Innovation/Global Risk

Sarah Blakely Hated How Her Butt Looks – and Made a Billion!

By Shlomo Maital


 On Feb. 21, Sarah Blakely celebrated her 41st birthday.  Who is Sarah Blakely?  She is the youngest woman (an American) to reach Forbes’ “billionaire”  list, self-made, on her own, without husband or family wealth.   She is 416th on the Forbes billionaire list. 

   How did she do it?  One of the 10 key brain ‘exercises’ in my draft manuscript Build Your Creativity Muscles is #9, “It’s ALWAYS Personal”.  Sarah proves  this.  Here is her story.

   She was working as a sales trainer by day, and stand-up comedian by night.  She knew zero about pantyhose (except, she hated them), and had never taken a business class.  “I had only one source to operate from…my gut”, she says. 

   She hated the way her fanny looked, wearing regular panties. She decided to do something about it, because she was sure many other women felt the same way.  She developed a fanny-scrunching panty using Spandex, wrote the patent herself and it was approved. Then she trademarked the name SPANX.   For months she drove around North Carolina begging mill owners to manufacture her product.  Finally, after many rejections, she found a mill owner who agreed.  Why?  He said, he had two daughters.  It took a year to perfect the prototype, because Sarah was obsessed that her Spanx should be comfortable. (After all – she would wear them herself).    She chose the Spanx name carefully, and it proved to be a winner. (“It’s edgy, fun, catchy, and makes your mind wander,” she says, “and it’s all about making women’s butts better, so why not?”

    She took a bold new approach to packaging – if your product is innovative, its package has to look it – and chose a bold red package with three women on the front.  She called the buyer at Neiman Marcus, a top-of-the-line department store chain.  She agreed to give Sarah 10 minutes.  Together, they went to the ladies’ room, and Sarah showed the buyer her butt, in her cream pants, before Spanx..and after!  Three weeks later Spanx was on the shelves of Neiman Marcus.   She did the same with Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and others. She asked her friends to go to the stores and make a huge fuss over her product.

    She had no money to advertise, so she hit the road.  She did in-store rallies about Spanx with the sales associates, then stayed all day introducing customers to Spanx.   And she got help from media women; her product was on the Oprah Winfrey show, for instance, and on Tyra Banks’ Show.   To get free publicity for Spanx, she even joined Richard Branson’s reality show The Rebel Billionaire, leaving her business for three months to do daring tasks all over the world.

    Sarah has now launched a foundation, to empower women all over the world. She summarizes:  “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. “

   How many millions of women looked in the mirror, turned around, and did not like what they saw below the waist? One bold woman did something about it.  And she’s a billionaire.  Annual revenues are $250 m. and her net margin is estimated at 20 per cent.

  And she started with the huge sum of $5,000 in personal savings.

   Good work, Sarah!  It really is all personal.