolve.

Hopefully, we don’t sound too flippant here. We appreciate of course that creating a startup is no easy feat, requiring a lot of hard work, diligence, and determination. But take a look around you. Obviously, there are catastrophic failures, with companies such as FTX, one of several high-profile business disasters of late, losing billions seemingly overnight. 

But for every loose cannon like Sam Bankman Freid, there are hundreds if not thousands of inspirational business leaders like Sara Blakely, who seem to be doing everything right, having created an empire without any direct business experience behind them.

Sara Who?

You won’t find Sara Blakely plastered all over socials at every given opportunity, and while we are in the age of brand-serving self-promotion, Blakely has a far more low-key approach to personal branding. At least, in comparison to the current crop of billionaire business leaders who have a penchant for the spotlight.

As a result, you might not know the name. Those who do, however, will know her as the founder of Spanx, the billion-dollar colossus of the underwear and leggings industry with a global customer base, annual sales upwards of $400 million, and 750 employees, as of year-end, 2022. 

Early Years

Born and raised in Clearwater, Florida, Blakely harbored aspirations from a young age to become a lawyer. After graduating from college, she failed the law school admission test and decided not to retake it.

Unsure of a career path and lacking in vision, she did what any reasonable, clear-thinking young college graduate would do, and drove over to Disney World to become a paid ‘Goofy.’

Armed with a degree in communications and blessed with quick wit, high intelligence, and a sharp mind, you would imagine obtaining work as an anthropomorphic hat-wearing dog would be something of a shoo-in. It wasn’t. With her career as a courtroom brawler now shelved, so was her calling as an affable cartoon dog in a turtleneck, owing to the fact she was too short. 

Instead, she worked various ad-hoc positions around the theme park, before taking a sales position with a company in Florida, selling fax machines.

It was a tough sell. Fax machines are now pretty much obsolete, but even in the late nineties they were becoming an antiquated technology, with digital communication tools replacing the screechy, whirly, landline-connected machines in vast numbers. Undeterred by the lack of demand, Blakely excelled, using her good humor and engaging pitching skills to land big numbers and eventually win a promotion to Sales Manager.

Launching Spanx

Lugging fax machines around in the tropical Floridian climate didn’t feel like her true calling, however, so she decided to forge a different career path, under her own steam. Unsure what that might be, she wrote down a list of things she was good at. Forefront to this list was one simple noun: Sales.

With her sights set on business, she needed something to sell. Inspiration would arrive in the form of a pair of white pants hanging in her wardrobe, previously unworn. She didn’t like the way her underwear showed through the thin fabric and as a result, never bothered to wear them. But then, an idea. By taking pantyhose and cutting out the feet, she could wear them underneath the pants, achieving a smooth, seamless look with the bonus of shaping her butt at the same time.

Women will pay for this in droves, she figured, and It was this problem-solving solution coupled with an innate ability to sell that would set the foundations for Spanx. But first, she had some work to do.

With no prior business experience, she faced considerable hurdles, starting with suppliers, and patents. Local manufacturers scoffed at her idea of a footless body-shaping pantyhose, as did every factory in North Carolina, the home of America’s hosiery industry. Coupled with this, copyright lawyers wanted the majority of her $5000 savings to register a patent for the idea. During her spare time, she spent the next couple of years reaching out to suppliers, researching business fundamentals, and studying patent laws.

Her fortunes changed when just one solitary factory owner acknowledged the potential and agreed to manufacture the product; he had shown Blakely’s prototype to his three daughters, each of whom said it was a great idea and worth pursuing. She had found a manufacturer, finally, but not without immense effort and constant rejection.

The Empowerment Of Rejection

Put yourself in her shoes. You know nothing about garment or underwear manufacturing and have no experience in business or product research. You failed your law school entry exams. You couldn’t even bag the role of Goofy and now, you sell fax machines – a product mostly used to receive junk mail – door to door.

You have an idea, something that will hopefully launch you into a successful business venture, but every single factory you have approached to help realize it has laughed you out of the meeting room. 

You would be tempted, surely, to acquiesce to a reality check, and give in. If all these experts are convinced of failure, you might think, what is the point in moving forward? But Blakely had learned a very valuable lesson through the constant snubbing of cold-calling fax machines. Rejection is a numbers game, and nothing more. Shirk the rejection, dismiss it and keep moving forward. Eventually, someone will say yes. 

She was right. Someone did, and they set about creating prototypes, along with a test sample batch, professionally packaged. She also researched copyright laws in her spare time and submitted the patent. While she did submit through an attorney, she had done most of the work herself and was only charged $750.

Spanx had arrived, at least in its most basic form. Now, she needed retailers to sell the product.

First Sales

Here’s where things get a little interesting. After reaching out to retailers both locally and state-wide, she was granted a ten-minute appointment with her local Neiman Marcus store – a prominent clothing retailer with a couple of dozen high-traffic locations. During the meeting, Blakely decided, spontaneously, to invite the buyer to the ladies’ bathroom, so she could model the Spanx and demonstrate in person. The buyer was interested, and a test order was placed, to see how consumers would react to the product in seven stores. 

Requiring a full batch, she contacted her supplier to place the order, but there was a problem. They did not have enough crotches to sew into the product. To fulfill the order, she had to embark on an aggressive outbound campaign, calling hundreds of manufacturers not just in the States, but worldwide, to buy crotches.

Using most of her savings to buy the crotches, she was able to have the first Spanx batch manufactured. The product was delivered on time and displayed in several Neiman Marcus stores. But remember, this is a test run. Neiman Marcus needed to see sales, and positive customer feedback, to follow through with a larger order. 

She started reaching out to her friends – or sometimes even vague acquaintances – and had them visit the stores as paying customers who would positively rave about what an amazing product this was. In return, Blakely would send a cheque to cover her friends’ expenses.

These ‘shoppers’ would enter any one of the seven stores stocking Spanx, act intrigued by this revolutionary product, buy one or two, and then return days later for a subsequent ‘browse’ while casually mentioning how happy they are with their previous purchase. “By the way”, they would affirm to sales assistants, “those Spanx things, or whatever they are called, are truly amazing. Look, I’m wearing them now, I have gone down three sizes!”

This encouraging consumer feedback filtered through to the buying department, who increased the order size and promoted the products with more verve with accompanied point of sale materials. Spanx was on its way. But then, an incredible development.

Out of nowhere, Spanx would be featured on a world-famous prime-time television show with 20 million viewers, propelling Spanx into the big time.

Oprah

Despite the Neiman Marcus success, Blakely was still a solopreneur without staff, premises, or even products, in any large number, at least. What she did have were prototypes. On a whim, she sent a promotional basket of Spanx products through to Oprah’s head of wardrobe, who in turn suggested Oprah try one. She did, and she liked it. So much so, in fact, that she asked the production team to reach out to Blakely, informing her that Oprah wanted Spanx as the ‘Oprah product of the year’.

A telephone conversation took place between the production team and Blakely, which went something like the following – paraphrased from a podcast and various written anecdotes in which Blakeley described Oprah’s involvement in helping Spanx achieve a distinct tipping point:

PT: “Sara? Hi, this is the production manager at Oprah. So, we tested out your product, and the good news is, we all love it.”

SB: “That’s amazing!”

PT: “Oprah wants you on the show, promoting Spanx as product of the year.”

SB: “What! Oh my god!”

PT: “So, we want to fly down a crew of ten to the Spanx HQ, record an interview, and film the general operation. You know, show the viewers the day-to-day of this wonderful business.”

The problem is, Blakeley’s ‘general operation’ consisted of herself, in her kitchen, and nothing more. Presumably picking up on a moment’s hesitation, the production team continued:

PT: “I mean, you do have, like, a head office we can visit, or a factory, or something, right?”

SB: “Yes of course!”

PT: “And, you know, staff we can interview, that kind of thing?”

SB: “Absolutely! They would be thrilled!”

PT: “Great. Also, you know, this is going to give you a huge boost in sales. Just to check, our viewers can visit your website and place orders, right? There are going to be lots of orders here. You can handle the stock and everything, right?”

SB: “Of course! We have everything in place to handle scale! Dont worry!”

But in addition to having no ‘real’ premises or staff, Blakely also didn’t have a website or even the slightest amount of stock. She had three weeks before the interview would transpire to stitch it all together: website, checkouts, staff…an actual functional business.

The production team arrived at Spanx ‘HQ’. Or to put it another way, her apartment. Prior to the crew arriving, she had hastily cobbled together ‘staff’, by calling friends, family, and even the young assistant she had got to know at the local Mailbox Inc, asking if they would “turn up at my home and act as if you all work for me in some way”. 

