Checking Out the Bottom Line on Spanx: The Male Perspective

How did a former babysitter overcome the disappointment of a failed attempt at law school to turn $5,000 in seed money into the global enterprise we know as Spanx? It’s been impossible not to notice the buzz building around the world’s most compelling new mogul, Sara Blakely.  This week alone there were countless Blakely features spanning across every imaginable media outlet.  I personally saw two cable news shows featuring Blakely at the same time while simultaneously toggling two online articles on my mobile phone at a restaurant.

Along the road to building the modern garment empire she founded in her apartment, Blakely once harnessed the power of talk show media to help get the company’s products noticed.  In her most well-known example, she showed that Oprah Winfrey was a viable sales channel long before she built her eponymous broadcasting channel.  Now Blakely’s efforts have brought her full circle.  Her latest feat as the youngest self-made billionaire profiled in Forbes Magazine’s 2012 feature means another lap around the talk show circuit. But this time it’s less about promotion, it’s about recognition

Yes, that’s right Sara Blakely is a real “B”, as in billionaire.  Congratulations are in order.  But as some wise man somewhere once said, “the second billion dollars is the hardest.”  So if Blakely expects to repeat her success, she’s got to innovate further and expand the market.    Spanx reached this point by catering to its female clientele around the globe to the exclusion of ½ of potential customers, which places the company in the ironic but strangely logical step of positioning to get into the pockets and pants of men worldwide with products like Manx.   As Sara and Spanx pivot in their quest to tap those assets, I want to offer some male insights.  After all of the morning show coverage and fawning attention of the business media, we know it’s hard to keep perspective.  So for Sara, and any aspiring Saras out there, here comes the straight dope – the male psyche.

Now I don’t have any background in psychology, much less consumer behavior, but I am an authority on unsolicited advice.   I think Blakely’s own path to success presents the best vehicle to offer some insights into the male way of thinking.  Before we get into her bio, it’s important to note that we men possess very short attention spans, and might lack the patience to attentively take in the whole story of a woman’s decades-long struggle to the top of the business world.  So I’m here with the compressed tale of Blakely’s Spanx.   Beyond that, men can be stubborn and hard to impress.  So I’m going to take a critical, but honest, view of Spanx’ rise to show just how hard it is to earn our respect and loyalty.  Let’s take a look at Blakely’s career milestones.

*For you visual learners, I’m going to chart the level of Sara Blakely’s accomplishment in both narrative and graphical form using the metrics of the Man Scale provided below.

Hard Worker –  Our society pays lip service to hard work, but for most men that’s a baseline, a given.  Despite her description of her early work as a “humbling experience” that toughened her, Blakely’s time hustling and paying her dues selling fax machines door-to-door at the bottom rung of the business ladder barely registers on the male Respect-O-Meter.

Entrepreneur – One would also think that starting out on your own as an entrepreneur should earn points, but the male psyche is also programmed to pooh-pooh even this accomplishment.  Blakely’s comically skeptical reception with a patent attorney she first sought out to help launch her idea left him asking if he was on Candid Camera.

Innovator – Don’t think that you’re the first person with a cool idea.  Most men imagine and promptly forget a few potentially world changing innovations on any given day (it’s the unfortunate flip side of our short attention).  Consequently, Blakely’s early inspirations of cutting off the feet of her hosiery or improving control top pantyhose would likely earn a few shrugs from the typical male, who is bound to recall seeing Underalls or Slenderalls commercials back in the 1970s and 80s and wonder why Blakely should expect credit for Spanx’ novelty in the late 1990s.  Even Blakely’s innovative use of new materials like Lycra to help catapult the industry out of your grandmother’s era into the “Shapewear” age is also bound not to impress your typical male.  Some are even likely to want to take Blakely down a notch with some observation that “Lycra is a man-made fabric invented in the 1950s.”  Now that’s not me talking, but there is a little useless trivia buff (ala Cliff Clavin) lurking in the soul of every man.

Millionaire – Financial success is an expectation in the male brain, regardless of whether the subject has himself earned a million dollars or none in his life. That a woman has achieved this is really not the threat to men that some would have you believe.  It’s that the male psyche tells each of us, “I could have done that” about most anything.  I’d say it’s not a sexist ego that keeps us from recognizing Blakely’s million dollar milestone, it’s just our regular ego.  Blakely doesn’t gain as much respect among men for reaching this milestone as you would expect, but she does score some bonus points for celebrating her first million with the purchase of a flat screen TV at the suggestion of her brother.

Billionaire – Now here is where you start to see some minor blips on the male Respect-O-Meter.  Moguls like Buffett and Gates long ago conquered this plateau.  Unfortunately, even a proud owner of a Billionaire trophy is still likely to elicit “Ho-Hums” among the guys.   Some long-forgotten robber baron once sparked the male imagination of ultimate wealth as the first billionaire, but the generations of successful people who have followed have caused the “B” designation to lose its luster.  Consider this analogy: Is there anyone out there now who really thinks that reaching the pinnacle at Everest is really that great a feat now that tweens have it on their list of to-dos to check off in preparation for their college applications?  Ascent to the Billionaire Mountain has simply lost its mystique for modern men.

Self-Made Billionaire – Here’s where Blakely’s story begins to rack up points with men.  Even if they’ve never seen or heard of Sara Blakely, the average man finds the allure of her story pretty intoxicating.  Who says men aren’t romantic?  We just find different things to be romantic.  We want to feel that there’s some ultimate satisfaction and accomplishment that we can claim from creating unimaginable wealth from nothing with our own hands.   In some ways, a Forbes billionaire profile is little like a Harlequin romance novel for men.  But it’s a guilty pleasure we recognize as reader fantasy, even if the stories are true.

The Ultimate Respect – It might come as a surprise, but the ultimate feat that leaps off the charts of the male Respect-O-Meter has little to do with money, and Blakely might be on to this secret.  When asked about her success Sara Blakely offers up some kernels of wisdom that shoot straight to the male psyche, triggering subconscious feelings and emotions that incite passion among men.   Blakely once explained to Business Week how she got adept at failure:

“I failed the LSAT. Basically, if I had not failed, I’d have been a lawyer and there would be no Spanx. I think failure is nothing more than life’s way of nudging you that you are off course. My attitude to failure is not attached to outcome, but in not trying. It is liberating. Most people attach failure to something not working out or how people perceive you. This way, it is about answering to yourself.”

Sorry to get all male here, but technically you can’t really fail the LSAT.  However, I must give her credit for claiming that she did.  Bold pronouncements of how to succeed even when failing would earn the respect of any man.  As scripted and familiar as a comment like this sounds, men respond to it.  Proclaiming your failures as the secret to your success?  That’s practically man-poetry.  Perhaps she had a strong-willed and influential man in her life who taught her the value of braggadocio, or maybe she’s just watched her fair share of business media fluff features on CEOs.  No matter…That’s the kind of stuff that that will earn you some respect in the Man’s World.

Hey, Guys!  Let’s hear it for Sara!!!  Look for Manx, In Stores Now…

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