Name: Sara Blakely
Company: Spanx Inc.
Life handed Sara Blakely a lemon, and she made pantyhose. After twice flunking law-school admission tests, Sara channeled her energies into entrepreneurship. Now, she has combined humor, past work experience, determination and a brilliant product insight to build a multi-million-dollar brand of undergarments called Spanx.
After her LSAT disasters, Sara became a chipmunk at Disney World and then sold fax machines door-to-door in St. Petersburg , Florida . She rose to national sales manager with the office-equipment company, and that was one key to the rest of her future.
“I did standup comedy at night in different cities for fun, because I couldn’t fraternize with the people I was training,” Sara recalls. “One night I was going to be on stage but I couldn’t figure out what to wear under my white pants that wouldn’t show lines. So I cut the feet out of my panty hose. That’s when I had my epiphany.”
A quick, informal focus group of her friends—many of whom also had cut the feet off their hose at one time or another—convinced Sara that she was on the right track.
“I was envisioning a totally different life for myself,” she confesses. “I knew I could sell, and I knew I could be self-employed, and I knew if I could come up with something for the masses instead of fax machines, I’d succeed.”
So Sara geared up. She researched and wrote her own patent for footless pantyhose. She came up with the name “Spanx,” wanting a moniker that was just a little edgy. In keeping, she then came up with the slogan on Spanx packaging, “We’ve got your butt covered!”
Finally, Sara cold-called hosiery mills and department-store chains – and got not only her feet in the door but the rest of her legs, and Spanx, too. “I called all my friends and begged them to go to Neiman’s and make a fuss over the product and buy them up,” Sara writes on her website. “At just the moment I was running out of friends, Spanx caught on and the rest is history.”
Indeed, now Spanx is for sale at high-end retailers including Saks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s as well as Neiman Marcus. And a diversifying Spanx is beginning to cover customers’ other body parts!
Using the Power of PR
Sara’s marketing mien told her from the get-go that the way to make Spanx a runaway hit would be to create a buzz in the marketplace about it. And from the start, she decided to rely on public relations instead of advertising.
“As a consumer, I’m so jaded by advertising that I don’t even pay attention to it any more,” Sara explains. “Word of mouth and the media are so much more powerful and believable, so that’s the route I decided to go.”
Just as important, Sara believes, was that she decided to do most of the public relations herself—with a PR assistant—instead of hiring an agency. “When I asked the agencies how many placements they could get, and what they would do to get them and the cost, it didn’t seem that they would do anything different or better than I would do. And they would pawn it off to some young girl in a cubicle that I’d never met.
“I believed so much in my dream that the idea of someone pitching it who maybe hadn’t even worn Spanx just completely freaked me out. So I decided to try the public relations myself for awhile.”
That move worked fabulously. Editors and producers were refreshed by the idea of a business owner flacking herself when there clearly was an alternative. And Sara was able to use Spanx’s risqué name and persona, as well as her own disarming sense of humor, to great effect.
She also sent a gift basket of Spanx to Oprah Winfrey, thanking the iconic celebrity for inspiring Sara. “She loved it and made it her product of the year,” Sara says.
Results: Spanx got hit after hit in women’s magazines like Vogue, in business magazines such as Forbes, and on TV venues such as Good Morning America . Sara’s efforts to target celebrities got her endorsements from the likes of Gwen Stefani and Sarah Jessica Parker, as well as Oprah.
“I found out that we’re even a Trivial Pursuit question now,” Sara says. “It’s something like, ‘For what product did an innovative hosiery company come up with the marketing phrase, No more gridbutt’? We’re the answer because of our controlled-top fishnets.”
Sara has never looked back at her decision to focus on PR and disdain for advertising. And Spanx’s success speaks to the fact that she did the right thing!
Sara’s Bonus Insight:
Kids acting entrepreneurial probably could become great business builders as adults. That’s how Sara was before she derailed herself for awhile by trying to get into law school and trail in the footsteps of her trial-attorney father.
“When I was a kid growing up in Florida , my dad said I had to learn the value of a dollar,” Sara recalls. “So I babysat children on Clearwater Beach , and I would distribute flyers to parents there. I also would have roller-skating parties in the play room in my house – it wasn’t very big – but I would charge everyone admission.
“I always had the mentality that I could make money.”
If your child is showing the signs of an entrepreneur, you might want to start negotiating your portion of proceeds while they’re young.