The Relentless Resourcefulness of Sara Blakely
Turning $5,000 Into a $1.2 Billion Company
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Sara Blakely is one of the most admirable entrepreneurs I’ve come across in my research.
She built Spanx into an empire, was named the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire in 2012, and seemed to have the most fun doing it.
Until 2021, Spanx was self-funded, with Sara owning 100% of the company.
Starting with just $5,000 of her own savings, Sara built Spanx into a company doing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year.
And she’s set an example for entrepreneurs everywhere on how to build a mission-driven company your own way.
Let’s get to it.
Sara grew up in Clearwater, Florida, and, like a number of other founders I’ve covered in Just Go Grind, had an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age:
Early on, she showed signs of becoming a taste-making mogul. As a kid, she sewed charms onto socks and sold them, launching a “charm sock” trend at her elementary school. By the time she graduated high school, she had started a newspaper, a Putt-Putt golf course and a lucrative babysitting business. “Thinking of ways to make money has always been a game to me,” she says. “It’s my entrepreneurial drive, combined with my sense of humor, that led me to Spanx.”
And it would only continue:
Blakely started her first business in 1990, a kids’ club at the Clearwater Beach Hilton, charging $8 a child for a few hours of babysitting while moms and dads tanned. She was just out of high school, had no experience, no CPR training — and no insurance.
She got away with it for three summers before trying to steal business from rival hotels’ summer programs. It was only when she went to pitch the Hilton’s general manager— age 20, in her first suit from Casual Corner—that she was busted. “He literally escorted me off the premises,” Blakely remembers.
Her dad, who was a trial attorney, had a big influence on her thinking, helping her reframe failure.
As Sara mentioned:
My father growing up used to encourage my brother and me to fail. He would say at the dinner table, “What have you guys failed at this week?” And if we didn’t have something to tell him he would actually be disappointed.
He also influenced Sara’s desire to be a lawyer although, because of her poor test-taking ability, she bombed the LSAT not once, but twice.
Thankfully, it’d all work out for her.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Sara’s mom was an artist, who would go on to sketch the design for Spanx in Sara’s patent application.
Her failure to become a lawyer put Sara on a windy road of career discovery for a number of years.
A short stint on her journey was spent working at Disney World, a role that would only last a few months:
Two inches too short to fill the 5-foot-8 Goofy costume, she instead spent eight hours a day on a moving walkway buckling visitors into their seats at Epcot’s now closed World of Motion ride.
“I think I wanted to postpone reality, having spent my whole life thinking I’d be a lawyer,” says Blakely, who as a kid loved watching her dad in court. “It didn’t work. My first day at Disney I went on break and saw Snow White dragging on a cigarette.”
After three months of misery at Disney, Blakely applied for a job she’d seen advertised on a billboard.
The job Sara would stick with the longest was selling fax machines door to door.
She would sell fax machines for 7 years, becoming Danka’s national sales trainer at age 25, but knew that wasn’t the life for her:
When I was selling fax machines door to door I kept feeling like I’m in the wrong movie. You know? Like, where’s the director? Where’s the producer? This is not my movie. And I was really determined to create a better life for myself.
She also set an intention in her 20s that would lead to her starting Spanx:
And so I went home that night and I wrote down in my journal, “I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good.” This was something that I set intention for; I had really asked the universe to give me an idea that I could bring to the world.
There is a lot of power in this.
Having a clear idea of what you want helps guide you.
It reminds me of the incredible book The Alchemist, and of pursuing your personal legend, a concept I’ve found helpful in my own career.
Little did Sara know, her intention was going to come through for her in a big way.
A Frustrating Problem
The story told in the press hundreds of times by now is how Sara cut the feet off her pantyhose while getting ready to attend a party because she didn’t like the panty lines or seam showing when she wore open-toed shoes and a pair of cream-colored pants.
She’d later find out many other women had the same problem and were trying their own homemade solutions.
But Sara actually thought Spanx started much earlier:
Spanx started way before I cut the feet out of my pantyhose. That’s the sound bit in the press that everybody’s talked about for almost 20 years. But it actually started fundamentally when I was 16.
