Sara Blakely, the most fascinating woman in the world

She looks like just another smile-y blonde lady, but she is the youngest self-made billionaire woman in the world, according to Forbes. And her dream, since she was young, has been to help other women. Which she is now doing with her “Leg Up” program, which shines a spotlight on new entrepreneurs, and her foundation to support and empower women. But what’s interesting is that, in interviews, despite having survived her share of dark experiences, including a mother who dealt with chronic depression, she sounds almost freakishly well-adjusted, positive and fun.

Even if you’re like, “Whatevs,” you HAVE to admit it was brilliant of her to create a product for which the target market is HALF THE POPULATION, or at least every woman over, say, 12 years old. Everyone from slim, fit celebrities to the average woman getting married, preparing for an important meeting or date, or trying to create “a more perfect canvas” for her clothes, as Blakely puts it, will sooner or later find herself purchasing Spanx. And now, even men can buy her shapewear to look better in clothes. (It’s surprising to me that men are buying the compression garments shown on the site, but Blakely’s self-proclaimed knack is knowing what the customer wants before they know they want it. Maybe men are buying Spanx products like crazy? SOMEBODY is! Interesting tidbit: A few weeks before she married her husband, also a successful entrepreneur named Jessie Itzler, she had to confess to him that she was richer than he thought. She told him her company doesn’t just make a few million a year, it makes a few hundred million a year. His reaction? He cried, because he was so happy for her. I’m sorry, but I love these people!)

Here are 14 things that have stayed with me after listening to interviews of Blakely:

