Excerpted from The Startup Playbook: Secrets of the Fastest-Growing Startups from Their Founding Entrepreneurs by David S. Kidder, Chronicle Books (2013).
When I spoke with Sara Blakely, she told me something that’s going to change the way that I parent. When she was a little girl, her father would ask, “What did you fail at today?” He made it clear that failure was an indication that you tried something. It was a good thing. That’s a profound idea, and it speaks against many of the assumptions of our success-based culture. If you celebrate a child’s gift rather than her effort, you do her a disservice. In exactly the same way, it does no good to celebrate an entrepreneur’s idea. The important thing is being able to execute on it.
Sara came upon the initial idea for Spanx when she cut the feet out of her pantyhose in 2000. But this inspiration wasn’t just a lucky accident; it was part of her innate commitment to thinking outside the box . . . and thinking in general. “I think!” she says, “I think recreationally! I have periods of time where I turn off my TV and sit on my couch and I think.” This habit has bred a confidence in her own ideas, and is a clear indication of the independent spirit that powers Sara’s work. She doesn’t need others to validate what she knows to be true; she just does it, knowing that any failures will eventually improve her efforts in a way that encouragement never could. That perspective is unique, and it feeds her characteristic momentum and drive.
Sara’s commitment to improving women’s lives predates her own memories.
When I graduated from college, I went straight into selling fax machines. I was door-to-door for seven years. Then I cut the feet out of my pantyhose and I’ve been off promoting Spanx ever since. Now, women have been cutting the feet out of their pantyhose for a variety of reasons for 20 years, but no one took the idea and ran with it. I think the difference was the amount of mental preparation I had been doing prior to that day — a lot of thinking, a lot of visualizing, and a lot of goal-setting. I was very clear in asking the universe to show me an opportunity and give me my own idea. I had assessed my strengths and weaknesses as a sales rep. I knew I could sell and I knew I liked people, and I was selling a product I didn’t understand or even particularly like. If I could create my own product that I actually really liked, I felt I could do better.
The very first time I cut the feet out of my pantyhose, I knew that was my opportunity. This was what I had been manifesting and thinking about. I thought, “Thanks! Got it; gonna run with it.”
Sara was excited, but she remained discreet.
I think that one of the biggest reasons that Spanx exists is that I didn’t tell anyone my idea early on. I kept it to myself for one year and pursued it at night and on the weekends. All anybody knew was that Sara was working on some crazy idea. No one told me to do that; it was a completely intuitive feeling. After a year of this, I sat my friends and family down and said, “It’s footless pantyhose.” They looked horrified. “That’s what you’ve been working on?!” It wasn’t malicious; there was a lot of love and concern: “Sweetie, if it’s such a good idea, why doesn’t it already exist? And even if it is a good idea, those big guys are going to blow you out of the water in the first couple of months.” If I’d heard those things on the day I first cut the feet out of my pantyhose, I think I’d probably still be selling fax machines today.
With $5,000 of her own money, Sara produced and aggressively promoted the first prototypes of her slimming, footless pantyhose.
I could tell customers why they needed my product in 30 seconds. “I’ve invented footless pantyhose so you can wear white pants with no panty lines, look thinner, and wear any style shoe. You’ve got clothes that have been hanging in your closet for years because you can’t figure out what to wear under them. You need this.”
Then I realized that I could add another layer of impact by making this visual. So I took pictures of my own rear end: me in white pants with Spanx, and me in white pants without Spanx. I brought them to Kinko’s and laminated them, and I would stand at the entrance of stores to hook people in. If after 30 seconds of explaining “why you need this product” I still didn’t get them, I held up my laminated pictures and they would say, “Oh, I see . . . I’ll take two!” Talk about putting your butt on the line!
That wasn’t Sara’s only marketing innovation. The other was to apply for a patent.
A lot of people get extremely consumed in the patent process. A patent is only as good as your ability to defend it, but a lot of entrepreneurs don’t realize that. If you have nothing left after spending a lot of money on a patent lawyer, you won’t get any protection.
I didn’t hire a patent lawyer. I wrote the application myself and had a lawyer do the claims part for about $700 because I realized that a patent would only benefit me as a marketing tool. By having the phrase “patent pending” on the package, I could call myself an “inventor.” I felt that that stood out more and created a lot of buzz: people in the media are more eager to talk about a new “invention” than they are to talk about a new “designer.”
Sara founded Spanx in 2000 to manufacture and sell the footless-pantyhose undergarment she had invented to improve women’s figures. Since that time, the company has sold more than 9 million pairs of their original product and expanded offerings to other shapewear items, including, most recently, products for men. The turning point came quickly when Oprah Winfrey chose Spanx as one of her “favorite things” in 2000, immediately bringing the brand to nationwide prominence. Today, Spanx does more than $350 million in global retail sales annually, offering more than 200 products in top retailers around the world. In March 2012, Sara became one of the few women named to Forbes magazine’s annual Billionaires’ List, further distinguishing herself by being the youngest female billionaire in the world.
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