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In November 2021 SPANX founder Sara Blakely sold a majority stake in her company Blackstone. The deal vaulted the shapewear brand to a unicorn valuation of $1.2 billion — a far cry from the $5,000 she scrounged up 23 years ago to create the first SPANX product, a pair of footless body-shaping pantyhose.
“I think sales is one of the most important life skills,” she said during a keynote at Ben Kinney Companies’ annual BuiltHOW conference on Wednesday. “I believe that we are all salespeople at heart. Whether you are a stay-at-home mom having to sell your children on why they should eat the broccoli, or whether you’re an accountant and you need to sell your boss on why you need a raise or you want a different promotion.”
Blakely said her big break came seven years into her SPANX journey when Neiman Marcus inquired about carrying her product in their stores. The founder stuffed her lucky red Eastpack backpack with a few pairs of her flagship footless body-shaping pantyhose, which had been stuffed in packaging from another shapewear brand.
“I got out this red backpack with dirt on it and I got out a Ziploc bag with my product in it,” she said. “It had my prototype and a color copy [of a package design] I had made on my friend’s computer. I glued [the image] to another brand of pantyhose and that was what I presented to her. I could tell I was losing her five minutes into it.”
Seeing her shot at success slip away, Blakely threw a Hail Mary and asked Neiman Marcus’ buyer to follow her to the bathroom. There, Blakely put on the prototype pantyhose and showed the buyer the difference in how her white pants fit. “[The buyer] took a step back and she said, ‘Oh, I get it. It’s brilliant,’” she said.
Blakely went on to share her keys to success, which surround maintaining good mental and physical health, hiring the right team of people, and knowing when it’s time to move on.
“These things are the difference in me sitting on this stage or not,” she said.
Harness the power of positive thinking
Blakely said her father introduced her to motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, whose philosophy helped her navigate her parents’ divorce as a high school sophomore. The SPANX founder was skeptical about what Dyer, a then-middle-aged man, could offer her; however, she quickly connected with the speaker’s teachings on visualizing, manifesting and controlling your thoughts.
“I started crying in my bedroom,” she said. “I remember sitting on the floor and thinking I have just spent 16 years in school being taught what to think. And no one has ever taught me how to think. I became a student of how to think, and it takes practice.”
Blakely said learning how to think has served her well over the years, and is a key skill that any entrepreneur or businessperson must master if they want to create long-term success.
“I am always realigning my thinking,” she said. “We spend a lot of time on our physical bodies going to the gym. But what are we doing for our mental state? On social [media], almost everybody I follow is motivational, inspirational positive messaging, so I’m getting my kind of modern-day daily dose of [motivation]. Getting your mind right is so incredibly important.”
Take a chance on untapped talent
Blakely’s first employees had no official experience with their roles — director of operations, communications manager, head of product development and chief executive officer — but their talent, passion and commitment to growth were invaluable to her brand, which had a limited hiring budget.
“My first hire was my boyfriend at the time, and he was a healthcare consultant. He said, ‘Sara, you’ve just created this product and you need help,’” she said. “He saw me packing and shipping all night and he left his job and became my first sort of operator, which was amazing.”
“My second hire was this girl Jody whom I gave a free pair of Spanx to in my neighborhood. We walked to get a bagel and the entire walk to get a bagel, she told me how amazing [SPANX] was and how she could wear things in her closet she hadn’t worn,” she added. “By the time we got back to my apartment, I said, ‘Do you want to be my head of PR? She was like, ‘I don’t know anything about PR.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, but that’s great. Why don’t you do that?’ So then she did that.”
She turned her first assistant into her first head of product development after three weeks, and she handed the reigns as CEO to a woman her boyfriend overheard complaining about SPANX’s inventory logistics and size availability.
“[My boyfriend] just walked up to her and said, ‘Do you want to talk to us?’” she said. “She helped me run specs, and once I had her on the operation side, I could focus on what I was best at, which was product inventing, sales and marketing.”
