Working as a sales trainer by day and performing stand-up comedy at night, I didn't know the first thing about the pantyhose industry (except I dreaded wearing most pantyhose). Also, I had never taken a business class which made the process even more challenging. As a result, I had only one source to operate from...my gut.
I read several books on trademarks and patents and researched pantyhose patents at the Georgia Tech Library for weeks at night after work. I then approached several lawyers who thought my idea was so crazy that they later admitted thinking I had been sent by Candid Camera. To keep costs down, I wrote the patent myself and later found a lawyer who helped write the claims. My patent was approved and I successfully trademarked the name SPANX online! The original product drawing for the SPANX patent was sketched by my mom, an artist. (I was the model!).
For months I researched hosiery manufacturers on the internet and made several calls. Taking a week off of work, I drove around North Carolina begging mill owners to help make my idea. They always asked the same three questions: "And you are?" "And you are representing?" "And you are financially backed by?" When I answered Sara Blakely to all three, most of them sent me away, not to mention they thought the idea "made no sense, and would never sell." Two weeks later I received a call from a mill owner who said he "decided to help make my crazy idea." When asked why he had the change of heart, he said, "I have two daughters." Turns out they didn't think the idea was crazy at all. The prototype took a year to perfect because as someone who wanted to wear the product every day I was obsessed with comfort..
I knew that Kodak and Coca-Cola were the two most recognized names in the world, and they both have a predominant "K" sound in them. Also, from doing stand-up comedy, it is a known secret that the "K" sound makes people laugh. So for good luck, I wanted my product's name to have the "K" sound in it, and SPANKS hit me like a lightning bolt. I immediately knew it was perfect! At the last minute I changed the "KS" to an "X" after doing research that made-up words do better for products than real words (and are easier to trademark). Spanx is edgy, fun, extremely catchy, and for a moment it makes your mind wander (admit it). Plus it's all about making women's butts look better, so why not?
Pantyhose packaging has been the same for years - boring. It was time for a change. I took a bold new approach with a red package and three illustrated women on the front. It's fresh, new, and for ALL women. Having no idea what legally needed to be on the package, I went to the store and bought ten different types of pantyhose and spread them across the floor of my apartment. If the same thing appeared on all of them, I remember thinking "must be legal" and added it to my package. Then, at the last minute after consulting our moms to test the offense factor (they laughed hysterically), we added our tagline "Don't worry, we've got your butt covered!"
Once I had a perfected prototype in hand, I called the buyer at Neiman Marcus and introduced myself over the phone. I said I had invented a product their customers would not want to live without, and if I could have ten minutes of her time, I would fly to Dallas. She agreed! I put the prototype in a zip lock bag from my kitchen, threw it in my good-luck red backpack, and was on a plane. During the meeting, I had no shame... I asked her to follow me to the ladies room where I personally showed her the before/after in my cream pants. Three weeks later SPANX was on the shelves of Neiman Marcus! I then called all my friends and begged them to go to Neiman's and make a huge fuss over the product and buy them up. At just the moment I was running out of friends, Spanx caught on and the rest is history. I did the same thing with Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and all my other retailers!
I had no money to advertise, so I hit the road. For the entire first year, I did in-store rallies about Spanx with the sales associates, and then stayed all day introducing customers to Spanx. I became notorious for lifting up my pant leg to every woman walking by. (My mom always said as long as I lifted my pants up and not down to show my product then I had her blessing!) My friends and I also called newspapers, magazines, and TV stations and got Spanx significant coverage in the media.
It has been a dream come true to see my products featured on The Oprah Winfrey show, The Today Show, The View, The Tyra Banks Show, CNN, and countless other television programs and news channels, as well as in the pages of Forbes, Fortune, People, Entrepreneur, In Style, The New York Times, USA Today, Glamour, Vogue, and many more.
In the fall of 2004, I reached a new height in my entrepreneurial adventure: 10,000 feet! That's the elevation of the hot-air balloon I had to climb so I could have tea on top of the balloon with one of my business heroes, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire. The crazy thing is that I am terrified of heights. But it was all part of a business-meets-hair-raising-stunts Fox TV show called The Rebel Billionaire: Richard Branson's Quest for the Best. But I had no idea what the journey would involve. I got to do business tasks in China, London, and South Africa, and even got to spend an afternoon with Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Mandela in their home.
Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving Spanx for three months to be on a reality TV show, but I trusted my gut. Something told me that this would be a chance of a lifetime, and it was. Sir Richard Branson traveled with us around the world, which gave me the opportunity to talk with him about Spanx, his experience with Virgin, and his new global foundation Virgin Unite. I was really interested in learning how to set up a foundation, because this had been a dream of mine, even before starting Spanx. I was very touched by our visit to a poor village in South Africa, and I wanted more than ever to find a way to help women who do not have the same rights as we do in America. At the conclusion of the show came a huge surprise. In a completely unexpected twist, Branson handed me a check for $750,000 - his paycheck from Fox for the show - for me to start my own foundation to help women! He joined me in Atlanta in 2006 to launch The Sara Blakely Foundation, which is dedicated to helping women globally through education and entrepreneurship.
George Foreman, Pat Croce, Peter Jones and I were judges on ABC's American Inventor show. We dished out advice and encouraged inventors along their entrepreneurial journey.
Nearly six years after starting Spanx, I was still pinching myself when I thought about how far we had come! Spanx has become a Hollywood secret and a red-carpet must for celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Oprah. We are still a small company of women, obsessed with inventing and improving comfortable undergarments. Now we have more than 100 styles, and we sell SPANX in fine boutiques and upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdales, and in the U.K. and Canada.
But I couldn't just stop there! I wanted to find a way to share my slimming secrets with women everywhere.
And that's when Target came knocking at my door. They wanted Spanx to bring the shapewear revolution to Target. So, we created ASSETS, because we believe all women deserve the opportunity to make the most of their assets!
I created ASSETS to give better undergarment choices to women everywhere, and to give back. A portion of all ASSETS and SPANX purchases will go to the Sara Blakely Foundation, which focuses on supporting and empowering women around the world. I feel very blessed to have had my "ah-ha" moment in America, where women are free to start their own business. I want women around the world with their own "ah-ha" moments to have the same opportunity to follow their dreams!
My energy and inspiration comes from inventing and enhancing products that promote comfort and confidence for women. Customer feedback is one of the key drivers of our business. For example, SPANX Power Panties and SPANX High Falutin' Footless were created in response to suggestions from our customers. And even more great things are ahead in the future!