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How Sara Blakely “Failed” Her Way to Billions

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On Friday I was lucky enough to attend the Women in the World Summit 2013 at Lincoln Center here in Manhattan. There were so many amazing women there, it was actually overwhelming. The speakers list included Hillary Clinton, Lauren Bush Lauren, Eva Longoria, and who was that other one? Oh that’s right. OPRAH.

Another one of those incredible women who shared her story with the audience was Sara Blakely, founder of the miracle undergarment Spanx (raise your hand if it has changed your life!), entrepreneur extraordinaire, and the youngest woman to ever grace the cover of the Forbes Billionaire issue.

Basically, she is pretty darn cool. But life wasn’t always so perfect for Blakely. In fact, in many ways she felt like she had failed at the career she had always wanted, which was to be a lawyer like her father. But instead of crawling into a hole, Blakely says “failing” at something is what gave her the career boost she always needed.

“I feel that failure is life’s way of nudging you and letting you know you’re off course,” she said at the Women in the World Summit. And boy, are women glad she didn’t pass the LSATs. Think of the world without Spanx, ladies! So many panty lines!

“My father used to encourage me and my brother to fail,” she continued. She said he would ask every day what she failed at and was actually disappointed if she didn’t have any failure stories to relay. She recalled being very excited after auditioning for a play and telling her father how wonderfully horrible she was!

“It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail,” she said.

This is what got her through those tough years of LSAT disappointments, working at Disney World for a few months and then in a depressing job in sales at an office supply chain. She came up with her brilliant idea after being frustrated with what to wear under a pair of white pants.

“I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath,” she told Forbes last year. “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.”

So all she had to do was convince people to manufacture it and sell it. Easy, right? Not so much.

”I must have heard the word ‘no’ a thousand times,” she told Forbes last year. Yet, ”it didn’t faze me. I didn’t have a special ability, it was sheer drive and telling myself to keep going.”

Blakely had to become a one-woman show. She put all of her savings ($5,000) into launching the product while working full time. 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 told Forbes. “It made people laugh. No one ever forgot it.”

She was her own marketing, PR, calling service, and shipping and handling team for the first few years. Then Neiman Marcus came calling and Oprah pronounced Spanx as her favorite new product of 2000. Everyone knows that a praise from Oprah is pretty much a guarantee that you will get a Forbes cover.

And now she is a billionaire who gets flashed by women all over America (showing her their Spanx devotion). All because she was a “failure.” In recent months, four Wall Street investment banks separately valued Spanx at an average $1 billion, a sum Forbes corroborated with the help of industry analysts. Blakely owns 100 percent of the private company, has zero debt, has never taken outside investment, and hasn’t spent a nickel on advertising. Spanx now sells 200 products in 11,500 department stores, boutiques, and online shops in 40 countries, according to Forbes.

After saying it’s “awesome to be a billionaire,” she said she is most grateful for being a woman in America. It’s what fuels her. “It was women that grew my company.”

So what is next for Blakely? “I joke that I want to invent a comfortable stiletto and then retire!”

This woman may truly be an angel. The angel of Spanx.

Have you ever come out on top after a failure? Share your story in the comments!


Entrepreneurship #Education News Career Advice
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Elana Gross
Elana Gross

I love this article! I especially like Sara's point that “failure is life’s way of nudging you and letting you know you’re off course.” I believe that everything happens for a reason and that you can learn so much from your failures and mistakes - if you are humble and willing to learn.

Thank you so much for this piece! I love success stories from people (especially women!) when they achieve something on their own. When they are told no or don't have thousands and thousands of start-up dollars or don't "know someone". It reminds me that dreams really can come true and one idea can change your life.

I graduate college in exactly one month and there has been so much recent pressure to have everything perfectly lined up and figured out. This was such a great reminder that this is merely the beginning -- there is still so much time for change, growth and success.

Sara Blakely is perfect go-getter example for GenY! Hope she joins Levo League mentoring & Office Hours!

One of my entrepreneurial crushes! Why - she OWNS her company. All of it. The ultimate bootstrapping to success.

Could not agree more Kelly! Major entrepreneurial girl crush.

Great article Meredith. It really helps to hear about the ups and downs to major success.

Love this article! I'm looking for a job and finding some setbacks, but thinking about the positive learning experiences from each interview, conversation, or even rejection has helped me push through. Blakely is truly inspirational.

Agreed. I struggle with this myself. It seems like all the great ideas have been taken, and if you're not a social media guru than "self made billionaire" is out of the question. But you never know what solution to a real life problem you could create outside of the computer!

Same boat, same feelings. Her story is so inspiring and motivational!

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