One woman, one idea, 1 decade & $5,000 converted to $1 BILLION!
Topless Board Meetings is what she is best known for, besides being the youngest self-made woman billionaire in the world.
Sara Blakely stands topless at a conference room table. It’s Monday morning at the Spanx headquarters in Atlanta, and the founder of the hosiery company has been in a product development meeting for all of five minutes before walking out abruptly. She returns a minute later in nothing but a lacy taupe bra with black pants and beige wedges and adjusts herself in a full-length mirror, worrying aloud about the metal clasps on this early prototype. Will they create lumps under her clothes? Her CEO, Laurie Ann Goldman — petite and glamorous in a leopard print shift dress — tugs on Blakely’s straps.
P.S. : Just in case you are wondering, no public entry is not allowed during the board meetings.
The conference room looks like a boudoir designed by Willy Wonka: a jar of gum balls here, a loud houndstooth print there. Blakely hardly blinks in the presence of five colleagues and me as she removes the bra and tries on a second prototype. She’s been getting half-naked in public for the last decade, controlling every detail of the new category in women’s retail—shapewear—that she created from a one-product wonder sold out of her apartment.
Sara Blakely, an unknown woman from Florida, a woman who used to work at Disney, who has 0 debt! started off with a very simple idea which she has now made into a Billion Dollar Company.
Blakely would still happily pose in nothing but Spanx on the cover of any of the nine catalogs mailed each year to 6 million shoppers, but she knows Goldman, 49, won’t go for it. “I’m game for anything,” says Blakely. “The company has to pull me back.” Goldman, who created the first business plan at Spanx over the founder’s objections that it would stunt creativity, plays the straight man to Blakely’s more impulsive act.
Spanx fans recognize her on the street, in stores and in airports and want to show their allegiance. “Women flash her,” says Itzler. “Imagine that. She’s just really good. She’s the best, man.”
Blakely didn’t set out to invent anything, but she always had a knack for hucksterism. The daughter of a personal injury lawyer and an artist, she grew up in the beach town of Clearwater, Fla., always looking to make a buck. She’d set up a haunted house at Halloween and charge her neighbors admission. Or, tearing a page from Tom Sawyer, she’d trick her friends into doing her chores by turning weedpulling into a competition.
Like many startups, Spanx began life as an answer to an irritating problem. The panty hose Blakely was forced to wear at both Disney and Danka were uncomfortable and old-fashioned. “It’s Florida, it’s hot, I was carrying fax machines,” she says. She hated the way the seamed foot stuck out of an open-toe sandal or kitten heel. But she noticed that the control-top eliminated panty lines and made her tiny body look even firmer. She’d bought a new pair of cream slacks for $78 at Arden B and was keen to wear them to a party. “I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath,” she says. “But they rolled up my legs all night. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make this.’ I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist.”
Blakely, then 27, moved to Atlanta, set aside her entire $5,000 savings and spent the next two years meticulously planning the launch of her product while working nine to five at Danka. She spent seven nights straight at the Georgia Tech library researching every hosiery patent ever filed. She visited craft stores like Michaels to find the right fabrics. She sought out hosiery mills in the Yellow Pages and started cold calling, only to be told no repeatedly. Immune to rejection thanks to years selling door-to-door, she decided just to show up. At the Acme-McCrary hosiery factory in Asheboro, N.C., she was turned away, only to receive a call from the manager two weeks later. He had daughters, he told her, who wouldn’t let him pass up her invention. (Today the Spanx line is manufactured in 15 countries, including Thailand, Israel and Honduras; the cotton crotches are still hand-sewn in North Carolina.)
To save $3,000 in legal fees she wrote her own patent from a Barnes & Noble textbook, setting aside $150 to incorporate her company, but couldn’t decide on a name. After a succession of terrible ideas she settled on Spanks, substituting an “x” at the last minute after reading that made-up names sold better. “The word ‘Spanx’ was funny,” she says. “It made people laugh. No one ever forgot it.” In the summer of 2000 she spent evenings on a friend’s computer designing her packaging. She went for cherry red and, with the help of a graphic artist, created a blonde cartoon model with a long ponytail called Sunny—Sara’s animated alter ego.
