How the Founders of Gilt Are Changing How We Shop Online

5 years ago

Dream of starting a uber-successful business with your BFF?

Well, that's exactly what best friends Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, did when they founded Gilt, the site that launched the online sample sale industry.

These besties, who first met in a Portuguese language class in college and later attended Harvard Business School together, are the co-authors of BY INVITATION ONLY: How We Built Gilt and Changed How Millions of People Shop (Portfolio).

I sat down with Alexandra (who wanted to be a Olympic gymnast as a kid) to discuss how they created Gilt, the perks of working with your best friend, and how to find the perfect business partner.

"Our competitors make us better."

What is Gilt and how does it work?

Gilt Groupe provides members with instant insider access online to designer brands, at up to 60% off retail. Gilt offers its members something new every day for women, men, kids and home as well as exclusive local services and experiences, and one-of-a-kind travel packages. Gilt has become a way of life!

While Gilt was one of the first, the online flash sale space is now pretty crowded. As a business leader, how do you continue to distinguish your company after the crowd joins in?

I believe competition is healthy. Our competitors -- and today we have many of them -- force us to innovate constantly, to surprise and delight our members, and to be open to regular customer feedback. Our competitors make us better.

As a women-created and women-led internet company, did you face any barriers because of your gender. If so, what were those barriers? And if not, how were you able to avoid those barriers?

When we were launching Gilt, Alexis and I did not get bogged down on the fact that we are women and thus minority business leaders. Rather, we had a vision and a mission and had a lot of work to accomplish with our cofounders and our teammates in a short period of time. We believe that being women who were in fact the target consumers for Gilt was a tremendous advantage. We understood precisely the perspective of our customers. This was a good thing and not a barrier!

"I actually think that being an entrepreneur is a great career path for a mother..."

You and Alexis are both mothers and successful business women. What steps did you take to create space where both "jobs" could successfully co-exist?

I actually think that being an entrepreneur is a great career path for a mother. Entrepreneurs, though they work incredibly hard and long hours, can have some control over their schedules and thus if they need to take time to attend a parent teacher conference or a doctor’s appointment, they can make time and not have to ask permission as one might have to in a more structured corporate environment.

How do you choose the perfect business partner?

We actually recently wrote a blog post about this on our site, Gilt Founders. Some of the most important and often overlooked things to consider in choosing the perfect business partner include:

  • Have you seen your partner handle difficult situations?
  • Do you have similar energy and work ethic?
  • How do you fight?
  • Do you want the same things for your company?
  • Is your partner good to the core?
  • Do you have complimentary personalities?
  • Is your partner an "upper" or a "downer?"

As best friends and business partners, do you separate the "business" relationship from the "bestie" relationship? If yes, what are a few of those rules? If not, why?

We don't have hard and fast rules, but rather follow common sense of what is professional at work. I am happy to report that there are many friendships at Gilt. Our engineer cofounders were also friends before we launched Gilt. Friendship leads to trust. Honestly, if you are going to work long hours and travel around the world for your job, might as well do that with people you like and respect. There is even a couple that met while working at Gilt and got married and will soon have a child, the first Gilt baby. I love that.

Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson are the co-authors of BY INVITATION ONLY: How We Built Gilt and Changed How Millions of People Shop (Portfolio) and cofounders (with Kevin Ryan) of Gilt Groupe. Previously, Maybank launched eBay Canada and eBay Motors, while Wilkis-Wilson worked for Merrill Lynch, Louis Vuitton, and Bulgari. Both have MBAs from Harvard Business School. They live in Manhattan.

For more thoughts on women, technology and business, please follow Kathryn on Twitter at @KathrynFinney

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