What we learn from Sara Blakely, inventor of Spanx

Here are some thoughts on what we learn from Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx.

You can see Sara tell her own story in the video at the bottom of the page, but here are my thoughts on what we can learn from her experience.

Who is Sara Blakely, and what on earth are Spanx?

Sarah invented Spanx, which are underwear for women which smooth out your shape, giving you a flatter tummy, hips or bum. She started with 5000 dollars in savings and is now a billionaire. Not bad going…what can we learn?

Understanding from the customer’s point of view

Part of Sara’s story is a version of the inventor’s story. She needed something for herself, couldn’t find it in the shops, and worked to make it for herself and others.

I think the fascinating part of Sara’s story, which you won’t find in your typical inventor journey is that she was able to understand her invention from the customer’s point of view. I like that she tested the garments on herself, on her Mom, her friends, and her potential customers.

She pushed for comfort, for real-world testing, for the elements which her customers would appreciate. And she didn’t shy away from talking about the underwear in a way that women would talk to one another about their knickers.

Wanting to stand out

Sara Blakely also talks about how she wanted her product to be different, right from the beginning. She did her research and noticed that all the packaging on all the women’s underwear was pretty much the same. Only the logo and the brand would change. And the packaging was all in neutral colours.

So she made her packaging bright red. And cheeky.

And instead of those airbrushed photos of ladies in their knickers, she used bold cartoon figures and cheeky straplines.

I particularly like

Higher power shorts


We put the power in your panties!

Sara Blakely - spanx packaging
Taking the buyer to the toilet for a demo!

Sara needed to sell her new product. Even if you have tons of money behind you for product design, prototyping, marketing and everything else, as a new business, you need distribution. You need someone to buy from you, and in Sara’s case, she needed big distribution.

Watch the video for Sara’s hilarious description of this moment, but basically, she got the buyer from a big department store (luckily another woman) to go to the loo with her so Sara could demo her product.

It worked, and she got a trial order. As a business coach, every time that I’ve worked with a client on getting this kind of distribution with big shops, it’s taken a lot of chutzpah and persistence to get a serious order. Asking someone with much higher power than you to come to the loo with you, takes a lot of courage.

I’m not sure this technique would work for every sales meeting, or if I’d have the nerve to do it, but it’s one to think about. Or you can have a read of the three price point pitching process method I use a lot with clients to help them to make sure that they win the work and maximise their value.

Here’s Sara Blakely in her own words

Let me know what else you think we can learn from Sara Blakely


What else can we learn from others?

Observing what other business owners do can give us some great inspiration and learning. And it’s not just the rich and famous we can learn from, I’ve compiled lots of examples of ordinary people running extraordinary businesses to share what I’ve picked up in business.

Here are a few to get you started:

How Nixon McInnes sold me a ticket

How Mark Vaesen put up his prices

Inspiring action with Simon Sinek


Photo credits – Thanks to Fortune Live Media on Flickr creative commons and Brett Player art director