  1. While growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask her and her brother what they’d failed at that week, and he’d be disappointed if they had nothing to report. If she did say, “Hey, I tried out for something at school and was horrible!”, they’d high-five each other. Because he helped to “reframe failure” for her–it became about not trying, rather than the outcome–she was not daunted by the challenge of trying to start her business. To this day, if it’s been a while since she has taken a risk or embarrassed herself, she’ll purposefully do something like sing in a crowded elevator. (!)
  2. When she graduated college, she wanted to go to law school but failed the LSAT. So, she took the only job she could get at the time–selling fax machines door to door. She heard “no” several times a day, every day, for the 7 years she did it. She would have to sneak past security guards in office buildings that didn’t allow solicitors. She had her business card torn up in her face and she was shown out of buildings. She was so frustrated, she cried all the time. There were days when she would just drive to a park and sit and cry. But all this experience hearing “no” taught her not to get discouraged. When she was trying to persuade manufacturers to make the first Spanx, she was told no by all of them. So, she flew to North Carolina (where the mills were located) and was again told no, in person, by all of them. Two months later, she received a call from one of the men whom had turned her down. He said his daughters thought her product was a good idea, but what had stuck in his mind is her infectious enthusiasm. He agreed to make her product, although he still thought it was not going to succeed. Later, when she got her first order from Neiman-Marcus, she called to tell him and he was surprised–he thought she’d only be handing out her Spanx as Christmas gifts to friends.
  3. Her parents divorced when she was in high school, and the day her father moved out, he gave her a Wayne Dyer tape titled, “How to Be a No-Limit Person.” Because she was going through a dark period of her life, in which she’d recently witnessed her best friend get run over by a car in their cul-de-sac, she was receptive. She became very interested in positive thinking and self development, so much so that her friends would joke that they didn’t want to ride in her car because she would make them listen to that self-help ‘crap.’ Today, she believes one of the most important things she does for her continuing self development is allowing herself alone time to think and get ideas. She said she loves thinking so much that it’s almost like a hobby. She feels that while driving in her car she is “most connected to gut,” and so she factors in extra time in the morning for a fake commute, in which she spends 40 minutes to an hour driving around Atlanta before going to her office, which is actually only 5 minutes from her home.
  4. I think it’s significant that she was working a sales job in the early 90s. Women still wore pantyhose to work back then, and she clearly was used to the smoothing effect they had on her behind, because one night, she was going to a party and wanted to wear hose under the new, cream-colored pants she’d bought. But she didn’t want the toe part to be visible in her open-toed heels. So, she cut off the feet of the hose. She immediately thought to herself, “Are you my idea?” Because at that point, she was actively looking for an idea, because she had become so depressed in her fax machine sales job that she’d decided she was not living the life she was meant to live, that she was “in the wrong movie.” She had made a list of the things she was good at, including sales, and she had written the following on a piece of paper: “I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good.” She spent two years developing her product, all the while being told no over and over, being warned by friends and family that it was not a wise use of her $5,000 in savings, that a bigger company would just steal the idea from her, etc. She said that every day she would think to herself, Who am I to do this? She didn’t have a business degree, had never worked in fashion, and knew nothing about designing clothes.
  5. I can’t remember if she finally quit her day job selling fax machines when Neiman’s made the first order or after Oprah held up a pair of Spanx on her show and said, “This is my favorite thing!” (Blakely had sent Spanx to Oprah’s longtime stylist.) Btw, when Oprah’s people called to say they wanted to come shoot footage of her team at the Spanx offices, Blakely agreed, then scrambled to get a team and an office. I think she ended up grabbing the woman from her local wrap-and-mail place? And maybe she and some other acquaintances or friends sat in a circle, pretending to have a meeting, in her townhouse? Can’t remember exactly. I might be making some of this up.
  6. At home, Blakely and her husband mostly discuss ideas. She says they rarely talk about other people or events. She says her husband is very entertaining to be married to and that they understand each other deeply and value each other’s ideas.
  7. When asked to list the 4 words that best describe her, Blakely said, “Inventive. Driven. Courageous. And tired.” Something like that. She said that in the 80s, she would’ve described herself as funny, but now she’s too tired to be funny.
  8. Her motto: The more you experience in life, the more you have to offer others. She was once at a dinner party and said, “I have a motto,” and everyone looked expectantly at her and suddenly she forgot what her motto was. Later, her husband had a neon sign custom made for their living room that reads, “I have a motto, but I forgot what it is.”
  9. She believes that when we are in a really bad place in life, that’s when we’re in a great place to make a change. She said if she hadn’t been in the wrong job, dating the wrong guy, etc., she probably wouldn’t have taken such a radical action.
  10. She was focused on making Spanx the best product of its kind in the world (that’s probably why bigger companies didn’t create something to top it–because “what she had going for her is that she cared the most”).
  11. She did standup comedy for two years. What it taught her is the importance of choosing the right words for maximum impact. Because of her belief in the importance of this, when she talked about herself or her product, she took all doubt language out of her delivery. Instead of saying, “I think this is going to be great,” she’d say, “I know this is going to be great.”
  12. At first, she had to explain to people what her product was, what it offered. People were like, “Why do I need footless pantyhose?” and she’d be like, “It’s about the butt! The canvas!”
  13. While working on her idea, she didn’t tell anyone about it for a year or so. She said she was not looking for validation. She didn’t want to spend time defending her idea to family and friends, she wanted to pursue it. I think this is possibly the most badass thing about her.
  14. She believes that what you don’t know can be your competitive edge. She says if you don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, it’s pretty likely you’re going to do it different. For example, people in the retail fashion industry would ask her HOW she got Neiman’s to carry her product and she would simply say, “I called them.” (She repeatedly called the head buyer for Neiman’s, just like she did when she was selling fax machines, and she would never leave a message, and then finally one day the woman picked up!) Turns out, all the people in the biz were accustomed to going to trade shows, where they hoped that Neiman’s would come by their booth! They never actually called Neiman’s directly! (This blows my mind!)

My theory is that the most winning thing about Sara Blakely is not her brilliant ideas, her almost unbelievable persistence or her “scrappy” sales instinct, but her personality.

I’m going to wrap this up, so that we can both go fail at stuff, embarrass ourselves, and take advantage of our competitive edge–i.e., do things differently because we don’t know any better!

xo