How A Pitch In A Neiman Marcus Ladies Room Changed Sara Blakely's Life At 27, Sara Blakely was selling fax machines and desperate to reinvent her life. So she came up with Spanx — hosiery that eliminates panty lines — and set to work building her business.
NPR logo How A Pitch In A Neiman Marcus Ladies Room Changed Sara Blakely's Life

SARA BLAKELY: In the middle of my meeting with her, I could tell I was losing her. And I just knew it was my one shot, so I said, you know what, Diane? Will you come with me to the bathroom? She goes, excuse me? I go, I know, I know; it's a little weird. Will you just please come with me to the bathroom. I want to show you my own product before and after. And she - she said OK.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.

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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, the story of how Sara Blakely designed a new kind of underwear, called it Spanx and eventually became the youngest female billionaire in America.

So when Sara Blakely was growing up in Florida, she didn't exactly dream of designing ladies undergarments. She actually wanted to be a lawyer. But when she took her LSATs, she failed twice. So after college, she got a job at Disney World as a ride reader. And then, in the early '90s, she got another job. It was selling fax machines door to door.

By the way, did you ever feel, like, demoralized with all the - with all the rejection and just people sort of saying, you know, no soliciting; please get out of here? Were you - was it, like, water off the duck's back?

BLAKELY: Oh, my gosh, no. I would feel very defeated. And many times I would get in my car and drive around the block multiple times, you know, just trying to convince myself to walk through the door. And sometimes I'd walk through the door, and they were small offices where the whole office would turn and look at me at the same time, you know?

And sometimes I would completely lose my nerve and just say, oh, sorry, I'm in the wrong place, and turn around and walk out. So I stumbled my way through it, believe me. And I know this sounds crazy, but when I was selling fax machines door to door, I kept feeling like I'm in the wrong movie. You know, like, where's the director? Where's the - where's the producer? This is not my movie. And I was really determined to create a better life for myself.

RAZ: So how did working there, like, help you discover what it was you were supposed to be doing?

BLAKELY: That was when I first started wearing hosiery daily. And I realized and figured out what the control-top portion of the hosiery was doing for me in my clothes. It was really making my clothes fit so much better. But I had spent money on a pair of cream pants. I spent $98 dollars on them, which, for me, was a lot of money. And they just hung in my closet unworn because every time I would go to wear them, you could see the undergarment.

Regular underwear left a panty line. The thong wasn't a great solution. It also left marks that you could see. And then, the shape wear was so - it was like the girdles were so thick and overdone. And I saw an opportunity for something right in the middle that would just create the perfect canvas undergarment for women.

RAZ: And I guess I should say, for people who have never worn Spanx, it's just - like, this is an undergarment made out of an elastic material that basically tightens and then smooths everything around your butt and thighs.

BLAKELY: Yes. And so when I cut the feet out of my own control-top pantyhose so I could wear those cream pants, the light bulb went off, and then I started pursuing the idea.

RAZ: Like, how do you then start to build a business? Like, did you have any money? Did you have access to capital? Did you have wealthy friends or family?

BLAKELY: I had set aside $5,000 in savings from selling fax machines door to door, and that's what I started Spanx with. And so the first thing I did was started to research if the idea existed. And I went to the Georgia Tech library in Atlanta every night after work for a week and a half researching every pantyhose patent that ever existed.

And then, probably on the seventh or 10th day of me being in there, some guy came up to me and goes, you know there's a website called uspto.gov? And I said, no, what is that? I scribbled it down in my notebook. He's like, you can search - you know, put in a patent and it'll search for you. So that website became one of my best friends. And once I determined that there wasn't anything that existed in a patent form, I then wanted to see if there was any market appetite for it beyond myself. So I literally went and asked one person.

I went to the Neiman Marcus down the street from my apartment, went in and asked the sales associate if she thought anybody would ever want something like footless pantyhose to wear underpants. And her face lit up, and she goes, yes. In fact, I have lots of customers who've been making their own homemade version of that because there's no right undergarment to wear under a lot of their clothes. And so that was my whole focus group, Guy. I was like, that's it. OK, there's a market demand (laughter).

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RAZ: Had you ever sewn anything in your life? Like, were you - did you have a background in design?

BLAKELY: No.

RAZ: Did you know how to, like, manufacture stuff?

BLAKELY: No.

RAZ: What did you do? How did you even start to think - figure out, like, what material you needed to use?

BLAKELY: I've never sewn. I have never taken a business class in my life. I didn't have anybody in the industry or even know anybody that worked in fashion or retail. And so what happened when I came up with the idea is I just started taking other pantyhose, and then I went to Hancock Fabrics down the street and all these different arts-and-crafts stores and started trying to paper clip different pieces of elastic to the bottom and different pieces of lace.

