One of the coolest things about Spanx founder Sara Blakely is that we know her answer to "what would you do if you had a gazillion dollars and no pressure to work?". The world's youngest self-made female billionaire has woken up every morning for the last 17 years and gone to work at the company she built from scratch with a seemingly bizarre idea, footless pantyhose, and $5000 in savings.
I recently had a chance to spend some time with the Blakely-Itzler family at their lakehouse and what struck me most was how connected both Blakely and her husband, former rapper, bestselling author and serial entrepreneur, Jesse Itzler are with each other, their kids and their purpose.
Despite selling literally millions of units of her shapewear, Blakely still gets excited to the point of stopping total strangers at airports or on the streets to say thank you and to get feedback on their Spanx experience.
Which is exactly why I was so stoked to watch Blakely be a guest shark (a "Sharkette" as hubby Itzler calls it) on ABC's iconic Shark Tank with Mark Cuban. Because for those of us who are excited not just by the financial gain that comes with entrepreneurship but the purpose piece, she had a lot of fantastic advice.
1. Design in the white space--and get feedback.
In an interview promoting her appearance as a Sharkette, Blakely offered this advice, "Design in the white space. What I want to see is a solution to a problem that no one has solved, what makes you different and why the customer needs you."
In Spanx's founding years, Blakely followed her own advice by designing shapewear that met a woman's need for something that would smooth her silhouette but allow her to wear open-toed sandals. She also designed using real women - who would give her actual feedback--rather than the then industry-standard of using mannequins.
This feedback has allowed her to design an ever expanding line of garments including Arm Tights, meant to help women wear their sleeveless clothes all year round.
2. Be careful who you take advice from.
In the early days of Spanx, plenty of knowledgeable "industry insiders" told Blakely she was nuts. And that hosiery was a dying industry in a world where going bare-legged was no longer taboo. All this advice was both honest and 100 percent true. But Blakely had enough insight to see this advice came from men, all of whom knew a lot about the industry but seemed to have very little curiosity or empathy for their target buyers--women.
You'll never lack for advice when you start a company. And most of it will lead you in contradictory directions. Perhaps the best thing you can do is schedule solo time to check in with yourself--your intention for those you serve--and take advice only from those who show with their actions and results that they're aligned with that vision.
Both investment and mentorship can steer you off course in a hurry if you don't actively lead your company.
3. Sell, sell, sell.
Even as she did an interview on ABC promoting the upcoming episode of Shark Tank, Blakely found a way to wear and mention Spanx Arm Tights. She acknowledged that the biggest benefit to entrepreneurs who get on shows like Shark Tank isn't necesarily investment or even guidance from the Sharks.
It lies in the grueling pre-selection process of learning how to position yourself and your brand. And of course, the opportunity to show it off in front of millions of potential buyers, investors, affiliates, partners, etc who are watching the show and might be aligned with your mission.
4. Care more than anyone else
If you can find a way to care more than anyone else in your space--and communicate that on a show like Shark Tank--it almost doesn't matter if the Sharks pick you or not. Because your ideal buyers will.
5. Build a positivity practice
Even as the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, Blakely admits to sometimes suffering crippling self doubt. To reorient herself, she listens to Wayne Dyer audiobooks and spends time with the people in her life that lift her up.
There will always be things to worry about--and as one's success grows, so will the stakes--which is why having a personal practice to boost positivity and connection to one's vision is crucial for those who want to be successful long term.