Sara Blakely went from selling fax machines door-to-door to the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire at age 41 when she turned $US5,000 of savings into a booming business: Spanx.
Her super-successful hosiery and apparel company, which she founded in 2000, started with one small, disruptive idea.
At a recent New York City Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship event, which celebrated young entrepreneurs from all over the world, Blakely shared her favourite exercise to stimulate innovative thinking:
“I stop what I’m doing, close my eyes, and ask myself, ‘if nobody showed me how to do my job, how would I be doing it?’ And then I see what surfaces,” she revealed. “We’re all on auto-pilot, and we’re doing things because somebody else showed us — or told us — how to do them.”
Blakely encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to employ this strategy, because creative ideas come when you think differently, not necessarily complexly. “I took an existing product that had been around for years and years and years — the pantyhose — and a pair of scissors from my kitchen, and cut the feet out of them,” Blakely told the audience. “That is all that I did. I saw something that an industry had been looking at in one way for a really long time in a different way.”
Ever since that fateful day when she made an incision in a pair of pantyhose, she’s continued to think creatively, especially when it came time to sell her product.
When trying to get Spanx into department stores, she called up the luxury fashion retailer Neiman Marcus, rather than taking the traditional route of setting up a booth at a trade show. “People were like ‘how in the world did you land them?!’ and I simply called them. I called the buyer over and over until she picked up the phone.”
And when Blakely successfully landed Neiman Marcus, to ensure they would keep her product in stores, she called everyone she knew — even elementary school classmates she hadn’t spoken to in years — asked them to buy a pair of Spanx, and mailed them a reimbursement check.
One of the reasons Blakely has been able to think differently and take an unconventional — yet rewarding — path is because she didn’t know any other way to do it. She used her inexperience and weaknesses to her advantage: “I’d never taken a business class, I’d never worked in fashion retail, I didn’t have a single contact in the industry, but what you don’t know can become your greatest asset if you let it. The great thing about not knowing how it’s supposed to be done is that it ensures you are going do it differently.”
She even chose to surround herself with an inexperienced team. “Spanx was built by people who had no formal experience, especially for the first several years.” This forced the Spanx team to continually ask questions, and “questions get to greatness,” she said.
As for what’s next, it could be reinventing crutches. Hobbling on stage with a broken leg, Blakely jokingly pleaded for someone in the audience to create a more comfortable option.
You never know: if you start thinking differently, the way Blakely does, you could end up with a million (or even billion) dollar idea.
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