I worked on mindset for myself and I’m such a believer that mindset is almost everything. And it just happened to be a set of circumstances. I was riding my bike with one of my best friends at 16, and she was run over by a car and killed in front of me.
And then a few months later my dad left home and my parent separated and ultimately got divorced. And when my dad moved out, he came into my bedroom and he handed me a cassette tape series called “How to be a No-Limit Person” by Wayne Dyer. And he said “Sweetie, I wish I discovered this when I was your age instead of the age of 40.” And then he moved out.
So I started listening to this “How to be a No-Limit Person,” which was talking about visualization, law of attraction, not caring about what other people think about you, not being consumed by the fear of failure, and just… the clouds parted for me and I thought I’ve spent a lot of time being taught what to think, but no one’s really teaching me how to think. And at 16, that was so incredibly important.
After the initial frustration, Sara began researching the idea she had for a better kind of pantyhose:
The first thing I did was I started to research if the idea existed. I went to the Georgia Tech library in Atlanta every night after work for a week and a half researching every pantyhose patent that ever existed.
And then probably on the 7th or 10th day of me being in there some guy came up to me and said, “You know there’s a website called USPTO.gov” and I said, “No what is that?” I scribbled it down in my notebook.
He’s like, “You can put in a patent and it’ll search for you.” So that website became one of my best friends. And once I determined that there wasn’t anything that existed in a patent form, I then wanted to see if there was any market appetite for it beyond myself.
So I literally went and asked one person. I went to the Neiman Marcus down the street from my apartment, went in, and asked the sales associate if she thought anybody would ever want something like a footless pantyhose to wear under pants.
And her face lit up and she goes, “Yes, in fact, I have lots of customers who have been making their own homemade version of that because there is no right undergarment to wear under a lot of their clothes.”
And so that was my whole focus group.
At this time, Sara is still working full-time selling fax machines, but she’s convinced she’s on to something and commits to going for it.
Finding a manufacturer to bring her product idea to life.
Developing the Product
Sara had a great idea, but convincing manufacturers to even take her call was a struggle.
So she took a week off of work, drove to North Carolina where most of the hosiery manufacturers were based, and started going from one to the next pitching her product idea.
They didn’t get it.
Most of them were men.
However, after a couple of weeks of driving around and making calls, she was finally able to land a manufacturer, Samuel Kaplan.
He actually didn’t think Spanx was a good idea, not really understanding the problem, but he had two daughters who understood it and encouraged him to take a chance on Sara.
He still didn’t understand it or think it was a good idea, but he said that my enthusiasm and my confidence in how good this idea was going to be stuck with him.
Sara would spend nights and weekends working on the idea, researching different fabrics, patents, and trademarks.
After Samuel agreed to produce her product, Sara used Martindale-Hubbel to find a patent attorney, but couldn’t find a single woman patent attorney in Georgia.
One of the attornies she did end up meeting with actually thought she had been sent by candid camera because he thought her idea was that bad.
She’d meet with a few different law firms, which quoted her between $3,000 and $5,000 to patent her idea - money she didn’t have at the time.
So she decided to write the patent herself.
Talk about resourceful!
Sara showcases this again and again in her journey of building the Spanx empire.
And I have to mention the Paul Graham quote from his wonderful essay on this idea of resourcefulness:
A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.
This is definitely Sara.
She’d then spend the first year working on the prototype for Spanx without telling any of her family and friends.
By not telling anybody my idea for one year, I left ego out of it, and I didn’t have to spend the time defending my idea or explaining my idea. I spent all of the time pursuing my idea.
From her experience with the manufacturers, Sara discovered a few key insights at this time.
First, it was only men who were making all the undergarments for women.
Second, everyone in the industry took an average waistband size between small and extra large and put the same one on every pair to cut costs in production.
Third, manufacturers were still putting a small rubber cord in every waistband, a practice that was unnecessary because of the availability of better materials.
And finally, women’s pantyhose were being tested on plastic forms, not real women.
Sara changed all of this with her customer-centric approach.
Then, after a year of building the prototype, she had to finish the patent.
