Whilst out shopping for lingerie with my son’s girlfriend yesterday, I told her about the Sara Blakely story in the Wonder Women book entitled “The Billion Dollar Butt”. Her enthusiasm for the story, together with the lessons we learnt and the laughs we had, has prompted me to share it with you on the website.
In October 2021 (post the publication of the Wonder Women book), the Blackstone Group acquired a majority stake of Spanx, Inc. but Sara’s story continues to be exceptional. The company was valued at US$1.2 billion. Blakely was to retain the position as Executive Chairwoman. Forbes Magazine estimated her net worth after the deal at US$1.3 billion. To celebrate the transaction, Blakely gave each of her 750 employees $10,000 in cash and let them purchase two first-class plane tickets to any destination they desired to travel to.
“Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”Sara Blakely
Here’s Sara’s story:
Sara Blakely believes she may be the only woman in the world who is actually grateful for cellulite and back fat. She says it was the reason behind her drive to turn $5,000 she had saved from selling fax machines into a $250-million-a-year business.
Whenever she is asked where that idea for her business came from, she says with delightful honesty: “My inspiration was my own butt.”
Working in the hot Florida climate, Blakeley disliked the appearance of the seamed foot on her tights, especially when she wore open-toed shoes, but she liked the fact that their control-top eliminated panty lines and made her body and her butt appear firmer.
When cutting the bottom off normal pantyhose didn’t work (the cut-off material on the legs rolled up too much), she started a search to find the right material. Eventually coming upon a solution in a craft store, she wrote her own patent following instructions from a Barnes & Noble textbook, and incorporated her company under the name Spanx.
Not only candid, she is clearly committed to her cause. Once she had her first samples made, she looked up companies in the Yellow Pages to find potential stockists. Having identified Neiman Marcus as exactly the sort of store she wanted to sell Spanx, she set off to convince the buyer of the merits of her new pants.
Blakely believes in the power of a product demonstration, and it wasn’t long before she was in the restroom showing off her inspirational butt, demonstrating what it looked like before and after putting on Spanx.
It was a demonstration that got Spanx its first listing, albeit in only seven Neiman Marcus stores.
When an excited Blakely told the Spanx sample manufacturer about the Neiman Marcus deal, his response wasn’t quite the one she had been expecting. He clearly wasn’t as convinced of this being the beginning of something big. Blakely recalls him saying: “I thought these were just going to be Christmas gifts for the next five years.”
Blakely, however, was determined that Spanx was going to be a success, and she wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. She started to call up everyone she knew who lived near those first Neiman Marcus stores and asked them to buy a pair of Spanx, promising that she’d reimburse their money. Her reasoning was that if they sold well there, Neiman Marcus would extend their distribution.
It was still taking time to convince them. As Blakely recalled at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in 2103, “Right when I was running out of friends and money … Oprah named them as one of her favourite things.”
That changed everything. Distribution spread quickly to Bloomingdales, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. In 2001, she signed a contract with QVC, the home shopping channel, where she sold 8,000 pairs in the first six minutes.
Blakely is now the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, according to Forbes magazine.
And I can almost hear Blakely saying she is the woman with the first billion-dollar butt.