There’s a myth amongst entrepreneurs of the “lightning strike” — the “aha” moment when an idea just comes to you. In reality, it’s rare to find a successful scale entrepreneur whose big idea landed on their lap. It’s more likely they were already on the hunt.
If you want to find your big business idea, you have to surround yourself with the human equivalent of a pack of bloodhounds. And when you find yourself on its trail, follow the scent relentlessly. And be ready to act when you think you’ve found it.
I wanted to talk to Spanx founder Sara Blakely about my theory:
I believe there’s only one way to find your big idea: Look for it. Look for it. Look for it. And then act.
Her story of spotting, pursuing, and realizing her big idea is as legendary as it is unlikely. She came up with the idea for Spanx at the age 26 by cutting the feet off a pair of pantyhose. With no background in fashion, fabrication, or business, she grew it to a billion-dollar company that reinvented underwear — without ever taking outside investment.
Her story is the perfect parable for any entrepreneur looking for their first — or their next — big idea. Here are 5 key steps from Blakely from our conversation on Masters of Scale. If you’re not yet a listener, subscribe on Apple podcasts or find all of the episodes here.
Step #1: Clearly Define Your Purpose
“At 26, I was selling fax machines door to door for a living. I literally had a moment where I pulled off the side of the road and was like, ‘I’m in the wrong movie. This is not my life. Call the director or the producer. I’m not supposed to be being escorted out of buildings and having business cards ripped up in my face all day.’
And so I went home that night and I wrote down in my journal ‘I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good.’ This was something that I set intention for. I had really asked the universe to give me an idea that I could bring to the world.”
The Bigger Picture
Different people have different ways of expressing how ideas came to them. Sara will tell you that she asked the universe, and the universe answered. I would interpret it a bit differently. I’d say Sara kept asking the same set of interesting questions, starting with “Is this my big idea?” And one day, inevitably, the answer was going to be “Yes.”
Step #2: Always Be On the Hunt for Your Big Idea
“I wanted to wear my cream pants to a party, and I was a frustrated consumer that had no undergarment to wear under them that wouldn’t show. So I cut the feet out of my own control top pantyhose so I could throw them on under my pants and wear any kind of great strappy heel. And it worked beautifully, except for they rolled up my leg all night at the party.I came home that night and I was like ‘This should exist for women.’
I meet women all the time that have been cutting the feet out of their pantyhose for years trying to solve undergarment issues for themselves. And they’re always like, ‘Why didn’t I do Spanx?’ And I really just think it’s because I had been looking for this and was prepared in my mind to go for whatever idea presented itself.”
The Bigger Picture
First, notice the words Sara used: “This should exist.” Those three words flicker like a neon flashing light over a truly big idea. They’re your clue that you’ve stumbled on something with real potential.
Sara had spent years scanning the horizon for that neon sign, and she was prepared to go for whatever idea presented itself. All the other women who had the same thought simply went to their party and back to work the next morning, leaving the neon sign “This should exist” behind them in the night.
And this gets to the heart of a major misconception around entrepreneurship. There is a myth that big ideas drop out of the sky, land in your lap, and transform you into a billionaire the next day. This almost never happens.
Yes, Sara did have a key moment of inspiration, in her bedroom getting ready for a party, and that matters. But you have to look at what happened before that moment. Sara had already oriented herself squarely in the direction of a big idea; she’d been on the hunt for the last 10 years. Whatever kind of idea you’re staking out, you have to be intentional about looking for it.
Step #3: Put Yourself in Situations Where Inspiration Is Most Likely to Strike
“I’ve identified where my best thinking happens, and it’s in the car. I live really close to Spanx so I’ve created what my friends call my ‘fake commute.’ I get up an hour early before I’m supposed to go to Spanx and I drive around aimlessly in Atlanta with my commute so that I can have my thoughts come to me. And I thought of the name Spanx in the car.”
The Bigger Picture
Sara knows that she does her best thinking in the car. So she intentionally creates the time and space — first thing every day — to open herself up to new ideas. This may seem like an interesting bit of trivia. But it’s more important than it seems. As an entrepreneur, you have to put yourself in situations where YOUR great ideas are likely to strike.
Step #4: Once You Find Your Big Idea, Pursue It
“I went to Neiman and Saks and asked: ‘You know, what do women wear under these white pants?’ And the sales ladies would always say, ‘Well, we don’t really know!’ or they’d point me in the direction of the shapewear that did exist and it was really thick and dreadful and too much control or not what I was looking for. And then there was like regular underwear, which left a panty line that was visible so there was this big gap.
So I was doing two things: I was trying to determine if there was a marketplace beyond just my own thought and what I wanted. And at the same time, I was iterating the product. I tried to make the prototypes myself. I went to fabric stores and bought elastic and tried to paper clip it to the end, and then I tried to sew it. It was through the iteration of the prototype that I really started to love it and love what it could do for my wardrobe.
I like to tell people that what you don’t know can be your greatest asset if you let it. If you have the courage. You know, a lot of us second guess ourselves and think ‘Well, I didn’t go to school for this’ or ‘I’m not an expert’ so we don’t ask the questions or we don’t pursue it.”
The Bigger Picture
You can’t scale an idea that only lives in your head. You have to act on it — because that’s the only way to find out if it has legs.
And great entrepreneurs know: Not every idea is going to succeed. But every idea should be treated like it could. You can only know in retrospect which ideas go the distance. But even if your first idea doesn’t take flight, it may land you at the doorstep of your next big idea.
Spanx may have started as normal pantyhose with the feet cut off, but that isn’t where it ended. The classic Spanx, which women by the millions now rely on, are the length and shape of bicycle shorts. They look great under pants and dresses, never creating seams or lines.
You could compare them to old-fashioned corsets, except that Spanx are breathable, flexible, and invisible under clothes. They’re architectural marvels. The waist lines have an incredible non-sticky grip that keeps them in place. The legs don’t roll up or show through clothes. But none of this existed yet when Sara first had the idea. She saw a gap in the market, and started building toward it.
Step #5: Find Help in the Right Places
“I didn’t tell anybody my idea for one year. I didn’t want to tell friends and family because I didn’t want to invite ego into the process too soon, and so I kept it a secret from everybody in my life and didn’t seek validation. But I did share it with manufacturers, patent lawyers, or people who could help me move it along. And by doing that, I didn’t spend my first year explaining it and defending it. I just spent it pursuing it.
An idea is its most vulnerable in its infancy, and that’s also the moment in human nature we want to immediately turn to our right or left and tell our coworker or friend or boyfriend or boss, you know, ‘I have this idea.’ And out of love and concern we hear a lot of things that stop us right in our tracks.
‘Well, sweetie, if it’s such a good idea why doesn’t it already exist?’ And ‘Well, you know, even if this idea does take off, Sara, you’re going to spend your savings, and the big guys will knock you out of the water in six months.’”
The Bigger Picture
It’s so important — for entrepreneurs and anyone with an outlier idea — to remember that not everyone has the entrepreneurial mindset. Many people will tell you, “That’s crazy. That’s risky. You’ll never succeed. Lots of people have tried this and failed. What makes you different? Why don’t you just take a nice safe 9-to-5 job?”
So if you’re the kind of person who gets discouraged or bullied out of your idea, you might want to do what Sara did — and keep it to yourself.
But there’s also a real advantage to feedback. I do my best thinking when I’m around people who challenge me, who poke holes in my ideas, and who can tell me where the landmines are.
It’s not that Sara didn’t have any input. She just figured out where to get the most useful input, from people who knew the ins and outs of the business. And she shielded herself from the kind of criticism that might have crippled her.