Ever admire an insanely successful entrepreneur, and wish you could get a step-by-step guide to her business secrets?
Well, that just happened, thanks to Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Alexis Maybank, co-founders of online sample sale site Gilt Groupe. (If you’re not a member yet, join now. Apologies in advance to your bank account.)
The friends and Harvard Business School classmates are now Gilt’s Chief Merchandising Office and Chief Strategy Officer, respectively, and have just published their book, By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop. It’s a rundown of their story as entrepreneurs, but also a guide on everything from launching a startup to picking the right team to navigating (and, yes, conquering) the business world.
And we got a sneak peek during our recent chat with Alexandra. Read on for how she started the flash sale site that launched a thousand more—and what she’s learned along the way.
First off, give us the rundown on how Gilt Groupe was founded.
We are a team of five co-founders, and I don’t think any one person could have done it alone. We have a really fantastic team where we had complementary skill sets as well as personalities.
Kevin Ryan, who today is our CEO, initially was the chairman of Gilt before it had a name. He had been inspired by a business model in France called Vente-Privee, and he found two engineers, Mike and Phong, to start coding out a site. He then connected with Alexis, who had an e-commerce background, and she joined the group.
I was the last one to join. I was probably the most risk-averse of the co-founders—I’ve never been part of a startup, and I was working for Bulgari, which I loved. But, finally, Alexis convinced me to join, and very shortly after that, we launched.
Did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. But I got solid experience working for Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, and initially when I went into the luxury sector, I thought my dream was to be CEO of a luxury brand.
But once I was on the inside, I realized it was going to be a long and slow path, and I thought that I had so much to give. On a personal level, it was very good timing—I had just gotten married, I didn’t have many family responsibilities, and I really wanted to work hard and be passionate about something, and to build something for myself.
I would not have done just anything, though. For me, it was really important that I do something that I really understood—that I had innate gut instincts about.
What was it about the Gilt Groupe idea that stuck with you?
Alexis and I hadn’t been familiar with Vente-Privee, but we were both extremely familiar with and passionate about the concept of an NYC sample sale. I worked for Louis Vuitton and Bulgari and have many contacts and friends throughout the fashion industry, so I’ve always been invited to some of the best sample sales in the industry, and I would bring Alexis with me. We just loved shopping at these sales where you could get some of the most coveted, luxury, and designer brands for prices sometimes up to 90% off retail. Our vision for the company was to recreate the excitement and irrational but amazing behavior of a sample sale.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned that you would share with other entrepreneurs?
We write a lot in our book about picking that early team, whether it’s your co-founders or that first hire. You really want to know what you’re getting into, whether you’re hiring a friend or a former colleague or even a family member. Our book is filled with checklists—including a business partner decision checklist, which I think is pretty helpful.
But also learn to listen to your gut instincts. If there are any red flags for you about a particular individual, listen to them. Whenever you’re hiring people, I think it’s really important to check the references they provide, but also go out of your way to check additional references that they might not provide.
We’re also big believers—whether you’re a four-person company or a 400-person company—in trying to get as many people as possible within your organization to interview candidates. Early on in our business, I would ask our engineers to interview buyer candidates, and I would interview engineering candidates, even though I didn’t have a deep knowledge of what their functional roles would be. This is so helpful for cultural fit.
Now, flash sale and online sample sale sites are everywhere. How has Gilt stayed the best of the bunch?
Both Alexis and I think competition is actually good and healthy. It’s also validation that you’re on to something good. Competition can certainly wear you down and be frustrating at moments, but I think it makes everybody a better player.
Also, we just do our best to innovate as much as possible, and to surprise and delight our customers. We know that our customers have a very high expectation of us. If we kept doing the same thing over and over, for six months, with nothing new and surprising and innovative, our customers would be disappointed. It pushes us to be ahead of our game.
Has Gilt’s success been beyond your wildest dreams?
It’s very exciting! I never expected the company to grow that big that quickly. But I think when you’re down an entrepreneurship path, you never really know what’s going to come.
Learn more about Alexandra and Alexis’ story and pre-order By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop at giltfounders.com.