tv Small Business Summit - Spanx Founder Sara Blakely CSPAN February 26, 2018 5:51pm-6:27pm EST
so i want to tell you, i admire this group enormously. when i met the class on september 22nd, eight years ago, i was thrilled and i admire people that are doing what you have done. working hard at your job at the same time you took on an added really lot of hard work to further your skills, 99% graduate. that's a mind-blowing statistic. [ applause ] i'm looking at 2200 people here who i admire, i'm cheering for you and i can tell you, the best is yet to come. thank you. [ applause ]
>> hi, everybody. wow. >> got to feel like a model for a moment. >> there you go. >> pretty cool. hi, everybody. >> hello. sara needs no introduction, but i'll introduce her. sara is a legend in the entrepreneurial world, founder of spanx. not only is she making many people in this room and around the world look a lot better in their clothes, she's also been incredibly generous with her foundation. we will touch on a number of these topics in our chat.
thank you so much for being here. >> thank you for having me. >> all right. so let's start at the beginning. >> okay. >> so you were frustrated consumer. >> i was. >> and you decided to try to solve a problem. what was the problem you were trying to solve? >> well, i couldn't figure out what to wear under white pants. and i was a frustrated consumer. undergarment options at the time were not great, right. we had underwear that left a panty line. girdles that were thick and uncomfortable. then they invented the thong which put underwear exactly where we were trying to get it out of. [ laughter ] so i was like, yeah, no. and, listen, at the time that i invented spanx, and for the guys in the audience and some of the ladies who don't know what spanx is, i invented an undergarment that filled the gap between traditional underwear and those
heavy duty shapers. and i was interested in giving women a smooth canvas. i love clothes and i love to be able to wear them but just like a painter, if you don't have the right canvas it affects the whole painting. and options weren't great. they could be seen. they left lines. they left bulges, so that's what caused me to invent the first product which was the first ever spanx, the footless pantyhose. i broke into an industry that had been on a double digit decline. they were making hosiery to be seen on the leg. and all i did was make one very small minor tweak to a product that had been being made for a long time, and i was able to revitalize the industry and have, you know, the fabric be what was special about what i made instead of saying, let's see it on the leg. there was a very strange concept for all of the men, especially in the manufacturing plants, because they were like wait,
it's meant to be seen on the leg, we have been making it the same way for so long. i said i just want your material. i'm going to invent a whole new type of product, an undergarment that's made out of it. it doesn't need to be seen on the leg. >> so you started with $5,000. >> yes. >> and an idea. >> an idea. >> and you went down to south carolina to talk to these enlightened men in the manufacturing plants. how did that go? >> it was interesting. you know, when i first thought of the idea -- well, let me back up for one second. i actually really manifested the idea. so it's like everyone is always how did you take an idea and then start a business? well, it's how did you come up with the idea? i was in search of my idea. and at the time my life was not great. i was selling fax machines door to door. i was living with my mom. i was like 25 years old. and i remember after a whole entire day of being kicked out of office complexes again all day, or sometimes my business card ripped up in my face, i pulled off the side of the road
one day, kathy, and i was like i'm in the wrong movie. what just happened. call the director. call the producer. this is not my life, this is not my movie. i went home that night and wrote down my strengths or what i thought i was good at. and the only thing in the good column really was sales. and i thought, okay, well, i know i'm good at selling. what is it i like about selling? and i realized i like offering something to someone that they need or didn't know that they needed that can improve their life or help them. and so in that moment i wrote down in my journal i want to invent a product that i can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good. [ applause ] and you know what, and two years later the idea came to me. and i was ready for it. people, women had been cutting feet out of panty hose for a long time. and i only did it one time, but i had already asked the universe for my idea. and i said when it comes, i'll not squander it. and i'll take it and run with
