5 Things I Learned from SPANX. (Spoiler alert – I didn’t put them on.)

If you’re a woman, then you know what Spanx are.

If you’re a man who knows a woman, then odds are you do too.

To call Spanx just an “underwear manufacturer” as Wikipedia does, is like saying Hamilton is just a musical.

The company revolutionized an industry that was steeped in old guard leadership and tradition that no one thought would or could ever change.

Sound familiar?

Now you probably understand why I was so interested to hear it’s founder, Sara Blakely, who started Spanx with $5,000 and has since made a billion bucks (that’s right, she’s a “B-aire”), talk about what it took to start her company and make it into what it is today.

I got to hear her (and her super-entrepreneur husband, who was a Crain’s 40 Under 40 with me) speak at an exclusive Mastermind I attended recently, and she didn’t disappoint.

I picked up a ton of learnings from her 45-minute fireside chat . . . and here are my top 5 that you can apply to making it in this business or any business.


1.  If you know how to do THIS, you can do anything.

You know what Sara did before she founded Spanx?  She sold fax machines door to door in Florida.  She was a salesperson.  She sold stuff.

Sara talked about how talking to customers, listening to customers, and learning how to convince customers to give her fax machine a shot (and how boring a product is that), helped her learn how to negotiate and persuade everyone from manufacturers to Neiman Marcus to give Spanx a shot.

Every time I mention “sales” when I speak, there are usually a few people in the crowd who roll their eyes (and I know a few of you probably e-roll your eyes when I blog about sales as well).  But, as Sara’s success proves, when you can sell something, especially something as dull as a fax machine, selling tickets and raising money becomes a snap.

Sales is the #1 skill everyone should learn to achieve success at in every part of their life.  (I’m listening to this classic right now.)

2.  Don’t know how to do something?  Do it anyway.

Sara’s opening remarks went something like this . . .

“I had never designed a product before.  I had never run a business before.  I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing.”

But that didn’t matter.  She just did it anyway.

She needed a prototype, so she ripped the feet off some pantyhose.

And when she needed a patent, and couldn’t afford a lawyer, she wrote her own!  She went to the local Barnes and Noble, bought a book, and figured out how to do it herself.

What did she NOT do?

She didn’t spend hours, days and years wondering how she could ever do something as complicated as designing an undergarment, market it and sell a billion bucks worth.  She just took it step by step and learned along the way.

Competency occurs in an instant. Don’t know how to do something?  Learn it and do it, and then, just like that, you do know how.

3.  Your basketball coach was correct.

“Let’s see some hustle out there, Ken!”

That was the battle cry I heard from my coach about every fifteen seconds of my practice (until I quit to do the musical!).

Whatever you’re doing, Sara’s success proves that you’re going to have to hustle . . . even harder than you think.  Sara didn’t have a team. She didn’t have investors.  She only had herself.  But the amount of hustle she had was the equivalent of twenty staffers.

She was turned down by every hosiery manufacturer (all men, btw) but keep looking until she found one.

She hustled her way into an Exec’s office at Neiman Marcus . . . and when the sales meeting wasn’t going well, she hustled that Exec. into the woman’s restroom and undressed in front of her to show the Exec how the product worked . . . and sold it on the spot.

(One of my favorite stories was when Oprah called . . . and they wanted to film a staff meeting at her “headquarters” – Sara had to call an employee from her local Mailboxes Etc, and some friends to come to her apartment to stage a mock meeting.)

There is no chair lift to the summit of success.  You’re going to have to climb the mountain. And the higher the peak you want to reach, the harder the climb is going to be.

4.  Solve a problem and you’ll succeed.

Sara confided in us that she had written a note in her journal one day that went something like this . . . “One day I’m going to invent a product that millions of people love.”

Pretty good mission statement, am I right?  And what a testament to daily journaling!  (Here’s how I do it.)

Sara’s mission wasn’t about making a billion dollars.  It was about solving someone else’s problems . . . and one that she had herself!  She saw a problem.  And she provided a solution.

What void can your show or theater company fill?  Give people something that they need and they’ll give you love for a long time.

5.  Even “B-aires” still self-promote.

(First of all . . . do you like this “B-aire” word to describe billionaire?  Let’s create a thing, shall we?  Because all billionaires have to be bear-ish at some point, I’m sure.)

So, the fifth thing I learned from Sara is my favorite . . . and it wasn’t even a part of her regularly scheduled program.

Sara finished, and then we had a few more speakers . . . and right before lunch, our Host got up and said, “Sara – did you have something you wanted to say?”

And Sara stepped back up and said something like . . .

“Oh yeah.  Hi.  Sorry, but I forgot to say . . . first, thanks for having me here today.  It has been a real pleasure.  And I wanted to add that I know that there are a lot of men here today, and many of you might not know about Spanx, so I wanted to say thank you by giving you a little gift.  We actually do have a brand new men’s line . . . so if you go to Spanx.com and use code: (secret code given), I’ll give you 50% off just as a thank you for coming.”

After she finished, I watched about 50 men, typing down her site and the code.

And I smiled.

Sara didn’t need those few sales.  But she wanted them.  Because great salespeople are always selling.  They are always building.  There is always more they can do.

And not only was this message important enough to Sara that she pitched it at this conference when she forgot to include it, she went back to the conference organizer and asked for the microphone again!  Would you have done that?

And, she also could have just had the host make the announcement about the 50% off when she was in her private jet back to her home.

But no, she knew that no one would sell it better than she would.

If a B-aire can self-promote, shouldn’t you?

Sara’s story is a great reminder that the American dream in any industry can still happen.  Got an idea that solves a problem, and willing to work hard to sell that idea for as long as you shall live?

I not only guarantee that you’ll succeed . . . I guarantee that you’ll be happy.

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If you want some more tips on how to obtain success in our industry, click here to read my story and how you can rewrite your own.


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