Gilt Groupe Co-Founder Alexandra Wilkis Wilson Talks Start-Ups, Struggles, and 'By Invitation Only'

Photo courtesy of Fortier Public Relations
By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop.

We'd venture a guess that at noon each weekday, more than a few of you out there have a very specific online ritual: checking Gilt Groupe. Since the women's flash sale site launched in November 2007, e-shoppers couldn't get enough, and since then the company has grown into a veritable empire, launching men's, kids', travel, and food categories.

Now, founders Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson are spilling their success secrets with a new book, By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop. Part two-woman memoir, part business tome, the book takes a personal look into their successes and struggles in building the site and offers valuable advice for would-be entrepreneurs.

FashionEtc caught up with Wilkis Wilson to talk about the duo's relationship (Maybank is "like the closest thing to having a twin," she said), their company's milestones, and their new favorite start-ups.

Why did you want to write this book?

Over the years Alexis and I have traveled all across the country and much of the world, whether on merchandising trips, launching Gilt in Japan, or what have you. We spent so much time meeting with our customers and valued members, and they always ask a similar set of questions. We’d think our customers would want to talk fashion, but they really always wanted to understand the business. People who love the site and love the concept think, ‘Why didn’t I think of this? How did you build the team? How did you raise money? How did you convince brands to work with you?’ These were questions we’d hear over and over again. We felt putting ourselves to paper would give us a chance to essentially give back to potential entrepreneurs, future entrepreneurs, and especially women.

What was the process of writing the book like?

What was most tricky was figuring out the voice—because there are two of us. We hadn’t read many books by two authors. Usually a book's from one personal point of view, and we wanted to be a unified ‘we,’ but also individuals with different roles, different opinions, and different perspectives. We hopefully did a good job keeping it clear!

Writing it was like an extra curricular activity—we both have full time jobs, families, little ones. We met every week early on Thursdays, had a breakfast and would write and brainstorm. We’d try and remember some of our stories from the early days, and we’d pull up old sales, old emails. Then Sunday nights we’d spend a lot of time on the computer, writing and editing, and improving the flow. We both wrote a lot in college, but it wasn’t something we do every day. We were surprised by how slow the process is! We can launch businesses much faster than we can write and publish a book!

Sounds like you two were incredibly hands-on.

We had someone helping us, but we were very hands-on. We spent many, many hours on this. There’s no way you could write a book so personal without being hands-on!

I liked that the book is so personal. Why did you choose to put so much of yourselves into it?

I think if you knew us as people, it’s a reflection of who we are. We’re very personal, easy to get to know, warm people. I love connecting with people. I think that’s part of our story, and how we were able to grow the business so quickly—especially in the beginning, with limited resources. We’re two real people launching a business. It was always important to be connected to the customer, because we are the customer, and our friends are the customer.

What’s the daily dynamic between the two of you?

People often confuse us, both internally in the company and externally. That’s funny for a number of reasons, one, because we don’t think we look alike and two, because we’re fundamentally very different people! We have very different skill sets and personalities, and that’s part of the secret sauce. It’s important when starting a business to not all have the same skill sets and perspectives and points of view.

Do you think you’ve become more alike over the years?

No! If anything, our eccentricities have gone in opposite directions! I have the type of personality that’s about details. I can get bogged down in details, and Alexis is opposite. She sees the big picture—I would call her visionary. She’s taught me to always be aware of the big picture, and hopefully I’ve helped her be more organized, and realize that details really matter.

She’s the personality type that she’s at her best when she wings it. Inspiration seems to come to her right before the moment, whether in a big meeting or giving a speech. I tend to plan way in advance and be really prepared. But I’ve started to wing it more!

Zac Posen was your first sale. Would you say you’re particularly close with him, seeing that he was such a milestone for you?

As a company, we’re very close to the Zac Posen brand. It was our first sale, and it’s a very important brand with a very special place in our hearts. We’ll always be very grateful to him and the brand. Alexis and I are very close to Susan Posen, his mother. I first met the whole Posen family in 2003. We adore her.

Anyone else that you couldn’t have done this without, brand-wise?

Honestly, there are hundreds if not thousands that we’re so appreciative of, for believing in us and giving us a first chance. Zac Posen, Judith Leiber, Rachel Roy, Alvin Valley, Marchesa—that was our initial roster of brands. They all took a chance on us and believed in us.

John Varvatos was our first men’s brand, Lucy Sykes our first kids’ brand, and Kim Seybert was our first home brand. That first brand is so important on so many levels—because having a recognized and covetable brand creates consumer excitement and demand, but it also sets tone for other covetable brands.

What are you most proud of in your careers?

There are many things that I feel very happy about with Gilt, but probably convincing hundreds of brand partners to take a chance on us and work with us. For many brands, that’s completely unconventional.

What would you say has been the hardest thing you’ve had to face so far?

I was always responsible to convincing brands to work with us. I got a lot of rejection—a lot of unanswered emails and phone calls. But I didn’t that ever let that affect my morale or my team’s morale. I’m a self-starter and I’d wake up every morning more energized more committed to pushing forward. I never internalized any hesitancy.

Photo courtesy of Fortier Public Relations

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Alexis Maybank.

Are there any mistakes you can look back on and recognize now?

I really have no regrets. This has been an amazing experience to be a part of Gilt Groupe.

Are there any start-ups that you think are doing particularly well these days? What’s on your radar?

So many! Right now is a very exciting time in entrepreneurship in e-commerce. New York is becoming a really important hub for start-ups and digital media and retail, and that’s very exciting. I’m seeing entrepreneurs come together and seeing venture capitalists support that. Innovation is really fueling the American economy.

I met recently with the team at Warby Parker, and I think what they’re doing is pretty revolutionary. Zynga has changed online gaming. Facebook has innovated every day. I love Twitter. Pinterest is on fire. It’s gone so mainstream, and that’s exciting to see.

What advice would you give other aspiring entrepreneurs?

I think they should really weigh the pros and cons, and have a clear idea of their business. We have a start-up checklist in our book, actually. If all signs point in the direction of going for it, go for it. If there are any red flags—wrong time, wrong cofounders, wrong idea—then really pay attention to those red flags. Red flags are so important.

Anything advice that’s specific to working in the fashion sphere?

Relationships are important to any industry, but potentially more so in the fashion industry. No matter what role you have or want to have, it’s important to socialize with your peers, people at other companies, and stay current. What are other retailers doing,? What about other brands? High end, contemporary, mass market—it’s really important to stay informed.

Since Gilt first launched, you’ve expanded to men’s, kids’, travel, food, services, even a full-price site. Where else can you go?

Right now we’ve got our hands full with our existing businesses! We’re working very hard and are focused on profitability, and there are no launches we can share right now. In November we started shipping internationally—91 countries around the world!—so that’s been really interesting to watch.

Are you going to sell the book on Gilt?

Were going on a book tour, so we’re offering book tour with events on Gilt City!

By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop will be available April 12.