For many female entrepreneurs, few stories resonate with as much inspiration and surprise as that of Sara Blakely. She is the mastermind behind the international apparel company Spanx. Even so, many viewers of ABC’s Shark Tank may have known much about the entrepreneur when she appeared as a guest shark on the show during seasons 9 &10.
Her story is an inspirational one that many entrepreneurs can learn from. Let’s take a look at Sara Blakely and how she earned a seat as a guest on Shark Tank.
Sara’s early years weren’t particularly indicative of the monumental success that awaited her. After graduating from Florida State University, she tried her hand at a variety of jobs, including a brief stint in stand-up comedy. However, it was during her time selling fax machines door-to-door that she stumbled upon a challenge that many women faced: the visible lines of regular underwear when worn under white pants. Like many before her, Sara was exasperated with this problem, but unlike most, she took the initiative to find a solution. Cutting the feet off a pair of control-top pantyhose, she created a prototype for what would later become Spanx.
Turning an Idea into an Empire
With no formal background in fashion design or business management, Blakely was entering uncharted territory. The odds were stacked against her. Yet, what she lacked in formal education, she made up for in determination, intuition, and a keen sense for consumer needs. Investing her life savings of $5,000, Sara embarked on the journey to bring her idea to life. She was hands-on from the get-go, researching patents, studying the hosiery market, and meeting with manufacturers.
One of her early challenges was convincing the predominantly male manufacturing industry to take her product idea seriously. Sara’s tenacity saw her driving around North Carolina, the hub of hosiery manufacturing in the U.S., to find a partner who believed in her vision. After facing multiple rejections, she finally partnered with a factory that agreed to create the initial batch of Spanx.
The Oprah Effect and the Rise of Spanx
Sara’s big break came in 2000 when Oprah Winfrey named Spanx her favorite product of the year. This ringing endorsement didn’t come easy. Sara sent samples to Oprah’s stylist with a handwritten note explaining her invention. Soon after, Spanx was on every woman’s wishlist. The subsequent media coverage and word-of-mouth testimonials led to explosive sales and growth for the brand. Spanx achieved $4 million in sales in its first year and $10 million in sales in its second year
In 2014, Blakely began focusing on the growth of Spanx retail locations. Although the company is private and does not release financial data, 2014 Forbes reported that Spanx generated an annual revenue of $250 million. Blakely’s net worth grew to over $1 billion as the company continued to expand.
In 2021, Blakely sold a majority stake in Spanx to Blackstone for $1.1 billion. She is still involved with the company as its Executive Chair.
Diving into the Shark Tank
Blakely’s influence on the entrepreneurial landscape was further solidified when she graced the screen as a guest shark on ABC’s “Shark Tank” during seasons 9 and 10. Her presence on the show was a breath of fresh air, offering a unique blend of warmth, humor, and astute business insight. Entrepreneurs, particularly women, saw in her a relatable figure. Her first deal in the tank was with a company called Sonnet James.
Whitney Lundeen came to Shark Tank seeking $350,000 for 25% of her company called Sonnet James. Lundeen created a company around the idea that clothing for moms should be durable, stylish, and comfortable. She designed dresses that looked good and resilient enough to be worn while playing with little ones and taking part in their adventures.
After being in business for 5 years, Lundeen was able to bring her annual sales up to $1.4 million due to the 75% profit margin on her dresses. However, her net profit was only around 8%. Part of her problem seemed to be the 23% return rate on her online sales.
Blakely thought the return rate was a little high. However, she still offered her exactly what she asked for which was the $300k for 25% equity. Lundeen didn’t even give the other Sharks a chance to make an offer as she accepted Blakely’s offer immediately.
Legacy and Beyond
Today, two decades after its inception, Spanx is more than just an undergarment brand. It’s a cultural phenomenon and a symbol of innovation in the fashion industry. The brand has expanded its product range to include leggings, activewear, denim, and even menswear.
Blakely has gone on to make an impact in many other areas. She launched the Sara Blakely Foundation to help women through education and entrepreneurial training. She also became the first female billionaire to join the “Giving Pledge.” This is a commitment the world’s richest people make when they agree to donate at least half of their wealth to charity. In 2015, Blakely became a minority owner of the NBA franchise, the Atlanta Hawks.
As a female entrepreneur in an industry dominated by giants, her journey serves as an inspiration for countless individuals across the globe. Her story is a lesson in the power of persistence, the importance of believing in oneself, and the transformative impact of a simple idea.