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Sales Lessons From Barbara Corcoran and Sara Blakely

Barbara Corcoran and Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, spill their sales secrets at the Inc. Women's Summit.
Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, and real-estate entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran spilled their sales secrets at the Inc. Women's Summit.
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In a letter to Inc. magazine, a female inmate complained about the preponderance of male entrepreneurs covered by the magazine, and cited the frequent covers featuring "nerdy men" as her reason for not renewing her subscription.

Jane Berentson, the editor of Inc., opened the Inc. Women's Summit by reading that letter, and by encouraging the women present to get busy. "It is extremely important to us editorially that women are part of the conversation," she said. "There's not much difference between men and women entrepreneurs; it takes an idea, the moxie to get money, and the execution."

The first two speakers at the conference were successful female entrepreneurs with very different personal styles-;and yet strikingly similar takeaways, especially regarding sales. First up was Sara Blakely, the bubbly, lively founder of Spanx. As a 29-year-old woman with $5,000 to her name and the idea to cut the feet out of support hose, Blakely began growing Spanx to the huge brand it is today. Back when she was a door-to-door fax salesperson, Blakely wrote her own patent application, and found the first mill to manufacture her product by driving around North Carolina talking to plant managers.

Blakely assembled the original staff of her company from unlikely companions. Her original head of product development was a furniture designer who had been her assistant. The fact that she didn't know the hosiery business let her think outside the box. When she started, Blakely was her own best salesperson, standing in department stores showing off her own lack-of-panty-line pants to sales associates and customers. Both of these groups became her core salespeople-;and gave her the best product ideas. Blakely emphasized the longevity of some of her hires, and the teamwork she generated.

That organic hiring-and-employment philosphy contrasted severely with the style of hard driving Barbara Corcoran, one of 10 children who learned lessons early from a mother that was "almost like a drill sergeant." Corcoran advised the women present to "shoot the dogs early," saying that she would regularly fire the bottom 25 percent of salespeople in her company. "I convinced myself that this was done out of goodness. I got rid of people who weren't good at selling, who weren't supposed to be in the business. If they didn't sell in the first six months, they had one in a million chance of succeeding."

Great Salespeople Never Give Up.

Both Blakely and Corcoran are true salespeople, never stopping in the face of naysayers and adversity.  Barbara Corcoran grew her business in part out of revenge, as we learned at the Inc 500|5000 this year. She was determined to show her ex-boyfriend (and ex-business partner) she could be successful without him.

Blakely said "I didn't tell friends and family my idea for a year; your ideas are the most vulnerable in the moment you have them. People will tell you things that will stop you dead in your tracks, and you have to explain the idea instead of pursuing it." From lawyers who didn't think she had a unique invention to manufacturers who refused to talk with her, Blakely stubbornly refused to give up on her idea to literally change the shape of women's hosiery and worked until she got the product out.

Create Your Own Demand.

Both women have perfected creating demand. Once she had her product in stores, Blakely identified her challenge; she needed to get the product out of the hosiery department. Blakely quickly bought her own stands from Target, and went around and manually placed Spanx at the cash register at Neiman Marcus. Everyone thought someone else had put the product there, and her guerilla tactics helped her get noticed. Sales associates would promote the product because it would help them sell dresses.

Corcoran made a similar point: "Everybody wants what everybody wants." An insurance company approached her company to get rid of 88 terrible properties. Corcoran priced all the same-sized units at the same price regardless of amenity, floor, or building, and opened the sale at the same moment. People competed to get a unit, and the demand got them all sold within two hours. 

Take Big Risks.

Both women have a reality TV background with Blakely appearing on Rebel Billionaire with Sir Richard Branson as well as on American Inventor. Corcoran is a regular on Shark Tank. Blakely is a risk taker who believed in her product so much she jumped on a plane to sell the Spanx line to Nieman Marcus with just the promise of a 10-minute meeting. After showing the woman her Spanx in the bathroom, she made the sale.  (You can read more of her unique story on the Spanx site).

Corcoran says she "made up" some of the statistics she gave to the press in her Corcoran Report. "The meek never inherit the earth," she said.  "Big mouths inherit the earth." Corcoran did a Madonna Report when the singer announced she was pregnant, describing the kind of apartment the superstar would need with a larger family. She was on three different 11 o'clock news hours talking Madonna's "new place." A newscaster called her "broker to the stars," and it became reality. She never sold to Madonna, but says she "got business from Richard Gear because I bullshitted about Madonna."

Remember: Perception Creates Reality.

Barbara Corcoran has said her mantra that perception creates reality is a key to her success.

Blakely gave the audience similar advice. "Visualize: know where you want to be. Think of a different life for yourself, and visualize what you want. Take a mental snapshot of where you want to be. I did it at 20 years old, picturing myself on the Oprah show. The next 15 years of my life were filling in the blanks." Blakely didn't know what she was going to talk about with Winfrey on that couch, but grew to want to make a product that would sell to millions of women and make their lives better.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2011




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