And, you know, obviously I didn't get very far. And my idea actually needed to be made on a machine. And that's why I really need a manufacturer to give me the time of day to see if I could even make the prototype.

RAZ: And in the meantime, you were - you were still selling fax machines, right?

BLAKELY: Yeah, because I needed the money coming in and the health insurance and all - all that comes with that. So I was working on my idea at night and on the weekends. And when I kept calling all the manufacturers that I found that were mostly in North Carolina on the phone and not getting anywhere - I mean, no one would take my call, or they didn't - you know, I just learned from my cold-calling days you got to be there in person. So I took a week off of work and drove to North Carolina and just started cold calling manufacturing plants.

RAZ: So you just showed up and said, like, make me a prototype?

BLAKELY: Yes. So I walked in the door just cold and just said, hi, I'm here to meet - see the owner. And they're like, and you are? They always ask me the same three questions. They'd say, and you are? And I'd say, Sara Blakely. And they'd say, and you're with? I'd say, Sara Blakely. And you're financially backed by? And I'd be like, Sara Blakely. And so you can imagine how that meeting went. You know, most of them were like, have a nice day; it's great to meet you, you know?

RAZ: Were they just not interested in the idea at all?

BLAKELY: Well, yeah, the manufacturing plants didn't get it at all. And I found it very interesting that all I was meeting with were men. And then it kind of became clear to me why they'd probably been so uncomfortable for so long - because the people that were making them weren't spending all day in them, you know? And so - and if they were, they were not admitting it.

So I had a hard time explaining why this product was so important, and they couldn't wrap their mind around. I was basically coming in and disrupting. An entire industry had been looking at something in one way, and they were on a decline year after year. But they were making hosiery to be seen on the leg. And I knocked on their door and said, guys, I just want your hosiery material, and I don't need it to be seen anywhere. It's actually going to be hidden under clothes. It's a new type of undergarment.

RAZ: So how did you convince a manufacturer to take you on to make the prototype?

BLAKELY: Well, it took a few visits to North Carolina and a lot of, really, persistence. They all sent me away at first. And a couple weeks after I left one manufacturer - Highland mills in Charlotte, N.C. - the owner called me. And he said, Sara, it's Sam. I've decided to help make your crazy idea.

And I just paused, and, I mean, I was about to jump out of my chair. And I said, really? Why? Why the change of heart, Sam? And all he said is, I have three daughters. And so later, I found out when I got the chance to do it that he had run the idea by his three daughters over dinner. And they said, Dad, this is actually a really good idea. We think you should give this girl a shot. And he still didn't understand it or think it was a good idea, but he said that my enthusiasm and my - my confidence in how good this idea was going to be stuck with him.

RAZ: Did anybody know about what you were doing?

BLAKELY: No. So when I came up with the idea, I kept it a secret for one year. I did share my idea with people like manufacturers or lawyers or people that I thought could help me bring my product to life, but I was very careful. Right away, it was just a gut feeling I had to keep it to myself because I believe that ideas are the most vulnerable in their infancy. And it's instinct to turn to your right or left in that moment and tell a friend or tell your husband.

RAZ: Yeah, yeah.

BLAKELY: And, you know, when you do that, instantly ego's invited into the mix. And then you end up spending all your time defending it, explaining it and not pursuing it. So I needed to be at the place where I knew I wouldn't turn back no matter what I heard. I had invested enough of my time and I had enough sweat equity into the idea that I told people. And the things I heard were, you know, well, honey, if it's such a good idea, why hasn't somebody else already done it?

RAZ: Yeah.

BLAKELY: And, well, if it is a good idea, Sara, you know, you're going to spend your savings on this, and then in six months the big guys will just knock you out of the water. And that was all coming from a place of love. But I feel like if I had heard that the night that I cut the feet out of my pantyhose, I'd probably still be selling fax machines.

RAZ: So once you started to come up with something that you felt was really special, like, unique, remarkable, did you - did you begin the process of getting it patented?

BLAKELY: I did. So I went to three different law firms. I couldn't find a single female patent attorney in the state of Georgia. And I even called the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and they said there isn't one. So I thought, OK, well, I'm going to do my best to explain this to three men. Let's see what happens.

And, you know, they were very nice. They were not super impressed, probably, with the idea. And they - they all quoted me between $3,000 and $5,000 to patent it. So I decided to write it myself. And I went to Barnes & Noble on Peachtree in Atlanta and bought a book called "Patents And Trademarks," and I wrote the patent. And then my mom's an artist, and so I asked her if she would sketch me in the prototype for the patent.

