Starting with $5,000, an entrepreneurial vision a little irreverence, Sara Blakely has become a millionaire several times over. Her product, Spanx, has become a cultural phenomenon, making butts look tighter in the movies, on the red carpet and in everyday offices around the world. The Spanx brand now offers more than 200 products in 20 countries and it's no longer just for the ladies -- Spanx for Men launched in 2010, during the company's 10th year in business. Now Blakely heads the undergarment empire (she owns 100 percent of the Spanx brand), overseeing the work of 100 employees, 90 of whom are women. Blakely also started the Leg Up foundation to help other female entrepreneurs who are getting started in their apartments, just like she did.
The idea of footless panythose isn't completely new -- Blakely herself says women come up to her and say they'd been cutting the feet off their tights for years -- but Blakely reinvented it, and created footless pantyhose that wouldn't roll up and could work under pants, skirts and dresses. When she started Spanx at the age of 29, Blakely wrote in her journal that she wanted to make a million dollars by the time she was 30. And she did just that.
"The idea for Spanx came from my own butt, because I did not like the way that it looked in white pants, so I cut the feet right off control-top pantyhose and solved a real undergarment issue in my own wardrobe -- and obviously in a lot of other women's wardrobes, too.
"At the time that I started Spanx, I had never taken a business class, I had never worked in fashion or retail and I wanted to be a lawyer. But I didn't do so hot on the LSATs -- I'm not a good test-taker! Fate took me in a different direction and I sold fax machines door to door for seven years until I cut the feet out of my pantyhose. I had been visualizing a different life for myself for a while and I was looking and searching for some sort of an idea to be self-employed and do my own thing. So the actual minute that I cut the feet out of my pantyhose in 1998, I saw it for what it was: an opportunity. I think because I had been doing those mental exercises for a while, I was different from all the women who came up to me and said, 'I've been cutting the feet off my pantyhose for 20 years!'
"$5,000 was my savings from selling fax machines door to door and my budget for Spanx and that's what I launched the business with. I went online and I looked up hosiery manufacturers, many of whom were in North Carolina. I was in Atlanta at the time, so I started calling them, but no one would give me the time of the day, so I took a week off of work and drove to North Carolina to beg in person. All the manufacturers sent me away and finally one man called me two weeks later and said, 'Sara, I've decided to give your crazy idea a chance." When I asked him why he had a chance of heart he said, 'I have daughters.' They said, 'Dad, it's brilliant, it makes sense, help this girl do it.'
"I patented it myself -- I bought a book on patents and trademarks because patent attorneys wanted between $2,000 and $5,000 to do it for me -- I was creating the package on my friend's computer with her help, and coming up with the name. The name Spanx came while I was sitting in traffic in Atlanta, after a year of really bad names I had come up with. I knew that Kodak and Coca-Cola were two of the most recognized names in the world and they both have a strong "K" sound. And some friends of mine who are stand-up comedians have told me that the "K" sound makes the audience laugh. As soon as I decided that I wanted the name to have the "K" sound for good luck, Spanx just appeared before my eyes and I pulled off the side of the road and wrote it down. I went home that night and trademarked it online for $150 with my credit card. It took two years from the moment I cut the feet out of my pantyhose until the moment it was on the shelves of Neiman Marcus in 2000.
"When I started Spanx -- I quit my job on Oct. 14, 2000 -- I sent a gift basket of the first batch of prototypes to Oprah... and she chose it as her favorite product of the year. So three weeks after I started the business, I was on her show, but I had very little preparation. You have to imagine, I'm the packing and shipping department, I'm in a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta, I have semi-trucks pulling up twice a week with boxes of Spanx. I'm shipping and packing all night long, and during the day I'm trying to sell and get the business organized, so it was a very hectic time. I didn't have a website and I had my boyfriend at the time build me one. It was one of those templates, and it cost $18 a month, and that's the website we used for 18 months, with a scan of the product as the home page. We were only sold in limited Neiman Marcuses and Saks Fifth Avenue at the time that Oprah hit, but it opened so many doors. Obviously the product that was on the shelves blew off the shelves, and I got called from Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's the next day.
"In those first two years when I was getting Spanx made, there was just a lot of hearing the word 'no,' a lot of frustration, a lot of self-doubt. I'm sitting in my apartment thinking, 'Am I the only one who likes footless pantyhose?!' And that voice keeps going, 'Footless pantyhose? What are you doing?!' So getting a call from Oprah was a real moment and gave me the wink that this was going to be bigger than out of my apartment.
"Spanx has been profitable since the first month in business, and I'm still 100 percent owner of the business. We never took any outside money, and we put back whatever we made, so it has grown very organically. I hit my first million in the first year of Spanx -- I had written it down as a goal in my journal that I wanted to do that by the age of 30, and I just made it. I was so busy trying to make it as an entrepreneur that I was not spending it or thinking about spending it. My brother Ford (also an entrepreneur as the founder of Zingle) said, 'You gotta do something. This is a huge milestone!' So he took me to buy a flatscreen TV. And that's what I did with my first million!
"All of Spanx additional products have come from recommendations of women I meet, what we want ourselves as women -- we're primarily a women business -- and what we wish was already out there. We get inspired by women and ourselves to create new things. My favorite part of growing the business is coming up with 'the next best thing,' the kind of things that wake me up in the middle of the night and make me say, 'I bet if we really try, we could do this!'
"About six years ago we started getting e-mails from men saying, 'You ever gonna do anything for guys?' and we chuckled at the first few, and then there got to be so many that we couldn't ignore it. Male celebrities had been wearing Spanx for women on the red carpet and on camera, so we decided to give them their own product. We approached men's shapewear not as 'let's make shapewear for men' but as a reinvention of the undershirt, which no one's paid any attention to. It's bulky and boxy, but men's clothes are more tailored and fitted, so the Spanx undershirt is cotton and it has the 'magic in the midriff' and lower back support. Spanx for Men came out in 2010, and we had a six-week-long waiting list!
"The advice that I tell people who are just starting out or have an idea is to differentiate yourself. You've got to trust your gut, you have to believe in yourself. I didn't tell anyone my idea. For one year, nobody knew what I was working on. Friends and family just said, 'Sara's working on some crazy invention.' Don't share your idea for validation, share it with people who will help the idea move forward, like manufacturers. To check in with friends and family in the beginning is risky, because ideas are most vulnerable in their infancy, so when you share that with friends and family, you get doubt out of love and concern. I think if I had heard what my friends and family were concerned about when they heard about my idea, I would still be selling fax machines."
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 2/13/11.