She got it done for $750 from an attorney, Dan, whom she found previously. He said he’d write it in a weekend.
At this time, Sara still didn’t have a name for her company.
She had been writing down names periodically for a year, but nothing clicked.
But she knew what she wanted.
After researching a couple of the world’s most recognizable brands, Kodak and Coca-cola, she realized they both had a “k” sound and, from her days as a stand-up comedian, she knew that words with a “k” sound made the audience laugh the most.
She wanted both.
So she came up with Spanks, which, after hearing that made-up names are both easier to recognize and easier to patent, became Spanx.
$150 later and Sara officially owned the name Spanx.
And the packaging?
At the time, all the packaging for the hosiery looked the same. Spanx was going to stand out.
Sara wanted it to be her favorite color, red, and the package would have three animated, cartoon women on it.
She not only wanted Spanx to stand out on the shelf, but she wanted it to feel like a woman was buying herself a present, not a commodity.
The packaging was created by Sara herself, so, when finishing up the packaging, she realized there were probably some legal notices that needed to be on it.
So what did she do?
She bought 10 different brands of pantyhose, put them on the floor of her apartment, noticed what text was on all of them, adding that to her packaging to be legally compliant.
Again, she’s so ridiculously resourceful.
Okay, Sara has a prototype.
Now she has to sell it.
Crotches and Neiman Marcus
After securing a manufacturer and having a prototype, Sara was ready to hit the ground running to sell her product.
She went to the yellow pages (look it up, kids) and found the number for their Atlanta office, who then proceeded to tell her the buying office was in Dallas.
Sara called them repeatedly to try and set up a meeting.
After days, she finally go through and they told her if she was willing to fly to Dallas, they’d give her ten minutes.
She starts pitching Spanx, but the meeting isn’t going well, so she asks the Neiman Marcus buyer, Diane, to come to the bathroom with her so she could show her a before and after of the product.
She was hooked.
Neiman Marcus placed an order to have Spanx in seven stores.
After landing the Neiman Marcus account, everything was great, right?
She called her manufacturer, excited about landing the Neiman account.
Admittedly, they only thought she was going to sell a few pairs of Spanx to her friends, not having high expectations of her at all. And there was a problem.
They couldn’t make the crotches.
A word I never thought I’d use in this email and now I’ve used it twice. Here we are.
Anyways, Sara’s manufacturer only had two crotch machines and they were being used by someone else, so she had to have them made elsewhere.
She looked in the yellow pages under “crotch” and couldn’t find any companies.
She soon realized that “gusset” was the fancy word for what she was looking for and she found a gusset company 20 minutes north of her apartment in Atlanta.
They could do it.
It’s two years after Sara first cut the feet off her pantyhose.
She has her product, distribution is secured in seven Neiman Marcus stores, and she’s selling Spanx for $20 per pair, four times more than some of her competitors.
And she would make sure she made the most of the opportunity.
She would go to different store locations herself, arriving 30 minutes before they opened to do an all-store rally, often staying till 6 or 7 pm at night.
She also got help from all of her friends:
I called every friend I had in all the 7 cities that Neimans sent the Spanx to and called friends that I hadn’t even spoken to since 4th grade, kind of like, “Hi, it’s Sara, remember me from 4th grade? Do you mind going to the store and buying Spanx and I’ll send you a check?”
She initially landed the Neiman Marcus account and expanded to Bloomingdales, Saks, and Bergdorf Goodman.
Sara was personally traveling across the United States to showcase her product and grow her business.
Because she didn’t have money for advertising, she was calling journalists to try and get press and also sending Spanx to celebrities and influencers.
One of them?
And thankfully she did.
Andre Walker, the longtime stylist of Oprah, showed her the product and she loved it, naming it one of her favorite products of the year in 2020.
This was huge for Sara.
And the Harpo Productions team also wanted to film a short segment on Sara at her headquarters for the show:
When Blakely got the call from Harpo Productions, she was warned to get her website ready, since orders would undoubtedly cascade after the show. Spanx didn’t have a website. “We took a color copy of the packaging and scanned it in,” Blakely says. “I ran a considerable Web business for $18 a month.” She resigned from Danka two weeks before the show aired.
