Entrepreneurs

How embracing an embarrassing moment led to Spanx billionaire Sara Blakely's huge success

Sara Blakely
Earl Kibby | CNBC
Sara Blakely

If you have ever laid awake at night worried about a mortifying question you asked in a meeting or an awkward comment you made to a co-worker, billionaire Spanx entrepreneur Sara Blakely has some advice: that embarrassment can work to your advantage.

In fact, Blakely, 46, practices embarrassing herself on purpose on a regular basis, she says on "The James Altucher Show" podcast.

"I'll sing in an elevator for no reason, with other people in there, and my heart will be pounding and everyone is like uncomfortable and it is awkward and embarrassing," she says. "Or I will ask a question that I know really sounds quite stupid, but I am curious about it and put myself out there."

That's because being willing to do whatever you need to, no matter how awkward, is key to business success.

"If too much time goes that I haven't embarrassed myself, I can sense it in myself and I'm like 'I've got to do something embarrassing,' because it loses its power over me," she says on the podcast.

A post shared by Sara Blakely (@sarablakely) on

Today, Spanx is an apparel empire with an estimated $400 million in yearly sales. Blakely is worth more than $1.1 billion, according to Forbes, and hobnobs with the likes of Warren Buffett. She is also joining the new season of ABC's "Shark Tank" as a judge.

But when she first founded the company (while working as a door-to-door salesperson selling fax machines), being unafraid to embarrass herself helped her land her first account, Neiman Marcus.

First, Blakely she wasn't shy about cold-calling the important Neiman Marcus buyer — multiple times. She was determined to talk her into a 10-minute face-to-face meeting, because "I knew ... that my best shot was in person," she says.

Then, when Blakely flew from Atlanta to Dallas for that sit-down, things got really awkward.

"[S]he is, first of all, impeccably dressed," says Blakely. "Her pen matched her belt that matched her shoes. I'm sort of disheveled, I come in, you know I've got my lucky red back pack from college with me as my presentation bag."

And it didn't start off well. "Five minutes into it I am totally losing her," she tells Altucher.

Blakely realized no matter how embarrassing it might be, she needed to show the buyer how Spanx magically made butts look better, smoothing bulges and eliminating lines so clothes fit beautifully. Blakely was wearing very light-colored pants (which can show every flaw), so she asked the buyer to go to the bathroom with her for a demonstration.

"She goes, 'Excuse me?'" Blakely recalls on NPR's "How I Built This" podcast. "I go, 'I know, I know; it's a little weird. Will you just please come with me to the bathroom? I want to show you my own product before and after.

"And she said OK," says Blakely.

"I went in the stall with and without Spanx on, with these cream pants," Blakely tells Altucher.

"She took one look at it and goes 'It's brilliant, I get it and I'm going to try it in seven stores and see how it goes.'"

Now Spanx products are sold in more than 50 countries across the globe.

For Blakely, the lesson is clear: "When you let go of this need to sound smart and look smart or free yourself up from all that, like really good things start to happen."

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