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  • Russ Shumaker

6 Startup Lessons from Spanx

​I firmly believe that everyone has a great idea for a product or service that would make life better for the rest of us. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if you had two or three ideas right now that would somehow ease frustration, solve a problem, or streamline a complicated process. I’m also convinced that most people have an inner voice that whispers fear and doubt and keeps them from acting on their ideas. Today I want to highlight someone who ignored the voice of negativity and took action, becoming incredibly successful along the way.


When Sara Blakely first got the idea for seamless panties, she wasn’t the billionaire fashion guru that she is today. She was a door-to-door salesman selling fax machines, and she was irritated by the way her panties showed through her business suits. So what did she do? It wasn't complicated. She snipped the legs off some pantyhose and created a working prototype. When her prototype worked and she realized there was nothing like it on the market, she bought a “how-to” book at Barns & Noble and wrote her own patent application.


From there, it took persistence, hard work, and more than a little luck to build Spanx into a billion dollar company. But in my experience, most people never get to the critical first step of building a prototype.


So what would it take to create a prototype of one of your ideas? It might be as easy as cutting the legs off of a pair of pantyhose. But if you need more help, here are some practical takeaways from the Sara Blakely/Spanx story to give you guidance:


1) Pay attention to your "felt needs." If you experience frustration, chances are others do too, so find a solution that works and try to sell it. This is the core of entrepreneurship. Sara's problem? Visible panty lines. Her solution? Using thinner material.


2) Always be ready with an elevator pitch. When you have an idea or product, you need to develop a 60 second pitch clearly explaining the problem, the solution, and why your product is different than anything else on the market. You never know when you'll have a chance to pitch to potential backers.


3) If you get permission to give a pitch in person, do whatever it takes to make it happen. When Sara was finally given the chance to pitch to Neiman Marcus, she knew she wouldn’t get a second chance so she dropped everything, got on a plane and flew to Dallas


4) If you have a good pitch, but people aren't receiving it, figure out why. In Sara's case, it was a gender barrier. Men just don't have experience wearing panties, so when she pitched to men, they couldn't see the problem. When she finally pitched to a female buyer at Neiman Marcus, she had to take her into the women's restroom and show her how the product actually works to convince her to place the products.


5) Don't give up. Others may not give you the time of day, but if you know that your product is valuable and that there is demand for it, persevere. We all love overnight success stories, but most of the time what looks like a catapult to fortune and fame from the outside took years of hard work behind the scenes.


6) Just because you got your product into a store, doesn't mean you can relax. There's a lot of legwork necessary to make sure it sells and stays in the store. Sara got Spanx into department stores pretty fast, but they weren't selling because their placement was not intuitive for her customer base. She made it her full time job to stand in the department store telling people about her product, and even went so far as to move the display to a more prominent location without asking management's permission.


​Do you have an entrepreneurial success story, or a question about how you can get started on your own path to success? Leave a comment, or click the contact button and get in touch. And be sure to share on Facebook and twitter!

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