Blakely encouraged the BuiltHOW audience to identify untapped talent in their networks and hire people who love to do what they dislike.
“As soon as you can afford it, hire your weaknesses,” she said. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re every department. I learned quickly, I am not good at that. I don’t enjoy that. There’s always a correlation between what you’re not good at and what you don’t enjoy.”
Block off time for tasks — and daydreaming
Similar to time-blocking, Blakely said each day of the week is dedicated to a specific task category, which she calls “bucketing.” Mondays are for product research and development, Tuesdays are for team meetings, and Wednesdays are for reviewing brand standards and marketing.
“I used to go in one meeting [that] would be about legal and the next meeting would be about an employee issue. In the next meeting, I’d be looking at bras and then the next meeting would be about what are we going to name this next product and what is the packaging going to look like,” she said. “I started coming home every day and feeling very drained, not successful and started experiencing pretty extreme burnout.”
Blakely said the plan isn’t foolproof, as there are urgent meetings and tasks that can’t be moved to another day. Still, bucketing her time remains a vital tool for conserving her time, focus and energy.
“Creating a rhythm helped me make much smarter decisions because my brain could stay in one lane,” she said.
The SPANX founder also blocks off time to daydream.
“Where do you daydream? That’s a really important one as adults. When in your life are you daydreaming?” she said. “I’m not talking about when you go through the checklist where it’s like, ‘Okay, I gotta pick up the kids.’ I’m talking about where your mind wanders with no agenda. That’s the magic.”
Blakely said she goes to her car to daydream, and some of her greatest personal and professional epiphanies happen as she drives around aimlessly.
“During that time of driving, I made the connection about the fear of failure. Underneath that is really fear of being embarrassed … No one wants to be embarrassed,” she said. “I started celebrating my embarrassing moments. When they would happen I would share them. I would put them on my Instagram and say ‘This just happened to me.’”
“I would intentionally try to embarrass myself as if I hadn’t been embarrassed naturally. I would just do something that made my heart pound in my throat,” she added. “Once I started doing that, [the fear of failure and embarrassment] lost its power over me.”
Stay connected to your ‘why’
Blakely said the pursuit of growth often disconnects entrepreneurs from the reason they started a company, as they hire team members to take over a certain department or task. Although it’s crucial to delegate tasks, she said delegation isn’t an invitation to disconnect from the heart of your business.
“As the business scaled I got so removed from [why I created SPANX],” she said. “I ended up sitting in an office and everyone would bring to me the biggest problems, and it [wasn’t] fun. I [was] not enjoying this anymore.”
Blakely said she created opportunities to be more hands-on with products and it reignited her passion as a leader.
“I met in the fit room once a week as part of my weekly schedule and was very hands-on with the product again. That made it all very exciting for me again,” she said. “I just really care a lot about women. I wanted to support women. I felt that the industry had been neglecting us as consumers in our product experience because they didn’t care how we felt. That was a much greater purpose than the growth of the business for the sake of the growth.”
Embrace the next chapter
Blakely said her decision to sell a majority stake in SPANX came with grief, as she looked at the company as a child she nurtured.
“It felt like I was selling my child. I had spent 23 years of my life kind of mothering SPANX,” she said. “I was the sole owner of the business. I cared so deeply about the company and the employees and still do. I knew making that decision was going to be painful.”
Blakely said she doesn’t regret selling SPANX, as the decision has led to extraordinary growth for the company and new opportunities for her to grow as a creator and entrepreneur. She’s still involved as the executive chairwoman and helps spearhead new SPANX designs. She’s been dedicating her extra time to launching a new product unrelated to shapewear.
“It’s been under wraps for eight years, but I’m launching at the end of October. And it’s unrelated to Spanx,” she said. “In order to discover new land, you must be willing to lose sight of the shore.”
“I feel like whatever my intuition was telling me, was wanting to clear a path for the next chapter,” she added. “I feel like if I didn’t sell the majority of this company, that would not have happened.”
Email Marian McPherson