Just five years ago, sample sale shopping seemed to be designed for a lucky few. There were many hurdles to leap over before you could even think about getting your paws on those 20% percent off Jimmy Choo’s.
You would need to be living in a major city like New York or Los Angeles, be one of the select chic women (most likely in the fashion industry) privy to the knowledge that a sale was taking place, and of course ready to dart off to some obscure location at an inconvenient time of day. But for those able to jump through these various rings of fire, there was one more obstacle in the way: the swarms of voracious women hunting for the exact same pieces you were after. Talk about high intensity cat-fights all for a red-marked tag! For many, the price of this hassle seemed too steep for the deal.
And then in 2007, two women revolutionized the e-commerce "deal space" realm with the founding of Gilt Groupe. Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, two smart and fashion savvy friends from Harvard Business School were on a mission to leave an indelible mark on the online shopping experience. Gilt Groupe, which has attracted five million members, and has earned a $1 billion estimated valuation, has expanded tremendously from its early days from a site exclusively for women’s fashion deals. Like the company’s wheels, which are in constant motion, Maybank and Wilkis Wilson are moving fast too. Their latest project is their book, By Invitation Only, which chronicles the Gilt Groupe tale.
Wilkis Wilson was able to take time from her busy national book-touring schedule to chat with Her Campus Barnard and share her side of the story with us.
Toby Milstein: Can you start by briefly describing the concept of Gilt Groupe to those who are unfamiliar.
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson: Gilt Groupe provides members access to some of the most amazing coveted designers online, through online access, at prices, generally, up to 60 percent off. And now we’re a luxury lifestyle online destination. So we sell everything for men, women, kids, travel, and experiences. It’s very exciting.
TM: How did your upbringing and early experiences bring you to the world of fashion and Gilt Groupe?
AWW: I grew up in New York City and had a lot of there, many of them in the fashion industry in different functional area. I think I have always been interested in designer fashion and have been a sample sale shopper for many years. The concept of Gilt Groupe was really to bring the excitement of a sample sale to an online audience across the country.
TM: I read that when you were younger you were fond of lemonade sales and that was what gave you your early business experience. Will you talk about that experience and how that helped you down the road in the business world?
AWW: Well I was a little girl growing up in New York City, loved to have a little lemonade sale outside my apartment building and I would do it with friends. This was a fun activity: creating a product, making lemonade, and positioning it. I think this was my first experience in learning how to sell. This is a skill set I have really developed over the years—having the ability to sell. Whether that’s selling of a concept or a vision for a business idea and getting people to join our start-up team when we were five people. Or getting partners to trust us with their most prized possessions, which was their fashion. So having the ability to sell and learning that at a young age served me well and has definitely been an important skill.
TM: I’m just wondering how the idea for Gilt Groupe really unfolded. I know the book tells the tale beautifully (and is something all of our Her Campus readers should pick up and read too) but can you describe the very condensed and abbreviated version? How did it all happen?
AWW: Sure, well the details are definitely in our book, “By Invitation Only.” Essentially, Alexis and I had been longtime friends; we had met as undergrads in a Portuguese class and had reconnected years later at Harvard Business School where we were classmates. We came together along with our other three cofounders. And in the book, we go into detail about how our team came together. Our two co-founder engineers worked together before, they were friends. Kevin Ryan who today is our CEO was our chairman initially. He financially backed the idea and he had been following a similar business model in France called Vente Privee. He was familiar with this business model, we weren’t. Kevin was thinking about Vente Privee, Alexis and I were inspired by the idea of bringing sample sales online. And we all had different skill sets and experiences and put our heads together and really worked very quickly to bring the idea into fruition and execution. And in our book, we say, “it’s not only about the idea, it’s really about the execution of the idea.”
TM: Right, I love that part of the book and all of its little tips. So now to get into By Invitation Only, what inspired you and Alexis to write it? When did you come up with the idea to put your experience on paper?
AWW: Alexis and I started working on the book two years ago-it was a two-year process, which for us is a really long time. We can put together a whole business much faster than we can write a book effectively. That was kind of a shock to us when we were meeting people in the publishing world and they said it would be a two-year process. Part of the challenge was we had fulltime jobs, and we had families and it was not the only thing we were working on. We were meeting weekly, putting together our thoughts, and trying to remember the stories from the early days. We had someone helping us, helping organize us and figure out the voice. It’s actually pretty tough to write a book with the voice of two people.
TM: Yes, in the “we” tense. You talk about that in the book.
AWW: Exactly. Yeah, you’re a writer so you know.
We didn’t always want to be “we we we” because sometimes we had different points of view. And yeah, we had to put our ideas together. We interviewed a bunch of our colleagues and employees to get their perspectives. We wanted our executives to read the book before it came out, so that took a little time to get everyone’s feedback.
TM: And the reason why you wrote it?
AWW: The reason we wrote the book was because Alexis and I believe very strongly in entrepreneurship. We wanted to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. We felt that putting our stories very honestly to paper and sharing it, we hoped to inspire more entrepreneurship and to help increase the chances for success for more entrepreneurs. It’s something we both hope very much is to see more women starting businesses and more women get funding. Right now the percentage of funding going to female-started businesses is very low. And we want to increase that and the success for female entrepreneurs.
TM: This is something we are concerned about at Barnard: the idea of female entrepreneurship. Everyone at school is very ambitious and looking to start their own businesses, and be the next big female entrepreneur. What do you see as some perks that come with being a woman in the entrepreneurial industry? What are some things that possibly hinder you as a woman?
AWW: I have found that when an entrepreneur is focusing on a business that he or she inherently understands, it is going to be a competitive advantage. We started a business focused on women’s fashion and around the psychology of female shopping behavior and retail. It was absolutely critical to understand that psychology and we did-we inherently understood that psychology because we were launching a business and targeting ourselves as customers. I think there are a lot of consumer-facing businesses targeting women here it is an advantage to be a woman because you understand the business so much better than a man who just cant understand the consumer behavior. I think in many cases it can be an advantage for a woman starting a business. I think being part of networks is always going to be helpful and valuable so you can bounce off ideas, share resources and men are sometimes better at being part of a network than women.
TM: A lot of people are thinking about starting small companies or projects with their friends at school. I know your book focuses on the idea of mixing friendship and business as risky but also beneficial, as it was in your case. Can you talk about your thought process in terms of going into business with one of your close friends?
AWW: So we have a checklist in our book that we call the “Business Partner Decision.” Our book is filled with checklists. Some of the things we talked about before going into business as friends are similar things you would talk about if you were going into business with a sibling, any kind of family member or a spouse, potentially. Kevin Ryan actually gave us great advice, which was to not “businify” our friendship: to make sure we didn’t only talk about work when we were outside the office. And we talked about a lot of things, thinking about, how do we fight? Are we in the same life-stage? Are we both going to be working as hard on the business? It’s tough when one person is giving it their all and the other person just can’t do that. I was reporting to Alexis for the first year and a half, so we talked about that and whether or not that would be an issue. It wasn’t for us. It was actually a pleasure to report to her. We really both believed so much in the concept, in the business, and wanted to have fun with it, and wanted to see it succeed. So I think just communicating as much as possible before you jump in is probably the best way to go about it.
TM: I think this is all such critical advice and so germane for when you are starting a business. I just wanted to conclude with a personal question. What is your latest obsession, be it a book, a new album, a travel destination?
AWW: I am really having fun playing with Pinterest these days. I think Pinterest is a lot of fun and I think many companies are trying to figure out what to do with it and how to monetize and capitalize on it. I think that will be interesting to see for brands over time. But I do think that pinterest is on fire right now.