Sara Blakely grew up with an unusual conversation at the dinner table. Every week her father would put his fork down and ask the same question: What had she failed at? If Sara said she had tried out for a team but didn't make the cut, he’d give her a high five.
Some 30 years later, in 2012, Forbes declared Sara Blakely the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. And she got there by following that same habit her father taught her: to try for something and risk failing every day. It started in 1998, when at just 27 years old, Blakely revolutionized the undergarment industry by introducing the concept of comfortable shapewear. Today, she still sits at the helm of Spanx, which she grew into a billion-dollar empire. And it can all be traced back to that dinner table in Clearwater, Florida, and the lessons her father instilled in her week after week, year after year.
Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.
– Sara Blakely
The Cassette Tapes Everyone Hated
The seeds of promise Blakely’s father planted began to grow early in Blakely’s life. When she was 7, she bought charms, sewed them to socks, and sold them at school. One Halloween, she set up a haunted house at her home and charged admission. When she was 16, she discovered motivational speaker Wayne Dyer and played his cassette tapes every time she was in his car.
Still, even in college it would have been hard to imagine Blakely as a future billionaire. She graduated with a communications degree from Florida State University, where she’d been a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority, and decided to be a lawyer. Her father had been an attorney, but when she took the LSAT she scored so poorly that she ditched that ambition. Looking back, she realizes that if she hadn’t failed at the LSAT, she would be a lawyer today—and there would be no Spanx. Failure, she has learned, is life’s way of nudging you back on course. The only real way to fail is to not try something at all.
From Law to Disneyland
Her response to her law school revelation was, inexplicably, to drive to Disney World and audition for the role of Goofy. This also turned out to be a failure—she found out when she arrived that she was too short for the costume, which left her wearing a brown suit and loading and unloading people on rides in Epcot theme park. She eventually quit and moved back home.
Blakely also tried her hand at stand-up comedy for a while. She says she wasn’t all that funny, but the importance of a light-hearted approach stayed with her. When Spanx launched, the packaging was bold, daring and featured the line, “We’ve got your butt covered.” To this day, all Spanx employees are required to do a bit of stand-up comedy during their training. It’s all part of Blakely’s approach to business: Forget about the old way of doing something and try something new. If it doesn’t work, that’s okay. Failure always leads to something better.
Blakely’s next move was to start selling fax machines door to door—which she did for seven years. Despite the fact that she heard “no” more times than she could count and had her business card ripped up in front of her face, she found she was good at selling. She also learned to handle rejection, which would become a necessary skill when launching Spanx. Still, Blakely yearned to sell something that she had created and actually cared about. She just needed the right idea. So she continued to sell fax machines—and waited for inspiration to strike.
The White Pants that Started it All
Eventually, Blakely had a party to go to and wanted to wear a pair of pricey white pants that had been hanging, untouched, in her closet for far too long. The pants were great; it was just that she didn’t have the right undergarments to provide the smooth look she wanted when wearing them. She thought about how good control-top pantyhose made her look, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the feet off a pair. The hose rolled up at the ankles, but the concept worked and she looked great wearing the white pants. With a pair of strappy sandals, of course. And with that, Spanx was born.
Don't be intimidated by what you don't know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.
– Sarah Blakely
Selling, Selling, Selling
Blakely kept her fax machine job because she needed the money. She had $5,000 in savings she used to launch Spanx and knew it would only go so far. She went online, googled “hosiery mill” and started making phone calls. Not a single mill showed even a tiny bit of interest. Undaunted, she got in her car, drove to North Carolina and began making cold calls to the mills. Still, she had no luck. She returned home and, about two weeks later, got a phone call. It was a mill owner saying he had decided to help make her “crazy idea.” When she asked him what changed his mind, he told her he had two daughters—and they thought her idea was brilliant.
Next, she began cold calling department stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. She called multiple times every day for a week and a half, without any luck. Finally, she got someone from Neiman Marcus on the phone, but when invited to mail in a sample of her product, she instead insisted on flying to Dallas for a 10-minute meeting. This was her chance. When she got there, five minutes into her pitch, she could tell the pitch wasn’t going well. So she made another one of her trademark bold moves—she asked the executive to go into the bathroom with her. Though she was literally shaking with fear, Blakely showed her how the outfit looked with and without Spanx. The executive was blown away and immediately agreed to try the product in seven stores.
Blakely, who had been working every spare second she had for months, might have decided it was a good time to catch her breath and relax a bit. But she had not come so far to see her creation languish on shelves. Once again, she took matters into her own hands and got busy, calling up everyone she knew and asking them to go buy a pair of Spanx, then sending them a reimbursement check.
Most of the reason we don’t do things is because we’re afraid to fail. I just made a decision one day that I was not going to do things in my life because of fear.
– Sarah Blakely
Blakely was just about to run out of money—and friends—when she got the phone call she’d been dreaming of.
There is perhaps no one on the face of this earth who can launch a product like Oprah. Which is exactly why Blakely sent her a gift basket full of Spanx. When Oprah tried them on, she loved them and is said to have worn them every day since. But Blakely couldn’t have anticipated what that gift basket would have led to: a phone call from Oprah’s people, where she was told Spanx had been chosen as Oprah’s product of the year.
From there, everything took off—and Blakely finally quit her day job selling fax machines. In 2000, Spanx sales were estimated to reach $10 million. Celebrities like Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow began talking about the product. Spanx was featured on QVC and sold more than 8,000 units in under six minutes. The company grew steadily in sales and, by 2012, Blakely was a billionaire.
Today, Blakely lives in Atlanta where Spanx is headquartered, with her husband, former rapper and entrepreneur Jesse Itzler, and four young children. She and Itzler are part-owners in the Atlanta Hawks, and she was the first female billionaire to take the Giving Pledge started by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010, promising to donate at least half of her wealth to charity. After her journey, Blakely is known for her story as well as her her success. She’s known for her huge smile and not taking herself too seriously. For dreaming big, working hard, and sweating the details. But most of all, for remembering what her dad taught her at the dinner table.
Failure is not the outcome – failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail"
– Sarah Blakely