it. but then when i ended up, i didn't know where to go. i had never taken a business class. i had never worked in fashion or retail. i had no industry contacts. i went on the internet and started looking up hosiery manufacturers and they were in north carolina. and i called them on the phone relentle relentlessly and didn't get anywhere. so eventually i took a week off of work and drove in person. it was an eye-opening experience for me. for them too, they didn't know what to think of me. i had my lucky red backpack with me, and i would show up unannounced at manufacturing plants and they would always ask me the same three questions. they asked and you are? i would say sara blakely. and they would say and you're with? >> i would say sara blakely. and financially backed by? sara blakely. so nice to meet you. good luck, girl. so that's how it all started
beating on doors and trying to get someone to help make the idea. >> one of the really important things for everyone in this room is the business aspect, the paperwork aspect. and for you, you were creating something that was new and differentiated, needed patents. >> yes. >> trademarks, brand name. talk about how did you, as someone selling fax machines with $5,000 and an idea start to think about patents and designing and developing this product? >> well, i just knew that i wanted to protect it. and so i went and met with several patent attorneys. and at the time i called the georgia chamber of commerce, there wasn't a single female patent attorney in the state of georgia. so i went and met with three different lawyers and they all quoted me between $5,000 and $10,000 to write my patent. and i had $5,000 so i went to barnes & noble and bought a book on patents and trademarks and i
wrote my own patent. [ applause ] but i didn't know how to write the claims portion which is the really legal part of it. so i ended up going back to one of the lawyers and just begging him to do it over the weekend. i'm like i've done everything, the abstract, the background, the drawing of what it is. and he agreed to do it. but, you know, he later, you know what he later told me, sara i thought you had been sent to my office by candid camera. [ laughter ] i was like what do you mean? he goes well, don't take this the wrong way but you weren't the typical person who walked in my door. you had a red backpack and whipped out hosiery and started telling me how you were going to change the world. i thought my friends were pranking me. and during the meeting he was looking around the room and now i was know he was looking for the camera. he said i'll help you write the claims and i did it. so i offered so much off in
tuition. and i did it with as little money as i could because i didn't have much. and then wanting to make the packaging stand out, wanting to name it something memorable, all of that. >> you touched on this in the beginning but i really want to highlight it because it's something we talked about, really differentiated and probably important for a lot of the install businesmall busines. you and i have talked about the difference between the what and the why. >> yes. >> help people understand your philosophy around that. >> yeah, i like to say it's really important to stay connected to the why. why are you doing what you are doing? and that's a question i ask myself all of the time. and so many times companies focus so much on the what. what we are doing, what we are selling. but why. people are really deeply connected to the why. and spanx is a company, 17 years old, we never advertised until a year and a half ago for the first time, so this is a brand
built on word of mouth. and i led with the story of spanx always. the why. why am i doing it. why does this matter? yeah. >> very differentiated. and you also touched on the importance of the brand. so the brand, the name is somewhat cheeky and different. tell us about how you developed the name spanx. >> well, the name spanx came to me after about a year of really bad names. and i would think of them all the time. like in airports i would write them on rental car agreements and scrap pieces of paper in my purse, gum wrappers, maybe that's it. and i narrowed down my thinking. i knew kodak and coca cola were the two most recognized names in the wrong. i thought what did they have in common? they both had a strong k sound in them. and i said for good luck, i wanted a k sound in it. and literally spanx came to me when i was sitting in traffic in
atlanta, where i live. and i saw it come over the dashboard in my mind and i pulled over and wrote it down. and when i was trademarking it that night on my computer, i went to my website which i'm sure you all know very well usp uspto.gov, like my home away from home, typed in spanks, and then i hit x and trademarked it. but can i tell you how bad my runner-up was? open toe delilah. that is so bad. >> rolls off the tongue. >> so bad. can you imagine? i don't think i'd be sitting here with you if i named the company open toed delilah. spanx is all about right here. makes your butt look better and nobody ever forgot it. my space that i broke into, super boring. nobody talked about undergarments. >> on the red carpet, no less.
