Sara Blakely: reclaiming an industry

sarablakely

For many women, the arrival of Spanx was an “ah-ha” moment, a suddenly obvious evolution of something familiar, with familiar limitations. Despite this, Sara Blakely, the inventor and entrepreneur behind this explosive brand, actually met little initial support when she tried to bring her idea to market. The reason, of course, was that all major hosiery producers were controlled by men: people who neither used their own products, or tested them with real users.

sarablakely

This paradoxical business environment paved the way for major disruption in the industry, and Blakely was more than ready for the challenge. Despite a total lack of investment, she quickly thrived. In 2012, she became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, and today her net worth is valued at over $1.06 billion dollars.

Identifying a problem in need of a solution

Blakely started her career selling fax machines door-to-door. As a part of her job, she was required to wear panty-hose, which put her in a position where she had plenty of opportunity to consider the pros and cons of this particular article of clothing. The control-top look led to a firmer appearance, but she disliked the appearance of seamed feet in open toed shoes. Should it be unreasonable to want the former without the latter? This obviously wasn’t a new issue, but no one in the hosiery industry had ever attempted to capitalise on it. Seeing the potential for something better, Blakely decided to do something about it herself.

The birth of Spanx

In a now-famous stroke of genius, Blakely initially solved the problem by cutting the feet off a pair of pantyhose to wear under her slacks for a party. The bottoms rolled up a bit, but it worked. After investing her own money to conduct research and develop her idea further, she approached a variety of hosiery mills in North Carolina to find a manufacturer for her new product. Surprisingly they didn’t see the value in it, and all turned her down. That is, until one business owner called her back after he mentioned the idea to his daughters, who strongly encouraged him to pursue it.

With no financial backing, she began marketing her product herself, and managed to convince a representative of Neiman Marcus to stock her new invention at a few stores by personally modelling it. After a fairly promising response from customers, it was picked up by a few other clothing stores.

Then, Blakely decided to send some to Oprah Winfrey’s program as a gift, and was featured in her “Favourite Things” episode. After that, things began to snowball, and her fledgling business boomed, with $8 million dollars in sales the first year, and $15 million dollars in 2002. By 2014, that number had ballooned to over $400 million dollars.

Blakely’s do it yourself attitude

Unlike the vast majority of highly successful young business owners, Sara Blakely is the sole owner of Spanx. She hasn’t accepted any outside investment, and never even formally advertised her products or her brand.

This lone-wolf attitude traces back to the beginning of her venture, when she was forced to operate her entire business on her own. Not only did she invent, design, and sell her own products, she also wrote her own initial patent to keep legal costs manageable. When Oprah asked to film her facilities for her show, Blakely had to round up friends and neighbours to act as her staff, because she didn’t actually have any employees at the time.

A lesson for the rest of us

Great entrepreneurship is finding and implementing great solutions for common problems. Sara Blakely saw the need for a better kind of hosiery, and decided to make it her problem to solve. In doing so, she discovered an enormous gap in the market. Not only had other hosiery companies made no serious attempt to innovate, they didn’t even test their products on real users. By becoming that sorely needed innovator, Blakely managed to disrupt the entire industry to emerge as the most recognizable name in the business.

Driving technological progress and innovation often results in businesses developing solutions to problems that they and their markets haven’t identified yet. Blakely’s success is a reminder to turn that around, and find solutions to the problems our markets want addressed. This market-centered approach isn’t a revolutionary idea, but it’s one that many entrepreneurs have lost touch with.

As entrepreneurs and innovators, it’s important not only to recognise what Sara Blakely has done to get where she is today, but also what she didn’t do. She didn’t hunt down investors, she didn’t push any technological boundaries, she didn’t launch any slick marketing campaigns, and her business isn’t publicly traded. Building a successful business is about finding a problem worth solving for a specific market, and offering solutions that they will love. By doing this well, Sara Blakely created a product that, once properly introduced through her own personal hard work and determination, could and did sell itself.

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