“Failure to me became not trying versus not succeeding” – Sara Blakely of Spanx
Failure is not trying – “my father was very determined to encourage me to fail. At the dinner table, he would ask me and my brother what we failed at that week. If you didn’t have a story, he was disappointed. He reframed my thinking on failure. He would give me high fives after I told him how I tried something and was awful at it.”*
What you don’t know can be your greatest asset – “I had no idea what I was doing in most cases it worked in my favor. I have been asked, ‘how in the world did you get your product in Neiman’s’. I’d say, I called them’. The response is ‘we go to trade shows, have booth and have been trying to get in Neiman’s for years’”. “If you don’t know what you are doing, … you are going to end up doing it differently, … and that what makes great companies and great products.”*
After graduating from college with a communication degree, Susan’s plan was to attend law school. However, a struggle with the LSAT forced her to do something completely different and in a unique direction in that she wanted to work at Disney World. Three months into her tenure she quit completely frustrated because she couldn’t be Goofy! Goofy has a requirement to be 5’ 8’’ and Susan is only 5’6″! Susan then started down another path into office equipment, which was selling fax machines door to door. She stated, “I didn’t like fax machines and I didn’t understand them half the time.”*
Sara had a problem, she struggled to find what to wear under white pants like many other women did. It was her problem and she could not find any solution available in the marketplace at that time. So, she saw a solution and decided to cut off the bottoms of a pair body shaping panty hose. It worked, however it kept rolling up her legs in a short period of time. She believed a soft knitted comfortable band could keep the product placed under the knee and prevent this rolling up effect.
Sara had never taken a business or a fashion class nor had she ever worked in the fashion industry and after 7 years selling fax machines, she decided to spend her entire $5,000 of savings to make a production run and begin marketing her product.
She went online to uspto.gov to discover there had yet to be a footless, body shaping panty hose patent filed to that date. She went to Thomas Register to find all of the U.S. manufacturers of panty hose. She spent two years cold calling them to find someone to make them and finally she took a week off work and started calling on the mills in person just like when selling fax machines. Three weeks passed before a mill owner had looked at her product seriously and called her back. It turned that the mill owner’s three daughters had the same problem as as Sara and that her product was a solution to be tested.
Once the new products were produced, Sara called the Neiman Marcus around the corner to say “Hi I’m Sara, I invented a product. When can I come and show it to you?”* She was able to secure a meeting with a buyer. She next took the proverbial bull by the horns and convinced the buyer into the bathroom to show her. The buyer understood the problem, the need and ordered the solution from Sara. Within weeks the product was on the shelves at Neiman Marcus.
To successfully achieve a dream or big idea, you must effectively plan and manage a strategy. Next comes the marketing and operations cost and with only $5,000 in savings she had to be effective and efficient. Using her ability to do both is why she owns 100% of the company that generates $500M per year in sales.
Her strategy was based upon:
Market Validation – Sara validated a marketable need with the correct people: herself, the three daughters of the mill owner and most importantly the Neiman Marcus buyer. She utilized their feedback from trying the prototype in order to make any refinements for a marketable product.
Marketing 101 – Sara has disclosed in interviews she had researched the power of the “k” sound in the “coke” and “Kodak” brands. She came up with Spanks initially and later to Spanx. After packaging the product in red with interesting cartoon caricature images of women. Her product had to stand out with no marketing budget.
Production Research – Sara researched and called panty hose manufacturers for two years. She was able to get a mill owner to make a prototype. She developed the packaging on her friend’s computer.
Operation Protection – She bought a book at Barnes and Noble on how to file patents. She did most of the patent filing herself (only $700). Sara used $150 from her credit card on uspto.gov to trademark Spanx. She secured space on Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue shelves. She had the product produced and delivered to the retailers.
Personal Investment – She invested her time and her only funds to get started using the $5,000 she saved and avoided debt.
When asked for her keys for success, Sara mentions her father, her upbringing and naivety. Naivety and fear of “not trying” are likely behind most breakthrough innovation and Sara cited both as her keys to success. Her philosophy and her execution of the basics in getting to market provides us insight into how you can make almost anything happen if you put your mind to it – The Law of Attraction only works through effort!
* Quotes from Sara Blakely’s Spanx interview on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS, August 25, 2013
Entrepreneur Billionaire Sara Blakely of Spankx