Advice From The Youngest Self-Made Female Billionaire in History

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Advice From The Youngest Self-Made Female Billionaire in History

saraI had the opportunity to attend the keynote presentation of Sara Blakely, Founder of Spanx.  In her one-hour talk, Sara highlighted her fascinating journey from launching a start-up with $5000 in savings to becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire in history. Anyone who’s heard Sara’s story knows it’s exhilarating and motivating, but to see her live brings a new dimension to her story.  She’s fresh, exuberant, funny and completely passionate about helping women feel and look their best, and about reforming all of the misguided trends that have kept in women in painful and ill-fitting undergarments over the last 50 years.

Sara delivers surprise after surprise in her tale of phenomenal entrepreneurial success.  As I love to be “contrarian” in my work, I’m very taken with her non-conventional lessons that fly in the face of all the best business school advice we received from the business pundits and gurus.

Here are the top 10 lessons I learned from Sara’s journey from fax machine saleswoman to entrepreneurial superstar:

1) Fail Big – Sara’s beloved father followed Wayne Dyer’s guidance in teaching his children the power of failing big.  Each day, her father would ask – “So, what did you fail at today.” And if there were no failures, Dad would be disappointed.  Focusing on failing big allowed Sara to understand that failure is not an outcome, but involves a lack of trying — not stretching yourself far enough out of your comfort zone and attempting to be more than you were the day before.   Failing big was a good thing.

2) Visualize it – Sara is a big fan of “visualizing” your big goal, in specific, concrete ways.  She saw herself clearly on the Oprah TV show 15 years before it happened.  She simply knew it would happen.  She’d see in her mind’s eye sitting on the couch with Oprah having an exciting conversation, and wondered, “What are we talking about?”  The rest was just “filling in the blanks” to get there.

3) Don’t share your fragile idea with the world too soon. Sara kept her idea of making a fabulous new undergarment for women under wraps for an entire year while working on developing the prototype.  Only after she was 100% committed to it and ready to launch, did she sit her friends down and explain her new direction.  Sara explains that ideas are vulnerable, fragile things.  Wait until you’re completely read to move forward before you share it with people. Meaning well, they’ll shoot it down, offering all the reasons why it won’t work.  But when they do,  you’ll be ready to deal with it.

SaraBlakely-412x5504) Don’t take no for an answer. Sara reached out to slews of manufacturers and lawyers to help her patent her idea and create a successful prototype.  In every conversation she had with potential manufacturers, she was asked three questions: 1) Who are you? 2) Who are you with? 3) and Who is backing you?  When the answers to these three questions remained, “Sara Blakely,” no one wanted to take a chance on her, until one manufacturer called her back and said “OK.”  Why? Because he had gone home and told his daughters about the idea, and they said, “It’s brilliant!”

5) Hire people you like and trust (even if they don’t know a great deal about what you need them to do).  Sara hired a head of Product Development and a PR director who had been friends and supporters from the beginning.  Neither knew anything about the functional areas they were hired to oversee, but Sara trusted they’d be fabulous at their new roles, and they were.

6) You don’t have to go in order. Sara’s passionate commitment to her new Spanx product was so fierce, she just tackled each task in the development and marketing journey as they came up, not necessarily in the best order for a smooth launch.  She landed a Neiman Marcus deal involving placement of the product in seven stores, before figuring out how to mass produce “crotches” for the product. The Oprah show called to do a feature on her in a staff meeting in her “offices” before she had an office or a staff.  She winged it, and it all went well.

7) You CAN figure it out – you have the ability.  Sara knew absolutely nothing about women’s undergarments, patenting a new product, manufacturing, marketing, product development, website development, online commerce, and more.  But that didn’t stop her. She researched what she needed to, hired out what she couldn’t do, and marched forward with undying commitment and energy. Don’t stop yourself from pursuing an idea because you don’t think you have what it takes.

