On a late May Thursday morning, an intimate group of 40 people gathered in New York to hear Gilt Groupe founders Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Alexis Maybank discuss their rise to success during an event put on by Fashioning Our Industry and held at American Airlines headquarters. Though Maybank ended up missing the event (ironically, she was stuck on a plane), Wilson, who diplomatically made sure to note she’s a frequent flier on American, dove in solo and provided more than enough inside scoop on her company’s path from the idea phase into the rapidly booming business it is today.
Wilson’s recollection of her trajectory from Harvard MBA student to founder and chief merchandising officer of Gilt Groupe was informative and, really, quite charming. During her talk, she highlighted five habits vital to anyone seeking success in the fashion industry:
1. Collect experiences. Wilson reiterated how all of her experiences affected Gilt’s success today. Early on in her career, she participated in a program with Louis Vuitton, which included working on the sales floor in the store on 5th Avenue. She credited the experience with giving her a more holistic view of the fashion industry. Maybank worked for eBay and helped to establish it as a highly successful ecommerce company. Both women both religiously shopped sample sales. All of these mixed together to spark the idea for a members-only, fast-paced, online shopping experience. The takeaway? Experience as much as possible as you build your career.
2. Utilize your resources. According to Wilson, Gilt Groupe began as an itty bitty startup with five people, a small office and little funding. The word free was imperative. They used Wikipedia and Survey Monkey to figure out their name. Wilson and Maybank tapped friends, friends-of-friends and social media to attract their first members and create their first sales. They also used their social connections to find the engineers that are vital to the site. Maybank even used her student email to buy the company’s URL because it was less expensive that way. Lesson: take advantage of whatever you can get your hands on.
3. Make connections. You never know who will help you succeed. Wilson explained, ”My eye doctor told me, ‘Oh, my sister married Judith Ripka’s son…’ and you never know where a relationship is going to take you.” Judith Ripka ended up being one of the first designers to sign on with Gilt. Wilson and Maybank also made sure to partner up with the CFDA, which helped establish credibility and networking. The message: Whether it’s someone you meet on a flight or is the daughter of a neighbor’s second cousin’s best friend, be open to establishing those connections.
4. Set goals and aim high. Wilson knew from the time she got her MBA that she wanted to run a luxury brand, while Maybank knew she wanted to run a successful ecommerce site. The best friends set a goal to launch Gilt with high end women’s brands and follow with a men’s shop a year later. They ended up beating their own goals. Men’s brands were featured six months after the site’s 2007 launch. As they raised funds early on, they made sure to state that they had other meetings to attend so investors would better their offers. Their savvy directing in these meetings helped them exceed their $2 million goal for initial funding. The takeaway: Whatever goals you set, just keep reaching higher.
5. Follow your gut instinct. Many of Gilt’s decisions were made on the spot. In fact, the decision to be called Gilt Groupe was made within minutes. When picking the name, the co-founders discussed using the word “group” to establish credibility to the brand. Next, they added the letter “e” to make it French like their inspiration, Bon Privé. Wilson offered the following words of wisdom, ”Listen to all the people who are going to tell you your idea is a bad idea, why it’s not going to work…just listen to them and move on…It’s really important to get a sense of the mentality of why people think you have a bad idea, because then you can actually refine your pitch. It’s good to anticipate any negativity and attack it head on.” Lesson: Listen, but be sure to do what your gut says is right in the end.
At the end of the event, Wilson answered questions from the audience. When asked about Gilt’s influence on fashion and technology, she responded, “The world in changing…Many fashion brands have realized that if they want to grow, if they want to compete in the big leagues (it doesn’t matter if it’s a luxury brand or a mass-market brand), they need to invest time, money, resources in technology.”
Want more? There’s plenty in the co-founders’ new book, By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop.
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