Entrepreneur – Sara Blakely
This is a lesson in Entrepreneurship. I first noticed Sara on the Rebel Billionare realitly show with Richard Branson. Even though she did not win, she left an impression on me. I have been following her company ever since. Read on. This was taken from www.theladieswholaunch.com
How did a twenty-something woman – unhappy with the way her clothes fit, create one of the hottest brands in the hosiery and shape wear business?
Hers is a story of risk and reward.
Sara Blakely didn’t like the thong lines and cellulite staring back in the mirror when she repeatedly tried on a favorite pair of white pants, so she started Spanx (http://www.spanx.com/), with a line of footless pantyhose that promises “we’ve got your butt covered.”
Now Spanx products are sold in stores like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Blakely estimates the company will bring in $30 million in revenue this year, its fifth anniversary. Spanx has been profitable and self-funded from the start – Blakely is the sole owner and has never raised capital or brought in outside investors.
Step One: Cutting the Feet Out of Pantyhose
“I was selling copiers door-to-door (in Atlanta) and doing stand-up comedy. I had never worked in fashion or retail, just loved clothes and shoes. I spent my hard-earned money on a beautiful pair of white pants, but never wore them because every time I put them on, I could see a panty line or thong mark and a bit of cellulite. Body shapers were thick and uncomfortable. So I cut the feet out of my control top pantyhose, and that worked better than anything on the market.”
Step Two: Selling ‘Crazy’ Idea
“No one in my family had been in business – I come from a whole line of lawyers. Through Internet research, I discovered that most of the world’s pantyhose are made in North Carolina. So I started cold-calling and faxing non-disclosures to the hosiery mills, and they all thought my idea was crazy. They weren’t interested.
“Simultaneously I looked up every pantyhose patent since 1800 to see if there already was a patent for footless pantyhose, and found that there wasn’t. I also cold-called patent lawyers and was met with nothing but resistance and laughter. One lawyer later admitted that he thought I had been sent by Candid Camera.
“ Taking Legal Matters Into Her Own Hands
“So I went to Barnes & Noble, bought a book on patents and trademarks, and wrote my patent myself, except the claims part, which has the real legal jargon. Finally I was able to find an attorney who would do the claims portion for a few hundred dollars.
” Keeping Secrets
“I didn’t tell anyone my idea, not friends or family. Everyone knew I was working on an invention, but they didn’t know what it was until I had already invested a year of my time. This is important because so many people stop dead in their tracks because their husband or brother or someone, out of love, brings up 50 things for them to worry about.”
“The minute you put your idea out there, you’re forced to justify it. A year after working on it (footless pantyhose), I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tell you guys.’ And I was met with a lot of questions and skepticism. People asking, ‘Is that really such a good idea? The big guys will just knock you off.’ If I hadn’t already invested a year, I might not have done it (started Spanx).”
Source of Inspiration: Oprah
“I asked for a sign that I should keep going. One day, I turned on the TV and clicked on Oprah, and there she was showing the world that she had cut the feet out of her pantyhose.”
Finally, a Breakthrough
“I called the hosiery mills and said, ‘I’m taking a week off work and coming in person to talk with you. I met with all the mill owners, and they all sent me away again. Two weeks later, one of the mill owners called and said, ‘I’m going to help you make your crazy idea. Why? I have two daughters.'”
12 Months in the Making
“It took a year to make the first product prototype. I learned the hosiery industry had been putting a rubber cord at our waistbands, even though we no longer needed it because of Lycra. The industry had been taking the average between the largest size and the smallest size and putting average sizes on waistbands.”
“There was not a female in this industry challenging the mills that were pumping out these products for years. No one saying, ‘Let’s make hosiery more comfortable.’ With Spanx, if you’re an A-size, you get an A-waistband. They’re all cotton, so you can wear them with or without underwear, which is the whole point, to get rid of panty lines.”
