Sara Blakely sold fax machines door-to-door. She was a standup comedian. Then she got serious and launched a business that shifted a multibillon-dollar industry.
Undergarment billionaire and Clearwater native Sara Blakely credits her parents for a lot of her success, and she readily admits her first few customers were her mom's friends.
So it was a big deal one night in 2000 when Blakely came home to her Atlanta apartment and got the news from an email: Spanx, the slim-down shapewear business she founded on $5,000 in savings and a reservoir of guts, had sold its first pair of footless pantyhose to someone who wasn't a family connection. “I thought that's when I really arrived,” Blakely quipped to a crowd of hundreds at a recent Spanx store opening at the International Plaza in Tampa.
In the 14 years since that sale, Blakely, 43, has become a unique self-made American businesswoman success story. One of many highlights was being named a Forbes magazine billionaire in 2012, the rare woman on the list who got there without help from a husband or inheritance. Then there are these morsels: She sold nearly 10,000 pairs of Spanx in less than 10 minutes when she debuted the product on QVC in 2001; she was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2002; and she's had lunch with Bill Gates and tea with Sir Richard Branson in a hot air balloon.
That's a long way from selling fax machines door-to-door for Danka Office Imaging in Tampa. Even longer from standup comedian gigs she took in and around Clearwater in her late 20s. Blakely's colorful past also includes a three-month stint greeting people on rides at Walt Disney World.
But Spanx changed everything. The Atlanta-based firm has redefined an industry through products — girdles 2.0 — that shrink butts and tighten tummies. The privately held firm doesn't disclose revenues, but several national business publications estimate the figure at more than $250 million a year. The 200-employee firm has hundreds of products, a list that ranges from bras and hosiery to jeans and leggings. There's a swimsuit line, men's undershirts and, of course, shapewear.
Spanx products are sold online and in more than 11,000 stores in 60 countries, from Saks Fifth Avenue to Sports Authority to independent boutiques. The store that opened in Tampa April 11 is one of four Spanx stores nationwide. It joins others in malls in suburban New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Blakely, in Tampa for the International Plaza opening, spoke with the Business Observer about her career. Here are edited excerpts:
How do you make decisions?
I do the Ben Franklin. I weigh the pros and cons. But a lot of times a decision is my initial first instinct. Knowing how to balance the two is really important. From experience I've been able to compartmentalize the decisions that need to be more on a pro-con list and the ones I just need to go with. Usually it's a feeling you get in your body, a gut instinct.
What do you look for in hiring people?
Energy and enthusiasm has always been what I'm most drawn to when I'm interviewing someone. A lot of Spanx was built on people who had no idea what they were doing and didn't have any previous experience. So I've never been someone who has been intimidated or concerned about hiring someone outside of their resume or specific experience, and that serves me well. Another thing when I'm looking to hire people is there are people who do their jobs and there are people who make things happen. I look for that spark in someone. You get a sense from asking them questions about their life if they are a “make it happen” kind of person. We have a lot of “make it happen” people here.
You have spoken about having autonomous employees who are comfortable taking chances. Why is that important to you?
I feel like people might go on autopilot doing things the way someone else showed them how to do it. And inevitably the people who haven't had a lot of history being shown how to do it come to the table with fresh ideas no matter what. That's sort of what happened to me with Spanx. I had no idea how it was done.
How did you deal with the host of doubters you encountered when you launched Spanx?
I looked in the mirror and looked at my own butt and then I overcame all doubts. I saw the benefits firsthand of what it could do. So even though the industry and everyone kept telling me they weren't sure they understood it or it wasn't a good idea, I could tell it was from my own personal experience.
How have you continued to innovate at Spanx after the initial success?
Each time we go really out of the box to start a whole new category of shaping. The second big invention that has continued to breathe a lot of life and revolutionize the whole category, was I came up with the first shaper short with no leg band. And now anywhere you go in the world you basically can't find a shaper short with a leg band. But Spanx was the one that pushed the envelope and invented that. For a year and a half I tried to push the manufacturers. They all said they have a leg band for a reason. It's the only way you keep it down on the leg. I kept saying “we put a man on the moon, work with me, I know we can do this.” Because getting rid of a panty line but giving a big mark on your thigh isn't solving anything for women.
Another line that has been both a Spanx success and shifted the industry is the Bra-llelujah bra line. How did you come up with that product?
Everybody in the industry had been looking at the bra from the front, the cup and the strap. I looked at it from the back and thought why forever has a bra had two elastic straps that go across our back and pinch our skin or fat? Is there a better way?
What did you take away from your early jobs in sales?
Leave with the benefit. When you are describing what you are doing and why you are doing it, try to get the person the what's in it for them. I learned that from cold calling here in Tampa Bay selling fax machines for a lot of years. If you don't leave them with the benefit the door is already in your face.
How have visualization techniques helped your career?
I'm a big believer in visualization. I visualized myself on the Oprah Winfrey show when I was in college, even though I had no idea what we were talking about. But your life will start to fill in the blanks. If you think of an idea or invent something, visualize the moment when you are standing in front of a store. See it, take a snapshot, almost like a Polaroid picture in your mind.
What advice do you give to entrepreneurs who are trying to break through with a product?
Differentiate yourself and do it quickly. You need to be able to explain it quickly and make it simple for the customer to understand what's in it for them.
Clearwater native, Florida State graduate and onetime Danka Office Imaging fax machine saleswoman Sara Blakely has been featured in multiple national media publications. Her top media moments include:
Inc.: Blakely made the cover of the magazine's February issue and was part of a “How I got started” feature story. “One day I cut the feet out of a pair of pantyhose,” Blakely says in the story. “That was my 'aha' moment.”
Forbes: Blakely was on the cover of the magazine's annual Billionaires issue in March 2012. Blakely talked about her first job in the article, a babysitting service at the Clearwater Beach Hilton she launched without the hotel's knowledge. The article also detailed one of Blakely's first big breaks, when she sent her products to Oprah Winfrey's stylist. The TV show host later named Spanx her favorite product of the year.
Fortune: One of 25 business leaders featured in an article entitled “The best advice I ever got” in October 2012. Others who dispensed advice in the article include Mindy Grossman, CEO of St. Petersburg-based HSN. Blakely's advice: Don't fear failure. Her dad, she says, even encouraged setbacks for the teachable moment. “I have realized as an entrepreneur that so many people don't pursue their idea because they were scared or afraid of what could happen,” Blakely says in the story. “My dad taught me that failing simply just leads you to the next great thing.”
Time: The magazine named Blakely one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2012.