8 Tips From Self-Made Billionaire Sara Blakely For Building Successful Companies

By Amit Chowdhry ● Nov 17, 2019
  • Sara Blakely launched Spanx about 20 years ago with $5,000 in savings and a hustling mentality. These are some tips that Blakely suggests, which helped her become a self-made billionaire

Sara Blakely is known as the founder of Spanx, which is an intimate apparel company that sells pants and leggings. Blakely launched Spanx about 20 years ago using $5,000 from her savings. And she did not have any experience in the fashion industry. Prior to launching the company, she sold fax machines door-to-door for 7 years.

Now Blakely is a self-made billionaire and is married to entrepreneur Jesse Itzler. Blakely and Itzler are minority owners of the Atlanta Hawks. And Blakely participated in a few episodes of Shark Tank.

Blakely also runs a charity called the Sara Blakely Foundation, which helps women with education and entrepreneurial ventures. Richard Branson helped get the foundation off the ground with a $750,000 check.

Back in 2013, Blakely became the first female billionaire to sign the “Giving Pledge,” an organization launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to donate at least half of their wealth to charity.

As a successful entrepreneur, Blakely has been sharing tips for running a business at events, interviews, and a MasterClass.

Here are some of the tips from Sara Blakely from those sources of information:

1.) How can it be better and does it already exist

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Blakely said she runs her company through the lens of how can a product be better and does it already exist? Spanx was launched off of an innovation that did not already exist in the marketplace.

Often times, entrepreneurs hold back from launching an idea because there are other variations of an idea already on the market. But that did not stop Google from launching even though we already had Yahoo or Facebook from becoming the largest social network even while we already had Friendster.

Sometimes the best inventions are the ones that improve upon an existing product

2.) Leading with the why

Blakely also said in the Fast Company interview that you should start with the why and continue to lead with the why along with being very authentic in your message. Plus you should also stay vulnerable and be yourself through the process.

When Spanx first started out, Blakely observed how companies were treating them as a consumer. And she was determined to be one of her customers and to be authentically connected to them.

As Blakely was launching Spanx, she asked herself why should a new woman undergarment be created? And why are women’s undergarments uncomfortable?

3.) Being underestimated as a competitive advantage

Blakely pointed out that one of the biggest hurdles for her as a woman in business was also one of her greatest strengths — which was being underestimated. By being underestimated, it was harder for Blakely to get the men in manufacturing plants to take ideas seriously. But it also worked out as a competitive advantage for growing the company. “I continue to really embrace the being underestimated as a woman and I’ve been able to stay true to the feminine principles in leadership and throughout growing Spanx.”

4.) Make lists

In a MasterClass, Blakely suggests that people make three lists. The first list is to write everything out that brings you joy. Another list should contain the skills that you are good at. And the third list should be about how to serve the world.

5.) Learning from failures

During family dinners, Blakely’s father would ask her and her brother what they failed at that week. “I can remember coming home from school and saying, ‘Dad, I tried out for this and I was horrible!’ and he would high-five me and say, ‘Way to go!’ If I didn’t have something that I had failed at, he actually would be disappointed,” said Blakely at a Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship event in New York City via Business Insider.

By learning from failures, Blakely’s dad gave her the gift of retraining her thinking about failure. Failure became associated with not trying rather than the outcome.

6.) Not letting a “no” discourage you

Blakely did poorly on the LSAT exam twice and ended up working at a walkway at Disney World while wearing Mickey Mouse ears and leading customers onto rides. That experience was frustrating so then she switched to selling fax machines door-to-door.

That was a high-stress job and her bosses had high sales expectations every month where it got to the point that Blakely was begging business owners to buy the fax machines for a company called Danka. That experience taught her how to cold-call and handle being told “no” by potential customers. This was especially useful for launching Spanx in the first two years. And she learned how to turn doubt or anger into productivity.

7.) Take a chance when you know you are ready

Blakely continued to work at Danka two years after she came up with the idea for Spanx. Between 9 and 5, she would show up at Danka and do her job, but then spend nights and weekends making Spanx prototypes and drive between Florida and hosiery mills located in Atlanta and North Carolina.

“There were days that I’d be at Danka all day and the semi-trucks would drop boxes of Spanx outside my apartment,” said Blakely in an interview with Forbes.

She did not quit Danka until she knew her business was on the right track. Two and a half weeks after she resigned from Danka, she was on the Oprah Winfrey show promoting Spanx.

8.) Don’t try to handle everything yourself

Once Spanx appeared on Oprah in 2000, Blakely was busy filling orders at retail stores like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. The inventory at those stores kept selling out.

Laurie Ann Goldman, a former head of global marketing and licensing of the Coca-Cola USA Divisions, noticed this supply chain management problem while trying to buy control-top fishnets at a Saks in Atlanta and then set up a meeting with Blakely.

Goldman was hired initially as a consultant and then became CEO of the company between 2002 and 2014.

Blakely told Forbes that Goldman brought in more formality and structure to the business.

“We had formal business planning which we’d never had before. We had one-year and three-year targets. Laurie Ann knew right away it could be huge. We’re very different people but we think very much aligned. We usually come out at the same place and if we don’t there’s a healthy debate that goes on. Ninety percent of the time she executes the same way I would, but better,” added Blakely via Forbes.