>> definitely not on the red carpet. by naming it something fun, i'm a big believer in having fun and being able to laugh at yourself. then radio deejays were like we want the girl who invented spanx. so i brought life to a category that was super boring. >> without a doubt. you continued to develop from footless pantyhose to a whole host of products. >> yes. >> that's something that often small businesses as they're developing and growing, how do you keep the authenticity while you bring creativity and extension into other products and start to build out your team? that must have been a pretty big journey for you. >> you stay connected to the why. so innovation at spanx and in product development we do briefs on the products and the product ideas come from different people in the company, they often come from me, but there will be a collaboration. sometimes it will be an employee's husband that has an idea. it's very collective. but in the brief it's always why. so they have to say the why. why are we doing this?
and why are we better? and that helps keep the product very connected and authentic. i say be as close to your consumer as you can. i obsess the consumer. i'm lucky that i am the consumer, i am my own consumer, so i stay very close to that. and spanx has always been, we didn't advertise, so we were just word of mouth. you know, i got a chance, in the early days, i landed nieman marcus was my first account. and i also then sold on qvc. and everybody told me in the first six months they said you'll be out of business in like three months. nobody sells at nieman marcus and also on qvc. i just trusted my gut, i thought if it's me and i'm able to tell my story, then let's see what happens. and it's worked out beautifully. it was my chance to explain the why. >> and when you explained the why to the nieman marcus folks, how did you get them over the
line? >> well, i called for about a week and a half every day, multiple times a day, just kept getting voice mail, and i know from selling fax machines you don't leave a message. after a week and a half a human answered, i was like, hi, i'm sara blakely and i invented a product that will change the way your customers wear clothes and it will make a big difference for them. can i have ten minutes of your time. i'll fly to dallas. she said if you are willing to fly here i'll give you ten minutes. so i jumped on a plane and went there. literally five minutes into the pitch, this lady was so perfect, you have to imagine niemans, her pen matched her dress matched her shoes, you know. i come in, i had my lucky red backpack from college. my friends are like you cannot take that red backpack to nieman marcus headquarters, no. buy a prada bag, return it the next day, whatever you need to do.
but i'm like it's good luck, i need to do it. so i'm sitting in front of her, i have a ziploc bag with the prototype in a red backpack. i had been working on designing the package. i was losing her big-time. five minutes into it, all of a sudden i was like, you know what, will you come to the bathroom with me. she was like, excuse me? i was like, yeah, you need to come to the bathroom with me. i'm going to show you in person. so i went in the stall. i put on spanx under the white pants, i showed her with and without. and she calmly goes i get it. it's brilliant. and i'll try it in seven stores. i was like yes. [ applause ] >> so i've known sara for more than a decade and the perseverance and the courage is amazing and palpable. but there were bumps in the road. your dad is very important in
your life. he taught you a lot about failure and the way you think about failure. no doubt there were small failures along the way. help folks understand your philosophy around failure and what you learned. >> well, growing up, my dad used to encourage my brother and me to fail. so at the dinner table he would actually ask us what did you fail at this week? and if we didn't have something to tell him, he would actually be disappointed. and i can remember coming home from school, dad, dad, i tried out for this and i was horrible. and he would be like way to go and high-five me. and it was such a gift what he was doing. i didn't realize it at the time but he was redefining failure for me. so failure became not about the outcome but about not trying. and so, you know, the fear of failure as we all know as entrepreneurs is one of the greatest fears in life, one of the things that stops us in our tracks and keeps us from trying something. so i incorporate that in my philosophy at spanx.
we celebrate failures. we talk about them. we have oops meetings where i'll announce the oops that i have. and sometimes we have fun with it. we'll even attach theme songs to our oops. and we'll play them in front of the whole company. but i think it's so important to try to get the people you work with to take risks and to be entrepreneurial and not live in a place of i want to protect my job and feel like i'm not safe if i make mistakes. that's tough. one of the things i also do, i like to go up to people at spanx and i say i'm always trying to get people off auto pilot. if you think about it, almost everything we do in life is auto pilot. we are doing things exactly the way someone else showed us how to do it or taught us how to do it. if you are doing things exactly the way everyone else is, there's no -- there's not going to be any real significant change. there's not going to be a really meaningful potential breakthrough. so i always go up to people at spanx and say if nobody showed you how to do your job, how would you be doing it.