Sara had her website ready for orders and when Oprah’s team showed up to film her segment, her “headquarters” at the time was the second bedroom of her apartment, and the “staff meeting” they recorded as part of the segment took place with a few of Sara’s friends who she had called to come over.
But, as Sara mentioned, she already had a considerable business.
Spanx was profitable from day one and did $4 million in sales the first full year and $10 million the next.
Let’s see how that happened.
Building a Team and Selling Like Crazy
Sara did actually need to build a team.
In the beginning, her boyfriend at the time helped with fulfillment, another friend of hers who raved about Spanx became her head of PR, and someone else she originally hired as an assistant became the head of product and would stay on with the company for more than a decade.
Sara basically hired a small team and left for two years to go on the road selling the product.
From a 2012 keynote, she shared why she went to so many stores herself:
I was absolutely determined to ensure my own success and I think that’s what it takes. I didn’t want my success to be contingent on anyone else having to sell this. So I hit the ground running.
This paid off big time.
She had inadvertently built a salesforce for her product.
Store by store by store.
She felt it was absolutely necessary:
I feel like if I didn’t go to the stores and really make this happen on the ground level, that my product, as great as it is, would’ve shipped to the store and six months later would’ve been shipped back to me.
At one point, she had a genius idea of how to increase visibility for her Spanx in the stores.
She went to Target and bought stands she could use to display Spanx by the register in Neiman Marcus. At the time her product was kind of hidden away and she wanted more visibility for the product.
All the employees assumed someone else had already okayed it.
But they hadn’t.
Word got to Burt Tansky, the CEO of Neiman Marcus, and his reaction was not what you’d expect.
He was okay with it!
He told the stores to let Sara keep doing whatever she was doing because he had never seen so much volume off a $20 product.
It pays to be bold.
Sara also had the opportunity to sell Spanx on QVC.
She absolutely crushed it:
They gave me 5 minutes of airtime and I sold 8,000 pairs of Spanx in 5 minutes. And that was after a year of standing in department stores across the country and on a really good day I’d sell between 35 and 70 pairs in a day.
Even though she struggled early on with all the challenges of getting Spanx off the ground, Sara never thought the company would fail:
I thought, “I don’t have the most money, I don’t have a business degree, I have no idea what I’m doing in manufacturing or retail or any of this, but I do care the most so let’s see what happens.”
“Let’s see what happens.”
I love that. You never know until you try.
Sara kept expanding her team as well.
In 2002, Sara brought in Laurie Ann Goldman as CEO, who would stay in that role until 2014.
A little about Laurie in a Forbes article on Spanx:
Goldman, a ten-year veteran of Coca-Cola, where she ran the licensing division in 54 countries, came on board in 2002, first as a consultant, then as CEO. She was Spanx’s fifth employee. Her office was the kitchen in Blakely’s apartment in Decatur, but she knew that wouldn’t be the case for long. “I wanted to run Spanx like a public company from the start. I thought, Let’s get Ernst & Young to do our audits. They didn’t really do companies our size, but I said we were going to be bigger one day. We did the same with IT.”
Getting someone of Laurie’s caliber is a testament to Sara’s abilities and her own intuition about what Spanx needed to succeed.
Sara knew her own strengths and she knew that having someone run day-to-day operations as CEO while she could think up product ideas, guide the strategy, and evangelize the brand was what was needed.
In terms of how Sara operated, she didn’t want to have to act serious to be taken seriously. She wanted to be silly and playful, but still build a great business.
And building a great business is exactly what she did.
The Rebel Billionaire
By the end of 2003, Spanx did $31 million in sales.
With Laurie Ann Goldman in place as CEO, Sara saw an opportunity she couldn’t pass up - a chance to be on a TV show with Richard Branson.
Prior to signing up for the show, Sara had to sign a 27-page contract.
Given the crazy challenges she’d potentially have to do for the show, her dad told her no sane person would sign it.
Sara signed it.
It took six auditions, but Sara was eventually cast on The Rebel Billionaire, Richard Branson’s 2003 reality show.
Some people may question that move for Sara.