Blakely flew to Dallas that fall to meet with buyers from Neiman Marcus. Current CEO Karen Katz was president of all the upscale chain’s stores at the time and remembers seeing Blakely in a conference room, pitching. “Sara’s effort was to solve an age-old problem for women in a modern way,” Katz says. She adds that Blakely’s obvious charisma and unusual backstory didn’t
hurt. “We were smitten from the beginning.” With Neiman in the bag, Blakely convinced Bloomingdale’s, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman to give her a shot.
Blakely was still working her day job at Danka, keeping her side business top secret, sitting up all night shoving Spanx orders into white padded envelopes from Office Depot. She was 24/7 customer service, answering phone calls from her bathtub or bed. Her then boyfriend quit his job and took care of shipping and handling.
Unable to shell out for advertising, Blakely took on marketing and p.r. She tore out journalists’ bylines from magazines and called them. She took over morning staff meetings at department stores to show sales associates why Spanx shouldn’t languish in the beige hinterland of the hosiery floor but be sold alongside womenswear and shoes. If that didn’t work, she improvised, once sneaking some red Spanx packages onto a rack she bought at Target and placing them by a cash register in Neiman. “All the staff assumed someone else had approved it, until they caught me on CCTV,” she laughs.
She connived her way to her biggest coup, shipping samples to Oprah Winfrey’s longtime stylist Andre Walker, who noticed the talk-show host started looking ten pounds lighter. In November 2000 Winfrey named Spanx her favorite product of the year on the annual audience scream-a-thon that was her Favorite Things Show. When Blakely got the call from Harpo Productions, she was warned to get her website ready, since orders would undoubtedly cascade after the show. Spanx didn’t have a website. “We took a color copy of the packaging and scanned it in,” Blakely says. “I ran a considerable Web business for $18 a month.” She resigned from Danka two weeks before the show aired. Spanx was profitable from day one, and raked in $4 million its first year and $10 million the next.
For the next two years Blakely constantly traveled to do in-store demos and local news appearances. In 2001 she scored a coveted deal with QVC, which turned her down until it read a Forbes story (“Footless and Fancy-Free,” Apr. 2, 2001) that described Blakely as an “accidental entrepreneur” who’d reinvented the girdle. So what if Spanx took the high road (Bergdorf ) and the low (QVC) at once? Women were buying like mad.
“Sara was out there shaking her butt and selling her product,” says Goldman in her office, next door to Blakely’s and furnished like an Upper East Side living room—velvet fittings, monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks. Goldman, a ten-year veteran of Coca-Cola, where she ran the licensing division in 54 countries, came on board in 2002, first as a consultant, then as CEO. She was Spanx’s fifth employee. Her office was the kitchen in Blakely’s apartment in Decatur, but she knew that wouldn’t be the case for long. “I wanted to run Spanx like a public company from the start. I thought, Let’s get Ernst & Young to do our audits. They didn’t really do companies our size, but I said we were going to be bigger one day. We did the same with IT.”
As Goldman set about professionalizing the company, Blakely found a publicity stunt she couldn’t pass up. After six auditions she was cast on Richard Branson’s 2003 reality show, Rebel Billionaire, which aired on Fox in 2004. Her lawyers (and her dad) begged her not to do it. But Blakely says she wanted to meet and learn from the Virgin mogul. Branson saw it as another sign of her p.r. savvy. “She was already reasonably successful before, and she cleverly thought the show would help,” he says.
Leaving Spanx in Goldman’s hands for three months, Blakely won task after task—shocking her teammates and the crew. “I was cast as the girl who’d have the meltdown from heights on the first episode and lose her mind,” she says. Blakely followed daredevil Branson up the side of a moving hot air balloon at 8,000 feet, climbing a rope ladder the equivalent of a 17-story building. She’d be a world record holder if she’d remembered to call Guinness afterward. “Sara was the runner-up overall,” says Branson. “The only reason I didn’t give her the top prize was because she was already successful. She didn’t need a leg up.” Instead, Branson cut her a personal check for $750,000 to start a foundation. To date Blakely and Spanx have donated $17.5 million to charities primarily aimed at supporting girls and women—college scholarships in South Africa, homes for single mothers and their families (via Habitat for Humanity) and empowerment grants supporting entrepreneurship among them.
Reblogged via Forbes : How Spanx became a Billion Dollar Company without investments