and i'll say just sit with that. i'm always -- like i'll stop myself often and just say, okay, you flow, this is how i've been you know, this is how i've been doing this, but is this right and give people time to think about it. so i ask the people to do that. but this is all about my dad teaching me failure. i wanted to be a lawyer growing up. >> earlier conversation danny meyer also thinking about it. i don't think he made it to the lsat. you did. >> well, you know, anybody can go in. yeah. so i wanted to be a lawyer. my dad was a lawyer. he used to get me out of school to watch closing arguments and something very important to me. i had been debating in high school and college. and i took the lsat to get into law school and basically failed it. i'm a really bad test taker. i took the course and failed it, basically. so i always say failure like
that is life's way of nudging you and letting you know you are off course. >> you scaled a business. one of the things that's really hard, i mean, you are a passionate entrepreneur who cares deeply about your successes and your brand. how did you build a team? and what happens when you bring someone in -- how would you describe the culture i guess one question, and when something didn't fit with that culture or someone, how did you deal with that? those are tough decisions. >> they are tough decisions. i mean, culture is really important. so i would describe spanx culture as entrepreneurial, fun, risk taking, innovative, we are very innovative. and, you know, everyone has heard it but you hire slow and you fire fast. and it's hard to do that. but if someone is not the right fit for your culture, it can really impact the entire greater whole of the team. >> and something else you said, i must admit having a chance to work with a lot of
entrepreneurs, you always say hire your weaknesses. >> i have. >> is that empowering for you? is that hard for you? >> i tell people as soon as you can afford to, hire your weaknesses. you know what you're good at. you know what you're not good at. you know what you like and don't like. usually there is a correlation. when we are entrepreneurs we are every department. when i started i was the packer and shipper, the before and after butt model, the head of sales. i was everything. and i was like, i do not like this or i am not good at this. so as soon as i could afford to, i hired the people that were much better at that than i was. and being an entrepreneur and you have the idea, you start it, you create something out of nothing, which is incredible. but you need people to grow it. and you have to be willing to delegate, you have to be willing to let go of the reins in certain areas for sure for it to
grow beyond just you. >> so speaking of that. as many people probably know, sara also has four children. >> i have four children under the age of eight. [ applause ] >> yes, crazy. >> and she still remains the incredible ceo she has always been. so i think of this as a gender neutral question by the way, but you as ceo founder and mother of four, how do you even begin to think about i'm not going to use the word balance because that's a silly concept but how do you begin to integrate all those pieces of your life? do you have a set schedule? what are the secret sauces to that? >> well, i'll tell you it's really hard. and that i'm a work in progress. i do not have the bucket figured out. there are some days that i cry. and there are some days that i'm like i got this. this is great. and i think that's what it's about, to expect that you're not
going to have those days of feeling completely overwhelmed or feel like you are not cutting it as a mother or not cutting it at work is normal. one bit of advice that i can give in this bucket, and like i said, i am not an expert here, i'm still trying to figure it out, is to stop the negative talk. do not beat yourself up. the first year and a half i was a mother, the amount of negative self-talk and beating myself up, you should be with your child, you should be at work. i had to make a conscious effort to stop that. and i started to see a real change for myself that i had to train that voice to go, you know, stop, not give it power. and, you know, i'm working on creating really memorable moments with my children. i drop them off at school every day. my husband picks them up. but i find that creating these special kind of memories is important. so we have paints, an example is i do pancakes every sunday. so we have pancake sunday.
