Before she founded an undergarment company that would later be valued at $1 billion dollars, Sara Blakely was a failed law school applicant turned ride greeter at Disneyland. And then a door-to-door fax machine saleswoman.
When you learn about Blakely’s childhood, her values, and her unique business approach, you’ll understand how she was able to move from failure to failure and then create a company that brings in $400 million in annually.
Here are 6 entrepreneurial lessons from the Spanx founder:
- Looking for inspiration in everyday life
Blakely knew she wanted out of her door-to-door sales gig and that she wanted to start her own company by creating an original product. She resolved to make this happen, but wasn’t sure what the product would be until she noticed that panty lines made her feel uncomfortable in her white slacks and normal pantyhose wouldn’t solve the problem (since the Florida climate required open-toed shoes).
The original Spanx prototype was a pair of pantyhose with the feet cut off. Blakely was determined to find the right product to sell and immediately knew that she would work on a panty hose innovation.
One of the best ways to think of a product idea is to keep your eyes open and even get inspiration from the problems in your own life that you would like to solve.
- Developing sales skills and handling rejection
During her time selling fax machines door-to-door, Blakely learned how to deal with doors-slamming-in-the-face rejection. She eventually became a high performer and now admits that sales is one of her core strengths.
Later, she would use the skills she gained in the fax machine industry to get Spanx into department stores in the US. She turned a bad meeting around at Neiman Marcus by giving a live before and after demonstration in the women’s restroom. She landed her product in 7 Neiman Marcus stores after that meeting.
After you’ve developed a solid product, you need to focus on creating a sales engine and developing those skills, especially if you don’t have a team to help you build. People will say no. They might even slam the door. But learn from every interaction and continuously make improvements when you know what works. Eliminate what doesn’t work.
Ultimately, there are a lot of people and companies and money in the world. Even if a lot of people reject you, you still haven’t made a dent and there are infinite possibilities.
Just make sure you listen to feedback so you can spot trends and make changes if necessary.
- Bootstrapping will help you focus on creating a great product
Many aspiring business owners think the first step is the idea or the product and the second step is getting funding, but this isn’t the only way to start a profitable business.
Blakely started Spanx with $5,000 from her own bank account and kept her day job until the company was able to turn a profit. She still owns 100% of the company, having never taken outside investment, and she has never formally advertised Spanx.
It is possible to turn a side hustle into a full time self-employment situation if you simplify and focus on what matters. You will have to work hard and manage money wisely, but you’ll have a lot more freedom without taking outside investment.
Plus, raising funds is a skill within itself. A lot of business owners find themselves trying to secure funds more than they actually work on the business. This isn’t always the best approach to starting a business.
- Fake it ‘til you make it
After sending a basket of Spanx to Oprah, Blakely received the news that her product would be featured on Oprah’s list of favorite things. The show needed a couple of things in order to feature her: her website, her ability to handle high sales volumes, and some footage of her and her team at the Spanx headquarters.
Blakely didn’t have a website. She didn’t have the ability to fulfill high quantities of orders or and office to film in because she was still working from her home (doing all the packing and shipping herself) and didn’t have any employees.
Instead of backing out of a seemingly complicated situation, she confirmed with Oprah’s team that she could delivery in these three areas. Within a couple of weeks, Blakely had a website up and running, confirmed manufacturing capabilities, and a staged office space and team that she borrowed from another company.
Throughout the life of your business, you’ll be making a lot of decisions as far as what opportunities to chase, which opportunities are better to forgo, and what is clearly worth your time. Like Blakely, you’ll probably have a “fake it ‘til you make it” decision or two and I’m sure you can agree that being featured on Oprah –an absolute business-making opportunity– is something that you just have to make work.
- Shut the doubters out
The first year that Blakely worked on creating Spanx, she didn’t tell anyone about her idea or plans except the manufacturers and business partners that she was dealing with. Her own family didn’t even know the specifics.
This was a strategic move because she new that she would be discouraged if she didn’t find support from her family and friends. She kept them in the dark so she could stay on track. She didn’t want any doubters to come in between her and following her instincts.
As an entrepreneur, you will definitely have people that doubt you and make you doubt yourself. Unfortunately, it’s mostly friends and family that are the problem. It might be a good idea to limit the details you share about your product and look for feedback and opinions of other entrepreneurs and business partners instead.
- Determine your fears and go towards them
Blakely is afraid of public speaking and flying in airplanes. She does both often for her work. She knows that if she tried to avoid these fears, she wouldn’t experience the same success. She doesn’t want to miss out on opportunities so she sucks it up a faces her fears.
There are some necessary parts of your business that you might be scared of doing (or maybe you aren’t excited to do them). Do yourself a favor and get in the mindset right now that you will do whatever it takes to make big strides for your company.
That might mean public speaking or having to get on the phone and cold call. If you are committed to your business and independence, you’ll face those fears and overcome them.
Check out the rest of the Fempreneur Series:
5 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal
Is Ida Tarbell the OG Arianna Huffington
10 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Coco Chanel
5 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Victoria Tsai of Tatcha
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