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Spanx’s Sara Blakely: Embracing Failure Is the Secret of Her Success

Blakely's path to billions started with pantyhose and a pair of scissors.

Entrepreneur Sara Blakely

“How can I make this better?” This question has fueled innovation and given birth to countless great ideas throughout human history. When Henry Ford invented the assembly line, making the automobile accessible to average Americans, he did so only after asking himself how he could improve on the existing models of car manufacturing. The same is true for Joe Gebbia, whose idea for Airbnb was the result of asking himself how he could make travel accommodations cheaper and easier to find than traditional hotels. And when Sara Blakely invented Spanx undergarments, which are now a staple item in women’s wardrobes around the world, she did so after asking herself how she could create an undergarment that helped women feel more confident in the clothes they were wearing.

This ingenious idea is what led Blakely to become the youngest female self-made billionaire in 2012 at age 41.

In the grand scheme of things, helping women feel more confident about their bodies might not seem like a very pressing problem to solve. But profit is the signal that entrepreneurs are meeting the needs of their consumers. And in its first year alone, Spanx had already earned $4 million, followed by $11 million in its second year. The product is now sold in over 65 countries, further proving that it is an idea that resonates with women all over the globe. And this ingenious idea is what led Blakely to become the youngest female self-made billionaire in 2012 at age 41.

In addition to her innovative mind, Blakely’s willingness to embrace failure and her unconventional approach to entrepreneurship are what helped to turn Spanx into a household name and a multimillion-dollar company.

How Can I Make This Better?

When Blakely first cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose in 1998, she had no idea she had just created a multimillion-dollar idea. Instead, she was simply frustrated with how her body looked in a pair of cream-colored pants she wanted to wear. Wanting to look her best, she stared at her reflection in the mirror and asked herself how she could make her outfit look better. That is when she had an idea.

When Blakely first asked the question of “how can I make this better,” she was talking about more than just her product.

She walked over to her dresser and grabbed a pair of “control top” pantyhose to wear underneath her pants. Control tops, which are loved by women the world over, are known for smoothing out any bodily imperfections we may have and allowing us to have cleaner silhouette lines in our clothing. Or, put bluntly, control tops are essentially modern-day versions of the corset that help women look a little slimmer and stand a little straighter.

Her plan worked and the outfit looked better. There was just one problem: women’s hosiery was meant to be worn under skirts and dresses, and as such, covered the entirety of the legs and feet. But with pants, this didn’t look quite right. Asking herself once again how she could make this idea better, she grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the feet from her control top hose. And voila, Spanx were born.

Toe-less pantyhose might not be the most obvious million-dollar idea, but for women who had been looking for something to help create the perfect blank “canvas” (as Blakely puts it) on which to display their clothing, Spanx were a game changer. But the road to Spanx was not lined with gold. And when Blakely first asked the question of “how can I make this better,” she was talking about more than just her product; she was looking to improve her own life.

Fail Well and Often

Blakely was eager for change. At 27 years old, she had already worked in sales for several years, selling fax machines to companies door-to-door. Rejection was a part of the job and after a while, it began to wear on her. In an interview with podcast host James Altucher, she recalled lying to her boss and pretending to be on sales calls when in reality, she was hiding in her car weeping, afraid to have yet another door slammed in her face.

Desperate to rewrite her story, she came home after a particularly rough day and opened up her journal. A believer in the power of manifestation, she took a pen and wrote, “I am going to create a product and sell it to millions of people.” Now all she needed was an idea, which would come to her later on that fateful night that she cut the toes off of her pantyhose.

The only real failure in Blakely’s household came about by a refusal to try.

But as can be imagined, telling the world you have a brilliant idea for a toe-less pantyhose does not elicit immediate excitement. And in many instances, even the mention of the word “Spanx” was enough to be hung up on by high-end department stores. But when it came to failure, Blakely was fearless. And this positive mindset is largely a result of her upbringing, where failure was often encouraged by her father.

As a child, each day when she came home from school, her father would ask her if she had experienced failure. If she said no, he would express disappointment. Complete lack of failure meant she wasn’t pushing herself to her limits.

In one instance, young Sara ran home excited to share the news that she had completely bombed an audition for the school musical. Her father applauded her for her willingness to try something so far outside her comfort zone. By highlighting and even celebrating failure, he was actually reframing the definition of “failure” altogether. The only real failure in Blakely’s household was a refusal to try.

But failure also taught Blakely about mitigating risk.

And this freedom to fail is what inspired her to try stand-up comedy in her twenties, a skill she later found useful when she was trying to explain the Spanx concept to potential buyers. Blakely credits her views on failure for her ability to stay in the sales world for so long despite constant rejection.

