Female Entrepreneur: How Sara Blakely Built A $5,000 Investment To $1 Billion

Diane Dolinsky-Pickar's picture

Sara Blakely, a female entrepreneur without parallel, believes she is making the world a better place, one butt at a time. As the founder of Spanx, her line of slimming undergarments present women more attractively, helping her become the youngest female self-made billionaire.

Girlfriend to girlfriend advice has always been powerful, but never more so than in the case of Spanx, a line of undergarments that was started with a $5,000 investment by Sara Blakely, an icon of success for female entrepreneurs. Through word of mouth, as one woman recommended the body-hugging undergarments to her friends, the company was built to epic proportions. With a tagline that says, “Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered!” Sara turned a semi-comical but desperately needed idea, into an indomitable empire.

In fact, this reporter first heard of Spanx about two years ago, from one of her best girlfriends, as they shopped together for a special occasion dress. With a knowing look and a matter-of-fact attitude, what these two ladies saw in the dressing room mirror called for a one-garment emergency response item; my friend verbally referred to it by its brand name, Spanx. Upon trying one on, this reporter became a customer. Ring one up for this female entrepreneur!

Now, Ms. Blakely has landed on the list of Forbes’ billionaires, becoming number 1,153 on the list and one of only 104 women who appear at all.

Ms. Blakely is the youngest woman to make the Forbes scoreboard on her own, without the help of a husband or the nest egg of an inheritance. In an interview with CBS News, she credited her father with inspiring her to take risks and fail. Over dinner, her Dad used to encourage her and her brother by saying, “What did you fail at this week?” Over time, “my definition of failure became not trying.”

By reinforcing that attitude, Sara was game for trying when she reached towards her professional goals. Hers is a remarkable story, as the brand was built without the aid of advertising. “Shapewear and hosiery wasn’t the most exciting subject to talk about, [but] the name Spanx brought a lot of humor and life” to the thorny problem of how to make one’s rear end appear more slim, sexy and seductive.

Blakely’s insight began casually enough, as she tried to dress in white pants, to show off her assets without calling attention to the “secret helpmate” that women’s undergarments needed to be. Early on, body shapers that sucked in a lady’s less-than-perfect curves felt too constricting, or as she described, “like I was wearing workout clothes underneath beautiful clothes.”

In an era where the pressure to look like a celebrity is overwhelming to many ladies, Sara Blakely experimented by cutting the feet out of control top panty hose, and voila, she found the toning and shaping was perfect for eliminating bulge without the panty line causing the outer fabric to pucker. Moreover, the panty hose material was well suited for shapewear. And so the journey of discovery began.

Besides the inspiration of her Dad, Blakely also pointed to her mother’s artistic nature as a source of her own creativity, as well as the fact that she had been in the habit of listening to Dr. Wayne Dyer, a motivational speaker, since she was a tender 16 year old.

How she went from a female entrepreneur on a small scale to word of mouth via celebrities

In a touching story on the Spanx website, Sara Blakely explained how she came up with the idea while she was working as a sales trainer by day and a stand-up comic by night. She researched patents and trademarks at the Georgia Tech library, after working hours. To save on expense, she actually wrote the patent herself and later identified a lawyer to assist with making appropriate claims.

She was turned down multiple times when she approached North Carolina mills to request production of a prototype. Eventually, one mill owner gave the thumbs up, presumably because his two daughters set him straight about women’s needs.

Blakely did extensive research before naming the product, and as the story goes, she was sure to incorporate a ‘k’ sound in the name because she knew from her comedy days that folks are apt to laugh, upon hearing that sound aloud. Moreover, she read that using a made up name rather than an existing word added to the allure of a brand. In this way, the Spanx brand came to be named.

Boldly, this female entrepreneur called up a buyer at Neiman Marcus. Sara Blakely recalled how she actually dragged the buyer to a dressing room, tried on the prototype, and offered the proof of her own “before” and “after” image. That was enough to be convincing.

Soon, numerous other stores put in orders as well.

A big break came for Spanx when A-listers started to praise the brand, in public. Gwyneth Paltrow exclaimed, "There are these great things called Spanx, and they just squeeze you in. It's terrific! That's how all the Hollywood girls do it!"

With media mentions in magazines from Glamour and Vogue to an appearance on the Oprah show, in 2008, Spanx has spread across the U.S. and Canada. For many years it was carried by upscale boutiques and fine department stores, but when Ms. Blakely was approached by Target, a lower priced line of shapewear was created exclusively for that retail outlet.

Sara Blakely has used determination and hustle, a great business strategy and uber-successful tactical maneuvers, to become a successful female entrepreneur. Being a billionaire, she could dial back a bit, but it doesn’t sound like that is her plan.

Instead, she is involved in efforts to give back to young girls and women, via the Sara Blakely Foundation.

Sara Blakely likewise has big plans for her company. In the CBS News interview, Ms. Blakely publicly declared her intention to become a “lifestyle brand that crosses over categories,” and to roll out lines of better fitting activewear and swimwear. “I’m inspired to make things more comfortable,” she offered. That is an understatement. She is also inspired to make women’s feminine curves more beautiful, and create more value for the Spanx brand itself.

Photo courtesy of Spanx website.

Add new comment