And that is the picture in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I went back to the one lawyer who gave me a little bit more time of day than the other ones. And I said, listen, Dan. I have written my own patent. I have done all of the work except for the claims. That is the part that I am not trained for. I don't understand how to do that. Please, I need your expertise. Is there any chance you would do it for a discounted price?

And he was blown away. He goes, you've written basically the entire patent. Yes, for $750 I'll do it over a weekend, and I'll write the claims portion of your patent.

RAZ: So you - so then you got the patent.

BLAKELY: Yes, but, you know, there was a moment in this journey that was quite funny. I - when we were in the final stages of the claims, the lawyer said, Sara, there is - I need to know what's technically in the garment from a fiber and yarn level. And I said, OK, there's only one person to call on that, and that's Ted.

And Ted had become my friend in the back of a manufacturing plant in North Carolina. And Ted had the most thick Southern accent you've ever heard in your life. I mean, it was intense. And so I called Ted on the phone. I said, Ted, my lawyer's on the phone, and we're trying to finalize the patent. Can you tell me exactly what's in the garment? He's like, yeah. They're 70 percent nylon and 30 percent lacquer.

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BLAKELY: And I said, OK, great. So my lawyer and I are writing. And I go, thanks, Ted. And I'm up all night, Guy, the night before I submit my patent to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And I'm thinking, how is there lacquer in this product? Like, how is that possible? So I called Ted the next morning, and I said, Ted, it's Sara. Will you - will you spell lacquer for me? And he's like, yeah - L-Y-C-R-A.

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BLAKELY: I went, oh my God, it's Lycra. OK, OK, OK, thanks. So I call my lawyer. I'm like, do an all-change on lacquer. It's Lycra. And he laughed so hard. He goes, do you know how fast you would have gotten a patent, Sara, on trying to make pantyhose out of paint thinner? I'm like, yeah.

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RAZ: Coming up - how Sara got Spanx into the department stores and into the closets of many women you may know. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

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RAZ: One more quick thing before we get back to the show. If you happen to be in the middle of building something right now, like a company or a movement or a product or anything, really, we would love to hear about it. And you can write to us at hibt@npr.org. Tell us how you got the idea and how things are going so far. Is it keeping you up at night, or is it going a lot better than you thought? Again, that email address is hibt@npr.org.

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RAZ: Hey. It's HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So at this point in our story, Sara Blakely has designed a new kind of shapewear, and then she wanted to get it out into the market. But first, she had to come up with a name.

BLAKELY: So the name was a journey. Since the time I cut the feet out of my pantyhose till the time I launched it in stores was two years. And I had been writing names on scrap pieces of paper everywhere I was, you know, and most of the names were on the back of rental car agreements because I had great thinking in cars. And I wasn't getting anywhere with that. I didn't like any of the names, and I knew it wasn't right.

And then I sort of narrowed down my thinking at one point in time and thought, Kodak and Coca-Cola are the two most recognized names in the world. What do they have in common? And they both had a strong K sound to them. And I had friends that were stand-up comedians, and I knew that the K sound makes your audience laugh. So I just put all that...

RAZ: I wonder why that is.

BLAKELY: I know. I don't know, but it's a - it's a known trade secret among comedians. And so I thought, you know what? I need to have my invention have the K sound in it for good luck. And almost as soon as I narrowed my thinking down that way, the word spanks came to me while I was in my car.

I saw the word across - like, in my mind - across the dashboard of my car. And I pulled off to the side of the road and I thought, that's it. And I went home that night. I didn't tell anybody. And I wrote down S-P-A-N-K-S. And I went on uspto.gov, and I typed it in. And I sat there and stared at it for a while. And at the last minute, I backspaced and deleted the K and the S and put in an X.

I had read that made up words do better for products than real words do and they're easier to trademark. And even though it didn't actually have the K in it, it had still the K sound, and so I felt great about it. And the name was just right. It's just my product was all about the rear end, and it's about making the rear end look better and no panty lines.

And so the word Spanx was kind of naughty and kind of funny and a little bit risky. And it just all worked, and I hit send. And I think it was $150 with my credit card. And then, a couple months later, I got back an official certificate from the government saying that I was the proud owner of the word Spanx.

RAZ: OK so you've got a manufacturer, a patent and a name. How did you - how did you start selling it?

BLAKELY: My very first account that I called on was Neiman Marcus.

RAZ: How did you even get in there?

