Read for 9 min
This story appears in the
Entrepreneurs. Subscribe to "
Maybe your article should be titled “What to do when your panties are on fire? haha "
Spanx founder Sara Blakely emailed me after we talked. It was March. The pandemic had just started.
Blakely is famous for a few things: she is a rare billionaire, the defining figure in the estimated global shapewear category of $ 1.8 billion, and almost every photo of her shows a stunning smile that is bright enough to to reach the nosebleed area.
But she fell on this happy face more than once.
“I think that a lot of really important, incredible innovations come from dark times,” she tells me. Spanx turns 20 this year and survives 9/11, the 2008 recession and the personal tragedy – and she doesn't expect anything else now, even though she closes her stores, watches the decline in sales, and loses a number of new products when a cargo ship catches fire catches. When we speak, she works from home, pokes four children under the age of 11 before attacking her, and bravely reinvents herself and her company.
Related: Spanx founder Sara Blakely has 99 pages of business ideas
"Actually," she admits, "I'm hiding in a closet." Here's what she learned about crisis management:
Crisis: childhood trauma
Strategy: train your mind
“When I was 16,” says Blakely, “my friend was hit and killed by a car in front of me, and my parents separated. I was in a very, very dark place. "Before her father left home, he gave her a series of tapes titled" How to be an unlimited person "by self-help author Wayne Dyer. "I put the tapes in," she says, "and they changed my life forever." She practiced letting go of what other people thought and not worrying about being embarrassed; She accepted the idea that the only way to fail was not to try. She learned that times of despair contained hidden blessings. And that, she believes, has prepared her for success.
First she got a job selling fax machines. It was brutal to get kicked out of the office all day every day. "I knew it wasn't the right way to go," she says. “After a really bad day, I wrote in my diary: 'I'm going to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people so that they feel good. & # 39; I looked at the ceiling in tears and said: & # 39; OK, universe; give me the idea. "The universe didn't deliver quickly. Two years passed, and her father suggested that she get a job at CNN or Coca-Cola in Atlanta, where she lived. She said no." I actually deliberately decided on a dark one Staying there because I felt that if I was happy with a job it would prevent me from doing something much bigger. "
Finally she came up with a brilliant new idea. It was Spanx.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Spanx
Crisis: effects of September 11th
Strategy: stick to your strength
Blakely launched Spanx from her apartment in October 2000, and his footless, body-shaped tights quickly caught the interest of Bloomingdale, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom. But she knew that was not enough. Consumers and sellers may not understand the new product. So she set off and ran promotions in chic department stores seven hours a day.
Relatives: 3 survival characteristics for each leader
"I photographed my own butt in white pants with and without a product, went to Kinko, laminated it and stood there and showed women what it could do," she says.
This gained her traction – but her enthusiasm would soon be put to the test. Blakely made a big decision to invest in an advertising insert to be sent out by Saks. And it arrived in mailboxes exactly five days after the September 11 attacks when nobody wanted to think about shopping.
She wondered if she should end her daily performances. There weren't many customers in stores this fall. But she did it anyway – and stayed with it, even after her best friend and roommate died in a riding accident a few months later. She was emotionally drained and felt that it would pay off.
First there was the insight. Spanx was sold in the hosiery department – and because she was actually in the shops, she saw that almost nobody went through there. So Blakely was employed. She stuffed envelopes with Spanx and put them in the shops at cash registers. “It also became clear to me that I had to win over the sales staff,” she says. "So I walked around before my performance and asked everyone individually if they would come to a morning meeting and offered them a free product." Then she would lure her in competitions like everyone who sold the most Spanx that day would get $ 100.
"I ended up building a sales team that wasn't on my payroll," she says. “Business partners would grab their customers and say: 'I have to take you to the hosiery department. You have to buy this new thing. “It was a really intense time of attachment because everyone was hurt and vulnerable and I made very deep connections, even to the women in the gift packaging department. It was an incredible upswing for the business because when people went back to the shops all these sellers sold for me and took root for me. "
Photo credits: Courtesy of Spanx
Crisis: the 2008 recession
Strategy: choose profitability instead of growth
Many of Spanx's competitors follow a Silicon Valley-style game book: they collect a lot of money and then spend it aggressively to attract new customers. Spanx did the opposite. While the company was still starting, Blakely managed it with the firm grip of his new Power Panties. "We spent what we could to grow," she says. "But we never used growth to increase profitability and run the business in a way that we felt we could weather storms." This strategy kept Spanx stable during the 2008 recession.
To date, Blakely has never taken any outside money, owns 100 percent of the company, has no debt, and does all PR and marketing internally. "One thing Spanx has supported through many obstacles is that we have a zero-based one internally Have a budget plan, "she says. “Every manager starts from scratch every year and has to explain how the money he asks for pays off. It doesn't matter what the budget for last year was – you have to start over and build it up. "
Although Spanx doesn't release sales figures, Blakely says it's been profitable since its first month of business.
Related: 4 simple techniques for successfully branding your business in a crisis
Crisis: Mission drift at Spanx
Strategy: Check your internal culture
In 2002, two years after Spanx was founded, Blakely hired a CEO to run the business so that she could travel as the face of the brand. It worked for a long time – but until 2016 she felt that the company had got off the rail. So she took over the management again and looked for changes.
First, she tried on every product that was produced and was in the pipeline and threw away about 80 percent of it. "I thought let's dive deep and focus only on the best of the best," she says.
Then she addressed the culture that had deviated from the mission. "I wrote down the things that contributed to my ability to overcome opportunities and take risks," says Blakely. The list is not exactly from a business school textbook. It included her stations in sales, public speaking, debates and stand-up comedy. As soon as she had it in hand, she founded the Be Bold Bootcamp. Now every employee, regardless of their work, receives coaching in these subjects. The goal is to help people think outside the box and quickly recognize the upward trend in downturns. "We're going to rent a comedy club, and everyone is on stage and working to make things fun," she says. "We also had debates at Emory (University). The debate is about listening, showing compassion, and seeing the other person's point of view. It's not about" I win; They are losing. "An attempt is being made to find this win-win scenario."
The restart didn't just prevent disaster. it led to innovation. Spanx had defined shapewear, but had to be more now. So it aggressively pushed its new faux leather leggings. “It was a crucial moment because we really have become a clothing company,” says Blakely.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Spanx
Crisis: Right now
Strategy: stay agile and optimistic
After a career in difficult times, Blakely strives to inspire a new generation to do the same. The most important thing for her is to develop a strong personal attitude: "As an entrepreneur, this is your greatest asset and you should work on it every day," she says. "I do." One thing she has done is partnering with 3DE, a nonprofit national education organization, on a module for students that teaches them to think and recognize opportunities. It is currently in 13 public schools and is growing.
See also: 9 inspiring quotes from the homemade billionaire and Spanx founder Sara Blakely
Now, given COVID-19, she has relied on the same mindset. Since March, Blakely has cut costs, cut back on inventory orders, developed new products, and donated $ 5 million to help other founders. With all of her past crises, she was prepared for this moment and continues to prepare for what lies ahead. "I'm in survival mode, but I think that will change," she says. "We are already learning as a company and I have no doubt that I will get amazing inspiration."