Packaging the Product
“I knew I wanted our packaging to be red – it’s one of my favorite colors. We didn’t have money to advertise, so I knew a red package would stand out among all the beige and grey on the store shelves. I didn’t read a bunch of books, didn’t have a bunch of classes in marketing. The only source I went to was my gut and myself as a consumer. I thought, ‘Personally I don’t like buying pantyhose, it’s confusing and boring. How can I change that?'”
Naming the Company
“I knew Kodak and Coca-Cola are among the most recognized products in the world. And it’s a weird trade secret among comedians that the ‘k’ sound will make people laugh. The minute I came to that clarity, the word “spanks” came to mind. I knew from research that made-up words do better for products than real words and are easier to trademark, so I changed the name to “Spanx” and trademarked it online.”
Gaining Entree Into Stores
“I called Neiman-Marcus, got the buyer on the phone and said, ‘I will fly to Dallas to show this to you if you give me ten minutes.’ She said OK, got the concept immediately and put Spanx in seven stores. I called every friend in each of those seven cities and said, ‘I will pay you back if you go buy the product and tell all your friends.”
The Art of Self-Promotion
“We have never hired a marketing company, never hired a PR company, never hired a sales company. To promote the product, I stood in hosiery departments for a year and a half. I sent a gift basket to Oprah and said, ‘Thanks for being part of this process,’ because she was the sign I had asked for.” (A few months later, Oprah sent a crew to Atlanta to interview Blakely in her “Spanx headquarters,” which was really the back of Blakely’s apartment. In November of 2000, her interview and footless pantyhose appeared on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” show.)
No Budget, Big Buzz
“With no money to advertise, I had to do things in a way that were on the edge. I took a really big leap of faith there. A lot of news editors and other people hung up on me at first when I said, ‘I’m calling from Spanx.’ But I took the most boring subject on the planet, pantyhose, and made it something people wanted to talk about.”
“Now we have more than 40 innovative products for women. We have an all-hosiery bra, so comfortable it’s called ‘Bra-llelujah!’ We have control-top fishnet stockings and Power Panties, our second best-selling product (after Spanx footless pantyhose). We have two new collections in intimate apparel, one called ‘Hide and Sleek,’ which is a line of smoothing camis, slips, and panties that firm and tone.”
“I was so proud of seeing my products on Neiman Marcus shelves. I thought, ‘There’s something I came up with on my own and now it’s next to Donna Karan and Calvin Klein and other international brands.’ The day I launched Power Panties on QVC, they quickly sold out. I got the sales numbers and realized I wasn’t a one-hit-wonder like the big guys said I would be. I felt more like a company, less like someone who stumbled on a fluke that was successful.”
“Building the team. For someone who’s never taken a business class, never managed anyone, to all of a sudden be a business owner and manager and be responsible for all of my employees’ livelihoods… I was shocked and confused on how to be an effective manager. Then I realized, ‘It’s OK if you’re not good at this, hire someone who is.'” Hiring a CEO”I keep dreaming up ideas in random moments, but I’m a bit more removed from the day-to-day of the company. We have a fabulous CEO and COO. I’m the face of Spanx, spreading the word, involved in new marketing ideas. I’m an entrepreneur who knows her strengths and weaknesses. I’m not interested in running the day-to-day business, so for me to step aside, has not been hard for me at all.”
Words of Advice – On Delegating
“As an entrepreneur, you will be in an eternal state of frustration with people you have to delegate to because you think, ‘I could have done that better.’ That’s not fair to your people, because they have strengths you don’t have. If you can find people who do it 80 percent as well as you can, you’re a lucky entrepreneur. Once I started looking at it this way, I all of a sudden relaxed, no longer expecting people to do it exactly the way I would have done it.” Words of Advice – On Patents”I thought the minute my patent was awarded that I was home free. But a patent is only as good as you are willing to defend it. It’s most important to be first to market, come up with clever marketing, try to fill the distribution channels and make sure your product is the best.”
Probably the longest post in History, but I wanted it all in one post.
Andy G. Rodie