Gilt Groupe Co-Founders' Startup Advice: Find Your Stunt-DoubleApril 16, 2012
by Meghan Casserly
Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, the dynamic duo behind the online sample sale pioneer Gilt Groupe have been close friends since the night they reunited at a mixer for Harvard MBA students at a basement pub in Boston.
Alexandra had spent the five years since undergrad working in investment banking and looked NYC-fashionable in white jeans and a pink kaftan top. Alexis, whose role as an early eBay employee made her a whiz in e-commerce, says she was thrilled to see her old classmate in the bar that night. They spent most of the night networking but felt drawn together at every break and ultimately left the bar in a “hazy” (read: probably-shouldn’t-have-been-driving) end to the night.
The two leggy, brilliant blondes have been inseparable ever since. But while the two MBA grads, who share so many similarities—first initials, hair color, degrees, passions for fashion and the food, language and music of Brazil—went on to build the first (and arguably most successful) online sample sale sites in the world as a team, it’s not their likeness that has made them so powerful. Instead, according to Maybank and Wilkis-Wilson, who sat down with me this month to talk about the release of their shared memoir “By Invitation Only,” far from their similarities, it’s their differences that make them indestructible.
“It’s very much like discovering your latter-day stunt double,” Maybank says of finding the right cofounder. Wilkis-Wilson is detail-oriented, a task-master who keeps everything running according to schedule, while Maybank is a self-described “big picture thinker” who is referred to throughout the new book, out in stores this week, as the “impulsive” one. “Our differences haven’t just made us a much stronger team but they’ve allowed us to see what we’re missing and who [else] we need to bring around us as part of our founding team.”
For them, that meant a business mind and the technical know-how to accompany their deep insight into the ecommerce and fashion realms. Maybank describes the coming together of the Gilt Groupe team—which includes Wilkis-Wilson, founding chairman Kevin Ryan and developers Phong Nguyen and Mike Bryzek—as the “perfect eclipsing of the moon,” and encourages young entrepreneurs to look for cofounders that complement, rather than underscore their own skill-sets. “It’s critical when thinking about building a team as a start up to make sure you’re not hiring people who are just like you,” she says. With cofounders whoa re too like-minded, she cautions that you might quickly find yourself happily skipping down the wrong path, neither of you able to identify the flaws or pitfalls in the plans of the other.“
Wilkis-Wilson agrees, and even says the importance of the right cofounder is the single most important piece of advice she shares with young, female entrepreneurs (Maybank and Wilkis-Wilson say they meet with three to five founders each week for mentoring sessions). Why devote so much time to others? Because, Wilkis-Wilson laughs, they’ve made so many mistakes. “We want to encourage these young women, to learn from what we’ve learned,” she says.
At the top of that list, which is clear when both speaking to the two look-alike cofounders or reading their book, is the importance of knowing your own strength and finding a cofounder who isn’t just different, but complementary. “The sum of the parts really is greater than the whole,” she says. “For us, we’re five cofounders, but even if you just look at Alexis and myself, one plus one is so much more than two.”
Her best advice for choosing your “stunt-double?” Think about who you would want to start a business with, she says, but more importantly identify whether or not they have the skill-set and personality to complement your own. Make sure they can challenge your ideas and your plans, and you can skip into the uncharted territory of a start-up with confidence.