This is The Story… of one woman who was laughed at, made people laugh, and then had the final laugh.
This article is a written version of Episode 1 of the first season of The Story Podcast!
Season 1 features twelve women trailblazers who changed the world, and it’s brought to you exclusively by Salesforce.
And now… onto The Story
She was about to throw up. Each step toward the microphone made her stomach churn, but she continued forward anyway. Half the audience was up getting a drink, but the rest were in their seats… staring directly at her. Good or bad, this would be over in 10 minutes; she just prayed that her stomach held up the whole time.
See — Sara wasn’t particularly good at stand-up. She had been laughed at her whole life, but not always in a good way. Now that she was actually trying to make people laugh, she found it to be one of the hardest things she’d ever done. She was terrified of public speaking, of being rejected by a large audience, but she refused to step down from the stage. In her early life, she had been through much worse and was determined not to let her fear limit her…
A decade ago, at age 16, Sara witnessed her best friend get killed by a car. Not shortly after, her parents divorced. And later that year, two of her previous prom dates tragically passed away, within months of each other.
In the span of just one year, her life had become terrifying and confusing.
Her father watched Sara face that year of horror. He saw her struggling, and wasn’t sure what to do. To try and help, he bought her a motivational set of tapes called How to Be a No-Limit Person by Wayne Dyer.
The girl looked up to her father, so she listened to the tapes. Then she listened again. And again. She became meticulous about the information she fed her mind. Soon, she only wanted to listen to inspirational stories.
From her year of tragedy, she developed resolve and a motivation that stuck with her.
Sara knew she was going to be successful. She just didn’t know how yet. She wanted to be on the Oprah Winfrey show. She imagined herself sitting on stage, in front of a crowd and talking with Oprah.
She had no idea why she would be invited on, but still, she was determined to make that a reality.
Her “self-help tapes” were helping, but they weren’t exactly helping her make friends.
They became a running joke amongst her high school classmates. Her friends would avoid riding home in her car for fear of being stuck with Sara, and her friend Wayne.
And kept listening.
When high school was finished, Sara was accepted into a decent college. But after two years she became restless and left, choosing to pursue a legal communications degree at another school. She was ambitious but wasn’t sure how or where to direct her energy.
She eventually applied to law school, but after two failed admission tests, her law aspirations were over before they had even started. Law school wasn’t in Sara’s future.
At this point, she was becoming desperate for a job, so she interviewed to play Goofy at Disney World. The interviewers loved her spunk, but she simply wasn’t tall enough to convincingly play Goofy. Willing to take any position, Sara ended up being hired as a Disney World greeter. She spent the grueling summer navigating the park in 100 degree Florida heat; covered in sweat and in her sticky clothes.
On a good day, she was greeting strangers. On a bad day, she was greeting old high school friends.
They were still laughing.
She was still smiling.
After three months of greeting at Disney, Sara left and accepted a job offer in Atlanta. Her new job was to sell fax machines door to door. It wasn’t glamorous , and it wasn’t easy.
Selling was new to her and she was uncomfortable, but she was determined to learn fast.
Eager to ‘become a no-limit person’, she decided to tackle her fear of public speaking. She’d been to several stand-up comedy clubs and saw an opportunity. These clubs were a place where she’d be forced to face her fear.
At an open mic night, she stepped up to the challenge. There she stood, paralyzed with fear.
And she completely bombed.
Still shaking as she walked off, one of the experienced comedians gave her an important piece of advice: To use words with the letter “Ks” at the end of her jokes. It makes people laugh, he said. She took those words to heart.
Between sales and stand up comedy, she was rejected thousands of times. Soon her fear of rejection was a distant memory, and the habit of getting in front of people and whipping up an unruly crowd became second nature.
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By day, she mastered the art of selling. At night, she learned how to keep them laughing.
Her daily routine became natural. Small victories started to compound. She was deadly serious about creating a better life, and she was putting in the work to get it.
Despite this success, she still wasn’t sure where she was heading. She knew that she wanted to create something that would improve the lives of millions of people, but what that something was was still beyond her.
Most outside observers might laugh at her lofty goal. To the casual observer, it might look like she was unrealistic and expecting a miracle. But to some of the greatest teachers in the world, her ambitions were finally matching how the universe works. As Osho famously says,
“Be realistic. Expect a miracle.”
So, she patiently waited to stumble upon the idea; the one that would make all her struggling worth it.
And it finally hit one night at a party.
She immediately wrote it down and began to map out the daily steps she’d need to complete to bring it to life. Then, she got to work.
To protect her idea, she didn’t discuss it with anyone for an entire year — not even her friends and family.
During that time, she kept executing her daily tasks, continued learning new skills, and refused to seek advice or encouragement from the armchair critics.
She worked nights and weekends. She skipped parties and stopped hanging out with the people who’d only bring her down.
Despite all her hard work, she was still a long way from creating her invention. Her current situation didn’t suggest that she could invent something and successfully bring it to market. After all, she was still living at home, had been selling office equipment door to door for seven years, and only had $5,000 in savings.
But appearances can be deceiving. To quote Earl Nightingale,
“Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.”
By this definition, Sara was already a massive a success, continually progressing towards a very worthy ideal.
