On the Oprah Winfrey Show
“I’ve given up panties and wear Spanx®.”
Within 24 hours, over 20,000 pairs were sold confirming Sara Blakely’s status as one the bravest and most entrepreneurially-gifted inventors of her day - all built upon an extremely simple idea that was first met with scorn and ridicule, but ultimately adulation.
While her story is well known it’s worth revisiting, especially when one considers that her journey began with failure and adversity, a surprisingly common thread among inventors who eventually strike it rich with their ideas. Unable to make the cut for law school, several times in fact, she ended up selling fax machines before the big idea struck her just before squeezing into an expensive pair of cream pants she planned to wear to a party later that evening.
Frustrated with the limitations of traditional pantyhose in her drawer, she cut the feet off the end, went to the party, and noted that she felt and looked fabulous, with no panty lines and a generally smooth appearance. However, the undergarment rolled up her legs all night and she thought to herself that an improved solution to her jury-rigged body shaper should exist for women.
With zero business experience or even an iota of knowledge of the fashion or garment industry, she used the internet to investigate hosiery mills which have a strong foundation in North Carolina. One by one, she called up the top brass to plead for their help in making her idea - a footless pantyhose shaper - a reality. Over a period of several months, she received rejection after rejection. Her background in sales (selling fax machines) kept her focused and determined, using the rejections to improve her pitch and delivery.
During this period, she smartly kept her idea to herself only revealing the finer details to patent lawyers and those she contacted in the mills. This may be have been the smartest decision in the course of her journey to becoming the world’s first self-made female billionaire and something I cover in one of my educational videos “The Importance of Keeping your New Idea Confidential Until You File For a Patent.”
An Inventor With Attitude
If we can put a man on the moon, we can make pantyhose comfortable.
By discussing your idea with the wrong person, you might launch someone else’s company and lose the opportunity to redefine an industry and make millions, if not billions, as in Sara’s case.
With only $5,000 in savings Sara didn't exactly have a blueprint for success or the funds for a sustained campaign to get her prototype manufactured. However, by pursuing an intellectual property patent and doggedly chasing hosiery mill owners day after day, she kept her hopes alive.
Virtually all of the mill owners refused to work with a woman who had no existing stature or financial backing in the garment sector. Then one day her luck changed when one particular mill owner called her back to discuss her body shaper.
“Sara, I have decided to help make your crazy idea,” he said. The owner was swayed by the opinions of his two daughters who thought Sara’s idea was brilliant and a perfect product for women. This established a platform to help her build her prototype over the course of one year, working nights and weekends to perfect the final version. This 12-month process gave her an unrivaled understanding of the manufacturing process as well as a key insight: She did not encounter one woman in the manufacturing arena which illuminated WHY traditional pantyhose were so uncomfortable.
“The people making them, are NOT wearing them, and if they are, they are not admitting it,” said Sara. This led to a situation where a one-size-fits-all approach was adopted by mill owners based on a commonly used waistband which helped keep costs low. Their approach also utilized a rubber cord inside the waistband, which contributed to uncomfortable fits for all sizes of women.
Sara also noted they used plastic forms - not real women - to test the product leading to further assumptions about how the product should be made. Sara immediately did away with all three approaches for her prototype, religiously testing on it dozens of real people, including her family and friends, a process that continues to this day.
"The simplicity of the 1998 patent drawing for lady-shaping device Spanx is sweetly hilarious. It was drawn by the inventor’s mother who, inexplicably, seemed to feel that a well-articulated toe would enhance the strength of the claim". ~ Fastco Magazine
This honest feedback allowed Sara to quickly refine her product. Along the way, her mom helped sketch out some of the early drawings of the product which would eventually accompany the patent submission.
A last-minute challenge presented itself shortly before the patent attorney submitted the draft to the USPTO: The word “lacquer” had to be replaced with “Lycra”; a faux pas that originated the night before on a conference call between the attorney, mill owner and Sara. Both Sara and the patent attorney mistook the word “Lycra” for “Lacquer” due to the mill owner’s strong southern accent as he was describing the pantyhose material composition.
