I used to imagine that highly successful people were practically born that way – that they either had a meteoric rise to the top or, at the very least, enjoyed a smooth, steady climb along some primrose path. Although I grew to realize that this is not true, I was still continually taken aback by the singular stories the subjects of my new book, “Getting There: A Book of Mentors” (Abrams Image, April 2015) told me – the obstacles they overcame, the setbacks they endured, and the defining moments (sometimes even in childhood) that infused them with the tenacity and strength they needed to prevail.
Below is an excerpt featuring Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx, who emphasizes the importance of not allowing rejection or the fear of failure to deter you. As she and the 29 other luminaries in “Getting There” taught me, no one sails through life without encountering some rough waters.
Sara Blakely: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a trial attorney. All my decisions were made with that goal in mind. It was my father’s profession and, as a child, I used to beg to watch him in court. I debated in high school and in college majored in legal communications.
Eventually, the time came for me to take the LSAT, and I did horribly. My reading comprehension is not great, and I have trouble focusing for long periods of time. But I scraped myself up off the floor, enrolled in an LSAT prep course, studied my ass off, and took the test again.
I did one point worse.
Traumatized, I wondered, “What is the universe trying to tell me?” In my mind the universe was now telling me to drive to Disney World and audition for the role of Goofy. That is literally how I responded to my defeat. But they only audition people for the character roles every once in a while, so in the meantime I got a job at Epcot.
I wore a brown polyester “space suit” and put people on Epcot rides. I had to walk on a moving sidewalk for eight hours a day and say, “Hi, welcome to Disney, watch your step please.” I’d see school friends, and they’d look at my big Mickey Mouse name tag, and be, like, “Sara? Sara Blakely? Is that you?” I’d sheepishly say, “Yeah, just get on the ride.” After three months of this, I’d had my fill of “the happiest place on earth” and decided to return home and live with my mom.
Still without much direction, I got a job at a local company selling fax machines door-to-door. I had to 100 percent drum up my own leads. I would wake up in the morning and drive around cold calling from eight until five. Most doors were slammed in my face. I had a few police escorts out of buildings. It wasn’t long before I grew immune to the word “no” and even found my situation amusing. I realized that I can find humor in almost anything and, needing some sort of creative outlet, I began to dabble in stand-up comedy at night.
I think recreationally, if that makes any sense. I’ll sit on the couch and three hours will go by when I’m lost in thought. What I’ve realized is that I’m a visualizer. During my fax-selling stint, I would spend much of my free time trying to figure out what I really wanted out of life and what my strengths were. I thought, Instead of fax machines, I’d love to sell something that I created and actually care about. I became very specific with my visualizations and even wrote in my journal that I wanted to start a business that could run on its own whether I was physically present or not.
One day, after about seven years of selling fax machines, something fortuitous happened. In the hopes of looking better in my fitted white pants, I cut the feet out of a pair of pantyhose and substituted them for my underwear. This allowed me to benefit from the slimming effects of the panty hose’s “control top” while allowing my feet to go bare in my cute sandals. The moment I saw how good my butt looked, I was like, “Thank you, God, this is my opportunity!” I would create a unique type of body shapewear, something that would be thin, comfortable, and invisible under clothes but would still perform the magic of a girdle.
For the first full year I kept my idea a secret from anyone who could not directly help to move it forward. It’s now one of the best pieces of advice I have to give. Ideas are the most vulnerable at the moment you have them; that’s also the time people are most inclined to run around seeking validation from everyone they know. Discouraging remarks will likely take you off course. You’ll either end up deflated or spend your time defending your idea instead of going for it. I worked on Spanx until I felt I had enough of myself invested that I wouldn’t turn back regardless of what I heard.
Everyone in my life knew I was pursuing an “idea.” When I finally sat my friends and family down and said, “Okay, it’s footless pantyhose!” they thought I was joking and laughed hysterically. Out of love, I heard things like “Well, honey, if it’s a good idea why haven’t the big guys done it?” and “Even if it does turn out to be a good idea, the big guys will knock you off right away.” I told them, “You may be right, but I’ve just spent a year researching this, patenting it, naming it, and creating the package. I’m already on my path and I’m not getting off now.” I’m pretty positive that if I had told my friends and family about Spanx early on I’d still be selling fax machines.
The next problem was that I couldn’t move forward without a prototype, and I needed a factory to produce one. I began by calling the local mills but, without exception, they either laughed at me or explained that it was a dumb idea that would never sell. So I decided to draw on a lesson I learned during my cold-calling days: Face-to-face makes a huge difference. I took a week off work and drove around North Carolina popping by many of the same mills that had already rejected me via phone. I would literally sit in their lobby and wait to speak to either the founder or owner. I usually got about five minutes to make my pitch but, once again, no one was interested.
About two to three weeks after this unfruitful trip, a mill owner in Charlotte called and said, “Sara, I’ve decided to help make your crazy idea.” When I asked him why he had the change of heart, he replied, “I have three daughters.” I think he was both won over by my passion and had developed a soft spot in his heart from imagining his daughters in my shoes one day.
My own father also played an important role in my success. When my brother and I were growing up, he would encourage us to fail. We’d sit around the dinner table and he’d ask, “What did you guys fail at this week?” If we had nothing to tell him, he’d be disappointed. My father wanted us to try everything and feel free to push the envelope.
I believe that defeat is life’s way of nudging you and letting you know you’re off course. There’s always some sort of hidden opportunity or lesson in each episode—a chance to build your character. Spanx wouldn’t exist if I had aced the LSAT.
From cold calling, I learned that you have about fifteen seconds to capture someone’s attention—but if you can make them smile or laugh, you get an extra fifteen to thirty. When I invented Spanx, I didn’t have the money to grab people’s attention the conventional way: through advertising. I needed to somehow inspire people to want to talk about pantyhose, one of the world’s most boring topics. By infusing humor wherever I could (from naming it Spanx to writing “We’ve got your butt covered!” on the package), I ended up turning my product into something people love to joke about, and it has been referenced everywhere from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to “Sex and the City.”
I can’t tell you how many women come up to me and say something like “I’ve been cutting the feet out of my pantyhose for years. Why didn’t I end up being the Spanx girl?” The reason is that a good idea is just a starting point. Everybody has them all day long; everybody has a multimillion-dollar idea inside. Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” The same holds true for innovation, invention, and entrepreneurialism. The combination of not being fazed by the word “no,” tinkering with comedy, visualizing the product, and not being afraid of failure was critical for the success of Spanx. I was prepared to perspire for this opportunity.