Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx, made “shapeware” chic, becoming the youngest self-made woman billionaire in the world. Since 2000, her Footless Pantyhose and Power Panties have sold more than 15 million units combined. What makes her a good saleswoman? (I’m drawing mostly here on Alexandra Jacobs’ excellent profile of her in The New Yorker last year.)
- A range of experience. When she founded Spanx, with $5000 in savings, she was working as a door-to-door fax saleswoman and part-time stand-up comic. She’d previously worked as a chipmunk at Walt Disney World.
- Started early. As a kid, she worked as a babysitter and sold tickets to roller-skating parties in her playroom, encouraged by her father who wanted her to learn the value of a dollar.
- A sense of humor. As a comic, she joked about the agonies of growing up flat-chested in a beach town, Clearwater, FL. At the start of her set, she’d throw a couple of push-up bra pads into the audience to disarm them
- Resilience. Driven to become an entrepreneur after twice failing her LSATs
- Saw selling as a means to an end. “I was envisioning a totally different life for myself. I knew I could sell, and I knew I could be self-employed, and I knew if I could come up with something for the masses instead of fax machines, I’d succeed.
- A desire to make the world better. “Where I get my energy is: ‘How can I make it better?’ I’ll ask my brother, ‘If you could wave your wand and make your boxer shorts better, what would you do?
- Urgency. After several close friends died in their early thirties, she developed a sense of urgency. “I don’t want to take any day for granted.” She reads a lot of Wayne Dyer to stay motivated.
- A woman in a man’s business. Pre-Blakely hosiery was dominated by men. But as Blakely’s manufacturer, Larry Small, told Jacobs, she stands out amidst the men: “I’ve always wondered how the heck men are supposed to sell hosiery.”
- Nerve. “Blakely chose the brand’s name partly for what she calls its ‘virgin-whore’ tension,’ and partly for its ‘k’ sound, which has a good track record in both business and comedy. “I used to hold my breath every time I said it out loud…People were so offended they’d hang up on me.”