She was too short to play Goofy. Then she invented Spanx. Now she's a billionaire

Spanx founder: My dad encouraged me to fail
Spanx founder: My dad encouraged me to fail

Redefining failure

When Sara Blakely sold fax machines door-to-door, she got used to hearing "no."

"I knew that 'no' was just a part of the process," the Spanx founder told CNNMoney. "You have to hear 'no' so many times before you actually can get to a 'yes.'"

Before Forbes named her the youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012, Blakely had plenty of failures.

At first, Blakely wanted to be a lawyer — but that didn't work out.

"I basically bombed the LSAT," Blakely said. Then, she tried out to be Goofy at Disney World. But she was too short. To Blakely, it felt like she'd hit "rock bottom."

After her "no" from Disney, Blakely got the fax machine job, which she held for seven years. There, she faced a steady stream of rejections.

"I was constantly being escorted out of buildings," Blakely recalled. "People would rip up my business card in my face, which was a typical occurrence."

But Blakely was never deterred by failure.

"Growing up, my dad used to encourage my brother and me to fail," she said. "I didn't realize it at the time, but he was just redefining failure for me. Failure became about not trying, not the outcome."

That mindset, and her experiences, prepared her for the challenges of starting her own business.

The Spanx story

After years of selling fax machines, Blakely was ready for a change.

"One day, I pulled off the side of the road, and I literally thought, 'I'm in the wrong movie.'"

She took stock of her life. She evaluated her strengths — sales — and wrote what she wanted in a notebook.

"I ended up writing, I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel better.'"

A few years later, at 27, Blakely didn't know what to wear under a pair of white pants. "Everything showed," she recalled. "Everything was really uncomfortable, or binding, or left a line or bulge, or something I could see through my clothes."

"So I decided to invent a better solution." Blakely chopped the feet off of a pair of control-top tights — an early version of the shapewear that would make her famous.

Because she had set that goal years ago, Blakely said, she immediately recognized the action as an opportunity.

Blakely started researching hosiery manufacturers and panty hose patents. She spent a week visiting factories in North Carolina, and finally found someone willing to make her product. Eventually, she landed her first big account: Neiman Marcus.

Word of the new product spread. People started paying attention: Including Oprah Winfrey, who put Spanx on her "Favorite Things" list in 2000, just two years after Blakely cut her tights.

That was a big moment for Blakely. "Getting chosen as Oprah's favorite thing was a really validating, awesome moment for me."

An entrepreneurial life

Blakely doesn't have any formal business training, but she lives what she calls an "entrepreneurial life."

"With the right mindset, you can live a life much bigger and much greater than you ever imagined," she said.

And despite her success, she still has moments of doubt.

"It's a risk to invent something," she said. "You have to do something that didn't already exist, which is scary, because that's where self doubt is the most prominent."

As a female entrepreneur, that feeling of doubt can be even more pronounced.

"You just imagine everyone else so much smarter, and more qualified than you are. Then, one day you wake up and you go, 'What if it is me? Why not?'"

Blakely wants more women to take those risks. "My dream is for there to be many more female inventors," she said. "We need the contribution of women."

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