How Sara Blakely Made $1 Billion From Underwear

Like many young girls, Sara Blakely knew just what she wanted to be when she grew up. Those plans didn’t include being an entrepreneur, much less the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. However, despite not knowing anything about business, her innovation, persistence, and remarkable charisma propelled an idea into a billion-dollar empire.

As the bright, motivated daughter of a lawyer, Blakely always intended to enter the same profession. She had a talent for sales and debating from a young age. From the debate team in high school to a small haunted house business, she was constantly looking for chances to persuade and sell.

Devastating setback led Sara Blakely into sales

Blakely’s father pushed all his children to explore opportunities, to test their boundaries, and surprisingly, to fail. He asked his children routinely what they had failed at that week and celebrated them. This practice redefined failure for Blakely. To fail wasn’t to not succeed; it was not to try in the first place. Armed with this mindset, she went off to Florida State University and graduated with a degree in legal communications.

When Blakely attempted to enter law school, she hit a major setback: she scored too low on the LSAT to qualify for admission. After intense studying, she took it once more. Her score was a point lower than before. Exasperated, Blakely found a job at Disney as a ride operator. This phase, too, was short-lived. Burnt out by the monotony of her duties, she responded to an ad hiring fax machine salesmen and saleswomen.

Although she received far more rejections than sales, Blakely found that she loved sales. She sold the machines door-to-door for five years, quickly becoming a national sales trainer for her outstanding performance. Her only wish was that she was selling something that she loved and that people genuinely wanted. Soon, though, that wish would be a reality.

Disrupting a billion dollar industry

At the time, the only shapewear available to women were old-fashioned, bulky girdles and pantyhose. Blakely found that neither option looked good in slacks, her clothing of choice for walking her sales routes. The hose helped smooth her shape but looked bad with open-toed shoes. Fed up, she cut the feet off of a pair of hose and wore it under her pants. The idea worked wonderfully, except that the bottoms rode up her legs.

After a quick search, she realized that there were no products on the market like her idea. Blakely immediately saw the possible opportunity and set aside her $5,000 in savings to pursue it. After weeks of reviewing every woman’s undergarment patent on file without any matches, the possibility became a certainty.

First, she called around to dozens of hosiery mills to see if any could make her a version that didn’t ride up. Not only did they all say no, but also several hung up on her outright. Years of cold sales had left her immune to rejection, however, so she took a week off from work to pitch the idea in person. The answers were still universally no at first, but one mill owner was nagged by his eager daughters to agree after two weeks.

Perseverance got Sara Blakely into the big stores

Blakely, unwilling to take loans or outside funding, saved $3,000 on filing a patent by reading a book and writing it herself. She crafted a prototype by hand from fabric store squares, paperclips, and rubber bands. Then, she designed the packaging herself by playing around on a friend’s computer. Each step of the way, she saved money by taking on every role herself and doing it well.

The name, Spanx, was characteristic of Blakely herself: unapologetic, cheeky, and innovative. She didn’t want her product to be a shameful secret, but rather a celebration of body confidence and achievable femininity. With that same boldness, she flew to the headquarters of the high-end retailer Neiman Marcus to cold pitch the idea right in their foyer.

Their board was as impressed with Blakely as with her product and decided to sell Spanx in their stores. She didn’t stop there, however. Using the newly sealed deal with Neiman Marcus, she went to Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, and Bloomingdale’s and got them to agree as well.

Sara Blakely kept her business secret

During this time, Blakely continued working her fax sales job, working after hours on her business. For the first year, she kept the venture a secret from her family. She knew that they would try to talk her out of it or push for a more orthodox approach, and she wanted to be free to do what she felt would work without having to explain or justify her ideas.

Although the top retail stores in the country were selling Spanx in its first year of creation — an unprecedented feat — she was still not satisfied. She traveled from store to store and spent hours campaigning with managers to get her products displayed more prominently. In one store, she bought several pairs herself and set them up for display right by the register, knowing that the returning customers were worth the upfront cost.

All of these highly unconventional and audacious moves paid off handsomely for Blakely. By the end of the company’s first year, she had brought in over $4 million in revenue. More importantly, she still had zero debt. Spanx was profitable from the very first day.

The moment Sara Blakely became the youngest female billionaire

Possibly the largest boost to her fledgling company came when she sent a pair of Spanx to Oprah’s stylist. The tv-personality star had once revealed on air that she, too, cut the feet off of her pantyhose. The garment was so much of a hit that Oprah declared it to be that year’s “Favorite Thing.” Before the show aired, Blakely hastily built a cheap website to take orders. The next year saw sales jump to $10 million, and she finally left her fax job.

By 2002, the volume of sales was too much for Blakely to handle on her own. She began setting Spanx up as a professional company to include a CEO who was as conservative and cautious as Blakely was bold and daring. Soon, they expanded the company internationally.

Never satisfied with the status quo, Blakely continued to seek and grab any opportunity for free publicity. Throughout the years, Spanx has never spent money on advertising or taken outside investment. Its revenue began to number in the hundreds of millions within a few short years, and in 2012 she was named the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire.

Sara Blakely’s net worth

Spanx continues to be a household name despite countless competitors with similar products. In 2019, they brought in over $400 million in revenue, with all profits belonging to Blakely’s 100% stake. She previously had an estimated net worth of around $1 billion, a number that has stayed roughly the same over the last few years due to her increased charitable giving. Although, as of 2020, her net worth has hovered around $600 million.

Sara Blakely’s path to success was a story of being willing to fail at the big risks while devoting as much work as possible to minimizing those risks. She aimed as high as she could go but was sure to place safety nets underneath herself along the way. These days, she spends a great deal of her time helping other women make those leaps in their own business ventures. She likes to think that being a billionaire hasn’t changed her — it has made her more of herself.