How We Did It: Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilson, Co-Founders of Gilt Groupe

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In 2007, inspired by a local pastime of ours, we set off to build a business aimed at bringing the excitement of designer “sample sales” online for the first time to a nationwide audience.

Along with our cofounders Mike, Phong and Kevin, we spent only a handful of months rushing to get this idea built: specifically naming the business, selecting warehouse space, recruiting our original vendors, and building out our website.

We were so excited to shop for designer goods at great prices, and we were convinced others would be too. Well, in truth, as we launched our first sale the morning of November 13, 2007, we were unsure of exactly what would transpire.

We were giddy with anticipation — that nervousness and anxiety you feel when you wonder if you will be overwhelmed by a demand for your product or embarrassed by the fact no one showed up. We had no idea.

However, we had pulled countless all-nighters and made multiple decisions to the best of our ability to build our website in a very short period of time. We had cut many corners to get our site into the hands of our consumers. We wanted to learn more before we overinvested.

To our great relief, that first day’s sale reached customers in all four corners of the country. And better yet, most of the shoppers were people we did not know. Our first customers had given us the early indication that our idea had gone viral!

As a business that grew virally on word-of-mouth referrals, our company within its first five months began the sharp turn up the hockey stick curve of growth, a trajectory that has lead from our early team of five to over 900 employees today.

We now service five million customers who purchase more than a half billion dollars of luxury goods and services from gilt.com annually.

In this hyper growth, we were confronted with the challenge of maintaining our culture as more and more people joined the team.

When thinking about sustaining your company culture as your business scales, we would advise that you think about documenting the values your company holds dear and identifying your current employees who best embody them.

First, take time to write down your company’s values, or the ethics and principles by which you operate. It’s important to let the values of your organization emerge organically by allowing people from multiple levels to identify what they observe and value about the way your company works. It’s hard to mandate a culture from top down.

Document these operating principles and mission so that people know what’s expected of them. Importantly, make sure that you live these values as a leader of your team. Post them where all can see and communicate them regularly.

At Gilt, we printed ours on cards and put them on each employee’s desk.

Next, identify evangelists internal to the company. These should be individuals who live the organizational values and ideally are from all levels of the organization. Get these team members involved in hiring, even across departments, as they will be able to screen for others who will “fit” into your culture and uphold your operating norms.

Give these individuals a role in communications, at meetings, during social events, and in training other people. They will serve as the torchbearers for keeping your culture consistent and help in selecting others attuned to the values your company who in turn will support the same principles.

In growing out a team as quickly as we have, from five to over 900 people in a handful of years, our employees and strong culture were critical to achieving the success we have had.

If you are unable to hire the right people, and find yourself losing sight of your values and principles as an organization, you will be less likely to reach your goals and more likely to make many costly errors along the way.

We write further about this and other lessons learned along the way in our experience at the helm of a fast growing internet company in our book By Invitation Only, which aims to inspire you to pursue ideas you are passionate about and also to innovate better in your current role or company.

About the Author

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Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson cofounded Gilt Groupe with Kevin Ryan, Mike Bryzek and Phong Nguyen. Previously, Maybank was an early member of the eBay team and launched eBay Canada and helped launch eBay motors; Wilson had worked for Merrill Lynch, Louis Vuitton, and Bulgari. Both have BAs from Harvard College and MBAs from Harvard Business School. They have appeared on CBS-TV, CNN and other networks. They live in Manhattan with their husbands and children.

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