If at First You Don't Succeed ... Try, Try Again!

Entrepreneurs Sara Blakely and Jake Burton made millions despite huge downfalls.

Nov. 16, 2007 — -- It seems counterintuitive, but for millionaire entrepreneurs Sara Blakely and Jake Burton, failure has been a key part of their recipe for success.

Blakely is the creator of Spanx, the hose without toes that flatters a women's posterior. Its not-too-tight textures put the honky-tonk in anyone's badonkadonk, and adds sleekness to the red carpet silhouettes of celebrities like Tyra Banks, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Beyonce Knowles.

Blakely started her company in 2000 with just $5,000 in savings. Today, she commands a $100 million control-wear business. But she owes all of her success to her many failures along the way.

"I realize that failure is just life's way of nudging you and letting you know you're off course," she said. "If I hadn't failed, I wouldn't be here."

As a child, Blakely said her trial lawyer father got her to seek out challenges by asking her, "What did you fail at today?" But in college, she failed the LSAT.

"And for a little 8-year-old girl who would've told you her whole life, 'I'm gonna be a trial attorney,' that was a very devastating moment for me in my life," Blakely said.

Trials and Tribulations

After that, Blakely spent seven years selling fax machines office to office — uninvited. Did she fail? Did she ever.

"They would personally escort me out of out several buildings," said Blakely. "And I also had my business card ripped up in my face probably about twice a week."

That failing would have ruined a lot of people, but not Blakely. That's because she didn't view her inability to sell fax machines as a failure.

"To me, if I wasn't trying, I would be failing," she said.

That kind of approach gets a thumbs up from Elaine Eisenman, co-author of the business book "I Didn't See It Coming."

"Entrepreneurship is a continuum over a lifetime of different opportunities. So, when you look at it as a series of milestones over the course of time, failure doesn't take on such an important piece. It's just something that happens," Eisenman said.

Blakely's attitude toward failure kept her open to the idea that would reshape her bottom line, and everyone else's too.

The Big Idea

"The day I cut the feet out of my control top pantyhose, that was it," Blakely said. "I put my white pants on and I had no panty lines. I looked a size smaller and thought, 'You know what? This is an undergarment that needs to be pitched to women.' And that night, in my apartment, I set out to make Spanx."

But Blakely couldn't get Spanx into production because patent lawyers and hosiery manufacturers had serious doubts.

"I got the, you know, 'Sweetie, if it's such a good idea, why doesn't it already exist?'" she said. "Literally, I don't think one person told me this might be a good idea until after two years of pursuing this."

Her mistake? Figuring others would get it right away. So she wrote her own patent application and persuaded a hosiery mill to make her product. She rejected dozens of prototypes. Finally, when Neiman Marcus agreed to stock Spanx, success was hers.

In January, Spanx will bring its tushlicious blend of comfort and shaping above the waistline, with the launch of the back-fat-busting Bra-llelujah.

"It is a molded-cup front, which is really beautiful on the woman. But all the rest of it is pantyhose," Blakely said. "So it doesn't dig into the woman's shoulder and it minimized bra lines and back fat on the back."

'Failure Helps You Know Who You Are'

So why fear failure? Blakely said Spanx owes its booty-kicking bounty to her risk-taking outlook.

"I have really set up the business to encourage people to fail as well. And I will tell a certain person in a department, 'What have you failed at lately? What risks have you taken?'" Blakely said. "And I treat everybody as their own entrepreneur."

Eisenman, dean of executive education at Babson College, thinks that's a smart way to run her business.

"Unbroken success doesn't teach you anything other than the fact that you're lucky," she said. "Failure helps you know who you are. Until you've failed, or until you hit adversity, you never had a chance to test yourself before."

No one knows that better than Jake Burton. His success is carved into the world's mountainsides, where his snowboards rule the slopes. But the man who has become one of snowboarding's best-known advocates admits that he began making boards just to make big bucks.

"When I first started this company, believe it or not, it was sort of a get-rich-quick type deal and I was a little bit of a hustler," he said.

Expensive Mistakes

Burton practically hustled his way into the poorhouse with his blunders.

"I thought, this is just a piece of cake, you know, starting a manufacturing company. I was so naive," Burton said. "So I had basically a net worth of about 100, 120 grand. And I went through over $100,000 before I turned the corner, and that was not my intention."

His mistake? Not realizing what an uphill battle it would be to gain acceptance for snowboarding in general. Burton found out the hard way.

"I can remember once going out with 25 boards and hitting a bunch of shops and one shop was a shop I'd already sold boards to and they didn't want them," he said. "They wanted me to take them back. So I came home with 27."

And his failings took a toll.

"It was very tough to motivate myself when I didn't even have a product, I didn't have a market. I had absolutely nothing. I was all alone. And I can remember one time just not even wanting to get out of bed," he said.

Shifting Focus

So as Burton pondered his future, he made a life-changing decision. He would think about snowboarding — and not the money it might make him.

"And once I focused on that, and really looked out for the sport, everything just took care of itself. You know, the business started to take off, we started making money, everything started to happen," he said.

Burton helped to get snowboarding a toehold on ski slopes, and his boards improved when he paid closer attention to the people riding them. But the tough times weren't over. Burton's wife, Donna Carpenter, then Burton's CFO, recalled when the bank couldn't lend the company money.

"I literally had to walk around and ask every employee to please don't cash your paycheck this week until I can tell you. I was eight months pregnant and I was going around to banks begging for anything. That was stressful," she said.

Those moments of difficulty forged the unique culture that's helped the company stay on snowboarding's shredding edge. Now at the company's Burlington, Vt., headquarters, classic boards line the lobby and employees' dogs roam the halls. And a company store like the one in the lobby is set to open in Los Angeles.

'You've Gotta Make Failure Work for You'

"I made mistakes and I learned from them. I learned, OK, you don't do it this way, you do it this way," Burton said.

It's the same philosophy that Eisenman endorses.

"The first reaction for many people is, 'It wasn't my fault,'" she said. "And what we find predicts future success is the ability to look in the mirror and say, 'What did I do that resulted in this outcome?'"

Even the best snowboarders take some big falls, and as his company's founder, Burton knows his mistakes have brought him to the mountain top.

"I never thought I'd have a house like this or the opportunities that I've got to go around the world surfing or snowboarding," he said. "You've gotta make failure work for you and not against you. And if you do that you're golden."