While the invite-only site originally catered to women only, Gilt has since expanded into menswear and home goods with equal success. We talked with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, who co-founded the company with Alexis Maybank, about the genesis of Gilt and how they’ve managed to become one of the most successful luxury retailers online.
Tell me a little about how you and Alexis met, and why you decided to go into business together.
Alexis and I are very good friends. We went to Harvard undergrad together, and then we went our separate ways. She was in San Francisco; I was in London. Then we were both returned to Harvard for business school. We had complementary skill sets. We launched the site three years after we graduated, but we had worked on field study projects together and knew we’d make a great team. We were very familiar with the New York sample-sale phenomenon, and had experienced first-hand the frenzy that women can find themselves in when they’re exposed to great products at good prices.
How do your skill sets differ?
I was more familiar with the fashion world and the luxury world, whereas Alexis had worked in consumer-based businesses, like eBay. She knew the online space, and I knew the fashion space. She had been at start-ups before and understood the exciting start-up routine. We’re constantly evolving our business. Initially the idea focused on women’s products, but since then we’ve expanded.
When brainstorming together, what business models did you use for inspiration?
We definitely paid attention to social media and viral businesses. We wanted to encourage word-of-mouth. There’s a company in France called Vente-Privee (Private Sale) that was inspirational to us. We started out our first sale with Zac Posen, and other American designers with very high price-points. Price-points are the cost for the customer. We started off selling $1500 dresses for $400 – a huge savings but still expensive.
Was there any inspiration not related to business that influenced the genesis of Gilt?
Not really – the inspiration came from us. We were both the young consumer, and we understood that mentality. That’s a great strategy when you’re starting a business, to see yourself as the potential consumer.
We were familiar with the New York sample-sale phenomenon, and had experienced first-hand the frenzy.
What skills from your previous work experience did you find aided you the most in founding a business?
I’m a very hard worker, I’m driven, but I also care a lot about people, both internally and externally with the brands that we feature or would like to feature. A lot of brands that have partnered with us have been because of my personal relationships with them. Networking and connections are essential to a successful business.
What is your definition of a successful employee?
It depends on the functional role, but the most successful employees we’ve had have been those that have a fire in their belly, a go-getter attitude that won’t take no for an answer. We don’t have a 9-5 culture; people are always accessible on their PDA. We have over 320 employees. When we launched we had 6. We had a hiring strategy from the very beginning, and it depends on what areas of the business need more attention. Six months after our launch we started featuring men’s products, so then we had to hire a men’s buying team.
Did you always know you would use an online model?
The intention was always to be online. We do events in different cities, but we don’t do physical sales or pop-up sales. Online works so well and it’s so fabulous—the revenues you can generate online are much better. Our events could be a movie sponsorship: we do a movie premiere and we do a cocktail party, and we can meet members and prospective members, i.e. fashionable women. It’s also an opportunity for press. It makes a big impact in terms of our branding. We hosted the Valentino screening last year in New York, which was wonderful.
How has the recession effected your business?
Our business isn’t full-priced retail, and I think our business model has been successful because people now feel guilty about spending full prices.
How hands-on are you now that the business has stabilized? More or less since you started-up?
It remains a 500% full-time job. I’m always traveling and trying to stay innovative and stay ahead of our competitors. I love what I do, and the workload doesn’t change. The content does.
What would be your bottom-line word of advice to young entrepreneurs?
I think you have to stay flexible, when you’re in a start-up you never know what’s going to happen.