BLAKELY: I called them. Guy, I just called them. I went in the yellow pages, and I looked up the Neiman Marcus number in Atlanta. And I said, hi, I'm Sara. I invented a product; can I come and show it to you? And the lady laughed and goes, ma'am, we have a buying office, and it's in Dallas. I said, oh, well, what's their number?

So she gave me their number, and I started calling them. And I just kept calling and trying to get to the hosiery buyer. And I called for days at different times. And she answered the phone, and I took my shot. And I said, hey, hi, I'm Sara Blakely, and I invented a product that is going to change the way your customers wear clothes. And if you give me a few minutes of your time, I'll fly to Dallas and show you.

RAZ: And what'd she say?

BLAKELY: She said, well, if you're willing to fly here, I'll give you ten minutes of my time. And I said, great. And I jumped on a plane, and I flew to Dallas. And I was in the meeting with her, and she was this beautiful woman, impeccably dressed. I'm at the Neiman Marcus headquarters.

I have a Ziploc bag from my kitchen with a prototype in it, a color copy of the packaging that I had created on my friend's computer and my lucky red backpack from college that all of my friends begged me not to bring (laughter).

They said, Sara, you cannot go to the Neiman Marcus headquarters with that red Eastpak old, dingy backpack. I said, yes, it's my good luck charm. I have to. And they were really pleading with me.

RAZ: So what happened?

BLAKELY: In the middle of my meeting with her, I could tell I was losing her. And I just knew it was my one shot. So I said, you know what, Diane? Will you come with me to the bathroom? And she just paused. She goes, excuse me? I go, I know, I know, it's little weird. Will you just please come with me to the bathroom?

I want to show you my own product before and after. And she - she said OK, and she walked down the hall with me. And I went in the stall, and I had on my cream pants - that were the reason I invented this - without Spanx on.

And then I went in the stall and put Spanx on underneath and came out. And she looked at me, and she goes, wow, I get it. It's brilliant. And she said, I'm going to place an order, and I'm going to put it in seven stores and see how it goes.

RAZ: Wow.

BLAKELY: And I couldn't believe it. I got in the car, and I was shaking. And I called Sam from the manufacturing plant. I go, Sam, Sam, it's Sara. I need more. I just landed Neiman Marcus. He paused. There was nothing on the other end of the phone for what seemed like a minute ago. I go, Sam, are you there?

He goes, Sara, don't take this the wrong way, but I thought you were going to give these away as Christmas gifts or something for the next, like, five years. What do you mean Neiman Marcus just took it? I'm like, Neiman Marcus just took it, and I need more.

RAZ: OK, so you are in Neiman Marcus. Are you thinking, all right, I've made it?

BLAKELY: Oh, my gosh. That is the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make. That is when the work begins. First of all, I paid people - basically friends - to go buy the product and create a buzz about it because I was like, you know, I got to have these things move off the shelf or the buyer's not going to give me any - any more chance.

RAZ: Wait, you paid people to buy them?

BLAKELY: Yes. I called every friend I had in all the seven cities that Neiman sent the Spanx to and called friends that I hadn't even spoken to since fourth grade. And, you know, kind of like, hi, it's Sara. Remember me from fourth grade? Do you mind going to the store and buying Spanx, and I'll send you a check?

RAZ: Wow.

BLAKELY: And it was really tough because I was one item in a - in a department and a new brand. And I didn't even get a whole row in the hosiery department. I got a pocket (laughter). So I needed to do whatever I could to maximize this chance. And I went to the stores, and I would explain what the product was. I would demo it. I'd show the before and after picture that my friend took. And then I would stand in the store from 9:00, when they opened, until about 5:00 or 6:00 every day.

RAZ: So you're basically doing everything.

BLAKELY: Yeah. And I realized that one of the biggest challenges I had was that where my product was being sold in the store was an issue. It was being sold in the hosiery department, and my customer was in the shoe department. And she was in the ready-to-wear department. And so I started realizing, I got - I have a challenge. I've got to get my product out of the department it's supposed to be sold in.

RAZ: So how'd you - how'd you do that?

BLAKELY: Well, I went to Target, and I bought stands, you know, for envelopes. And I ran around the store and put them at every cash register. And everybody thought somebody else approved it, so they kept them there for a while.

RAZ: You were in, like, Neiman Marcus moving your, like, piles of Spanx, like, next to the cash register? And they just assumed that was, like, some higher-up...

BLAKELY: Approved, yes.

RAZ: ...Said do that.

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RAZ: So other than that, how were you letting people know about what you were

BLAKELY: It was a lot of - a lot of hard work for me to get the word out. I mean, I've never advertised. Spanx is 15 years old, and we've never done any formal ad campaign or anything. And so it's a very word-of-mouth brand.

