How Sara Blakely Lost Her Way to a Billion Dollars
Last updated: February 15, 2013 by Susan
8 years ago Sara lost in the finale of Richard Branson’s reality TV show “Rebel Billionaire”. The loss was one of many that turned Sara into the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.
Sara’s entire life has been about failure. She says “My dad encouraged us to fail. Growing up, he would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn’t have something, he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
In the 1990s Sara became an expert in failure by selling fax machines (remember those?) and was often so terrified of meeting prospects she would burst into tears and drive around the block to calm down before her sales calls.
Overheating from the stress of it, she decided to cut the feet off her pantyhose to cool down. That was her ‘aha’ moment. As she says “When I cut the feet out of my pantyhose that one time, I saw it as my sign.” She decided to start a business to sell the footless pantyhose in 1998 with just $5,000 – all of her savings – and called the company “Spanx”.
Did the failure stop then? No – “When I invented Spanx I heard ‘NO’ for two years. It didn’t faze me. I didn’t have a special ability, it was sheer drive and telling myself to keep going.”
Working from her kitchen, she made a push for publicity, which simply means your failure becomes more public.
For example, her experience with the English: “On the BBC, I was asked what Spanx could do for women in the U.K. I said, ‘It smoothes and separates your fanny.’ The interviewer looked mortified. I had no idea what was going on, so I kept rambling on about fannies until he stopped me and said, ‘I think you mean bum.’ The word fanny means vagina in England.”
Her publicity led her to Oprah and Richard Branson’s “Rebel Billionaire” in 2005. She ended up losing that too, but the show gave her a chance to realise what she really wanted to do with her future success – Start a charity for women. Branson gave her $750,000 to start her charity, the Sarah Blakely Foundation, to support women leaders.
What happens when your failure rate goes up? Your luck rate goes up too.
To face her failures, Sara had luck on her back – literally!
“I found my lucky red backpack from college in my mom’s attic and became determined that it was going to change my path for Spanx because I kept hearing no, no, no. It went with me every step of the way, to the point of being made fun of because I went to Neiman Marcus headquarters with this old backpack as my presentation bag.
Now, with the Sarah Blakely Foundation, every woman we send to college or help start a business receives a lucky red backpack. They’re usually more excited about that than the money, which I totally get. The backpack is a symbol of their potential.”
THE BIGGEST RISK
This year Sara Blakely became the youngest female Billionaire in the world, with Spanx generating over $250 million in annual revenue. Sara puts this down to her sheer determination:
“The biggest risk in life is not risking. Every risk you take in life is in direct proportion to the reward. If I’m afraid of something, it’s the next thing I have to go do. That’s just the way I’ve been.”
What are your big dreams? Where are your greatest risks?
Get your own lucky charm on your back, cut off the feet of whatever is holding you back, turn on the music and take the path that Sara took.
Today, 41 year-old Sara makes many speeches to inspire other entrepreneurs, and even the song she uses to get in her zone is the anthem to failure. As she says – “Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ is my go-to song to pump myself up if I’m having a tough time or if I get really nervous right before a speech.”
Now that she’s a billionaire, her mission is “World Butt Domination” through Spanx and supporting women through her foundation, which has donated $17.5 million to charities supporting girls and women in South Africa.
Her failure has meant her wealth has come with humility, which is a different kind of wealth: “I feel like money makes you more of who you already are. If you’re an a**hole, you become a bigger a**hole. If you’re nice, you become nicer. Money is fun to make, fun to spend and fun to give away.”
Use Sara’s story to inspire your day: Lose yourself and win the game.