Sara Blakely reshapes the undergarment business with Spanx

Sara Blakely was able to change the women’s undergarment industry because she was an outsider.

The founder of Spanx Inc. says not knowing the way things had been done, she questioned each step of the process as she was learning.

“I like to tell people that what you don’t know can be your greatest strength if you let it. You need to have confidence and moxie about it; that’s what makes a difference,” Blakely says.

“Most of us are on autopilot, and we’re doing things exactly the way somebody else showed us how to do them. If you’re not doing something different, you’re never going to have real change and real innovation.”

The Clearwater, Florida, native’s journey with Spanx unfolded in classic storybook form — from cutting feet out of pantyhose to fashioning her own concealed undergarment to building a $250 million a year business that continues to innovate and expand, including opening retail stores.

Learn the ropes

Plenty of great ideas have languished because of a lack of execution.

Blakely realized that making undergarments out of hosiery material provided a solution for many women seeking lightweight undergarments that “give women a great canvas under their clothes.”

“All the other shapers were really thick and felt like workout wear under a beautiful pair of pants or a dress,” Blakely says.

But getting the products made wasn’t easy. After spending two years developing a working prototype, she went to hosiery mills and manufacturers, only to be met with rejection at every turn.

Finally, she found an owner of a manufacturing plant who “decided to help make my crazy idea.”

“I spent a lot of time inside the factory, asking questions. I always say one of my greatest strengths was not knowing how it was supposed to be done,” Blakely says.

She observed that the industry standard was to size items on plastic forms.

“I couldn’t believe that. I leaned over and said, ‘Ask her how she feels.’ So Spanx tested all of our products and prototypes on real women,” Blakely says.

Companies were also using the same waistband on products, somewhere between the small and large sizes.

“That felt not right to me and I changed it right away with Spanx. Every size has its own waistband that correlates to the size,” Blakely says.

She also discovered yet another waistband problem causing discomfort.

“There was a tiny rubber cord inside of all of the women’s waistbands that had been there for many, many years and no longer needed to be there because of the advancement of yarns and Lycra. The garment could stay up without it, but women had been suffering because the industry hadn’t bothered to take out the rubber cord and see if it could still work,” Blakely says.

Find room for improvement

Successful products fill a need that hasn’t been addressed or improve on an existing item. At Spanx, decisions about launching new products are based on that concept.

“We started in the hardest category to make something more comfortable, which was shape wear. We were able to master the comfort and fit aspect,” Blakely says.

Now, they continue to innovate in shape wear and have added bras and active wear.

“There are so many categories where women have been neglected as far as how they feel in the garment, and so much opportunity to make things better,” she says.

For the Bra-llelujah line, a hosiery machine is used to make the back of the garment and the straps.

“We were the first company to think about the back of the bra,” Blakely says. “Why is the bra on two pieces of elastic that go across your back and pinch your skin and fat? Does that make sense? The way we made our Bra-llelujah is so counter to how the whole bra industry thinks about needing structure across the back.”

The next step is expanding into active wear with blue jeans. The company has two different styles with either tummy control for the muffin top area or a panel of Spanx sewn inside the front, Blakely says.

“I’ve been wearing the prototype and everywhere I go friends are asking me if I’ve lost some weight, which I know means that the product is good and working,” she says.

In addition to new products, Spanx has opened its own retail stores, which Blakely doesn’t think will compete with sales in department stores.

“It’s an opportunity to connect directly with our customer, and we also get to show them the breadth of our product line. It’s actually helped our wholesale retailers because women are seeing that we have so much more,” Blakely says.

Whether it’s launching a product line or opening a new store, one thing Spanx doesn’t do is advertising campaigns. Initially, Blakely didn’t have the budget and once Spanx took off, she didn’t see a need.

“The way we were communicating with customers was working,” she says. “I always think like the consumer, whether it’s how I’m designing the package, the name, the product.”

Advertising often talks at, rather than to customers, Blakely says.

“I remember thinking, ‘Who are they talking to?’ You read labels that say, ‘The sheerest of the sheer. Sheer, elegant upward motion of the rear end.’ Who talks like that?” she says.

The Spanx approach is to be authentic. “Putting things like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered’ on the package. I really like connecting to customers through humor,” Blakely says.

The Spanx name itself was shocking and funny, and key to the company’s growth.

“It was incredibly important to the success of the company. It made people laugh,” she says. “But when I first came up with the name Spanx people used to hang up on me. They thought I was prank calling them.”

Courage and confidence

Blakely has a message for others who have an idea for a better way to do something and might second-guess themselves because they’re not an expert or don’t have the right background: “Put that aside and you may very well be the one who comes up with a much better way to do something.”

Had Blakely known more about the undergarment business, she might not have joined an industry in double-digit decline for 14 years.

“If I had been formally educated on how to research a category and industry, I may have been spooked or decided it wasn’t the right thing to do,” she says.

But while she had the requisite confidence, this self-made billionaire ran into another problem common among entrepreneurs — learning when to step back. At some point, a company can’t grow unless others are brought on-board and allowed to fully utilize their talents.

Blakely says someone told her she needed to start to let go.

“Just find a team and don’t get yourself so worked up that they’re not doing it 100 percent the way you would. That thinking limits you from being able to let go. If people do it 80 percent of how you would have, that’s fantastic,” she says.

She’s even found that the team often goes beyond her expectations.

Looking back, Blakely says there isn’t anything she would have done differently.

“A lot of decisions were exactly the right decisions. And I attribute that to not knowing how it was done,” Blakely says. “That’s been part of the secret sauce of Spanx.”