8) You can build a billion dollar business starting with $5,000.  Sara had only $5,000 in savings on that fateful day when she cut the feet off of her stockings in order to wear them under her white pants for a more flattering look (and thus, realized the world needed a new undergarment product that would be comfortable yet flattering to the female form).  From that $5,000 she embarked on designing a prototype, securing a manufacturer, naming the product, legally protecting her product, and getting the word out to potential buyers.  You don’t have to be rich to move forward with your fabulous new idea.

9) Don’t worry about the outer “stuff” until the time is right. Sara worked tirelessly from her apartment creating her product, avoiding investing in outside office space or other marketing and business tools until the product had taken off.  She didn’t have a formal website until she made it on the Oprah show and needed one.  Anything that wasn’t essential to building the product and getting the name out there simply wasn’t a priority.

10) Breaking the mold is a good thing.  When Sara began to research undergarments for women and how they’d been made for the last 50 years, she was astonished.  From the absurd sizing protocols (only one average waist measure was used on all the products, regardless of the size of the garment), to how products were tested (on manikins not real people), Sara saw that the undergarment industry needed a female perspective – insights from a real woman wearing these items to shape the product development direction so the products were useful, effective, and as comfortable as possible.  She broke the mold, and developed a completely new approach to developing women’s undergarments.

Sara’s most important tip:

“Believe in your idea, trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to fail. It took me two years from the time I had the idea for Spanx until the time I had a product in hand ready to sell into stores. I must have heard the word “no” a thousand times. If you believe in your idea 100%, don’t let anyone stop you! Not being afraid to fail is a key part of the success of Spanx.”

In the end, Sara Blakely’s story shows us what’s possible when we believe, when we’re resourceful beyond measure, and when our passion and commitment to something outside ourselves brings us to a calling.

What are you most afraid of failing at? Will you get in the cage with your fears and take a step toward your dream today?


About the Author: Kathy Caprino
I spent the first years of my career in corporate America, where I worked in publishing, marketing, market research, and membership services. Currently, I run a leadership and career success coaching and consulting firm focused on the advancement of women. A trained therapist and coach, I’ve had the pleasure of working with over 10,000 emerging women leaders at Fortune 100 companies, national women’s conferences, non-profits, academia and startups. I’ve also served as a graduate instructor for New York University and career trainer for Mediabistro. Along with Forbes, I blog for Huffington Post, AARP’s Life Reimagined and my own Ellia Communications career blog. Based on my yearlong research study on women overcoming their top work challenges, I wrote the book Breakdown, Breakthrough: The Professional Woman’s Guide To Claiming A Life Of Passion, Power And Purpose. If my work interests you, please visit my Amazing Career Project and other career success programs and trainings. You can reach me at
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  1. Wow! What an amazing and uplifting story to read on this very wet Wednesday morning.

    Thank you for sharing Brian – reading this message today is something that I really needed to hear.

    We all get a little despondent from time to time and when we read the stories of others and how they overcame their challenges, just gives me the strength to carry on. Well done Sara!

  2. As a woman in a new business venture that is completely out of my comfort zone n knowledge, im feeling very encouraged. Thanx Brian … God bless

  3. Thanks a lot Mrs Sara,I’m very inspired deep in my heart. Failure is a result of Success.
    I’m Nhlanhla Motha,from Radical Entertainment Company.and I’m looking forwad to be on your events.
    Thank you.

