Founders: Sara Blakely
Age of founders at start: 29
Background: fax saleswoman, standup comedian
Founded in: 2000
Business type: women’s undergarments
Countries now trading in: 35
Current sales: $350M+ (2008)
In 1998, Sara Blakely was a 27-year-old, bubbly blonde aspiring stand-up comic whose day job was selling fax machines. Then one day, she didn’t like how she looked in a pair of white pants.
Her handcrafted solution would revolutionize the stodgy women’s shapewear category, which hadn’t changed much since Playtex introduced its first rubber girdle in 1940. Blakely’s comfortable support undergarments were designed for real women’s figures and marketed with a sassy attitude previously unheard of in women’s lingerie. Launching her product in the strangely male-dominated women’s underwear category would take two years and require scores of prototypes, a brazen shared bathroom visit, and a little help from a red backpack.
Flunking and faxes
Sara Blakely would later chalk it all up to failing the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The Florida State University graduate had always wanted to be a lawyer like her father, so after she flunked, Blakely was at loose ends for a while… until she got an idea of her own.
Do these pants make my butt look fat?
The trouble began with an expensive pair of chic, cream-colored pants Blakely bought in 1998. They sat in her closet, seldom worn, mocking her. Why? She felt her rear end looked a bit lumpy when she wore them. She had a nice pair of open-toed shoes they would work with, but hesitated to wear the outfit. She realized she probably needed some kind of support undergarment to give the pants a smooth line, but she didn’t really know what. Blakely was in her late twenties and certainly not about to wear a girdle.
“Traditional shapers were too thick and left lines and bulges, and underwear leaves a pantyline,” she says. “And thongs, I’ll never get – they put the underwear exactly where we have always been trying to get it out of.”
In a moment of inspiration, Blakely took out a pair of shears and cut the feet off a pair of her support pantyhose. Voila! Her pants looked great, and she still had the naked-foot look she wanted for the shoes. She went to a party in Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead neighborhood that night, feeling that she looked fabulous. There was one problem, though – the cut-off bottoms of the pantyhose kept rolling up her legs all night. Blakely thought if she could find a way to keep the legs from rolling up, she’d have a great product.
Little did she know it would be a two-year sojourn from that moment of insight to getting a finished, packaged product ready for sale.