6 Entrepreneurship lessons from billionaire Sara Blakely

I love hearing the backstory to how successful businesses are started from scratch and turned into uber-successful enterprises.  Sara Blakely is the founder and principal owner of Spanx, a company which changed the game in women’s hosiery, and made her a billionaire in the process.

Sara’s taken her show on the road and now speaks at multiple events regarding her struggle to build the company. After listening to her story here are five key takeaways I got from her story that all us aspiring entrepreneurs should keep in mind as we’re building our own billion-dollar baby. Watch the video at the bottom of this post:

  1. Build half a product, not a half-assed product. Blakely’s original product is essentially a footless pantyhose. It’s a stripped-down version of an existing product, she just made it fit extremely well without rolling up.  It’s simpler to make a great product when you simplify. Cut back on features, not on quality.
  2. No need to quit your day job just yet.  She designed, found manufacturers, and shipped her products after coming home from her 9-to-5 job every day.  She made sure to test the viability of her business first before she made any rash decisions and bet the whole farm.  Nothing wrong with taking risks, but if you’re more risk averse you can still become an entrepreneur.
  3. Don’t underestimate charisma and the power of your story.  It’s obvious by Sara’s presentation that she is a polished salesperson and knows how to charm people.  I’m sure she put all of her communication skills to good use when she was just starting out, even her looks.  It’s easier to sell when you’re well-liked and can put a smile on people’s faces.
  4. Enter a market by being different.  She points out in the video that she made her product’s packaging startling on purpose.  Until that point all hosiery items came in dull peachy colors. She made her packaging bright so prospective customers would understand that this isn’t your average pantyhose.
  5. Breaking some rules is part of the job.  One of the interesting anecdotes in her talk is how she would show up to department stores and move her Spanx shelf from the crowded hosiery aisle to the front of the store, right by the registers where prime selling space is.  The store employees would approach her and she would lie to them and say she was sent under direct orders from the store managers.
  6. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be great.  Sara was not a trained product designer, she had never owned her own business, she didn’t even have office space.  The first steps of building a business is a great product idea and the will to make it happen.  You don’t need to look to others to validate that you are an entrepreneur.  Sara did all of this without any outside investment, no one backing her up.

Check out the video below to see Blakely tell her story.  Continue Reading

Work and Rewards

Most of the time, the effort and the rewards don’t come at the same time. Well, the critical rewards at least.

As Steven Pressfield teaches us, the REAL reward of our work is the work itself. As a true professional we never truly own the money, fame, or accolades of our work. We “lease” all that stuff and make payments on it each and every day with the hours of hard work we put in. I agree with Pressfield wholeheartedly when he says the only thing we have a right to is the work itself, not the fruits of our labor. It’s the only real thing we can control and call our own forever.

But back to my original point: when you put in the work, the right work, the rewards will eventually follow. But they rarely come at the same time as the worthy work is being put in. Many an acclaimed artist has started collecting dividends way past the point where they stopped putting in their groundbreaking work.

That’s why we have no choice but to put in the hard work CONSTANTLY and ENDLESSLY. That’s the only way to make success a long-lasting part of your life.

Woody Allen is the prime example of a true professional who’s never stopped putting in the work. He’s still making films at a yearly pace, and the day after he finishes principal photography on one movie he’s already writing the next one. He doesn’t care about accolades or how well the movie does at the box office. Hell, he’s never even attended an Oscar celebration in which he’s been nominated. He’s had multiple career peaks and valleys, and he’s still going through them at this advanced age. All he cares about is that the writing and filming work he puts in is what allows him to sleep well at night. And that is his reward. The money and fame will come and go without his control over it.

Let’s be like Woody Allen and cherish the actual work as our only concern. Don’t get discouraged if the outside rewards don’t show up right now when the work is actually being done. They will undoubtedly come, but as true professionals we’ll be so enthralled by the work that the outside rewards won’t matter much anymore.

And if we do end up caring about money, fame, and accolades, let’s not get lazy the second we achieve a breakthrough. All that is only temporary, and if we don’t continue the hard work it’ll be a lightning-quick 15 minutes.

TEDx Presentation: Pressure and Personal Growth

The video above is my talk at TEDx MillRiver back in late April.  The talk was inspired by a previous post of mine called “How to tell if an endeavor is right for you” relating to pressure-filled situations and knowing which ones will bear fruit. The TEDx event itself was a beaming success with 100+ attendees, great presenters with revolutionary ideas, and some great conversations being held during the intermissions amongst a diverse crowd of professionals.

If you’re interested in checking out the other presenters that day you can see all the talks labeled “TEDx Millriver” on the TEDx Youtube page. You can see another video of a previous presentation I gave here.

How to tell if an endeavor is right for you

Diagram of Comfort, Learning, and Panic Zones

Does it scare you? If no, then you can stop right there. It’s not worth it.

If yes. How much does it scare you?  Is it a completely debilitating fear?  Or does it give you a queasy feeling where you stop breathing and forget your name for a split second?

If you list the worst things that can happen should you fail at this endeavor, and it still gives you that debilitating fear  that the world will be over, then maybe it’s not yet time for you to tackle this.  But if you feel like you’ll still survive if you fail, and you get the queasy feeling mentioned above, then you need to jump into this NOW.  These are the actions that will guarantee your success.  Go for it now and worry about the consequences later.

The author Geoff Colvin summed it up best in his book Talent is Overrated.  He highlights a popular diagram which I’ve included below.  The diagram helps us see that there is a range where we do our best learning. We should strive to always stay outside of our comfort zone, since this exposes us to a wide variety of experiences that we can benefit from.  But we need to be conscious to avoid treading into the panic zone, since making a mistake here will most likely cripple our spirits and will cause us to never want to try anything new ever again.

You maximize your learning when you are in that middle ring called the Learning Zone, since you’re engaged enough to exercise your abilities, but still have the mental resources available to judge your performance and adjust accordingly.  THIS is where it’s at!

Diagram of Comfort, Learning, and Panic Zones

Bumps (ramps) along the way

When starting to do something new, the seemingly obvious problem is never the real problem. It’s always the extra step, the extra coordination, the extra red tape that becomes the last frontier to getting a project off the ground.

The reason is that when we venture into something, we always tell ourselves “the reason no one has done this before is because they don’t want to deal with X.” X in this case being the obvious roadblock that seemingly prevents competition from entering the fray. Then we convince ourselves that we know how to maneuver around this, and resolve to soldier on whenever we eventually get to this threshold.

Little do we know that the original problem is only a small bump right in front of a more sophisticated and dangerous problem ahead. And very often this NEW problem is actually the step that presents the most promise for learning and growth. This is where 80% of people give up. Before tackling this seemingly unrelated and annoying wall. In reality, we need to acknowledge this large bump in the road for what it really is. It’s actually more of a ramp. A ramp with which if we gain enough momentum on the approach, we can use to propel ourselves and our business into a more exciting, lucrative path.

When talking about this I usually refer to Kanye West’s career story since it’s a perfect example. Mr. West himself has said that as a youth his original career aspiration was to design video games. Shortly after starting to pursue this venture, he realized that video games needed to have a soundtrack. As annoying as this setback was, he didn’t let it deter him and he acquired a music sampler he could use to program music for the game. Needless to say he soon became enamored with making music, and the video game industry no longer had the same appeal. He used a small roadblock as a ramp to catapult him into something that offered even more glory and riches.

Now imagine if we all took this approach when starting a new venture. If we sped up before an unexpected roadblock, as opposed to slowing down. This would practically banish each and every roadblock in the future. Life would be just a derby course full of ramps.