Within the first year of launching my company, Spanx, I decided to go over to England and cold-call Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Selfridges the same way I had cold-called Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s here in the United States. It still was a very small company with one product, my footless pantyhose, which was a brand-new concept back then. I was trying to explain to people not only why they needed this product, but also what it could do for them. I called around and got some interest with local newspapers, magazines, radio, and the BBC agreed to interview me. It was a live interview that would reach more than a million people, and I was very nervous. The interviewer asked, “So Sara, tell us what Spanx can do for the women in the U.K.” And I smiled really big and said, “Well, it’s all about the fanny. It smooths your fanny, it lifts it, and it firms your fanny.” I knew instantly I had done something seriously wrong because the interviewer had lost all the color in his face. He stopped me and said, “I think you mean bum.” I said, “Yes, right, bum.”
When I got off the air, I found out that fanny means vagina in England. It was a pretty funny marketing mistake. But what was so funny was I was trying to be British—I’m not someone who says fanny, but it sounded like such a British word to me. Apparently it is, I just had the wrong definition. This was in 2001, before YouTube, but I’m sure it would have gone on there if it had been around. I had to call back to all the people at Spanx, which at that time was two people in my apartment, and tell them our international expansion was off to a great start.
It’s important to be willing to make mistakes. The worst thing that can happen is you become memorable. I grew up in a house where my father encouraged my brother and me to fail. I specifically remember coming home and saying, Dad, Dad, I tried out for this or that and I was horrible, and he would high-five me and say, Way to go. He reframed my definition of failure from an early age. Failure to me became not trying, instead of the outcome.
I think very early on in life we all learn what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, and we stay where it’s safe. To have someone encourage me to actually go out and embrace not being great at something taught me over and over again that what will happen is you have a story to tell, or you meet someone new and that takes you on a different path.
The BBC interview ended up opening more doors for me because I was willing to laugh at myself. I feel like I’ve had that approach with my business through the messaging and marketing—it’s a very honest and real and “oops!” mentality. There’s always a gift in something, even if it first feels like a failure.
Interview By Kara Cutruzzula
Cuts off the feet of her pantyhose and creates the idea for Spanx.
Convinces a mill to manufacture her product after countless rejections.
Botches a live interview on BBC during a visit to London.
Launches foundation to educate and train women on becoming entrepreneurs.
Named the youngest female self-made billionaire by Forbes.