and i do one thing with each of my children alone. and we have our special thing. like my oldest son, i pick him up sometimes at school and we go to a tree, and we have a set tree, and i pack sleeping bags in the back of the car, and we spread them out, and draw in a book and we have been drawing in the same book every time that we go to the special tree. so i'm trying to give them each really important memories as well. they come home from school, i have twins that are three, twin boys, and they have to write what do they like most about mommy and daddy. and my one son wrote i love that my mom gives me hugs. and as a mom, you can't help but say what about i take you to school every day and i get in the bathtub with you every day. and he's like -- >> you've also chosen to remain 100% in control and ownership of your company, which is pretty
unusual. [ applause ] >> conscious decision, why did you make it, have you considered along the way raising capital to grow the business? how did you work through those? >> well, when i first started spanx in the first six months i had multiple people come up to me and ask me what my exit strategy was. and i was like what are you talking about? i didn't even know that people started businesses just to exit them. like that was -- and finally after about six months i just said to some guy when he asked me i'm like you know what my exit strategy is? i want to exit a room and look good. that's my exit strategy. so i just, i'm someone who literally, i got lucky as an entrepreneur that it didn't cost me a lot, it did not take a lot
of capital to start my business. my prototypes were very inexpensive to make and the manufacturer was helping me make them for basically free. i don't think he thought the idea was going to go anywhere. he was taking pity on me. but so i have been able to be profitable from the very beginning and i also believe in starting small, thinking big and scaling fast. i never got ahead of myself. and i just have taken the profits from what i sold and used that to buy the next round of inventory. and that's what i have done from the very beginning. >> fantastic. you also in this new world order of ours are a big user of instagram. how do you think about your role as a mother, wife, friend, social entity and ceo and your views and how do you think about
being that public persona and also the ceo of a large billion dollar company? >> well, i was probably one of the last people on the planet to join instagram or any kind of social media. i just joined not long ago. and i love it. i'm having so much fun. i'm using it and i will continue to do it until it's not fun and i do all my own content. it's always spur of the moment. it's very real and i'm a believer in being very authentic. i'm able to see the good, the bad, the struggle, i'm putting out advice and tips. i'm showing it all but it's messy and real. i guess you could say not a lot of filters going on on my instagram channel. >> speaking of friendships, advice, being out there, sir richard branson, you got to know him, rebel billionaire, you guys have become friends. he will be here later today, for those of you who didn't know that. have you guys shared advice along the way as two incredibly not only successful
entrepreneurs but also public figures? >> well, i met richard branson in the most unlikely way. we became friends and the first day i ever met him, we scaled the side of a hot air balloon together at 10,000 feet in the air and had tea on top of the balloon. so that was, i tell people i'm like i feel like i basically had to risk my life to become his friend. but richard branson did a reality show called "the rebel billionaire" and it was his version of "the apprentice" but instead of all the business challenges taking place in just new york city, they took place around the world. and what i didn't know, a minor detail, was that instead -- if you didn't win the business challenge, instead of going to a boardroom and getting fired, you would have to do a world record breaking death defying stunt with richard. okay? have i mentioned i'm terrified of heights, i'm afraid to fly, i get very -- i'm not kidding.
yeah. so i have always been a fan of richard's. i read his book in college and when i found out he was doing a reality show, i thought this is cool, i'm an entrepreneur. i just never forget the contract was 27 pages and it basically said we can like submerge you under water, set you on fire, i e-mailed it to my dad, because my dad's a lawyer and said do you have any advice, can you make a few tweaks to this? all he wrote back was no sane person would sign this, love, dad. that's it. i signed it. and richard and i became great friends. i clung to the very end of that show. i was the last two contestants and i literally did challenges around the world. most of them business challenges but then crazy, crazy stuff that i had to do. and what i -- the advice richard isn't a huge advice dispenser. you just watch him and you learn.