Using Failure as a Launchpad for Success
While humorous, the consequences of an incorrectly filed patent can be disastrous. Just one word - or even letter - can change the entire context of the submission and potentially allow a competitor to file a rival patent that gives them ownership of your original idea. This danger was also recently covered in my educational video “Every Letter of a Patent Application Counts.”
Sara’s next step as she approached the final design for her prototype, was to perfect the packaging. She was adamant it would be the antithesis of current product lines which tended to be white, gray and generally more subdued. Instead, she wanted a bold, red look - a radical approach in the undergarment sector. Using her friend’s computer, a graphic designer, she worked on a new modern look which would also incorporate three animated girls on the package cover, something never seen before in department stores.
One of her biggest marketing decisions, though, was choosing the name for her product. For over a year she had agonized over this detail with an early favorite being “Open Toed Delilahs”, which she now makes her cringe.
She started researching famous names, including Coca Cola and Kodak, both of which capitalize on the strong “K” sound.
George Eastman devised the name Kodak basing it on his love for the letter “K” which exhibited a strong persona to the famous entrepreneur. “It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with 'K.' The word 'Kodak' is the result," he said.
Sara absorbed this fact and also discovered that some of her stand-up comedian friends harbored a trade secret that the “K” sound would make their audience laugh. This creative brainstorming culminated in an “aha” moment during rush hour traffic when the word “Spanks”, suddenly appeared to her. She pulled over and wrote it down on a scrap piece of paper. Over the next few hours she made the further decision to spectacularize her name by replacing the letter “Ks” with “X” to arrive at Spanx®. This was also partly based on her research that made-up names for products perform better than those using real words. They are also easier to trademark.
Still only 29, Sara embarked on a self-funded non-advertising route to the top, relying upon word of mouth and racy packaging to entice department store purchases. With cool product titles such as Bra-llelujah and Tight-End Tights, she showed both a prowess for dynamic marketing and comedic touches that came from her experience as a stand-up comedian.
She adopted the same approach to marketing as she had done to coopting mill owners to build her product. She relentlessly pursued the rich and famous to endorse her product using cunning offline approaches.
These included sending gift baskets of her products to Winfrey's stylist and dresser of many years, Andre Walker, as reported by Forbes.
The strategy proved decisive and historical, with Oprah Winfrey endorsing her product on national TV, virtually guaranteeing her a massive boost in sales and giving her additional credibility in the news media.
Soon she was operating a $1 billion-dollar company, one of the youngest to ever do so, and her commitment and drive to build her brand remains relentless. This may be partly due to earlier life events including the death of her best friend when she was run over by a car.
“When you witness death at age 16, there's a sense of urgency about life. The thought of my mortality — I think about it a lot. I find it motivating. It can be any time that your number's up."
She also took her opportunities when they came her way including appearing on shopping channel QVC with her second product, the mid-thigh Power Panties, of which she sold 8,000 pairs in just six minutes.
She is also not afraid to take the fight to copycats, using her three undergarment patents, for instance, to wage war against rivals such as Yummy Tummie (spearheaded by reality TV star Heather Thompson).
Sara has always maintained that patents are a foundational cornerstone for securing her financial success and allowing Spanx to maintain market leadership. They were important to her in the beginning of her journey to success and they remain so even more now.
National Patent Attorney
TED Speaker | Best Selling Author
I am excited by life's little annoyances: They offer unbelievable opportunities to provide solutions that nobody else has thought of.
But perhaps more importantly the points raised above confirms a powerful commonality so many of my inventor clients share with her: A desire to solve a small, annoying problem that seems hidden in plain site.
There are millions of these tiny irritations all around us waiting to be recognized and solved by inventors like you. I go over more examples like this in my recent TED Talk which will give you further inspiration to detect and profit from your tiny or seemingly inconsequential idea that can indeed change the world.