Insider Secrets of Gilt Groupe's Alexandra WilsonWelcome to Glass Heel’s power women series, called “Ladies We Love.” In it, we highlight phenomenal women on the move who excel in life, business, and have inspiring stories to tell
August 29, 2012
by Amanda Ebokosia
Founded in 2007 and now worth more than a billion dollars, it’s obvious that Gilt Groupe has mastered the world of e-commerce. At a recent event, “Survival Secrets of Game Changers” hosted by Ambermag, I had the opportunity to sit down with Gilt Groupe’s co-founder (and co-author of “By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt And Changed The Way Millions Shop”), Alexandra W. Wilson, to learn more about her insider secrets. And what makes her an inspiration to women in business everywhere.
“The reason we wrote our book, By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt And Changed The Way Millions Shop, is to inspire entrepreneurship– especially among women. We want to help increase the chances of success with more startups. It’s really hard to start a company because most fail by a long shot. We wanted to share very honestly throughout our book the challenges, the ups and downs, and what we learned along the way.”
- Alexandra W.Wilson
Why did she do it? Marcia Cole, Editor of Ambermag said, “Fashion is her passion” as she introduced Wilson, co-founder of Gilt Groupe to an audience of women awaiting to learn how she did it at the headquarters of UniWorld Group, the longest-standing multicultural advertising agency in the United States.
Moments before, I interviewed Alexandra Wilson on just that. In a beautiful coral ensemble, Alexandra Wilson met me for our interview at UniWorld Group. Wilson, co-founder of Gilt Groupe, currently leads the Gilt City division of the brand, which was once only an e-commerce website selling exclusively women coveted fashions by invitation, and is made up of 4 other founders: Alexis Maybank, Kevin Ryan, Mike Bryzek and Phong Nguyen. Today, it has since expanded to Jetsetter (Travel), Gilt Home, Gilt Women, Gilt Men, Gilt Kids, Gilt Taste, Gilt City, and more.
In our interview we discuss her challenges, typical day, business with her best-friend and fellow co-founder, Alexis Maybank, and when she felt she “earned her stripes.” Other highlights include a discussion on work-life balance, family, publicity, and advice which was led by Monique Nelson, CEO of UniWorld Group.
The Transition: Working in investment banking with Merrill Lynch to Gilt Groupe.
Alexandra Wilson: “I worked in investment banking for three years out of undergrad. After those three years, I went back to school– business school, and got my MBA. It was during the process after receiving my MBA, I made the transition to luxury retail fashions. It was a gradual change. It was really hard to make that career switch. A lot of fashion companies really did not know where to place someone with an MBA, who did not have a concrete marketing or merchandising experience.”
Wilson co-founded Gilt Groupe with her best-friend, Alexis Maybank, they met while in a Portuguese class during their academic years. Wilson speaks 5 languages and shares the love of travel and language with Maybank. During their years at Harvard Business School, Wilson and Maybank became close. When speaking about entering business with friends, Wilson advises, “You cannot start a business with any friend. It depends on the context of the relationship.”
On earning her stripes:
Alexandra Wilson: “As I was finishing my MBA, I was 27-years-old and really had to start at the bottom within fashion in terms of what I did functionally. I went to work with Louis Vuitton in a management training program, which was effective. I spent a year in the stores, selling to customers, wearing a uniform, working weekends, and working holidays to really get that retail experience. I earned my stripes so to speak.”
Alexandra Wilson went on to work at Bulgari, overseeing over 15 North American stores in retail operations. Wilson spent almost 2 years at Bulgari, before creating the luxury e-commerce website known today as Gilt Groupe.
Amanda Ebokosia: How was your experience working with Bulgari? What skills have you developed, which carried over to Gilt Groupe?
Alexandra Wilson: “…It was a great experience at Bulgari managing those 15 stores. It put to use a lot of different skills that I had from understanding operationally what is important within a store, which is something Louis Vuitton did very well. It’s one of the most efficiently operated luxury stores. It brought a level of understanding of how all the different components of a luxury brand come together.”
On what Wilson feared most starting Gilt Groupe:
Alexandra Wilson: “In my years at Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, I spent a lot of time in person with customers– selling to them, listening to them, and asking them questions. That was something that I worried that I would lose at Gilt in e-commerce, where you don’t have that direct interaction every single day with your customers.”
