Google “Sara Blakely SPANX success” and you’ll find a treasure trove of valuable advice.
“Find your why.”
“Don’t be afraid of failure.”
“Persistence is key.”
This is all great advice for entrepreneurs. But is it the actionable knowledge you need right now to build the direct-to-consumer brand of your dreams?
If you’re looking for practical advice on how to build a winning DTC brand, you’re in the right place.
The SPANX success story you may know and love didn’t unfold in a day. The brand was built over a long time, step by step, good decision after good decision.
When she launched SPANX, Sara Blakely didn’t have entrepreneurial experience or tens of thousands of dollars in the bank. Call it intuition, innate skill, or a little bit of both, the SPANX brand is the sum of many parts––not an overnight success.
Keep reading to find out more about the SPANX success blueprint, and how you can apply Sara Blakely’s practices to your own DTC brand at any stage of its development.
In a nutshell: The SPANX success story
It’s an entrepreneurial story for the ages: Sara Blakely started SPANX with $5,000 of her own savings after she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose because she didn’t like how the seam looked in her open-toed shoes.
Sara Blakely still owns 100% of her company with no current plans for an IPO.
Here are some of SPANX’s most important milestones:
1998: Sara Blakely cuts into some control top pantyhose and the idea for SPANX takes hold.
2000: Neiman Marcus places SPANX’s first large order.
2000: Oprah names SPANX one of her Favorite Things.
2001: SPANX is featured on the QVC home shopping network.
2012: Sara Blakely appears on the cover of Forbes as the youngest female self-made billionaire.
2012: SPANX opens its first standalone store in Virginia.
Key takeaways from the SPANX timeline:
For years, SPANX relied almost exclusively on celebrity word of mouth and PR for brand awareness. SPANX is a $400 million brand built on influencer marketing.
Of course, influencer marketing isn’t the only reason for SPANX’s ascent. Here are six ingredients for entrepreneurial success as recommended by Sara Blakely in her Self-made Entrepreneurship MasterClass.
Success Ingredient #1: Differentiate your product from the start.
SPANX didn’t create a new category. Control top pantyhose had existed for years, and the market was arguably saturated by the time Sara Blakely stumbled upon her big idea.
How SPANX won was through differentiation. Sara saw an existing product in a new way because of a real problem.
Differentiation + Solve a real problem = Solid business foundation
What you can do to differentiate a product:
Success Ingredient #2: Choose a memorable name.
Sara names her ideas early in development. “It gives them energy,” she says.
If you don’t have a ton of money for marketing, a great name is the hook you need to get people talking about your product.
Jeff Johnson, founder of Nike, found that the best brand names had at maximum two syllables and at least one “exotic” letter, like x or k. Like Kleenex or Post-its, his goal was to generate a brand name that could transcend the product and become part of everyday vernacular.
What Sara recommends when naming your product:
Success Ingredient #3: Master the product demo––show, don’t tell.
Sara Blakely is a notoriously gifted salesperson. Before Sara Blakely started SPANX, she was selling fax machines for a Xerox competitor. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a professional salesperson to be great at sales.
To get better at sales, focus on one thing: show, don’t tell.
When Sara landed a pitch meeting with Neiman Marcus, she was speaking with a buyer who happened to be a woman. So she stopped herself in the middle of her presentation and asked the buyer to accompany her to the bathroom so she could … run an actual demo of her product.
Sara wore white pants to the meeting and showed the buyer a before and after––with pantylines and without while wearing SPANX. The woman was so shocked by the results that she decided to stock SPANX on the spot.
DTC brands don’t need to rely on product descriptions and copy-laden sell sheets to show how their products solve a problem or create a delightful experience.
How to show your product’s value:
Success Ingredient #4: Leverage influencers for PR.
Sara Blakely mastered influencer marketing before the existence of social media.
She knew that if she could get Oprah talking about her product, people would pay attention.
Back then that was called PR. Now it’s called influencer marketing.
More on influencer marketing in 2020
How you can take action on influencer marketing:
Success Ingredient #5: Perfect the prototype.
SPANX took two years to go from idea to market. Sara Blakely could have rushed the process, but she didn’t. She became obsessed with the quality of her prototype, and this obsession set the foundation for high standards at SPANX.
Sara Blakely describes prototyping as a two-pronged process:
Here’s how you know your prototype is ready for market:
Success Ingredient #6: Become obsessed with customer research.
Customer research is difficult when you don’t have any customers. If you’re a new DTC brand trying to get off the ground with a prototype, it’s 100% okay to recruit friends and family to act as a makeshift focus group to try your product.
But you may have to push to get real feedback. When SPANX was in its infancy, Sara Blakely struggled to solicit real, constructive feedback that would help her iterate on her prototype. So she developed two sets of questions to encourage the kind of feedback she needed.
Question set 1: Broad feedback
Question set 2: Deep feedback
When you do launch and gain customers, never become complacent. Always have processes in place to solicit customer feedback, no matter how large your brand becomes.
Sara Blakely may not have seen overnight success with SPANX, but she did persist, and she did fail, and she did learn. And if you’re a new DTC brand, you’re already a hero in our eyes. Happy building!
Michelle Phan, the first makeup influencer on YouTube, is now a full-time CEO for one of the most distinguished makeup brands of our era. In a nutshell: The EM Cosmetics story
Emily Weiss’ foundational philosophy remains true for Glossier: every woman is an influencer. Glossier’s commitment to brand ambassadors, user-generated content, and community development create the environment for what is now one of the largest and fastest growing makeup brands of 2020.