Gilt Groupe is one of the most important players in the flash sale game. These brief sales changed the world of online retail, bringing the excitement of bargain hunting to the luxury arena. Now the field is crowded with options but it wasn’t too long ago that people wondered if luxury shopping online would ever become popular. The two founding faces of the brand Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson unpack the sudden rise of fast sale shopping in By invitation Only–How We Built Gilt And Changed The Way Millions Shop.
The charismatic blonde co-founders, known around the office as “the As,” renewed their acquaintance when they both started Harvard Business School in 2002. Wilkis was aiming for a career switch from investment banking into fashion. Maybank was simply looking for a change after a successful run at eBay. When they graduated in 2004, they took off on different career paths but stayed connected in New York City, partially through a shared love of sample sales. When an opportunity to create a new e-commerce site came her way, Alexis decided to leap, teaming up with Kevin Ryan of AlleyCorp to crate a sample-sale-centered startup called FirstLook which was inspired by an earlier French sample sale site. Mike Bryzek and Phong Nguyen rounded out the rest of the initial team. Every detail was labored over, from the streamlined website design to the packaging the customer would receive. Soon Alexandra would join the team filling in the missing piece of a retail connection and Gilt Groupe was born.
At first, the success story reads a bit like many of the fashion magazine profiles on the glamourous pair but eventually the authors begin to reveal their secrets and show off their business school smarts. The rise of Gilt was about a lot more than simply an attractive website and the pair used a combination of online and offline tactics without ever losing that air of exclusivity so key to the brand’s success. Putting the founders at the core of the brand experience was an important part of what helped Gilt grow so rapidly.
The book keeps the focus on the business rather than the fashion. Many chapters also contain helpful questions and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. There is even one on how to hire and keep talented engineers, the lifeblood of any online enterprise. The book is written in a rather odd voice, switching from third person to a first person plural, often within the same paragraph. It’s charming, a testament to the closeness of the two author/founders, but also a bit disorienting. It also shows the ways that women in business are often different than men. It is hard to imagine two male start-up founders collaborating on a business memoir but the two faces of Gilt, now a billion dollar company, prove that start-up success is never a solo enterprise.