The woman behind the billion dollar undies

For a rich-list watcher, the release of the Forbes billionaire list is a great time. These 1226 entrepreneurs are the cream of the crop and whether you a starting up or on the way to joining a list like this, studying the trends and inspirational stories is essential.

I’ve only started reading the list, but I have already been drawn to the incredible story of American entrepreneur Sara Blakely, who is the founder of women’s underwear group Spanx.

At the age of 41, she is the youngest self-made woman on the list (that is, she didn’t inherit her fortune) and the cover story on her rise is simply unbelievable .

Here’s a taste of the intro:

“Sara Blakely stands topless at a conference room table. It’s Monday morning at the Spanx headquarters in Atlanta, and the founder of the hosiery company has been in a product development meeting for all of five ­minutes before walking out abruptly. She returns a minute later in nothing but a lacy taupe bra with black pants and beige wedges and adjusts herself in a full-length mirror, worrying aloud about the metal clasps on this early prototype. Will they create lumps under her clothes? Her CEO, Laurie Ann Goldman – petite and glamorous in a leopard print shift dress – tugs on Blakely’s straps.”

This is clearly a very different company and Blakely is a very different entrepreneur.

After stints working at Disney World and in stationary sales, she was working as a photocopier salesperson when she decided to risk all her savings – $5,000 – developing her “shapewear” products.

She wrote the patent for her original product – basically stockings with the feet cut out – using a do-it-yourself book and managed to get department store Nieman Marcus to stock the goods.

Without money for marketing, she became her own brand ambassador. The before and after photo on the original Spanx signage was a picture of Blakely’s bum, modelling her product. She hosted spots on television shopping channels, turned up at sales staff meetings in the department stores to demonstrate the product and sneakily went into stores to improve the way her products were displayed.

“I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist,” she told Forbes.

One of Blakely’s biggest coups came when Oprah Winfrey named Spanx as her product of the year in 2000. Winfrey’s producers warned Blakely to prepare her website for a sales onslaught. The only problem was that Blakely didn’t have a website.

She quickly scanned the flier the company had and whacked up an $18 website that allowed her to build sales to $US4 million in the first year and $10 million the next.

Today sales are $250 million. Forbes says the company has net profits of around $50 million (margins are strong because Spanx does not have to discount much) and a total valuation of $1 billion. It’s incredibly impressive for a company just 12 years old.

The company, based in the US city of Atlanta, employs 125 people (just 16 are male) and still proudly uses its original slogan ‘Changing the world one butt at a time’.

Blakely has big growth plans, including a move into stand-alone stores. You’d have to think being on the cover of Forbes’ billionaire list will help her global ambitions.

American entrepreneurs seem to embrace being rich more easily than those from other parts of the world, but Blakely’s attitude to money is refreshing.

“I feel like money makes you more of who you already are,” she told Forbes.

“If you’re an asshole, you become a bigger asshole. If you’re nice, you become nicer.

“Money is fun to make, fun to spend and fun to give away.”

Not a bad way to see the world, I reckon.

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