Sara Blakely: a pair of tights made me a billion dollars

Using the spare room of her flat as an office, Sara Blakely sunk $5,000 of her savings into her business making 'invisible knickers'. Now her business, Spanx, is worth $1bn.

One day, 14 years ago, Sara Blakely bought a pair of unlined, cream-coloured trousers costing $89, "a sizeable investment" for a young woman then earning her living selling fax machines door-to-door, says "The pants infuriated her: every undergarment showed through in most unglamorous fashion." So she hit on the idea of tackling the dreaded visible panty line (VPL) by cutting off the feet of her tights and wearing them underneath.

The experiment wasn't entirely successful "they rolled up my legs all night" but it sowed the seed of an idea. "I remember thinking, I've got to figure out how to make this.' I'd never worked in fashion or retail, I just needed an undergarment that didn't exist."

Blakely, 41, is now a billionaire, says Forbes the youngest woman to join this year's list without help from a husband or an inheritance. Her original "one product wonder", Spanx, is now "to slimming undergarments what Kleenex is to tissues". Four Wall Street banks have valued the firm (motto: "changing the world one butt at a time") at an average $1bn. "Blakely owns 100% of it, has zero debt, has never taken outside investment [or spent] on advertising."

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When she developed her prototype garment and launched Spanx in 2000, Blakely sunk her $5,000 savings into the enterprise, using the spare room of her flat as its HQ, says The Observer. She saved thousands of dollars in legal fees by writing her own patent using a textbook from Barnes & Noble, and became "her own pin-up girl for the brand".

Blakeley's big break came when she sent samples to Oprah Winfrey and was name-checked on her influential show. After that the firm never looked back, turning over $4m in its first year and $10m the next. Spanx quickly became "Hollywood's big secret", with some celebrities even resorting to "double spanxing" to cope with high-stakes red carpet appearances. When Hollywood boys proved as keen, Blakely launched "gut gauge" T-shirts and briefs promising to "cup, support and lift".

It sounds like a charmed rise, but Florida-born Blakely hasn't always had it easy. The daughter of a personal injury lawyer, she intended following her father into the profession, but twice failed her law exams. After that, she spent a punishing time at Disney World, buckling visitors into rides wearing Mickey Mouse ears, says Forbes.

Eventually, she applied for a job at an office supply company, Danka, and "learned the art of the cold call". With her "easy charm, good looks and slick debating skills", Blakely was a sales natural. She also persevered with a sideline as a stand-up comedian. Blakely still gets "teary-eyed" whenever she rides up the escalator in Bloomingdale's to see the Spanx shop. "I have to pinch myself," she says. "Five grand. Good investment."

The unstoppable rise of a business power couple

Blakely is one half of "a business power couple", says Zoe Wood in The Observer. Her husband and fellow entrepreneur, Jesse Itzler a former rapper co-founded the private jet-hire firm, Marquis, which he sold to Berkshire Hathaway for an undisclosed amount in 2010. His 100 Mile Group brand incubator also owns stakes in Zico, a coconut water brand, and the low-calorie vodka Voli. They say their marriage works because "they don't sweat the small stuff". Blakely has strong views about wealth. "I feel like money makes you more of who you already are," says. "If you're an asshole, you become a bigger asshole. If you're nice, you become nicer."

Itzler describes Blakely as "50% Lucille Ball, 50% Einstein". She's certainly showed a degree of genius in bridging the gap between our burgeoning girths and addiction to celebrity culture, says Rachel Dodes in The Wall Street Journal. As one customer observes: "What's the point of spending £500 on a dress if you don't have a straight tummy?"

There has always been a market for "shape-wear" the corset and girdle were early forerunners. But the size of the market has grown exponentially in the past decade, notes Reuters. According to the latest Global Underwear Market Report 2012, shape-wear remains the most significant trend in the industry. "Its popularity soared worldwide in all important markets." Spanx now offers 200 products in 40 countries. Blakely's business "has expanded almost as quickly as our waistlines, says Katie Couric in Time. "As we were trying to hide our guts, she trusted hers."

When asked by eager financial types what her "exit strategy" is, Blakely used to quip: "To exit a room looking good in cream pants." These days, her tone has changed, says Clare O'Connor in Forbes. "We've been approached consistently from day one and it was never something I entertained," she says. "Now, for the first time, I may." We can expect a lengthy queue of would-be buyers.