They obliged. When the production crew arrived, looking extremely professional with camera and lighting equipment, clipboards, and even junior runners, the ‘staff’ gathered around a table and pretended to have a serious meeting, spouting facts, figures, projections, and strategies. In truth, they were all merely winging it, largely talking absolute off-the-cuff nonsense, ad-libbing a very important if not completely pointless meeting.

It worked. The production crew got their footage, which would be featured around Oprah’s product of the year; Spanx. Blakely had three weeks to get a website up and running, and secure enough stock to cover the imminent Oprah-aided sales explosion. She managed to pull it off, the interview went very well, Oprah featured Spanx as product of the year, and the company was on its way, fueled by sudden explosive sales, courtesy of Oprah Winfrey.

Now, take a moment to reflect on something; barely a few weeks before the Oprah phone call, Blakely was still selling fax machines, door to door. Incredible, when you think about it. Goofy; Fax machines; Kitchen-office; Fake staff; Prototype; Oprah Goddam Winfrey.

Bloomingdales, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, and others began stocking Spanx products, and throughout 2000, Spanx pulled in revenues of $4 million. Blakely had achieved this without any investor help and owned 100% of the company herself. She didn’t even take out a small bank loan. The entire operation was launched with proceeds from selling fax machines, door to door. Remarkable, to say the least.

Growth

With a growing troop of retailers behind her, and an Oprah-endorsed ‘product of the year,’ Spanx recorded $10 million in sales during its second year. The following year, she partnered with the Goliath shopping Channel QVC and sold over 8000 Spanx products in just over five minutes.

Through a combination of direct-to-consumer channels and department store sales, Spanx continued to record annual growth, year on year, using third-party manufacturers and without the help of a marketing agency.

Blakeley was announced as the world’s youngest, self-created female billionaire by Forbes Magazine in 2012 and featured in TIME as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. She reached various milestones such as those while, incredibly, retaining full ownership of Spanx, without a single investor on board. 

It wasn’t until 2021 that she finally sold an equity stake in the business to Blackstone, cementing her billionaire status once again after the global pandemic had possibly put a slight dent in the unofficial title. During that same year, Oprah herself also invested in Spanx. 

Combined with further business assets, including a stake in NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and a vast property portfolio, Blakeley now has an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion, as of 2023.

It’s an incredible story, brimming with inspiration. From Disney to cold calling fax machines, through to Oprah and billionaire status in around 10 years, all without outside investment and mostly without any external marketing support. Blakeley’s story should be a reminder to all of us that with the right mindset, we are all capable of achieving colossal success. 

But what lessons, specifically, can we draw from the Spanx story? Let’s take a look. 

1. Avoid Paralysis By Analysis

When Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, you would be forgiven for imagining him rooted to a comically huge blackboard full of algebra, after several months of mathematical grind. But the seeds of his idea came to him while shaving, of all things.

This daily and mundane self-grooming chore was his favored moment for thinking, embracing each shaving session as an opportunity to allow his mind to wander naturally. The result of this wandering would be the occasional genius idea. 

Sarah Blakely is no different. While she is mercifully free of facial stubble and probably hasn’t come even remotely close to solving complex astrophysics theories lately, what she does have is a car, and in it, she comes up with her best ideas. Her commute to the Spanx head office is just a brief 6-minute drive away, but she regularly stretches the commute into a one-hour self-imposed detour, to think. 

You probably do something similar yourself. If not, the premise is simple and should be tested out as part of a daily routine. You just need to engage in something that requires only a light focus, executed on auto-pilot. The idea is to allow your peripheral thinking to latch onto something, and ignite an idea in some way. Walk a neighbor’s dog, maybe, or wash the car. Mow the lawn, or paint a fence. You might be surprised, and if it worked for Einstein and America’s youngest-ever female billionaire, it could work for you.

A common misbelief is that most businesses are created through intense research, study, and long periods of brainstorming, but the truth is that many great ideas are revealed to you when least expected. A sudden mental ‘ping’, dropping into your train of thought, gifted out of complete nonexistence, could be the start of something incredible if you open your mind and allow it to freely meander, unsupervised. 

Blakely’s plan was simple and uncomplicated. It arrived her while she was getting ready for a business function, flicking through her wardrobe and looking for something to wear. Ping. “I should make pantyhose without feet, and sell them as body shaping wear.” 

No brainstorming. No intense research. Just an idea that was pursued, without the complication of overt strategy. 