Her company is doing tens of millions of dollars, why go on a TV show?
For Sara, being able to build a relationship with a business icon and get eyeballs on her, the face of Spanx, was a savvy PR move.
Remember, this was 2003, with the show airing in 2004.
Facebook was just launching in 2004. It wasn’t like you had social media to create buzz. TV was big time.
For the season finale, in a memorable moment of the show, instead of climbing a plank across two hot air balloons 8,000 feet in the air, she climbed a rope ladder to the top of one balloon to have tea on top with Richard as her challenge.
Sara is afraid of heights mind you, but she did it anyways.
She spent three months with Richard Branson filming the show, describing him as someone who requires very little sleep, is always writing down ideas, is always delegating, and is funny too.
Sara thinks that the last part, humor, is a powerful aspect of business:
I don’t subscribe to the fact that you have to act serious to be taken seriously. And I like to laugh at myself. When I worked in corporate America for a long time and everybody was super uptight and super serious, there was no humor, there was no levity, and then everybody at like five o’clock became ragingly hilarious.
I named my company Spanx, which made people laugh and believe it or not it was very shocking at the time that I named the company Spanx, I actually had people hang up on me often.
And she also applied that to the naming of her products:
I named it power panties. I started naming all my products and it made people laugh and it gave so much energy and then all of a sudden you had Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts flashing their Spanx on red carpets and saying, “I’m wearing Spanx.” Like, all these celebrities and I think it is because I chose to do humor and people wanted to participate in that.
Sara ended up getting second place on the show and Richard would later surprise Sara with $750,000 to start her foundation.
By June 2004 Spanx has 24 employees and their growth only continues.
By 2006, Spanx is already doing $100 million in annual sales.
That same year, Sara meets Jesse Itzler, a former rapper, and co-founder of Marquis Jet, at a celebrity poker tournament.
By 2008, they were married.
I had to bring up Jesse because I first heard about him from his book, Living with a SEAL, 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet.
I loved the book.
The crazy part is that the Navy SEAL who Jesse and Sara lived with for a month, was David Goggins.
At the time the book came out, he was mostly unknown.
David Goggins has blown up.
I mention this because it is a reflection of Jesse that he wanted to train with David Goggins for a month and a reflection of Sara who married someone who wanted to train with David Goggins for a month - she married someone who was also striving for progress and improvement, though in a different way from her.
And that progress for Sara?
The continued growth of Spanx, which by 2008 was doing hundreds of millions a year in revenue.
Reflecting back on the growth of Spanx, Sara would go on to say that what scared her the most was setting the rudder.
In other words, setting the direction of the company.
As she would describe, if you’re steering a ship and you’re off course even a few degrees, you end up in the wrong place.
The same goes for steering a company.
There were times when she thought the company was getting off course from its values and at those times her job was to set the rudder.
Such an important concept to grasp as your organization is scaling like Sara’s was.
Ideas for Days
Sara launches new products again and again for Spanx.
Inspiration for her comes from all different places, which is a product of her curiosity.
As she mentioned in one interview, “I pay attention to things that haven’t evolved and why. I’ll ask myself questions all day every day, it’s just the way my brain works.”
And she has an endless supply of ideas:
I have 99 pages, single-spaced, typed, of ideas. So I think of ideas constantly, on airplanes, in cars, talking to somebody, and I email it to myself. And then I just keep them and log them.
This was how Spanx evolved into offering men’s products as well:
I got curious that the man’s undershirt was created in 1918 and no one had paid any attention to it since. It was literally the same thing. And so I just talked to my brother and my husband about it and their undershirts, the neck stretched out, or they were boxy and bulky under clothes. And I thought, I’m just going to add a little bit of lycra to the cotton undershirt for men, and so the neck won’t stretch out, and I’m going to taper it in at the waist. So ideas come to me like that.
These endless ideas, great products, and years of execution brought Sara to the next level of financial success - the billionaire level.
In March 2012, Sara became the youngest self-made female billionaire.
She owns 100% of Spanx at the time and she has a team of 125 people.
Spanx has 200 products in 11,500 stores and they’re doing $250+ million per year in sales.
