Marketing Operations

What can a startup or small business learn from Sara Blakely? Plenty

Twenty years after founding Spanx, Sara Blakely has no plans to slow down, despite becoming the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012. She continues to grow her billion-dollar business – now venturing beyond undergarments and into active wear for women and men – as well as expand her impact through her foundation.

“The why for me is to elevate women, to honor the women who came before me that didn’t have the chances that I had and even the women around the planet right now that still don’t. That’s what gives me my courage,” said Blakely, who headlined this week’s Synapse Summit in Tampa.

Blakely, 48 and a mom of four children under 10, does that through the products she sells – she founded Spanx after cutting the feet off a pair of pantyhose so she could wear her favorite white pants with open toed shoes — and also looks for ways to support female entrepreneurs every chance she can.

“I would like to balance out the feminine and masculine energy on the planet. I would like to encourage and support as many females as I can to start their own business, to fulfill their own potential, to encourage them and support them in leadership positions,” said Blakely, who was raised in Clearwater, Florida.

Because Spanx was once a small business, too, started on a shoestring budget, we’d like to share some of the keys to Blakely’s incredible entrepreneurial success:

Sell the problem – it’s about what’s in it for them.

That’s a lesson she learned by selling fax machines before launching Spanx. Learning to cold call successfully is a tool in her entrepreneurial tool box that she still uses today.

“The best compliment I can receive is when someone says, ‘You guys created something I didn’t know I needed, but now I can’t live without. One of the things I always say is sell the problem you’re solving, not the product.”

It was a cold call that got Blakely a foot in the door at Neiman Marcos, Spanx first major account. She convinced the Neiman executive that the Spanx product would lead to more sales of dresses and pants for the retailer.

Have the courage to take risks.

“I took on billion-dollar companies. I didn’t have the most experience. None. I didn’t have the most money — I had five grand in savings for this. I didn’t have any connections in the industry. But I cared the most. I really believe that was a big competitive edge.”

Be ready to do whatever it takes.

Once she landed Neiman Marcus, Blakely spent two years in the Neiman stores personally selling the product for them and turning the stores’ sales people into her brand ambassadors. “I was creating a free sales force.” She said she knew if she didn’t do this, the product wouldn’t be promoted and would fail.  “At every turn, it is so baked in my DNA, I am always hustling, making it happen.”

But the right mindset is a continuous work in progress,

“If you can get over the self-doubt, you are probably going to come across something revolutionary. Mindset and courage is a beautiful place to be.” Blakely says she still works at the mindset piece every day, and challenges herself to try things that scare her.

Here’s why you need a team.

“I tell people as soon as you can afford to hire your weaknesses do it… As soon as I could afford to hire someone to do more of the operations side of the business, I did. … One of the biggest gifts you can give yourself is to stay in your lane.”

Early on, though, the team wasn’t quite assembled when Oprah called and wanted to film her in a “staff meeting,” She quickly called in her girl friends and the helpful worker at Mailboxes Etc. to be her team – for the day.

So we can say a network of supporters is important too, even for this famous solo-entrepreneur.

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