The Profile Dossier: Sara Blakely, the Self-Made Billionaire

“Control your success as much as you can. Do not leave it in the hands of other people.”

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Sara Blakely is no stranger to failure.

Growing up, she wanted to be a trial attorney, but then she bombed the LSAT. After college, she auditioned to be Goofy at Disney World, but she was too short to wear the costume. After a stint as an Epcot ride greeter at “the happiest place on earth,” Blakely returned home and moved in with her mom. 

At 27 years old, she found herself at a dead-end job selling fax machines door to door. “I kept feeling like I was in the wrong movie,” she says. “I was determined to create a better life for myself.”

One night, she decided to wear her new white pants to a party, but her underwear left unflattering panty lines. So she cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose and turned them into a slimming undergarment. “The moment I saw how good my butt looked, I was like, ‘Thank you, God, this is my opportunity,” she says in the book Getting There. 

That moment changed the trajectory of her entire life. A light bulb went off and she came up with the idea of Spanx — hosiery that eliminates panty lines — and set to work on building her business. In 2000, Blakely used her $5,000 in savings to start her company, and by 2012, she was named the youngest self-made female billionaire.

Today, Blakely still owns 100% of Spanx and has no outside investors. She sees an opportunity in every failure or disappointment. “Spanx wouldn’t exist if I had aced the LSAT,” she says.

(Photo credit: Chris Craymer)

READ.

On turning $5,000 into $1 billion: When Blakely was selling fax machines door to door, her entire savings had amounted to a meager $5,000. She spent the next two years meticulously planning the launch of her shapewear product while still working full-time at her job. This profile lays out the journey of how she went from cutting the feet off her pantyhose to building Spanx into a household name. “Five grand,” she says. “Good investment.” 

LISTEN.

On taking control of her destiny: In this How I Built This podcast episode, Blakely breaks down how she began building Spanx with no business background, no connections, and no outside funding. “I did not have the most experience in the industry and I did not have the most money,” she says. “But I cared the most.” It’s one of my single favorite podcast episodes ever.

On factoring in ‘think time’: When she’s not working, Blakely says she spends her down time thinking. “If I could, I would say thinking is a hobby,” she says. “I love letting my mind wander.” We spend a lot of time taking care of our physical body and spend money to keep ourselves entertained, but Blakely believes we don’t put in enough effort to think and process the world around us. Introspection, she says, is “the greatest gift you can give yourself.”

WATCH.

On thriving in business and marriage: Blakely has been married to entrepreneur Jesse Itzler for 11 years, and the couple has four kids together. They both have busy and hectic schedules, so they’ve developed strategies to ensure their relationship doesn’t fall to the wayside. “Eighty to 90% of our conversations in this marriage are about ideas,” Blakely says. In the time of COVID-19, maintaining a healthy partnership comes down to flexibility, communication, and intimacy.

On refusing to get flattened by failure: In this keynote interview, Blakely emphasizes that hearing “no” is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Over time, getting rejected will sting less as you build emotional resilience. “If people don’t think you’re crazy, and you don’t hear the word ‘no,’ then you’re not really breaking ground,” she says. 

On building a sustainable business: In this interview at Stanford, Blakely discusses having the right mindset for starting a company and growing it successfully. Here’s the formula for any business: “Start small, think big, and scale fast,” she says.

TECHNIQUES TO TRY.

Take control of your mindset: When she was a teenager trying to cope with witnessing the tragic death of her best friend and dealing with her parents’ divorce, Blakely’s dad gave her a cassette tape series by Wayne Dyer, titled “How to Be a No-Limit Person.” The book taught Blakely how to think rather than what to think. She says the ability to control your own thoughts and confront your self-doubt is paramount in entrepreneurship. “Now more than ever, your greatest weapon is your mindset,” she says.

Keep your ideas to yourself: Blakely believes every person has had a multimillion-dollar idea in their life. The problem is that many of those ideas get killed before they have the opportunity to develop. She kept the idea of Spanx secret for a full year because she knew if she had sought validation from family and friends about her “footless pantyhose,” their discouraging remarks would have left her deflated. By the time she told them, she had already spent months researching, patenting, naming, and creating a real product. Don’t seek validation from others before you’re ready. 

Embrace the unknown: The key to her success, Blakely says, is that she was a fashion outsider, and what she didn’t know became her greatest asset. “I had no idea how things were supposed to be done, and if you have no idea how something’s supposed to be done, I guarantee that you’ll end up being disruptive,” she says. Being an outsider and seeing the landscape with fresh eyes allows you to think from first principles and break the status quo. Begin by asking the question “why” over and over again.

Organize your time into buckets: Time is your greatest resource as an entrepreneur. As the business grew, Blakely found herself scatter-brained and fielding questions from various departments all day long. So she created a system she calls “bucketing your time.” Rather than glossing over problems, she would dedicate entire days to focus on various tasks. For Blakely, this means Wednesdays are for creativity and branding, and Thursdays are for product ideas. “It allowed me to have context in my decision-making,” she says.

Allow your mind to wander: Ask yourself the question, “When do you get your best ideas?” For Blakely, it was in the car. For Albert Einstein, it was while shaving. Research suggests that people’s most creative ideas strike when they’re not actively thinking about anything — that’s why showering, running, meditating, or any sort of rote activity can spark inspiration.

Celebrate failure: When Blakely was growing up, her family would go around the dinner table and share their biggest failure of the week. “If I didn’t have something to share, [my father] would actually be disappointed,” she says. The exercise re-defined failure in Blakely’s mind. “Instead of failure becoming an outcome, it simply became about not trying,” she says. “And that truly is the only failure — to not try.” 

Diffuse difficult situations with humor: When choosing a life partner, Blakely says the quality that has withstood the test of time is a good sense of humor. Life can be heavy, she says, and having someone who can lighten the mood or make you laugh is one of the most important things. For example, when she and her husband get in a heated argument, he extends his hand, and they slow dance. "It's really helpful," Blakely says. "We respect that each of us moves at a fast pace. That might bother some, but we get it."

QUOTES TO REMEMBER.

“The more you experience in life, the more you have to offer others.” 

“Don't be intimidated by what you don't know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”

“Every person in their life has had a million dollar idea. It’s just, are you going to take action?”

“Control your success as much as you can. Do not leave it in the hands of other people.”

“You’ve got to visualize where you’re headed and be very clear about it. Take a Polaroid picture of where you’re going to be in a few years.”

“Failure is not the outcome – failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail.”

“Success, to me, is finding the courage to live your fullest and biggest life.” 

“I feel like money makes you more of who you already are. If you’re an asshole, you become a bigger asshole. If you’re nice, you become nicer. Money is fun to make, fun to spend, and fun to give away.”

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