  4. Wow Sara is a fantastic inspiration! I don’t know how many time I’ve heard “NO it won’t work”. S
    So this really has come at the right time for me
    When doubt was clouding my mind and I
    Felt stuck and lost. God bless you all.
    Thank you

  5. Loved the article. I am also a woman in business, have worked for myself for the last 15 years at financial consulting, but am about to chuck all that up and follow my passion. For the last two years I have been doing research on why people (mostly women) cannot lose weight and keep it off. I have written a book and am hoping to find a publisher who will take the chance on me ‘blowing the diet industry right out of the water’ I would love as much help as possible. As part of my business before I used to give seminars and as this is my other passion I would like to combine my diet information, it is called DIET BUSTERS by the way with speaking at seminars about what makes us and keeps us fat.
    Would appreciate your feedback as well.
    Cheers from Linda

    1. Very inspiring story. It often only takes one great idea and the courage to ignore the “no’s”.
      Linda, it sounds to me like you are onto something amazing. The diet industry is a Billion dollar business. For what it’s worth, I’m a strategic marketing consultant and I’d be happy to look at your concept (no charge) from an objective outsiders view. And, i’m a women who’s lost and gained and lost weight. If we, as female entrepreneurs, help and support one another along our journeys we’ll become our greatest champions.

    2. Very inspiring story. It often only takes one great idea and the courage to ignore the “no’s”.
      Linda Dempster, it sounds to me like you are onto something amazing. The diet industry is a Billion dollar business. For what it’s worth, I’m a strategic marketing consultant and I’d be happy to look at your concept (no charge) from an objective outsiders view. And, i’m a women who’s lost and gained and lost weight. If we, as female entrepreneurs, help and support one another along our journeys we’ll become our greatest champions.

  6. Awesome and inspirational, thank you. I am also an inspirational speaker/trainer and excited about launching my seminars soon. My passion is ensuring that our people can access knowledge and grow their businesses and self worth. Anyone interested in attending the Millionaire Mind Intensive on the 14th to 16th March can send me an email with their details to for free tickets. Much love Phuti

  7. Congratulations to Sarah!!

    But, how many other “Sarahs” are there who tried and will never be successful , no matter how hard they believe in themselves and how much they put into their business

  8. When I start most of my workshops I say “Our goal today is to accelerate the rate of failure. Why? Because moving past our fear and stories about ‘failure’ is how we finally start to learn.” So I’m quite pleased to read that the youngest female self-made billionaire’s #1 tip is “Fail Big”. Way to go Sara! :). More info about out Team training a can be found at 🙂

  9. What? We can’t be teaching young people to fail what so ever. This is totally backwards. Just look at the public and private school system. Please tell me what school encourages failure? Just think what would happen to the school grade system if we encouraged people to fail? Young people need to be conditioned to know their place and that failure is not an option. Period.

    Leaders of tomorrow need a submissive workforce and that is what the school grading system brings…order, conformity, predictability. Teaching children to fail is very silly indeed.

  10. I happened upon this article by chance. I’ve been having somewhat of an epiphany in that I am not where I want to be, and in order to do that, I need to take a big chance. Afraid? Yes. Not for myself, but for being able to provide for my son if things go wrong. But can I afford to NOT take that chance? Maybe, but I will also wonder, might regret, and never know how awesome I might become. I can’t be afraid anymore.

  11. Don’t get me wrong, she totally did a great job.

    But it shows – junky products yield the most money.
    C’mmon! *Undergarments* earn you a BILLION dollars?!?!

    Feeding the world or travelling to Mars or curing cancer or curing ageing is totally underfunded.

    But it’s not her fault, it’s our trashy society.

  12. Very interesting to read ya before m also fail in business but Sarah u encourage me again but in northeast india women are lack of educated I like to do something for them in sport and education please help for me in this work

  13. Such an inspiring article and conversation going around. I think a lot of us are afraid of failure but you can never grow if you don’t, you’ll find failure on your path to success. It’s never smooth sailing, I’m only 23 years and started my own business and I learnt that all the greatest millionaires took risks and that’s what makes it in this world. There isn’t a shortage of money in the world but a shortage of people with great ideas, this has truly inspired me and I hope I can meet some of you and have an equally benefitial relationship. 🙂

    5 out of 5
  14. Thanks so much for this I needed to hear this after God has dropped this amazing idear In my mind to start up a bussines.God bless you guys……

    5 out of 5

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