But failure also taught Blakely about mitigating risk. As much as she hated selling fax machines, she didn’t quit her day job until long after Spanx had made its first big sale. And that first big sale only came about because she threw the rulebook out the window and dared to be different.

An Unconventional Entrepreneur

Nothing about the founding of Spanx was conventional. In fact, Blakely had absolutely no experience in the business world aside from selling fax machines. She also had zero ties to the fashion world, making the success of her product a long shot from the beginning. But her lack of first-hand experience in this field proved to be a strength. Unbound by the common expectations of the field, she played by her own rules. And after putting aside $5,000 that she had earned from her sales job, she began to work on the production of Spanx.

Unable to afford a patent attorney, Blakely bought a book on patent writing and set to work. And after several pitches to manufacturers, who each basically laughed in her face, one called back and said, “Sara, I’ve decided to help you make your crazy idea.” When asked why he changed his mind, he explained that he had run the idea by his three daughters who had each expressed interest in the concept.

After offering to fly to Dallas if she could get ten minutes to present her idea, a buyer agreed to meet with Blakely.

After getting the product made, Blakely was now left with figuring out how to actually get it onto the shelves of department stores. Typically, buyers for major department stores will attend trade shows where new lines and brands try to push their products. But having no experience in the fashion world, Blakely had no idea that these trade shows even existed. So, she did what she knew how to do: she made sales calls.

She called the offices of important buyers over and over again. She never left messages, but she would call until an assistant answered the phone. At this point, she would always say something sensational like, “I have an idea that is going to change the way your customers wear clothes.” Eventually, after offering to fly to Dallas if she could get ten minutes to present her idea, a buyer for Neiman Marcus agreed to meet with Blakely.

After a few minutes of meeting with the buyer in Dallas, Sara felt the conversation losing steam. To rescue the situation, she blurted out, “ I need you to come to the bathroom with me!” Taken aback by this off-the-wall request, the buyer agreed. And it was in that bathroom where Blakely demonstrated the power of Spanx by trying on that same pair of cream-colored pants she had worn when she first invented the product, both with her invention and without it for comparison.

After this demo, the buyer immediately agreed to sell the product in seven of her stores. Later, when Blakely would tell this story to others in the fashion world, they would marvel at her boldness and explain that they had spent years trying to get noticed at trade shows but had never thought to just pick up the phone and call.

Word of mouth travels quickly, and soon women everywhere were looking for Spanx.

But this preliminary victory did not make Blakely complacent. In fact, she was more determined than ever to make Spanx a success. She pulled out her list of contacts and called every female she had known since childhood. Speaking to college friends and even friends she hadn’t seen since the fourth grade, she told them that if they would go to Neiman Marcus and buy a pair Spanx, she would send them a check reimbursing them for the cost. This unconventional plan worked wonders. Store reps were calling Blakely stunned that Spanx were flying off the shelves.

Word of mouth travels quickly, and soon women everywhere were looking for Spanx. Then, the breakthrough happened: Oprah included Spanx in her famous list of “favorite things,” elevating Blakely to a whole other level. And while not every woman wants to talk about it, Spanx undergarments have become a staple for women of all backgrounds and body types. Whether you have a black tie event or are just going to the office, Blakely’s miracle product exists to make sure you look and feel your absolute best in whatever it is you are wearing. As Blakely put it, “models get airbrushed, regular women get Spanx.”

Find Your Purpose

While money is a great motivator to invent something incredible, monetary incentives were not necessarily what pushed Blakely to be the best. Years ago on that piece of paper in her journal, she had written that she wanted to create a product that people wanted to buy. When she made the first pair of Spanx with pantyhose and a pair of scissors, she decided that the product she wanted to make needed to make women feel great about themselves. And it was this purpose that helped her to persevere in the face of adversity.

All you need is creativity, a willingness to embrace failure, and the courage to do things in your own way.

It was also this purpose that led her to launch The Belly Art Project, a book that highlights pictures of women and their beautiful pregnant bellies painted and displayed in artistic ways, like a basketball and a watermelon, for example. Above all, Blakely wants to empower women and reinforce the message that they are beautiful in all forms.

Blakely says it is this underlying purpose that continually fuels her to make Spanx the best it can possibly be. Whereas many entrepreneurs build up a company only to sell it a few years later, Blakely still owns 100 percent of Spanx.

What started as a simple idea to cut the feet off of pantyhose has now turned into a product that brings in an average of $400 million each year, proving that, if you have the right attitude, you can transcend your current situation and create something truly amazing. All you need is creativity, a willingness to embrace failure, and the courage to do things in your own way.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.