By: Victoria Yates
Sara Blakely was born on the 21st of February 1971 in Clearwater, Florida the daughter of a personal injury lawyer and an artist. As a child, Blakely was known for her entrepreneurial schemes; setting up a haunted house on Halloween and charging neighbors for admission, and conning her friends into helping her complete her chores by turning such activities as weed-pulling into a competitive sport. Although popular and successful in school, Blakely experienced several personal tragedies at 16, including the deaths of several close friends and the separation of her parents. She turned to the motivational speaker Wayne Dyer’s tape series “How to be a No-Limit Person” to help get through.
In 1990, Blakely started a kids club at the local Hilton, charging $8 for a few hours of babysitting while the parents tanned. It was a successful venture for three summers until she attempted to pitch to the Hotel’s general manager who had her escorted off the premises. She attended Florida State University, graduating with a degree in legal communications. Initially aspiring to become an attorney, Blakeley took the LSATs twice, but failed badly both times. She drove over to Walt Disney World immediately to apply for a job as Goofy. Although the costume was too small, she instead got a job securing visitors in the seats of one of the park’s rides.
She spent three unhappy months attempting to evade the reality that her career plans had failed before applying for a job with stationary company Danka. After a brief training in cold calling, Blakely was sent out to sell fax machines door-to-door. Her aggressive approach had her often escorted out of yet more buildings for soliciting, but her charm and debating skills enabled her to become Danka’s national sales trainer at age 25.
Her entrepreneurial spark came as a result of the dress-code at both Disney and Danka where, regardless of the Floridian heat, Blakely had to wear panty hose whose seamed toes were a constant sources of irritation. This, compounded with her desire to wear a pair of now infamous cream slacks without panty lines, led her to move to Atlanta at 27, with her $5,000 of savings. Over the next two years, Blakely continued to work at Danka during the day, spending all her free time planning the launch of her new product. One particular week she spent every night studying every hosiery patent ever filed at the local library. With no history or qualifications in fashion, Blakely immersed herself in craft stores researching materials and utilized her skills to start cold calling hosiery factories she found in the Yellow Pages.
After no success, Blakely choose to simply turn-up at the Highland Mills Hosiery factory in North Carolina only to once again face rejection. Two weeks later however the manager called her back. After polling his daughters on feet-free hosiery, he was convinced that hers was an invention not to be passed-up. She wrote her own patent out of a Barnes & Noble textbook to save the several thousand-dollar fee and set aside $150 to incorporate her new business.
The name Spanx was a late change from the original ‘Spanks’, having read that made-up names sold better.
By 2000 she was spending her evenings on a friend’s computer designing the packaging with the help of a graphic artist. In the fall of that year, Blakely met with buyers from Neiman Marcus in Dallas, using images of herself in those same cream pants with and without Spanx to help seal her pitch. Shortly afterwards, Blakely convinced Bergdorf Goodman, Sak’s, and Bloomingdales to give her a trial.
Alongside her budding business Blakely continued to work at Danka, taking all customer service calls personally and packing orders into envelopes in her apartment at night. Ever proactive, Blakely’s inability to afford advertising simply pushed her to original alternatives, attempting to convince sales associates to sell her product from amongst the shoes and women’s wear rather than the hosiery department, personally standing in stores all day telling women about Spanx, and on one occasion using a rack she had bought at Target to sneak some packages nearer to the cashier in Neiman.
After boldly sending samples to Oprah’s stylist, she officially endorsed the product as her favorite of 2000 in November. The warning call was both a huge breakthrough and a daunting prospect. The company had to hash together a website using a scanned image of the product packaging. Two weeks before Oprah’s show, Blakely resigned Danka to work at Spanx full-time. In her first year, the company brought in $4 million, a figure that rose to $10 million the following year.
In 2001, Blakely landed a deal with QVC and the following year hired her fifth employee, the Coca-Cola veteran Laurie Goldman whose first office with the company was Blakely’s kitchen. Regardless, Goldman saw the company’s potential. As CEO, Blakely ran the business like a public company from her earliest involvement, for example getting Ernst & Young to do audits.
In 2004, a publicity stunt on Richard Branson’s reality show Rebel Billionaire presented itself. Blakely jumped at the chance. Against the advice of lawyers and her parents, Blakely relished the opportunity to learn from Branson up-close, winning task after task much to the cast and crew’s surprise. Branson felt that Blakely didn’t require the leg-up that winning provided, awarding her the runner-up position along with a $750,000 check to start a foundation. Her company has now donated over $17 million to charities, particularly those supporting women and girls in everything from housing, education, and entrepreneurship. Each catalogue features a struggling new female entrepreneur in the hopes of giving her a head-start with her new venture.
She met her now husband Jesse Itzler when he invited her to a celebrity poker tournament in 2006, and the pair married two years later. Prior to her marriage, Blakely had panicked, sitting down with him to explain just how successful the company had become, now raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The couple had their first son Lazer Blake Itzler in 2009.
The company is currently laying the groundwork for expansion in Asia as well as planning the introduction of stand-alone stores first in Atlanta and then worldwide. The company also introduced Assets, a more affordable range for Target. The product line continues to expand, moving beyond hosiery into lingerie, swimwear, sportswear, and menswear to meet growing customer demand and to stay ahead of the handful of copycat companies cropping up in the now booming shapewear market.
This year Blakely debuted on the Forbes Rich List and is the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world; all this while still owning 100% of her private company with no debt, no outside investors, and no money spent on advertising. Blakely epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit. From her single-handed graft in the early years to her continued vision in shaping a brand and a company that not only created a product, but a whole new market.