Alexandra and Alexis Maybank, her Harvard Business School buddy, along with three others founded Gilt.com in November 2007 as a flash sale website for high-end women’s clothing. It was the online answer to the designer sample sale. Five years later, The Gilt Groupe has blossomed into a luxury lifestyle empire, with separate sites for children, men, travel, housewares and food.
Alexandra talks to GoGirl Finance about becoming a successful entrepreneur and co-writing New York Times best seller with Alexis Maybank, By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop.
You and Alexis met in an undergraduate Portuguese class and then reconnected years later at a Harvard Business School mixer. After that, you were practically inseparable in graduate school. What are your thoughts about going into business with a friend?
I don’t think one should go into business with just any friend. We became close friends during business school so we were constantly talking to each other about business ideas. Our friendship was already rooted in discussing our careers, interests and skill sets.
There is a checklist in our book that lists things you should talk about before going into business with someone.
Your book was released in April and immediately was perched on all the prominent bestseller lists. Your material must be very juicy. What did you cover in the book?
We really wanted to be thorough, so it took us two years to finish. We walk potential entrepreneurs through what we are and what we think is critical to launching a business: things like how to build a team, how to hire engineers, how to cultivate networks.
When you founded Gilt, nothing quite like it existed. Today, the brand boasts five million members, more than 1,000 employees and has an estimated valuation of $1 billion. What are you most proud of professionally?
I’m proud to have shaped an industry. Alexis and I both feel that through our innovation and the success that followed, we encouraged other entrepreneurs to pursue their passions and start their own businesses.
Also, I’m proud of the fact that I’m still engaged and excited to go to work everyday because I’m still learning so much from my colleagues and customers.
What has been the most challenging?
Along the way, things are going to break. That’s the reality and the rationale behind the common phrase, “test before you overinvest.” It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Just try to be as flexible and nimble as possible. It’s very hard to know how customers are going to respond to your product or service.
Have you had the experience of something “breaking” in your business?
There was a time in the spring of 2009 where our technology could not handle the load of orders coming in. We had grown tremendously and could not handle selling some of our most popular brands because our site was fragile. We had to wait a few months to sell some of these brands. That period of growing pains is really painful for a businessperson.
What do you wish you knew earlier in your career that you know now?
It seems quite obvious in retrospect, but this it is: one is more likely to be successful at something he or she inherently loves because then work won’t feel like work. Don’t follow the herd or do something just because you think it’s expected of you.
Well, I went into investment banking after my undergraduate studies at Harvard. I wouldn’t say I had a passion for that.
Could you share any other career advice for women?
I think women should really seek out mentors, create their own personal boards of directors. Men are often better at networking. Informal networks are the way a lot of business gets done. Women should not be afraid of asking for favors or introductions.
Many experts advise young women to save more of their paychecks, rather than spending on purchases such as the designer shoes and handbags your site sells. What would you say to them?
I think salaries and spending vary dramatically from person to person, depending what area of the country you live in and what field you work in–but how you dress can be so important. As they say, “Dress for the job you want to have.” I do think that’s relevant, particularly in certain fields, like fashion.
I also believe in rewarding yourself, even if it’s something small. And if you shop on Gilt, it’s guilt free. (Laughs.)
Do you have any bits of financial wisdom for young women?
It’s important to be realistic. Always pay your credit card bills on time. If you’re not able to pay the full amount, at least pay the minimum. If you don’t, you can really ruin your credit. I think a lot of people don’t realize that.
Also, and I think this can be tough sometimes, but be organized and be responsible.