Sara Blakely and the invention process
Most people familiar with Sara Blakely and the SPANX story know that it all started with Sara taking a pair of scissors and cutting the feet off of a pair of panty hose. But one must assume that to build a $1 Billion company there is more to the story than just modifying a pair of hose. The journey of how Sara Blakely went from idea, to prototype, to launching her company is the topic of this page. Sara’s invention story is not that different from countless other success stories. Sara had to suffer through rejection, being told it would never work, and even being laughed at by an attorney whom she had sought out for patent advice.
Note- In March of 2012 Forbes Magazine reported that Sara Blakely 41, had become the youngest self-made billionaire woman in the world. She did it by inventing SPANX and then building the company to $1 Billion without the help of a husband or an inheritance. Ms Blakely and her story should be an inspiration to any entrepreneur, but particularly young female entrepreneurs. For this reason I have devoted a series of 5 short articles to her success.
Seeds of invention planted in Sara Blakely’s mind
The seeds for the SPANX invention were planted in Sara’s mind back in Florida while working both at Disney and later at Danka where she sold fax machines.
Sara preferred wearing panty hose under her business slacks because she liked the way they added shape to her rear end. But she also enjoyed wearing open-toe shoes in the Florida heat and did not care for how the seams stuck out of the toes of her shoes or sandals. She wanted the hose, but without the feet.
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Enter the famous pair of cream colored pants now on display at SPANX headquarters. Sara had recently bought a new pair of cream colored pants and was planning on wearing them out to an upcoming event. She wanted to wear hose underneath but without the feet. Sara grabbed a pair of scissors and, now famously, hacked off the feet thinking her problem was solved. But this led to a new problem. As the evening wore on, the lower end of the panty hose tended to roll up her leg.
Still not satisfied, Sara began to think about how she could make a pair of panty hose without the feet. But knowing nothing about the fashion industry or even how to start a business, success was still a few years away.
However, the seeds of success had been firmly planted in Sara’s mind, where they began to germinate and take root.
Sara Blakely Taking Action
Fast forward a few years and Sara was now living and working in Atlanta Georgia, still selling fax machines for Danka. But the time had come for Sara to start taking action on her hosiery invention idea.
Sara began spending time at the Georgia Tech Library researching hosiery patents. At one point she spent one full week every single night in the library doing her research. She also began researching fabrics and made repeated visits to area fabric stores to further her research.
Continuing her plan of action, Sara began seeking out patent attorneys to discuss her idea and the potential for obtaining patent protection. One of the attorneys she visited thought her idea was so ridiculous that he laughed and wondered if he was on an episode of Candid Camera. Undaunted by the rejection Sara purchased a textbook from Barnes & Noble on writing patents and set about writing her own patent.
It was time to incorporate her new company but she had not quite settled on a name. Drawing on her communications background and even her stint in stand-up comedy, Sara knew that the name had to have the “k” sound in it. When she tried out the name “SPANKS” on some of her friends they each responded with a positive chuckle. Based on all of the positive responses Sara knew that SPANKS was going to be the name, but at the last moment she substituted the “k” for the “x”. With the name settled, Sara plopped down $150 and incorporated her new venture.
Finding a manufacturer for SPANX
The next step in launching her business was to find a manufacturer for her new hosiery product. She began the process of cold calling hosiery mills but kept getting turned away. Almost every time the person she was talking to wanted to know what company she was with, or who her backers were.
Not satisfied with her progress from working the phones, Sara climbed into her car and headed for North Carolina where there was a cluster of clothing and textile mills. She spent almost a week visiting various mills and talking to the people who ran them. But the story was the same; who was she, and who were her backers? With nothing more that rejection in hand, Sara climbed back in her car and headed for home.
What Sara Blakely did not know at the time, is that her actions had also planted a seed in the minds of one of the mill owners she had visited. You see, the mill owner went home and told his daughters about the lady with the crazy panty hose idea. He learned soon enough that the idea was not so crazy because both of his daughters loved it. Two weeks later Sara received a phone call. The owner informed Sara of the conversation he had with his daughters, and he agreed to manufacture her product.
Sara Blakely had just jumped one more hurdle in her quest to start her own company.
Next step; Design the SPANX packaging
The next big hurdle before she could consider getting her product on department store shelves was designing the packaging. Like she had done all along, Sara took the responsibility on herself.
The first thing Sara did was to visit the women’s section of a local department store and buy one of every brand of panty hose the store sold. She ended up with about 10 packages of hose which she began to study. She surmised that if something appeared on every package it must be a legal requirement so she incorporated it into her package design. Sara used a friend’s computer to design her now famous red packages complete with her image on the package in the form of a cartoon. Sara did get help from a friend in designing her cartoon character.
With the packaging design set, Sara continued to work with the mill to finalize even the smallest detail of her flagship product. With all the bugs finally worked out it was time to approach retail outlets with her body shaping footless panty hose. All of Sara’s work up to this point was about to be put to the test. Would the buyers and power players in the fashion industry see the same value in her product invention that she saw?
How Sara Blakely landed her first retail account
With her SPANX product in hand and ready to roll out, Sara put Neiman Marcus in her sights as her first retail account. She first approached stores in her native Florida but was referred to the office in Dallas where all buying takes place.
Sara called the Dallas office and was connected through to one of the Neiman Marcus buyers. The lady on the other end of the line told Sara that she would give her ten minutes tops, but she had to come to Dallas. Sara hopped on a plane wearing her favorite cream colored slacks and carrying her lucky red backpack from her college years.
It was time to put everything on the line. Sara began her presentation but after several minutes she was not sure she still had the buyer’s full attention. What Sara did next is perhaps the most defining moment in the SPANX story, at least since she cut the feet off that first pair of panty hose.
Sara asked the buyer to follow her to the lady’s restroom. She agreed. Sara told the lady to take a good look at her rear end, and notice the lines and shape without her SPANX product underneath. She then entered one of the stalls where she slipped her body shaping invention on under her slacks and emerged for the second part of her demonstration. The buyer immediately noticed the difference and the deal was done. Sara Blakely left Dallas with her first SPANX orders in hand.
How Sara Blakely grew SPANX in the early days
With her new SPANX product on the shelves at Neiman Marcus, Sara set about spreading the word and marketing her product. There is one phenomenal fact that sets Sara Blakely and SPANX apart from the vast majority of companies and start-ups worldwide. Neither Sara nor her company has spent a dime on advertising. The success of SPANX is due primarily to word of mouth.
Sara immediately got on the phone and started calling friends family and even sorority sisters to let them know her SPANX was available at Neiman Marcus. She encouraged them all to go in and make a fuss over the product. Other stores such as Saks and Bloomingdale’s soon followed.
Sara’s next big break came by way of the Oprah Winfrey show, but it was not by accident. Sara shipped a number of samples to Oprah’s long time stylist. Oprah not only tried the SPANX samples but apparently fell in love with them. In November 2000 Oprah named SPANX her favorite product of the year.
Sara did receive a telephone call and a warning from Oprah’s people prior to the show airing. What kind of warning? Get ready because SPANX sales were about to rocket upwards. Not only were Oprah’s people correct, but it was time for Sara to walk away from her sales job at Danka.
And there has been no looking back for the girl from Clearwater Florida. SPANX sales hit $4 million the first year and $10 million the second.
Today SPANX undergarments are manufactured in over 15 countries around the world. The SPANX Company has been valued at over $1 billion, which gives Sara Blakely the title of the youngest self-made Billionaire in the world at the age of 42.
Other articles in this series: