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New NPR Podcast 'How I Built This' Begins With Spanx


Let's hear now about ladies undergarments, one brand in particular that turned this woman into a billionaire.


SARA BLAKELY: The word Spanx came to me while I was in my car. And I pulled off the side of the road, and I thought that's it.

MONTAGNE: That's Sara Blakely talking about her shapewear which helps flatten out those little bulges under clothes. Hers is a classic tale of American Hustle and innovation. It's the kind of story that NPR's Guy Raz has become a sort of expert on lately. And our colleague David Greene spoke with him to find out more.


Guy is the host of the TED Radio Hour. He's been working on a new show, and he's in the studio with me. Hey, Guy.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Hello, David.

GREENE: So tell me exactly what you've been up to.

RAZ: Well, David, imagine getting a master class from the greatest living entrepreneurs in the world. That's basically what I've been doing for the past several months.

GREENE: That sounds fun. I'm a little envious.

RAZ: It's been incredible and sort of asking them how they did what they did. And so we took those interviews and we created a new podcast. We're calling it How I Built This. And, you know, a lot of people have great ideas, right? But what does it take to transform that idea into the real thing and then getting people to actually buy it, which is the story of Sara Blakely from Spanx.

GREENE: I guess we should nod to the fact that this is two guys who were talking about...

RAZ: Yes, I should acknowledge they do now make Spanx for men. But, yes...

GREENE: Oh, good. And so Sara Blakely is exactly the kind of person you're looking to meet in this podcast.

RAZ: Yes. And basically her story is that back in the '90s, she was selling fax machines from office to office in Atlanta. And she had to wear dress pants to do this. But she hated how you could see the lines of her underwear under her dress pants. So she started to wear pantyhose under her pants. She would cut off the feet and that would sort of, you know, smooth out the lines under her pants. And so she came up with this idea to try and create a prototype. She had no background in design or sewing or anything.

GREENE: Oh, it was just an impulse based on her own experiences.

RAZ: Exactly. And so once she came up with this design, she started to go door to door looking for a manufacturer that could make the prototype.


BLAKELY: They always asked me the same three questions. They'd say, Sara Blakely, and you're financially backed by, and I'd be like Sara Blakely. And so you can imagine how that meeting went. You know, most of them were like, have a nice day. It's great to meet you, you know?

GREENE: And she's probably talking about a conversation that she had more than a few times.

RAZ: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. She made a lot of cold calls, and she made cold calls eventually to buyers for big companies, including Neiman Marcus. Now, one day, she just happened to reach a buyer on the phone. And she convinced this person to give her 10 minutes of her time. So, Sarah, you know, she's a total nobody. She heads to Neiman Marcus headquarters in Dallas. And she starts to make her pitch, and it isn't going well.


BLAKELY: In the middle of my meeting with her, I could tell I was losing her. So I said, you know what, Diane? Will you come with me to the bathroom? She goes excuse me? I want to show you my own product before and after. And she said OK. And she walked down the hall with me, and I went in the stall and I had on my cream pants that were the reason I invented this without Spanx on and then I went in the stall and put Spanx on underneath and came out. And she looked at me and she goes wow, I get it.

GREENE: This is amazing. I mean, this is something out of a movie...

RAZ: Yeah, exactly.

GREENE: ...Like you're in the boardroom, the pitches are going well...

RAZ: Yeah.

GREENE: ...And you make that final decision...

RAZ: That final pitch.

GREENE: ...Like, I'm going to try one last thing.

RAZ: Exactly. And Neiman Marcus made an order, a small order, which sounds great. But this is when businesses often make it or die because if you can't sell the product in the store, it often means that the money runs out. So Sara hatched a plan to make sure that people would actually buy Spanx.


BLAKELY: Well, first of all, I paid people, basically friends, to go buy the product and create a buzz about it because I was like I've got to have these things move off the shelf or the buyer's not going to give me any more chance.

GREENE: Wait, she said she actually paid people to get her product?

RAZ: Yes, exactly. And she did all kinds of things like that. She would sneak around department stores and put Spanx near the cash registers so people would see them. It's an incredible story. And her invention made Sara Blakely the youngest self-made female billionaire in American history.

GREENE: OK. Sara's just one of the people that my colleague Guy Raz has met. And he's the host of the TED Radio Hour, and he has this new podcast How I Built This. It features interviews with entrepreneurs like Sara Blakely. And if you want to hear all of Guy's conversation with her, you can go to guy.npr.org. Guy, thanks a lot. That was fun.

RAZ: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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