Founder and owner Sara Blakely turned a simple idea and a $5,000 personal investment into a $1 billion business.
Today, the word “Spanx” is synonymous with slimming undergarments. But before the brand created—and then took over—the industry, it was just a simple idea brought to life out of necessity.
Sara Blakely, founder and owner of Spanx, first came up with the concept when she realized she didn’t have the right undergarment to wear under white pants. So she cut the feet off of her control top pantyhose and decided she was on to something. To say she was right would be an understatement—today, the brand is valued at $1 billion.
But her success didn’t happen overnight. The first couple of years after coming up with the idea for the brand, Blakely worked on Spanx at nights and on weekends while also working a nine to five job. After bombing the LSAT twice and completing a brief stint as an employee at Disney World, Blakely hit her stride going door-to-door selling fax machines for the office supply company Danka. It wasn’t glamorous, but it taught her the art of sales—and how to make a cold call.
Blakely officially got Spanx off the ground in 2000 with her own $5,000 investment and a patent she wrote herself. She met with buyers from Neiman Marcus, which agreed to stock the product in some of its regional stores. But her big break came when Oprah Winfrey named Spanx her favorite product of the year on the annual “Favorite Things” episode of her talk show. That’s when Blakely left Danka to work on Spanx full time. But even after the product stared selling, Blakely stayed on the brand’s ground level.
In an interview with Business Insider, Sara Blakely said, “I feel like being an entrepreneur is all about risk, but it’s really all about calculated risk.” She continued, “I spent the first two years of Spanx standing on the floor of every department store I was sold in across the country selling Spanx myself to the consumer because I didn’t have the advertising dollars or marketing budget. And I got all my best ideas from the consumer directly.”
That decision not to invest in traditional advertising is one that lasted as the brand continued to add to its bottom line. Instead of spending money on print and TV ads, Spanx found word-of-mouth publicity was a much better approach.
Laurie Ann Goldman, the brand’s former CEO, told Forbes, “We’ve been self-funded from the beginning. We had to spend money only on things that make money and advertising was esoteric. You couldn’t really measure the return you were going to get so we didn’t do it. The power of women discovering the brand form other women was actually a better strategy. The aunt telling her niece; one woman to a college friend. There’s something about saying, ‘look, feel my back, no lines’ that’s powerful. Look how big social media has become now. People trust advice.”
Blakely’s aversion to advertising isn’t the only unique thing about her brand—she’s never publicly raised money or gone into debt to support the brand. Today, she still owns 100 percent of Spanx and is involved in its day-to-day operations.
16 years after its official launch, Spanx is still experiencing growth. The brand is consistently a top seller in the undergarment industry, and is constantly adding new products to its lineup. Most recently, Spanx revamped its activewear line to capitalize on the athleisure trend that’s increasingly popular among consumers. Blakely’s ability to tap into exactly what consumers want—and when they want it—is what sets her apart as an entrepreneur.
Blakely told Business Insider, “My advice to people would be start small, think big but scale fast.”