Soon, she had meetings at top law firms to patent her idea. But they all laughed at her. One of the attorneys the idea later said that the idea was so bad that he thought he was secretly being filmed by Candid Camera.
That rejection hurt, but she was used to it. Since none of them would take her seriously, she bought a book about patents and trademarks. Then, she wrote her own patent.
Next, she cold-called the manufacturers who could make her product. Again, she faced more laughs and more rejection. Not a single manufacturer would commit.
Sara needed a break, and after years struggling with her idea, needed encouragement. She looked to her friends. After months of being a recluse, everyone wanted to know what she’d been up to. They’d heard she had invented something. But they dismissed it as too simple.
She was breathing rarified air, and she was in uncharted territory. She needed support and mentorship, so she joined the Young Entrepreneurs Organization. They assigned her to a group made up of experienced male entrepreneurs. The men looked at their newcomer and were skeptical.
They asked her about her business plan and market strategy. She replied that didn’t have any plans or strategies; that she’s just been visualizing her goals and ‘asking the universe for help’.
The men were dumbfounded. They didn’t take her seriously, but unlike everyone else, they didn’t try to drag her down. Later, Sara would learn that many of them placed bets on how long her business would last. They bet against her.
Thankfully, she was too busy taking action to take notice.
By now, several of the people who doubted her were starting to warm up to the idea. Friends and family tried out early versions of her product.
While traditional manufacturers tested products on mannequins, she tested her products on people. On her family. On her friends. On willing strangers. She tested, iterated, changed her invention to make them happy.
After all, this product was designed to be comfortable. To make people happy.
She reached out to a new manufacturer. He was skeptical, but when he showed Sara’s prototype to his daughter — she desperately wanted one, he finally agreed to make it.
Sara wasn’t moving fast; in fact, she was moving quite slow.
But slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
Soon she had a prototype in hand. It all went back to that fateful night at a party where she got the big idea.
Where she was so uncomfortable in her pantyhose, that she cut the feet off and just wore the legs and waist. They were open-toed, and she loved how they kept her shape.
That was her big idea.
And now she had a manufacturer to create the product. She just needed the right packaging that fit the product.
It took her three months to design and then redesign her product packaging. She bought 10 different boxes of her competitors and laid them across her floor. They were all ugly white and beige boxes; too boring and too serious.
She wanted her product to be the exact opposite. She wanted them to be fun to buy, so she made the box bright red.
It took her another year to design the name for her creation. She crafted and rewrote the name that would appear on the little red box hundreds of times. Just like with the jokes she practiced as a comic, she knew iteration was key. She landed on a name: the Open Toed Delilah’s — a name that reflected the product origin.
A few weeks after deciding on the name, she suddenly remembered some important advice she received as a young aspiring comedian. ‘Use the letter K to make things funny.’ The Opened Toed Delilah’s had to go. A new name popped into her mind. A name everyone would remember. A name they would all laugh at.
She was awarded her own patent, and put the name on the bright red box, and closed her first major sale with Neiman Marcus.
And finally, the universe responded to her requests. In this case, ‘the universe’ presented itself as a studio producer who called her home phone to ask if she wanted to appear on a show. A show that wanted to feature her new signature pantyhose. A show hosted by Oprah Winfrey. The producer asked if she could handle the order volume that the publicity would bring. With no website, and the pantyhose still lying unfinished on her table in the small apartment, Sara closed her eyes and said “Yes”.
Who knows if the groundbreaking pantyhose would have been a hit without the startling red box. Who knows if “Open Toed Delilahs” would have been beloved by the customers and flown off the shelves of Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, and Saks.
Maybe it was the funny name that skyrocketed sales from $0 to over 8 million dollars in one year.
The funny name written by a fax machine salesperson.
The funny name written by an aspiring comedian.
The funny name that Oprah Winfrey selected as one of her top gifts of the year. A name everyone could remember.
A name that had a hard K sound at the end.
Sara Blakely would go on to turn her savings of $5,000 into a company worth over a billion dollars. She became the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire.
After SPANX became successful in the eyes of the world, the people from her past began to reach out. Soon, Sara was getting a bunch of texts and emails from those same high school “friends” who made fun of her for listening to Wayne Dyer.
But now it was different. They didn’t laugh. They all said the same thing: that they wished they had listened to those tapes.
And what about all the men in her Entrepreneurs Organization group?
Sara still meets up with that same group once a month. In fact, she’s done that for 14 years, and the group takes an annual trip together. These were the guys that bet against her. Now, they all ask her how to talk to the universe.
When you’re on an interesting path or chasing a big idea you will face rejection. Instead of seeing criticism from others as a sign to stop, maybe it’s just a signal that you’re onto something, and you need to work harder.
Sara believed that her ideas could become real. She guarded and nurtured those ideas, and didn’t let them be killed in the cradle. She sought guidance, kept the faith, and put in the work to eliminate her fear and self-doubt.
So let them laugh.
Let them bet against you.
And in the meantime, guard your ideas. Take massive action. Cold call the people you want to connect with. Explain your ideas and understand that people will try to pick them apart. Set standards for yourself that are high enough to make others uncomfortable.
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
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