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June 27, 2016

Ford Blakely, Zingle: 3 Lessons In PR From His Sister, Sara Blakely, And Spanx

Zingle.Me founder Ford Blakely has some good things going as an entrepreneur–namely an inherent ability to get creative instead of getting mad when things annoy him. The Zingle mobile text platform he created in 2009 is a case in point. Blakely was tired of waiting in long lines in the morning for his “single shot, soy mocha, 2 pumps, no whip.” An avid texter, he was surprised businesses didn’t have a way to accept text orders. So he bought a cell phone for his favorite coffee shop to keep by the register so he could text his order in ahead every morning.

The idea caught on and the coffee shop was soon swamped with more activity than they could manage from a single phone. So he developed Zingle as a business text solution that allows customers to text a business and get a confirmation response, to help customers and businesses to communicate better and save time. The platform now facilitates text communications for a variety of business types including hotels, food service, valet parking.

Another trait he’s obtained is the ability to learn by example. Not a PR guy by trade, he’s picked up ideas for the company’s public relations by observing his sister, Sara Blakely—the Sara Blakely, the youngest women to hit the Forbes self-made billionaire list in 2013, as the founder of shapewear company Spanx. So what did Zingle learn (and what can all of us model) about effective public relations from Spanx? Blakely points to three major lessons, as follows: 1) Be memorable, 2) Passion is more important than experience, and 3) Seize the opportunity when you get it.

Here’s how these examples have played out for him.

  1. Be Memorable. In the creation of Spanx, Sara Blakely intentionally picked a name that was unique and memorable. She “put a ton of smart thinking into selecting the name,” according to Ford. She had no money to advertise (Spanx was reportedly bootstrapped for just $5,000) so she wanted a name that would be press worthy on its own. At the time, the name Spanx was a huge risk, but the gamble has clearly paid off.

“When I first started Zingle, I was the first one to ever think a customer should be able to text (message) a business,” said Ford. “Knowing the world would one day recognize how essential this form of customer communication is, it was important to me to create a company name that was memorable (‘Zingle’) and had the ability to become a mega brand.”

Three things that were important to Ford in the process: 1) The name had to be playful, 2) He wanted the name to be used as both a noun and a verb (similar to Google GOOGL -0.59%’s strategy). “Did you Zingle it in?” “Oh, is that Zingle?”) 3) He wanted to pick a name that if you heard it phonetically, you would know how to spell it in a web search. (Note from editor: This was brilliant.) “It’s essential to stand out, and starting with the name is very important,” says Ford.

  1. Passion is More Important than Experience. “Neither Sara nor I had any prior experience in our related industries,” Ford says. The passion that both hold for the problems they solve and the people they’re helping come through in every aspect of Spanx’ and Zingle’s PR.

Sara pursued a problem in woman’s fashion after selling fax machines door to door. Ford pursued a customer communication problem at his local coffee shop after years of commuting to a finance job. The logical entrepreneur path would have been for Sara to start a company in the corporate equipment industry or for Ford to start a new financial consulting firm. In many respects it would have been the easier way to go.

In both cases, the founders were both driven to solve a problem they were passionate about than participate in an industry they already understood. In the case of Spanx, from day one, Sara was emphatic about making products that women wanted to wear; that were comfortable and would work. She taught herself how to build great products (thru the lens of what she wanted as a customer). She knew that if she solved the problem first, the business would follow, and it did.

The idea for Zingle emerged from Blakeley’s desire to avoid waiting in lines (Image courtesy of
In the case of Zingle, Ford knew nothing about software when he started the company. “All I wanted to do was bring a product to market that made it easier for me to communicate with my local coffee shop,” he said. “It seemed obvious to me that everyone was texting between peers and it was a fundamental breakdown that businesses weren’t benefiting from the technology as well.” When he brought his idea to various technology companies, he discovered that nobody liked the idea and their solutions to the problem were “lame.” “I decided the best thing to do was to solve the product problem first, learn from my customers, then build the business plan,” he says.

  1. Seize The Opportunity When You Get It. When Sara was first featured on Oprah, she could have have sat back and waited for sales to increase (in response to the TV spot). Instead, she realized that if she could replay that one moment in television over and over, she would generate 10 times the exposure. As such, she purchased TVs (with embedded VCRs) and looped her Oprah coverage into every department store to gain customer momentum. Yes, it was amazing that she was selected by Oprah as one of her favorite things, but what Sara did to PR the opportunity was more remarkable still.

For Zingle, when Ford launched the first ever text valet service (in NYC) where monthly parkers could text ahead to their garage to have their car ready, it didn’t immediately take off. He was given three garages to enable (as a test pilot). He could have easily trusted the idea and flown back to California to wait for the usage to gain momentum. Instead, he decided to stay in NYC during the 6 week pilot (in order to not leave the outcome to fate). “The service worked great with customers when I was on site, because they talked about Zingle, but after I left, he usage fell apart,” he recalls. “I quickly realized that the garage attendants didn’t think the service was a good idea. So I decided the best thing to do was to create organic momentum with the garage attendants.”

So Ford gave several of his NYC buddies $40 to give to the valet attendants (as a tip) every-time they Zingled (texted) for their car. “It cost me about $800 but it was the best money I ever spent,” he said. “The garage attendants started telling other garage attendants about the huge tips they were getting by talking about Zingle. Then, once the momentum was in place, the service became a giant success.”

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