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Business

Sara Blakely’s Tips for Starting a Business: Step-by-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 11 min read

Sara Blakely is living proof that you don’t need a business degree—or even that much money in savings or investments for startup costs—to become a successful entrepreneur. “One of the most common misconceptions of entrepreneurs is that we had it all figured out before we took the leap,” she says. Many successful entrepreneurs get started by simply offering a new solution to a widespread issue.

Sara’s initial idea? A fitted undergarment that solved a problem for women: eliminating the outline of underwear beneath clothing. She learned as she went along, growing her small business idea into one of the most successful companies of all time—Spanx.

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Sara Blakely Teaches Self-Made EntrepreneurshipSara Blakely Teaches Self-Made Entrepreneurship

Spanx founder Sara Blakely teaches you bootstrapping tactics and her approach to inventing, selling, and marketing products that consumers love.

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How to Start a Business: Sara Blakely’s Tips

Sara Blakely’s MasterClass documents the self-made billionaire’s journey from start-up to successful business, for those who are looking to start their own company, especially young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs.

Below are Sara Blakely’s top tips for starting your own business, no matter what type of business it may be.

1. Start Small

That Sara started Spanx with her own cash and never took any outside investments is rare. If you are offered outside investments as you get your company off the ground, ask yourself this question first: Are you taking this money because you absolutely need it to move your business forward, or are you taking it because it will be easier to solve some initial problems with money that you could otherwise solve with your own time, effort, and wits?

2. Figure It Out As You Go

You don’t need to go to business school to start a business. “What you don’t know can often become your greatest strength,” Sara says. Don’t wait until you’ve figured out the business plan and full trajectory of your future business before getting started on your big idea. Everybody is constantly learning as they go, including Sara. If you look at someone and think, “They’ve got this whole business thing down pat,” look again, and imagine yourself in that person’s shoes. What kinds of thoughts and insecurities might you have in their position? Everyone is human, and everyone has doubts. Everyone is faking it till they make it, at least to a certain extent. Combat self-doubt by practicing personal affirmations and educating yourself about the field you’re attempting to break into, and you’ll feel prepared for anything.

3. Take Calculated Risks

Sara didn’t quit her full-time day job until she landed both Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue as Spanx sellers. When it comes to a new business, play it safe to the point that you have enough cash flow and you’re able to pay your rent and eat, but don’t let a safety net or backup plan distract you from your primary goal.

4. Find Your Purpose

Before doing recon on behalf of Spanx, Sara never thought about who was making women’s undergarments. When she started traveling to various clothing manufacturing plants in North Carolina in the name of research, she discovered something surprising: Everyone in positions of power at the manufacturing plants were men.

You may not have the most experience in an industry, but think about this: Are you a person who knows your niche intimately for another reason? Might the people making products in your desired industry not have your unique knowledge about those products? You may know more about what you want to make than all of the people who are already making products like it.

5. Ask Yourself Why

Sara is constantly asking herself “why”: Why doesn’t a certain product exist? Why isn’t a rudimentary task done in a more efficient way? Why hasn’t any product within a specific space evolved in a while?

Life is full of inefficiencies. It’s important to remember that most everything around you was created by other (fallible) human beings. The answer to why something doesn’t exist may be that no one’s been able to make it well, or no one’s had the time—or even the idea.

6. Stay Connected to Your Why

Starting a new business is—well, a treacherous business. You need to stay focused on something that will keep pushing you forward, otherwise known as your “why.” Why are you doing this? Why is it important? Sara’s “why,” the one thing that kept pushing her toward her goal, was that she felt no one was making products for women that actually considered the wants and needs of women. That’s a very compelling why.

7. Create the Mission Statement

Now it’s time to turn your “why” into your business’s mission statement. This is as much for you as it is for the people who will be working for you and with you—no matter what sort of business you’re trying to start, it’s crucial to align yourself and your team on the why behind the what.

Spanx didn’t advertise for the first 16 years it was in business. Even so, it became a global brand. This happened in large part because of its strong sense of purpose—in other words, its mission statement.

8. Develop Your Big Idea

Now that you know all about getting into the right mindset and finding your purpose as a business owner, it’s time to get concrete. What are you going to make that will change the world?

Of course, changing the world sounds like an incredibly daunting task. But even the most basic invention can have a huge effect on both individuals and society at large—think about the invention of paperclips or coffee sleeves or even the wheel. Don’t let this whole “change the world” idea scare you—you don’t change the world by setting out to change the world. You do it by setting out to accomplish your own personal goal.

9. Let Your Mind Wander

Give yourself some room to dream by putting yourself in a creative mindset. Go someplace where you know you won’t be interrupted—your bedroom, somewhere in nature—and start by getting quiet. Spend a few minutes wiping your mind of other tasks and worries. Focus on creating a blank slate upon which to sketch some business ideas (and don’t forget, potential business names too!).

10. Filter Your Ideas

So, you’ve collected some ideas, but you still need to figure out which one is your idea. Sara uses three filters to home in on her top priorities: Time, money, and resources. As a first-time entrepreneur, you’ll have to constantly be checking in on all three.

  • Ask yourself these questions of every idea on your list:
  • How hard is it going to be to make this product?
  • How much will it cost to make?
  • How many manufacturers will it take?
  • How much will it cost to ship?
  • How heavy is the product?
  • How big of a team do you need to help you make and sell your product?

If you’re just starting out in your industry, like Sara was in the garment arena, then you may not know how or to whom you should be asking those questions. When Sara was at this level, the internet was not nearly the resource it is today. In that sense, you have an advantage. Start by doing some basic Googling of your industry—look up its history, or better yet, go to your local library and take out some books about the field you’re entering. That will prepare you with a knowledge that manufacturers may not expect from someone just entering their world and could engender some respect.

Now back to Google. Look up manufacturing plants that make products similar to the one you have in mind. Find a phone number or an email and see if you can’t get someone who works there to grab coffee with you. The dialogue might sound something like, “My name is _______, and I’m super interested in getting involved in your industry. If you have some time, in the next few weeks, I’d love to take you to coffee and talk shop.” Yes, some people may hang up on you or ignore your email—but this is the value in hard work; be patient and be persistent. Chances are that someone will be open to talking to you about what they do—and don’t underestimate the joy it brings people to get a chance to talk about themselves and their work.

11. Find the White Space

When Sara talks about “white space,” she’s talking about an unexplored entrepreneurial arena. White space represents a lack of solutions to a problem—a place where no product or great idea currently exists as an answer to a dilemma.

Here’s the thing, though: Just because a product idea lives in a white space doesn’t mean you should create that product. Sara jokes that you could invent a vacuum cleaner that also makes spaghetti—but why would you? That’s a white space, alright, but is it a white space for a reason? Does anyone want a vacuum cleaner that can also make spaghetti? The answer is probably no (unless you’re a neat freak with a pasta addiction).

To make sure there’s both a need and a white space for your product, you have to do some research. Look online or ask around. Sara performed a sort of ad hoc focus group to address these queries, going from shop to shop and asking female sales associates what female customers wore under white pants to combat panty lines. She also asked the shop owners if they had anything in their stock that would address the issue of panty lines. None of them had particularly compelling answers.

Then Sara would ask the sales associates: “If women had pantyhose without feet to wear under white pants, would that help?” The resounding answer from her makeshift focus group was yes—which is how she discovered her target market and customer base.

12. Establish Your Difference

If you’re lucky enough to be first to market with your product—the way Sara was with Spanx—chances are you’ll generate some easy hype because your idea has never been done before. If, however, similar products or businesses to the one you’re working on exist, it’s a good idea to get to know your competition by conducting market research.

In your notebook, make a list of all the products or businesses you can find that are similar to the product you want to create or the business you want to start. For each of those companies, write down what you do and don’t like about them, pro/con style. Once you do that, write down all of the ways that your idea is different. To this day, Sara does this exercise whenever Spanx is developing a new product.

13. Write an Elevator Pitch

Every entrepreneur needs a clear, concise, and persuasive sales pitch, otherwise known as an elevator pitch (so named because the pitch should be no longer than 20 or 30 seconds, or the length of a short elevator ride). When someone hears your elevator pitch, they should walk away knowing who you are, what you do, and why your business or idea is a gamechanger. You’ll have to use this mini-pitch time and again—when talking to family members who doubt your idea, to the manufacturer you’re convincing to make it, and to the first store owner you hope stocks your product.

Start crafting an elevator pitch by looking in the mirror and asking yourself: What makes my product, company, and idea different than the competition? Try to answer those questions in one minute or less without using any hedging words like “maybe,” “like,” or “I think.” Instead, use assertive phrases like, “I know.” Once you nail your pitch at a minute, try cutting out anything superfluous, and get it down to 50 seconds. Keep practicing and cutting and practicing some more until you’ve perfected a 30-second elevator pitch.

14. Set Your Intention

“A lot of people think Spanx started the minute I cut the feet out of my pantyhose,” says Sara. In fact, it started well before—starting with the “work” she did on herself as a teenager after discovering Wayne Dyer’s tapes all the way up through the manifestation exercise that led her to Spanx.

After yet another day consisting of getting kicked out of buildings and watching people tear up her business cards, Sara wrote a list of her strengths in her notebook. She admits she didn’t come up with much, but she knew she was great at sales. So, she thought about why: Why was sales her strength? The reason she landed on was that she enjoyed exposing people to things that would ultimately improve their lives. In her journal that night, she wrote, “I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good.” Then, she asked the universe for an idea.

Two years later, she cut the feet off her pantyhose.

Not everyone is going to ask the universe what to invent and get a tidily packaged answer two years later, but Sara’s message is really about setting goals. No matter how lofty they may seem, actively setting a goal—speaking it to the universe, writing it down, mentioning it to friends and family who will hold you accountable—can subtly influence you to work towards that goal bit by bit each day.

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Learn More About Entrepreneurship

Sara Blakely had no fashion, retail, or business leadership experience when she invented Spanx in the late 1990s. All she had was $5,000 and an idea. Which means you can start your own billion-dollar business, too. Learn more about finding your purpose, making prototypes, building awareness, and selling your product in Sara Blakely’s MasterClass.

Get the MasterClass Annual Membership for exclusive access to video lessons taught by business luminaries, including Sara Blakely, Howard Schultz, Anna Wintour, and more.

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