RAZ: I mean, you had no money. You had to get the word out. And you did things like - I read you sent it to Oprah.

BLAKELY: Yeah, I did. I sent it to Oprah with a note. And turns out she ended up picking it as her favorite product of the year.

RAZ: How did she even find it in the piles of mail she gets?

BLAKELY: Well I found out that Andre, her hairdresser, got them and put them in her dressing room. And she tried them and put them on and has basically worn them every day since.

RAZ: Wow. So when - after she, like, picked - picked up on them, did it just, like - did the orders start, like, flying out the door?

BLAKELY: I was shipping pantyhose to women - or the Spanx - all across the world, basically, from my apartment. So that's an enormous opportunity. And then another thing - I made a decision that was really you, know unconventional at the time. I decided to go on QVC.

RAZ: The TV channel, the shopping channel.

BLAKELY: Yeah. And had a lot of people say, Sara, your brand is at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. You can't also sell on QVC. You'll kill your brand. And I just - I just said, guys, I'm going to be the one on QVC, and I'm going to control the message. And it's going to give me an opportunity to explain what this is. And, you know, I felt confident in that. And they gave me five minutes of air time, and I sold 8,000 pair of Spanx in five minutes. And that was after, you know, a year of standing in department stores across the country. And on a really good day, I'd sell between, you know, 35 to 70 pair in a day.

RAZ: And sales must have been - must have, like, kept going up because I read that, like, by the end of your second year, you made, like - the company made, like, $10 million.

BLAKELY: Yeah.

RAZ: So did that feel - I don't know. Did it almost feel like it was too much too fast?

BLAKELY: It was great (laughter). It was great. I never was doing it for the money, you know, so I wasn't really ever that focused on it. I mean, I can even remember, after a couple of years of Spanx, I was still in my apartment. And my accountant kept trying to convince me to buy a house. I was like, I don't - I'm not interested.

And my little brother was always calling and telling me different ways to spend my money. And I just - it was really just for the art of it. Like, I loved - I loved being able to pay my own rent and stand on my own two feet as a woman. That was a really important thing for myself. But it was really just I love making the product.

RAZ: Did you have - like, early on, did you have people coming to you saying, listen, you've got to scale up fast, you're going to need money, let me invest in this company, and let me help you figure this out?

BLAKELY: Yeah, I did. I had all kinds of things coming at me in the beginning - and still do, you know, 15 years later. But I remember one of the most interesting was, within the first six months, I started having several people come up to me and say, what's your exit strategy?

RAZ: Huh.

BLAKELY: And I had no idea what they were talking about because I've never taken a business class. And it dawned on me that people actually start things just to sell them.

RAZ: And you still own 100 percent of this company.

BLAKELY: Yes.

RAZ: Did you ever think the company would fail in its first few years?

BLAKELY: No. I was always nervous, but I was always so connected to the product. I mean, I was so - I was so creating this before it happened while selling fax machines door to door. I was - I was thinking about it. I was writing about it. I was visualizing it. I was preparing for it. I thought, you know, I don't have the most money. I don't have a business degree. I have no idea what I'm doing...

RAZ: Yeah.

BLAKELY: ...In manufacturing or retail or any of this. But I do care the most, so let's see what happens.

RAZ: When you see these - these things, when you see things like, you know, Sara Blakely - self-made billionaire - is that weird when you see that, when you - when you see that number, that word?

BLAKELY: (Laughter). Yes, it's very weird. It reminds me of - in middle school, there used to be these things in the malls where you could go in and pick the magazine cover you wanted to be on. You know, like, your friends - and we'd all go in the booth. And we'd smile, and then we'd be on the cover of Vogue or whatever. It's just - it feels very surreal to me.

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RAZ: That's Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. Fifteen years on, the company has continued to grow and has yet to go public.

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RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. This, by the way, is our very first episode of HOW I BUILT THIS. And if you liked it, please do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes. And do us an even bigger favor and write us a review on iTunes. It'll help get the word out. You can also write us directly at each hibt@npr.org or tweet us. That's @HowIBuiltThis. Our show was produced this week by Rund Abdelfatah with Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers. The vice president for programming at NPR is Anya Grundmann. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

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RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for listening to the first episode of HOW I BUILT THIS. By the way, have you ever found yourself in a conversation about race and identity where you just kind of get stuck? Well, NPR's Code Switch podcast can help. It's hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji. And Code Switch is a podcast that helps us understand how race and identity crash into everything else in our lives. You can find Code Switch on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts.

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