On the big advantage with e-commerce:
Alexandra Wilson: “The beauty of e-commerce, especially on our own site, is how much data we are able to collect. Demographics, purchases, what they (customers) clicked on, what they placed in their cart– and decided to remove, everything.”
Amanda Ebokosia: Did you develop a smart program, which influences what items you have available, based upon the research you generate?
Alexandra Wilson: “Yes, a lot of what we do is based on algorithms and data. Every single day the e-mail that goes out at 12:00 PM EST, has thousands of permutations. This is based on what you purchased, viewed, and any other pertinent data we have about you as a customer. If you’re woman who typically browses and shops on Gilt Women, buys on Gilt Kids, but usually does not pay much attention on Gilt men– we’re going to take that behavior into account (when organizing our newsletter per customer or registered member).
Amanda Ebokosia: What is a typical day like for you?
Alexandra Wilson: “…Focused on Gilt City, I’m building a team. I spend a lot of my time externally meeting with brand partners, cold-calling, and trying to convince companies to partner with us. That’s exciting, I like creating business and figuring out strategically how we can partner with other companies.”
On what drives traffic on Gilt:
Alexandra Wilson: “The referral system that we have drives the most members onto our site and has been the most effective way on growing our membership. That is what we relied on from day 1, when we had no marketing dollars and we were a tiny start-up. We invited everyone we knew to join this site and encouraged everyone to invite their friends.” The incentive was that if you invited someone to shop, they would receive a $25.00 credit, which was very powerful.
Upon the conclusion of my interview, Alexandra Wilson left to join the audience of Survival Secrets of Game Changers in an intimate discussion aimed to inspire women to go for their dreams, led by Monique Nelson.
Wilson had no business plan at first:
Alexandra Wilson revealed to Monique Nelson that contrary to her business school education, they started out without a business plan. “We didn’t have a business plan and did not do a huge amount of consumer research. This was a lot of shooting from the hip and gut instinct. We did not want to miss the holiday season, we launched November 2007.”
Alexandra Wilson: “Four months into our launch, we were mentioned on a TV show, The View. If you want to get your work out there, TV, TV, TV– it’s life changing. We were not on the segment ourselves but were mentioned by this great concierge specialist, MichaelFazio.” Fazio was sharing secrets about how to buy luxury brands like Dolce & Gabbana at 70% off. “Before the segment, we went from 20,000 members and after a few hours being mentioned, we went to 80,000 members.”
On Brand Extensions- $90,000 worth of sausages in an hour:
Alexandra Wilson: “Gilt Taste came about from one of our employees, a Stanford MBA– she was head of product. One of our early test sales were sausages. We put it first on Gilt Home and within 1 hour we sold 90,000 dollars’ worth of sausages.” The employee head of product said to Gilt Groupe, “I noticed that sale. That was crazy. I would like to put together a business plan as to why Gilt Groupe should venture into the food category.”
Monique Nelson: What made you so open to invite good ideas? What is your assessment process?
Alexandra Wilson: “I think that was one of the best things about our culture. It’s very welcoming of ideas at all levels. From our 21-year-old intern, we get some of our best ideas for our back-to school sales.”
“I say, you know I went to school a long time ago. [Laughs] Tell me, what’s going on now?”
Monique Nelson: “You’ve done a lot in the 5 years, you’re now married and you’re a mother. I know it can be intense, but work-life balance–I think is key. What’s the winning combination? It’s never even.”
Alexandra Wilson: “That’s exactly right, it is never even. If I look at the last 5 years, priorities change and they shift. It’s hard to be all things to all people and give 100%, you can’t. During the early stages of Gilt, it was a tiny team working around the clock — and my friends understood that. I had 16 bridesmaids at my wedding. They all understood. I could not do the girl catch up dinner every week. So, it’s important to prioritize– and know that priorities change.”
On how she met her husband and what kind of man he is:
Alexandra Wilson: “He met me while I was putting shoes on people. [Laughs] I don’t think he sees it that way. Alexis and I both married people who are successful at what they do, low ego guys, and people who support our work.
The Survival Secrets of Game Changers is a speaker series presented by Ambermag.com. Marcia Cole, Editor-In-Chief of Ambermag.com, started the series to empower women to accomplish their set goals in life. Cole was inspired to initiate this series after her own volunteer work, serving for five years on the board of New York Women in Communications Inc., in the capacity of Co-chair and Vice President of Programming.