Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx, started her company 11 years ago because she “didn’t like the way my butt looked in white pants.” So she cut the legs off her control top panty hose, liked the effect, and gave birth to a hosiery company that disrupted a traditionally male-dominated industry. Along the way, she learned a few valuable lessons that she imparted to an appreciative audience at Inc.’s Women’s Summit. Here’s what we all learned:
1. “Ideas are the most vulnerable in the moment you have them,” says Blakely. She resisted the urge to tell family and friends right away about her idea for a new kind of shapewear because she didn’t want to expose herself to negative feedback that might have caused her to second guess her own instincts. She kept her venture to herself for year, gaining confidence and momentum before she shared her plans.
2. Never underestimate the power of persistence. Blakely called and visited one North Carolina hosiery mill after another, searching for a manufacturing partner who would make a prototype. She was rejected consistently, until one mill owner who had dismissed her idea summarily called back with some good news: he had told his daughters about her idea and they convinced him to help Blakely.
3. Be different. Blakely knew that in order for her product to stand out in hosiery departments, her packaging would have to pop. So she eschewed traditional beige and white packaging for bright red. “I wanted it to scream ‘I’m new, I’m different, check me out.’ I also put three animated, illustrated girls on the front which no one had done,” she says.
4. Be bold. A cold call to a buyer at Neiman Marcus earned Blakely ten minutes to pitch her idea. So Blakely flew from Atlanta to Dallas and, after a few minutes with the buyer, asked the woman to come to the ladies room with her. There, Blakely did a quick “before and after” demo of her product. “Whoa!” declared the buyer. “I’m going to give you a shot." She promised to put the product in seven stores.
5. Get the name right. Blakely struggled with bad names for a year and a half. At one point, she seriously considered calling her product “Open-Toed Delilahs.” Then one day, sitting in traffic, the name Spanx came to her as she pondered the characteristics of other successful brands like Coca Cola and Kodak (the “K” sound in a made-up name!)
6. Break the rules. Neiman’s put Spanx in the hosiery department, but Blakely wanted her product more broadly exposed. So she went to Target, bought a number of metal shelves, and then sneakily moved her product in front of registers at Neiman's. “Everyone thought that someone else had approved it,” she says.
7. Rally the troops. Blakely spent two years visiting every department store that sold Spanx, rallying sales people by educating them about the product and teaching them how to sell it. The result: a salesperson who sold couture dresses knew as much about Spanx as the folks in the lingerie department.
8. Listen to your customers. Blakely’s Spanx got a huge boost with Oprah featured them as her favorite product in 2000. At that point, Blakely might have made the mistake of sitting back and letting the orders roll in. Instead, she continued to talk to customers and salespeople to create more products, including bras, swimsuits, active wear, and even a line of men’s undershirts.
9. Visualize your own success. “When I was 20, I saw myself talking to Oprah,” says Blakely. She had no idea what she was discussing with the diva of daytime television – just that she had achieved something Oprah-worthy. “It was a mental snapshot that I spent 15 years filing in.” The lesson: positive visualization can be even powerful than a well-crafted business plan.