By Erika Thormahlen
In just four months, New York City moms Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Alexis Maybank grew their passion for sample sale shopping into a members-only “flash sale” ecommerce site alluringly coined Gilt Groupe, a lunchtime guilty pleasure at first only whispered on the lips of in-the-know fashionistas.
Aimed at motivated customers with some disposable income and limited time, Gilt reaches a sophisticated and dynamic clientele—much like its founders. In just over four years, the pair of Harvard Business School grads who met as undergraduates at Harvard in a Portuguese language class, have grown their “shop by appointment” model into the web’s ultimate source for deals and steals on high heels and high-end handbags.
Now, with over 5 million members and a bevy of incarnations of their brand—from Gilt Baby & Kids’ apparel and accessories to Gilt Taste’s gourmet foods, from Park & Bond’s menswear offerings to Jetsetter’s luxury travel packages—the duo shares more than a penchant for bargain shopping and business strategies; both are working wives and mothers to children under the age of 2.
And while they’re often mistaken for one another—using that to their advantage during hectic times when they need to stand in for each other at the office—Maybank and Wilson are two moms with similar hopes for their children, but each with a parenting style all her own.
We sat down with the sample-sale savvy pair to talk motherhood and Mr. Valentino and the world they’ve created in which the two actually can coexist.
Alexis, your second child, a boy, is due in two and a half weeks. Rumor has it you were wearing über-high heels very far into your pregnancy. Has your daughter Thomasina followed in the footsteps of nom and caught the fashion bug yet?
Alexis Maybank: She’s 16 months old now and is obsessed with anything that can be a necklace, but that’s all in terms of fashion. I think she’d prefer to run around in a bathing suit as opposed to dresses.
You both live in New York City. How do you spend a typical weekend with your families?
AM: We’re always out playing in Central Park. In the snow, rain—any time, any weather. We bundle [Thomasina] up and we go out. We also do the museum thing quite a bit. The craziest one we went to was the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Oh my, I felt like afterward I needed a cocktail, it was so crazy. But [she] loved it.
AWW: We live really close to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one Saturday afternoon, Conrad was running around the Temple of Dendur and saying hi to all the Roman and Greek statues and looking at the Egyptian mummies. I looked at my husband and, even though I grew up here, I’m still amazed at how lucky we are.
Tell us about some of the challenges of having children fast approaching the Terrible Twos.
AWW: I expect that there are going to be challenges in parenting at all ages. At this stage, Conrad is opinionated but he can’t always communicate it. That must be frustrating for a child.
AM: The most challenging thing is obviously balancing work and family. Each day, you either feel like you’re a better professional woman or a better parent. You never feel great at both.
How did becoming a parent change your approach to work?
AWW: The first two years of building Gilt Groupe were so physically and emotionally demanding I think it would have become very tough to enter motherhood at that stage. For those who know me, both professionally and personally, they know it was hard for me not to be multitasking, so I was on email pretty quickly after becoming a mother, but I did actually take 12 weeks physically out of the office.
Alexandra, you often travel on behalf of the company. How do you get your Conrad fix when you’re overseas?
AWW: We Skype, we video chat and now he can talk on the phone to me, even though there’s no replacement for putting a baby to bed and reading a bedtime story.
What about the idea of an online sample sale attracted you both as businesswomen?
AM: We felt that if we’d drop anything—if we’d shape our own workdays around popping in line for 10 minutes to check out what was at the Valentino sample sale—then it was something that might have legs.
You’ve sold everything on Gilt, from an opportunity to ski with the U.S. Ski Team to tickets to Fashion Week shows. Which sales have amazed or excited you most?
AM: We had Alexander McQueen’s last collection on the site. On a happier note, we had Mr. Valentino’s last runway collection; it was his very last show before he retired. We also sold men’s skirts from Thom Browne, which surprised me at how quickly they flew off the shelf!
AWW: The first time we did Christian Louboutin was pretty crazy, too. We warned our engineers that it was going to be big, but even with all the warnings, they didn’t anticipate the online frenzy that the brand created.
How do you continue to grow Gilt Groupe when it was originally built around exclusivity?
AM: When we launched the business as members-only, it was the antithesis of ecommerce. You’re not supposed to draw up a wall and not let people pass, but we did it and it’s allowed us to do some really unique things. Every time someone comes to visit the site, we know exactly who she or he is, what they tried to buy, what they like to buy, the colors, the sizes, what they look at—every stroke of the mouse, if you will. So when an email goes out to millions of people, there are over 3,000 versions of that one email reflective of what a person is interested in shopping for.
Your book, By Invitation Only, which releases this month, shares the story behind Gilt Groupe’s meteoric rise. Was writing the book similar to running a business?
AWW: It’s a slow process. It’s a lot slower than how quickly we moved with Gilt.
AM: When [the publisher] told us it would be a year and a half to get the book out the door, we were like, “Really? It only took four months to get the business out the door!”
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
AWW: Hopefully, there’s a message in there for anyone, whether it’s entrepreneurs looking to start a business or people who can adapt entrepreneurial lessons to their day-to-day jobs or lives.
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