“What you don’t know can be your greatest asset” – Sara Blakely
Sara Blakely had graduated from college with a communication degree. Her plan was to attend law school. Her struggle with the LSAT forced her to do something else. She wanted to work at Disney World. After three month, she quit frustrated she couldn’t be Goofy because she was two inches short of the requirement to be 5’ 8’’. She took the best option available, which was selling fax machines door to door. She stated, “I didn’t like fax machines and I didn’t understand them half the time.”*
Sara struggled to find what to wear under white pants. It was her problem and unmet need. She decided to cut off the bottoms of a pair body shaping panty hose. It solved her problem, except it rolled up her legs over time. She believed a soft knitted comfortable band could keep the product under the knee.
Sara had never taken a business or fashion class nor had she ever worked in the fashion industry. After 7 years selling fax machines, she decided to spend her entire $5,000 of savings to make the product and start a business.
She went online to uspto.gov to discover there had yet to be a footless, body shaping panty hose patent filed. She went to Thomas Register to find all of the U.S. manufacturers of panty hose. She spent two years cold calling them to find someone to make them. Finally, she took a week off work and showed up at the mills in person. Three weeks later she was called back by a mill owner. It turned that the mill owner’s three daughters had the same unmet need as Sara.
Once they were produced, Sara called the Neiman Marcus around the corner to say “Hi I’m Sara, I invented a product. Can I come and show it to you?”* She was able to get a meeting with a buyer. She was able to get the buyer into the bathroom to show her. The buyer must have also had that same unmet need because soon the product was on the shelves.
To successfully achieve a dream or big idea, you must effectively manage a few or many development tracks. Sara had only $5,000 in savings. She had to be effective and efficient. Her ability to do both is why she owns 100% of the company that generates $500M per year in sales. Here is how she accomplished the development tracks:
Validation Development – Sara validated the unmet need with beneficiaries: herself, the three daughters of the mill owner and the Neiman Marcus buyer. She took their feedback from trying the prototype.
Communication Development – Sara researched the power of the “k” sound in the “coke” and “Kodak” brands. She came up with spanks and later to Spanx. She packaged the product in red with interesting cartoon women images. Her product had to stand out with no marketing budget.
Solution Development – Sara researched and called panty hose manufacturers for two years. She was able to get a mill owner to make a prototype. She developed the packaging on her friend’s computer.
Operational Development – She bought a book at Barnes and Noble on how to file patents. She did most of the patent filing herself (only $700). She used $150 from her credit card on uspto.gov to trademark Spanx. She secured space on Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue shelves. She had the product produced and delivered to the retailers.
Personal Development – She used the $5,000 she saved and avoided debt.
When asked for her keys for success, Sara mentions her father, her upbringing and naivety.
Failure is not trying – “my father was very determined to encourage me to fail. At the dinner table, he would ask me and my brother what we failed at that week. If you didn’t have a story, he was disappointed. He reframed my thinking on failure. He would give me high fives after I told him how I tried something and was awful at it.”*
What you don’t know can be your greatest asset – “I had no idea what I was doing in most cases it worked in my favor. I have been asked, ‘how in the world did you get your product in Neiman’s’. I’d say, I called them’. The response is ‘we go to trade shows, have booth and have been trying to get in Neiman’s for years’”. “If you don’t know what you are doing, … you are going to end up doing it different, … and that what makes great companies and great products.”*
Naivety and fear of “not trying” are likely behind most breakthrough innovations. Sara cited both as her keys to success. Her philosophy and her execution of the development tracks provides us insight into how you can make almost anything happen.
* Quotes from Sara Blakely’s interview on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS, August 25, 2013