She would eventually devise the name Spanx while sitting in traffic. Ping. Again, the name was not brainstormed, and there was no intricately derived word play employed in the making of it. She simply liked the sound that the ‘x’ made. It came to her out of the blue, while allowing her mind to wander freely, sitting in her car.

2. Fail Forward

Time to wheel out the famous Thomas Edison quote. So famous, in fact,  that it flirts with cliche and has become the go-to quote when describing the notion of failing forward. You will forgive me because there is simply no better illustrative snippet of the attitude one must harbor, amid failure, than this.

Edison was discussing his failed attempts at inventing what would eventually become the light bulb. He got there in the end, of course, but over the years he was ridiculed, mocked, and disparaged by his peers for his constant failures. In response to the sneers over his uninterrupted foundering, he said the following:

I haven’t failed 10,000 times. I have simply identified 10,000 ways that it doesn’t work. 

Whatever the equivalent of a mic-drop was in 1879, I am sure Edison delivered it immediately preceding this beautiful pearl of wisdom. The line holds up to this day and serves as a testament to the notion of failing forward, to such a degree that if you haven’t experienced failure on some level, you are probably yet to succeed. Mistakes are simply opportunities to fine-tune, improve, identify and grow. 

Elon Musk, for example, echoes similar beliefs. When briefing his SpaceX staff during a conference, he made the following statement about failure:

“Failure IS an option at SpaceX. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough,’” 

Of course, this sentiment trips off the tongue quite easily and belies the sheer terror of failure when you have everything on the line and failure equals disaster. But the fact remains – fear of failure is a handicap and will limit your potential. 

It helps if you can acknowledge failure and be mindful of it when launching a startup. While that may sound a little counterproductive, the same could be said of anything in life, when you think about it. By approaching the potential for failure head-on and accepting the possibilities of it, you will reduce the aspect of fear and, in turn, limit the handicap.

Blakeley approached the Spanx venture with $5000 in savings and not a shred of business experience. Every single manufacturer she visited told her this was destined for failure – until she found just one person who, thanks to his daughter’s seal of approval, decided to make a small run of prototypes. Blakely acknowledged the potential for failure but shirked it, and went ahead regardless. She was aware of the failure but wasn’t consumed by it.

To Blakely, failure is simply a metaphorical feather in her hat. A weapon, of sorts. Failure helps identify the potential to burst forward with progress. Failure means you are at least taking a shot. 

Blakely recalls her Father asking around the family dinner table, what everyone’s failures had been, so far that week. If the answer was none, her Father would be disappointed. “Well then you are not trying hard enough” he would tell them. 

Embrace failure. Don’t encourage it, of course, but respect it, and learn from it. Failure is an ally, not an enemy. If you have not experienced failure, you are not pushing yourself, and your limits, as hard as you could be.

3. Act As If

Spanx is a wonderful product with a highly creative, forward-thinking leader, who invented a clever solution to a common problem. Even without the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval catapulting Spanx into the spotlight, Blakely probably would have driven the company to billionaire status, at some point. 

But let’s be honest, the Oprah endorsement instantly pointed the needle firmly in the direction of huge growth. Blakely caught a lucky break, that much is obvious. However, without the ability to think on her feet, improvise, and embrace risk, Oprah might never have happened. She could have come clean with the show’s production team and confessed to being a solopreneur with no website, consumer-ready products, or staff, but she acted as if she had those things in place.

And let’s not lose sight of the fact she did send the product to Oprah in the first place.

The lesson here is simple. Act as if you have already made it when the situation requires it. Impression is everything in business and by demonstrating a little creative thinking, you are putting yourself, and your business, in a better position to pull off something remarkable.

Not to get overly whimsical about it, but there is also a psychology with acting as if. By affirming to yourself that you are already there, you are engaging your subconscious into believing, which is everything in business.

4. Count Your Blessings

Maybe this next point is more of an observation than advice, but either way, this is a point we enjoy making and have done so in almost every case study we have put together.

If your current role is less than glamorous, and you are somewhat in the trenches, battling to make a living and facing adversity on some level, remember this: most of the successful people we have written about have been in the same position. Just as Blakely worked long hours hawking fax machines door to door, our other case study subjects, from Gary Vee to Mark Cuban have done the same.

While a vocation such as door-to-door sales may feel like you have the unlucky end of the stick in life, you really should be throwing everything into it and using the experience as leverage for future endeavors. It teaches you the art of sales and marketing on a fundamental base level. You experience rejection and learn how to shake it off. You learn the basic tenets of closing and how to read people at key moments. You learn when to speak, when to listen, and when to ask the right questions.