Sara and Jesse are certainly making the most of it:
With six homes—two in Atlanta, an Upper West Side condo in Manhattan, a Connecticut summer house, an outpost near Blakely’s brother in La Jolla, Calif. and a new place in Clearwater—he and his wife often miss each other. One of them usually has in tow their 2-year-old son, Lazer, named after Itzler’s Brooklyn-born greatgrandfather.
I actually love this.
She’s worked extremely hard, helped thousands if not millions of other people, and has earned the right to spend her money how she wishes.
The same year, Spanx continues to expand:
Coming off its best year ever, Spanx has big plans for expansion. Goldman is pushing to double international sales, now over 15% of the total, within three years. She spends a lot of time jetting around Asia, laying the groundwork for Spanx in countries that don’t obsess about their posteriors quite as much as Westerners do.
She and Blakely plan to open stand-alone shops, first in Atlanta, then slowly worldwide. They’re pushing their cheaper diffusion line, Assets, and adding new categories— swimwear, activewear, men’s underwear—as customers demand more options and competitors like Yummie Tummie, Dr. Rey Shapewear, Skweez Couture and Body Wrap (as well as Victoria’s Secret and Maidenform) flood the booming shapewear market.
By 2014, Sara is named one of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women.
By 2015, Sara and Jesse buy an ownership stake in the Atlanta Hawks.
When asked in 2020 what has most impacted her life in the last 5 years, Sara mentions the value of bucketing her days, as a way to manage the thousand different things she has to deal with throughout the week.
Her schedule at the time looks something like this:
Monday - Free think day, catching up on things
Tuesday - Creative day / branding / marketing
Wednesday - Meet with the leadership team / vision day
Thursday - Product day
Friday - Swing day, dependent on what still needs to get done
Around 2019 or 2020 she also makes it a focus to workout, finding it helpful to schedule the exact time in her calendar when she’d do so.
Working as a personal trainer earlier in my own career, I found this also worked best for clients.
If it’s not on the calendar, it’s not going to happen.
For the first 7 years of running Spanx, Sara admits it was basically 24/7 work, her life wasn’t in balance, but that’s just what it took to make her outlandish success happen.
Around this same time, when COVID-19 hits, Sara starts The Red Backpack Fund to support female entrepreneurs, donating $5+ million, allowing more than 1,000 recipients to receive a gift of $5,000 to build their companies.
With the next year would come huge news, and something Sara had thought about for years.
Spanx <> Blackstone
In October 2021, 21 years after launching Spanx, Blackstone buys a majority stake, valuing Spanx at $1.2 billion.
Sara still owns a significant stake in Spanx after the investment and plays a role in product development as well.
For her, it just felt like the right time and it gave Spanx the global resources to grow into new categories.
After the Blackstone investment, Sara famously gifted each of her 750 employees $10k and two first-class plane tickets to any destination in the world.
Today, Sara serves on the board of Spanx, with Kim Jones leading the way as CEO.
Reflecting on the earlier days of Spanx, Sara shared the perfect close to her story I’m sharing with you today:
Spanx created products that were giving women tremendous comfort and results and was a game-changer in women’s closets around the world and that was all just from someone with no previous experience being willing to stand in the room with “experts” and challenge the way it was done.
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a couple more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.
I didn’t take a vacation for like 10 years. I mean, I was just working when all of my friends were going on vacations and people were going out to parties, I just wasn’t. So it was just a lot of commitment on that end. But why I was willing to do that and why I still stay motivated is because, for me, I’ve been doing this for something greater than myself. I’m very passionate about women, and helping women, and supporting women.
On her approach to business:
I had felt like companies were operating in this like, “We need to be perfect and you need to see us as the authority and you need me, and that’s how I’m going to sell you product.”
And I was like, “Hey, I’m one of you. Here’s what’s happening. Here’s what it does for me. This is why it works.”
It was just a very different approach. And I felt consumers became really connected and really loyal. Probably part of the reason why Spanx as a brand didn’t need to advertise, we haven’t spent any money on advertising in 16 years, because a lot of it is word of mouth from women sharing with other women.
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