How Sara Blakely Used Failure to Fuel the Success of Spanx

By Chris Nerney, Contributor

At 46, Sara Blakely sits at number 16 on the 2017 Forbes list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Women,” worth an estimated $1.1 billion.

But before finding success with Spanx, the pantyhose and underwear company she launched in 2000 from her Atlanta apartment, Blakely not only was thoroughly familiar with failure, but she also enthusiastically embraced it—thanks to her dad.

The Value of Risk-taking

Blakely says her father, a trial attorney, would consistently ask her and her brother a simple question at the family dinner table in Clearwater, Florida: “What have you failed this week?”

The lesson this instilled in her was that transformation requires you to leave your comfort zone and take risks. “If I didn’t have something that I had failed at, he actually would be disappointed,” Blakely said in 2015.

Blakely demonstrated entrepreneurial drive at an early age. As a kid, she would enlist neighbors to create a haunted house for Halloween and would then charge admission. In her late teens, Blakely started a rogue baby-sitting service for guests at a Hilton hotel in Clearwater that lasted for three summers until she pitched the business model to Hilton’s general manager and was promptly escorted off the premises.

Riding Through Failure

Upon graduating from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in legal communications, Blakely experienced a string of setbacks and found herself mired in a draining, unpromising occupation.

First, she failed to follow her father into the legal profession, twice bombing the LSAT. She then headed to Orlando to get a performing job at Disney World, where she fell two inches short of the height requirements for the role of Goofy and was relegated to the job of seat-buckler for passengers on the Epcot World of Motion ride.

Blakely lasted only three months at Disney before fleeing for a job selling fax machines in the Clearwater area for office-supply company Danka. Both experiences provided her with the inspiration for Spanx, as both required her to wear pantyhose in the Florida heat.

While she appreciated the smoothing effect the control-top provided, she hated the appearance of the seamed foot in her open-toe sandals. She tried a quick solution, telling Forbes“I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath. But they rolled up my legs all night. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make this.'”

Persistence Pays

Moving to Atlanta at age 27, Blakely used $5,000 in savings over the next two years to research and launch her product while continuing to work for Danka. She knew almost nothing about the business and was rejected by every hosiery mill in North Carolina (which is the center of the American hosiery industry), before the manager of a facility in Asheboro called Blakely to propose a deal two weeks after rejecting her pitch.

Blakely did everything herself in the lean early days, packaging and shipping product, meeting with buyers from powerful retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, proactively courting media, and even writing the patent for her product and trademarking the name “Spanx” to save money on attorneys’ fees.

The big payoff came when a sample of the product caught the attention of a longtime employee of Oprah Winfrey, who in 2000 named Spanx her favorite product of the year. Suddenly, Spanx was doing $4 million in sales in its first official year in business, followed by $10 million the next year, and eventually more than $1 billion in annual revenue, all without advertising.

The Courage in Failure

Blakely is devoted to helping others, having founded the Sara Blakely Foundation, which donates money to charities focusing on empowering underserved women and girls, and signing The Giving Pledge, under which she promises to donate at least half of her wealth to charitable organizations.

But she also gives back by preaching the virtues of failure.

“Courage is the strength to do things in spite of fear, not without fear,” she said on a radio episode of “Dot Complicated.” “The only failure is not trying.”