Spanx Founder Sara Blakely: ‘Embrace Not Knowing’
There's been a lot of discussion recently about disruptors within the retail industry. During yesterday's midmorning keynote at Forbes’ Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia, Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of the hosiery company Spanx, shared how her mistakes helped her become the world's youngest self-made billionaire.
"The big secret behind disruption is not having any idea of how it's supposed to be done," Blakely said. "I had no idea how it was supposed to be done. And if you have no idea how something is supposed to be done, than I guarantee you will be disruptive. However, you have to embrace not knowing."
Blakely shared with the audience her humble beginnings. The now 43-year-old entrepreneur who grew up wanting to be a lawyer said she failed the LSAT twice and ended up working as a Chipmunk at Disney World. After three months of working in the amusement park, Blakely switched jobs and spent the next seven years selling fax machines door-to-door.
With $5,000 in savings and no retail or manufacturing experience, Blakely started Spanx. For two years, she cold-called manufacturers to promote her product idea and hopefully strike a deal, only to be told no each time … until one manufacturer had a change of heart. Blakely couldn't afford a lawyer at the time, so she did it on her own with the help of a textbook on patent law. In the end, her perseverance paid off. She was able to set up a meeting with Neiman Marcus buyers at the company's headquarters in Dallas.
"I was so nervous, and after two minutes into my meeting, I could tell I was losing her," Blakely recalled. "So I just said, ‘You have to come to the bathroom with me.’
After trying on her product under a pair of white pants, displaying the before and after effect, Neiman Marcus agreed to stock Spanx in seven regional stores. Another key turning point in Spanx's history was when Oprah Winfrey featured the brand on her "Favorite Things" show.
At the end of the first year of production, Spanx had generated $4 million in sales. The next year saw it reach $10 million in sales. Not to mention, the business is still owned entirely by Blakely.
Fourteen years later, Spanx has become a household name — and all without ever having had an official advertisement. All of the brand's success and popularity comes from word-of-mouth, a feat most retailers haven't been able to accomplish.
"I remember a distinct moment thinking, ‘I don't have the most money, I don't have the most experience, but I can raise my hand and say I care,’ Blakely said. "I cared the most. And that message has stayed with Spanx with everything that we do."