Of Mermaids and Manhattans

Yesterday afternoon I had a chance to hear Spanx founder Sara Blakely moderate a discussion between Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson and Delta CEO Richard Anderson.

macinsights My blurry photo of Blakely, Branson, and Anderson from the back of the ballroom

Spanx is an institution in Atlanta.

Personally, I have a hard time relating to the brand. The product is a luxury essential that would seem absurd in my hodgepodged wardrobe. I'd cut the feet out of nude pantyhose or buy knock-off “spanky pants” at Target before I'd step foot in Neiman Marcus.

And yet, I found myself beneath a glittering chandelier in a ballroom at the St. Regis, absolutely enamored with Sara Blakely. She is fantastic.

After she asked the gentleman a few questions about their partnership and their experiences finding success in business, Anderson said what we were all thinking, “I'd like to hear your answers to these questions, Sara.”

She handed over her cue cards and kept the conversation going, “Well, what I wanted to ask you was did you have any mentors that you looked up to?”

In the Q&A a young man said, “I want to ask you all the one question we always ask founders before we invest in their companies. What is the one thing that you believe in that no one else believes in?”

Branson said, “I believe in mermaids.”

Anderson added, “And our mermaids wear Spanx.” The crowd chuckled and he followed up with, “I believe the perfect Manhattan has not yet been made.”

Blakely said, “If I were talking with a potential investor and they asked me what I believe in that no one else believes in, I would have said, 'Myself.' ”

In any other context that answer might have seemed obvious, but there on that stage in that moment it felt earnest and accessible. It was a genius response from someone who's built a personal brand around naiveté and persistence.

There are lots of good reasons to let go of a business idea. Maybe it doesn't solve a real problem or provide value. Maybe you have other priorities right now. But, if you have a good idea and an opportunity to make it happen, “I don't believe I can do it” is a pretty lousy excuse.

Believe in yourself, even if that means being a little bit naive.