The Inside Story of How Gilt GrewApril 27, 2012
Crain's New York
by Anne Fisher
When Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson started online retailer Gilt Groupe in 2007, they gave early investors a revenue projection they worried was crazily optimistic: $6 million in sales in 2008. Actual 2008 sales totaled more than $25 million. That ballooned to about $500 million by the end of fiscal 2011.
Now the co-founders, known inside Gilt as “the A’s,” have written a book called By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop. It’s a candid, chatty peek behind the scenes at the retail empire created by the two longtime friends, who met in a Portuguese class while undergrads at Harvard. (They both earned M.B.A.s there, too.) Excerpts from a recent conversation:
Your book puts an enormous emphasis on the importance of relationships in building a company—in particular, having a “personal board of directors.” Who are these informal directors, and how did you choose them?
Maybank: You want to find people who will be honest with you about your weaknesses, and introduce you to people who can help you fill the holes. As a first-time CEO, I needed advice on so many things I couldn’t ask my formal board of directors—like how to manage the board of directors!
Wilkis Wilson: Early on, one member of our informal board, Sheila Marcelo [founder and chief executive of Care.com], introduced us to a great executive coach, Barry Carden, who really took a leap of faith to work with us, since he usually works for Fortune 500 companies.
Maybank: At the pace we were growing, we couldn’t afford any miscommunications or time-wasting office politics. We did some workshops with Barry where we all practiced having hard conversations about what we needed from each other, what was working, what was getting in the way. That really allowed us to trust each other enough to do a flat-out sprint for the next year and a half.
Wilkis Wilson: At that point, our whole team was 12 people. Now we have over 1,000 employees, but the culture of openness and honesty is still there.
It’s clear from the book that the most crucial relationship at Gilt Groupe is the friendship between you two. I like the seven-point checklist on what to think about before starting a business with a friend. Did you have any reservations when you started?
Maybank: We really feared what the impact on our friendship would be if the business didn’t work out. So we had a lot of long conversations about that, and about how we would interact at work, especially how we would handle disagreements in front of employees, because that really sets the tone for the whole organization, I think—how the founders handle conflict.
Wilkis Wilson: Going into business with a family member or a spouse, you face a lot of the same issues as with a close friend. It’s important not to let the business take over the friendship.
Maybank: We’ve been careful not to “businessify” our friendship. We spend time together away from work—have dinner, hang out with each other’s families … The relationship came first, and it has to take priority sometimes over whatever’s going on at the company.
You met in a Portuguese class at Harvard. I’m just curious: Why Portuguese?
Wilkis Wilson: We both love languages and travel, especially Brazil—the politics, the music, the food. I’ve been there 15 times. Alexis had just done her junior year abroad in Argentina, and she had visited Brazil and loved it. So we bonded over that.
Maybank: You know, it’s funny that we both get such a kick out of navigating in foreign countries with unfamiliar languages. There are always a lot of unexpected crazy twists and turns. It’s kind of like starting a business.