The Billionaire Who Kept Her Business Idea a Secret
Sara Blakely sold fax machines door-to-door as she quietly built her “footless pantyhose” prototype on the side.
Whenever she had a spare moment, she was dreaming up the design, begging garment builders to build it, and researching trademarks and patents at bookstores.
After she fought her way to getting her product on the shelves, she would spend any free time she had going into Neiman Marcus stores and moving her product display to the register, front-and-center, where more women could discover it.
But before she made it big, for two whole years, she did not share her business idea, even with her friends and family.
When I first heard her share this on How I Built This with Guy Raz (an incredible podcast, by the way), I was shocked. This went against most of the advice I’ve heard about building a business.
What’s the first piece of advice that many business books give? Get as much early feedback on your product as possible. If not, you are at risk of wasting energy building something that nobody else actually wants.
This makes sense for many to do, as it can be a great way to catch unconscious assumptions you are making for your product. When you are creating it, you may be too close to it yourself to make decisions around it that are based in reality.
But Sara Blakely decided that once her MVP product was built, the market would decide for itself.
“I didn’t want to share the idea just for validation, because I wanted to make sure that I spent any time I had pursuing it instead of defending it and explaining it.” -Sara Blakely
The Founder and CEO of Spanx wasn’t necessarily worried about someone stealing her idea, or being first to market.
She wanted to keep herself motivated and not be distracted by negative feedback that could stop the project from even being attempted in the first place.
Before her patent was completed, the only people she told were people in the undergarment industry and patent lawyers.
“Ideas are fragile in their infancy,” Blakely said. “A lot of million-dollar ideas are squashed because people want to tell you all their concerns.”
This state of mind got her MVP out into the world to validate that it was indeed a solution to an age-old problem that women had. There were soon iterations made to the prototype one-size-fits-all waistbands, and she also started talking more to the women who were wearing her products more than the men who were making it.
Today, Spanx has over $400 million in yearly sales, and Sara Blakely became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2012 at age 41. The company has never taken on outside investors nor done traditional advertising campaigns.
“Real change only happens when you do something differently from everybody else.” -Sara Blakely
Would the result had been different had she shared the idea with others early on? What about for your own business idea?
Here is the How I Built This episode link, where Founder and CEO Sara Blakely discusses the incredible story of how she built her business with $5,000.