what i love about him is he has a total bias for action. i love that about him. he's super passionate about the consumer. he likes advocating for the consumer. and wherever he thinks the consumer's being underserved, man, he's like that's where he goes. it's all heart. he's a great delegator. as crazy as those challenges were, he didn't ask us to do any single one of them he didn't do himself. >> in addition to being a great businesswoman, wife and mother, you also have started a foundation. >> um-hum. >> to give back. it's focused on empowering women and girls. >> yep. >> one of the projects -- [ applause ] and she will soon be running for office. no. but one of the projects you did was the belly art project. for those of you who don't know it, sara painted her pregnant
belly and got a lot of other people to, including someone very famous who is also here. >> yes. >> that is warren buffett. >> yes. >> how did you get warren buffett to participate in the belly art project? >> well, yes. so when i was pregnant, three days before i delivered my first son, i woke up in the middle of the night and saw my belly and was like this is amazing. like how is my body able to do this? i saw it as this big, beautiful canvas and i wanted to turn it into an object because i was like maybe my body may never be in this state again. so i wrote down on a piece of paper watermelon beach ball basketball mr. potato head. the next day i had a friend come over and paint my belly all those things. i ran around atlanta. when he painted the watermelon i went into a kroeger grocery store and put my belly on top of the watermelon display. you could not tell the difference. anyway. i did all of this for charity.
i ended up making a coffee table book about it to raise money for maternal health. i donated 100% of the proceeds to every mother counts. thank you. warren's the only guy in the book. what happened, i was lucky enough to be seated next to him at a lunch one day and he said sara, what are you up to? i'm sure he wasn't expecting this but i was like well, i showed him pictures on my iphone, i said i just did this photo shoot. he belly laughed for awhile and he said that's amazing, how do i get in the book? i said warren, you're not pregnant. he said you telling me you don't have enough to work with? i was like oh, okay, great, great. and i didn't know if he was serious or not so about a year later when i was closing out the book, i e-mailed him and just said not sure if you were serious, and he said count me in. >> there you go. >> yeah. amazing. >> the amazing, the talented --
>> sorry. one thing i have to tell everybody before we wrap up. i'm so happy to be here but there's two things i want to do for everybody here in the audience. i only do this when i give speeches so if you want to participate, that's great. the first thing is you just get out your phones and go to @sarablakely and follow. if you want to put in the comments goldman, i'm going to pick 30 people at random and send the cult following leggings that spanx makes, the faux leather leggings or the seamless -- i got a fan over here. guys, listen, valentine's day is tomorrow. so you know, you could get it for your girl or your girlfriend or my guy friends got spanx leggings for their girlfriend and wives for the holidays and they're like i spent all this money on jewelry and all she talked about was the leggings. then the second thing is, e-mail, all you have to do is
mail try me at spanx. you don't have to put anything in the subject. we are going to e-mail a code just specifically for you that will give you 50% off anything you want on spanx.com. and guys, we make spanx for guys but we also have a lot that your women would like. that's try me@spanx. it's just a one-time code that goes to you and you can use it until friday. it expires friday. and the last thing i will say is you have to spell spanx with an x or you will get a real treat. >> don't put in the wrong word. you will get a totally different website. the beautiful, the talented, the generous, sara blakely. >> thank you. thank you, kathy.
congress is opening the u.s. capitol to honor the reverend billy graham this week. reverend graham died last week at the age of 99. the memorial service with house speaker paul ryan and senate majority leader mitch mcconnell will be followed by reverend graham lying in honor in the capitol rotunda for the public to pay their respects. c-span will have live coverage wednesday morning starting at 11:00 a.m. eastern. >> tonight on c-span's landmark cases, we are look at the supreme court case mccullough v maryland, which solidified the federal government's ability to take actions not explicitly mentioned in the constitution, and restricted state action against the legitimate use of this power. explore this case and the high court's ruling with university of virginia associate law professor farrah peterson and mark killenbeck. watch landmark cases live tonight at 9:00 eastern on
c-span, c-span.org or listen with the free c-span radio app. for background on each case, order a copy of the landmark cases companion book. it's available for $8.95 plus shipping and handling at c-span.org/landmark cases. for an additional resource, there's a link on our website to the national constitution center's interactive constitution. >> wednesday morning, we are live in santa fe, new mexico for the next stop on the c-span bus 50 capitals tour. former new mexico governor bill richardson and new mexico house speaker brian egof will be our guests on the bus during "washington journal" starting at 9:15 eastern. >> the house armed services committee held a hearing in which defense secretary james mattis and joint chiefs of staff vice chair general paul silva testified on the pentagon's national defense strategy. secretary mattis was also asked about the