Most marketers have big ideas that need support – funding, backing by senior management, or buy-in from the sales team or other departments. But often when their ideas get questioned, they lose confidence and give up.
That’s not the response of innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists. On NPR’s weekly podcast How I Built This, founders of some of the world’s best-known companies and brands offer a narrative journey of their successes marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insights.
The common thread of these innovators is that they’re all in. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to push their big ideas through no matter what comes their way.
Consider Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, who at 27 was selling fax machines door-to-door in Atlanta and desperate to reinvent her life. Her frustration increased when she bought an expensive pair of dress pants for work, but couldn’t find an undergarment that would hide her panty lines. To make do, she cut off the feet of her control-top pantyhose – and boom – a lightbulb went off. What if she could create lightweight, footless pantyhose to wear under dress pants? Would women buy them?
After checking to see if anything similar had been patented and asking a Neiman Marcus sales associate if customers would buy an undergarment like this, Sara took $5,000 in savings and set out to make a prototype. Most manufacturers would not take her calls, so she took a week off work and went door-to-door to hosiery manufacturers in North Carolina. Finally, one said yes, but only after talking to his daughters.
Once Sara had a sample, her persistence, moxie and willingness to jump on a plane and fly to Dallas on her own dime convinced the corporate hosiery buyer at Neiman Marcus to give her 10 minutes to make her pitch.
“In the middle of my meeting, 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 said, ‘I want to show you my own product before and after.’ 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 on Spanx underneath and came out. She looked at me and said, ‘Wow. I get it. It’s brilliant.’”
Sara went on to become the youngest female billionaire in America.
Here’s what I’ve observed about Sara and other innovators profiled on How I Built This:
- Most stumbled onto their ideas without knowing how to transform them into the real thing or how to commercialize them.
- Almost all were frustrated that something they needed or wanted didn’t exist, and they believed others would need and want it too.
- Obstacles were a given, but rather than being defeated, obstacles made innovators more resourceful and work even harder.
- Money and recognition were not the driving force. It was the journey of making the idea come to life and seeing it embraced by others.
- They didn’t do it alone. Their passion and confidence in how good their ideas were gave others the confidence to get onboard.
So, what does any of this mean to CMOs and marketing executives with big ideas?
- Insights and gut feelings are powerful and often right.
- Passion and knowledge are ammunition against naysayers.
- Go public only when you’re far enough down the line that you won’t turn back.
- Do whatever it takes to get to yes.
One more interesting thing about Sara is that, other than talking to manufacturers and lawyers, she kept her idea secret for a year because she believed ideas are most vulnerable in their infancy.
She felt if she told friends or family about her idea early on, she would spend her time defending it, explaining it and not pursuing it. She wanted to be at the place where she would not turn back no matter what she heard, adding, “I feel if I had heard their concerns the night I cut the feet out of my pantyhose, I’d probably still be selling fax machines.”
Judi Wax (pictured) is executive vice president / public relations. She provides vision and leadership for LGA’s award-winning public relations department and has led successful brand-building programs for hundreds of business-to-business, business-to-consumer and nonprofit clients.