Neil Patel did it, selling expensive vacuum cleaners door to door. Mark Cuban did it with garbage bags. Blakeley earnt her particular stripes knocking on doors, selling fax machines.

Whatever your role is, embrace it, and give it your best shot. Figure out how to absorb every atom of ingenuity from the experience, and you will almost certainly find a way to unleash those basic skills later in life when you are in the midst of an exciting startup launch. It might feel like you are at the bottom of the ladder, but those with a winning mindset will seize the endeavor as a learning experience, while thinking forward.

5. Winners Make Things Happen

While losers let things happen. This is not to suggest that non-successful people are losers. Of course not. For every successful entrepreneur, there might be an equal amount of gifted, determined, hard-working people with a sound mindset and approach who haven’t managed to crack it just yet. 

That, unfortunately, is just the nature of life. Circumstances outside of your control, unfortunate timing, funding issues, and a whole host of other reasons are liable to prevent the most gifted business genius from succeeding, at times.

But there is a mindset among successful entrepreneurs that enables them to overcome obstacles and move forward. Blakely was faced with a real problem early in the business, during a pivotal, key moment in the Spanx story, when Neiman Marcus presented an opportunity to stock her products, despite having no products to sell.

Undeterred, she figured it out. She approached suppliers, rallied the fake customer troops, and got it over the line. In other words, she made things happen. 

Conversely, she could have allowed the opportunity to falter. If, for example, she had laid her cards on the Neiman Marcus buyer’s table and told them that regrettably, she had no product to sell and would need time to arrange, she almost certainly would have lost the opportunity. In other words, she would have let it happen, allowing a pivotal moment to slip through her grasp, owing to a reticence to find a way.

Buyers are not known for their patience and when they want something, they expect it to be handed to them on a silver plate, yesterday. Aware of this, Blakely took affirmative action and made it happen. With her current supplier unable to provide crotches on scale, she engaged in a global sourcing campaign and had crotches sent to her from all four corners of the earth. The retailer needed to see immediate sales and positive customer feedback, so that is what she delivered, with the assistance of loyal friends and associates, all willing to venture into the stores and buy the product.

Again, she made it happen. Had she simply allowed the product to wallow on the shelves with only mediocre sales, she might not have received an increase in orders and subsequent extra promotion, within those stores. That would have been allowing it to happen.

Your startup journey will likely be filled with moments when you need to figure out a way to make it happen. Do whatever it takes, proactively, to give your business the leg-up that it will require. 

Think forward, and be proactive, not reactive. 

There’s Always Goofy

The world is your oyster and within it are 8 billion people, most of whom are potential customers or clients. Even if you don’t have an idea at the forefront of your mind right now, trust me when I say this: we are all capable of a genius idea. 

In all of our minds, sometimes buried quite deep but in there somewhere, is an idea so rich in potential that you have a very real chance of becoming the next Sara Blakeley. I can’t stress this point enough. We are all potential industry giants. Don’t believe me? Take a look around at the current troop of famous business tycoons. Most of them, at one point in time, was distinctly average. All of them were.  

Exciting isn’t it? The very notion that you are almost certainly capable of yanking an idea out of nonexistence and into the public realm. This is the age of the plucky underdog, so if you have an idea rich with potential, take a leaf out of Sara Blakeley’s book and figure out a way to make it happen. Ignore the probable negativity heading your way in the form of “it will never work”. Make it happen, somehow. Believe in yourself, and get it over the line. 

Alternatively, we hear Disney needs a new Goofy, so there is always that, if you fancy it.

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About the author: Matty Bates

With over two decades of online marketing experience, Matty has helped launch successful marketing campaigns for a wide range of companies in the eCommerce space, largely through writing engaging copy and devising advertising campaigns with a definite creative flair. After running a small but very successful direct-response advertising company for 12 years, Matty ventured into freelance copywriting in 2019 while also creating and managing his own eCommerce projects, selling viral products through social media sales funnels and landing pages. Matty joined Startup Geek as a senior content writer in mid-2022, before quickly rising to Editor a few months later. His natural style might be described as mildly satirical and humourous - which is an approach not usually employed within the entrepreneurial content realm - but helps to deliver an interesting touch of color to the informative content we are producing here at Startup Geek.

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