You may remember Sara Blakely as a contestant on Rebel Billionaire, Richard Branson's 2005 reality competition series on Fox. Now she can claim the title as a rebel billionaire, and just like Branson, she's a self-made branding phenom with a flair for promotion — and she owes it all to Spanx.
Call it shapewear, support wear, body shapers, slimming intimates, "hosiery crack" — Spanx has conquered the worlds of retail, fashion and business school case studies, first by helping firm up women's wobbly bits and then, of course, men's. That's right: move over, mantyhose — Blakely got there first, one of many sparks of inspiration and innovation that have propelled her to become the first self-made female billionaire on Forbes' annual billionaire ranking.
“At 41 she’s the youngest woman to join this year’s World’s Billionaires list without help from a husband or an inheritance. She is part of a tiny, elite club of American women worth ten figures on their own, including Oprah Winfrey and Meg Whitman,” writes Forbes in a cover story on their March 26th billionaires ranking annual issue, which is now on newsstands. “Today Spanx is to slimming undergarments what Kleenex is to tissues: a brand that stands for the category.”
As Blakely tells Forbes, she was motivated to become an inventor and entrepreneur when she didn't ace the law school admission test, ruling out the high-flying legal career she'd hoped for. Cue Plan B, and at age 29, following stints as a Disney World ride-greeter and door-to-door fax machine salesperson, she invested her $5,000 life-savings in developing something slimming to wear under white pants and Spanx (almost called Spanks) was born.
Her company, of which she is sole owner, now has nearly $250 million in annual revenues and net profit margins around 20%. A team of 125 run the day-to-day operations (16 of them men, by the way), selling about 200 products in 11,500 department stores, boutiques and online shops in 40 countries.
The motivation for Spanx was years of personal discomfort from wearing pantyhose in Florida until one day, in what is now small business lore, “I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath," says Blakely in Forbes. "But they rolled up my legs all night. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make this.’ I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist.”
Fast forward through several years of research and arduous work before luxury retailer Neiman Marcus agreed to give the persistent Blakely a chance. Nieman CEO Karen Katz commented to Forbes that “Sara’s effort was to solve an age-old problem for women in a modern way.” With Neiman’s blessing, Bloomingdale’s, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman followed suit and carried the Spanx brand.
But Blakely's biggest break was getting on Oprah's radar (and derriere), with samples shipped to Winfrey’s stylist Andre Walker. In November 2000 Oprah crowned Spanx her "favorite thing" of the year, telling her audience “Spanx really changed the way I wore clothes. … I’ve given up panties.” A star was born.
“There was a whole new interest from the consumer in wearing shapewear that wasn’t your grandmother’s girdle,” noted Elizabeth Hospodar, divisional merchandise manager for Intimate Apparel at Bloomingdale’s, to the New York Observer. “Imitations and new innovations have proliferated, but Spanx remain the best seller.”
“They’re like hosiery crack!” added Suze Yalof Schwartz, an editor at Glamour, to the Observer. “They’re addictive. I would say hold off as long as you can.”
Spanx’s future includes doubling international sales, (currently 15% plus) by 2015, expansion to Asia, and stand-alone shops worldwide. New categories include swimwear, active-wear, and men’s underwear in a growing ‘shapewear’ market.
Just as she has had help from mentors, Blakely is committed to giving back. She gives a "leg up" (yes, the Spanx puns are endless) to other entrepreneurs by featuring them in her catalogs, which go out to more than 1 million subscribers. She also launched a namesake foundation that got its own leg up following an investment by Branson, who gave her the seed money for her philanthropic dreams when she didn't take top prize on Rebel Billionaire.
Now, she's even contemplating taking the company public. "I was always very closed off to the idea," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I have been funding this out of my pocketbook for the last 12 years. With every obstacle that has happened to me in my life, my brain immediately says, ‘Where is the hidden blessing?' In starting a business and growing a business, everyday is learning how to manage obstacles."
Has Blakely, and Spanx, inspired your brand (personal or otherwise)? Post a comment below — and check out these tips from Blakely for other aspiring rebel billionaires: