Curalate Chief Revenue Officer Laurie Weisberg (left) interviews Alexandra Wilkis Wilson at the Curalate Summit. (Photo by Melissa Ivone.)
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson is the mastermind behind some of the most enviable fashion and beauty startups of the past decade. She’s the co-founder of Gilt, one of the first flash-sale sites in the U.S., which now claims over 9 million members, ships to over 180 countries and sells more than 4,000 international brands. She also co-founded GlamSquad, a mobile app that will send hairstylists or makeup artists to your home for a reasonable rate. It’s like Uber for beauty services.
At the Curalate Summit on October 18, Wilkis Wilson sat down with Curalate Chief Revenue Officer Laurie Weisberg for a wide-ranging discussion about building successful startups, the future of e-commerce, and the mantra that keeps her thriving day after day. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Weisberg: Being an entrepreneur who successfully launched then spun-off Gilt, you surely learned a lot of lessons. Can you share some with our audience?
Wilkis Wilson: It was really incredible to work with an incredibly dedicated, smart, hungry and passionate team. We really did not take no for an answer. We believed in innovation. We never got complacent. There was a lot of competition and that invigorated us, rather than depressed us. We learned so much from our customers. We weren’t afraid to test ideas. We never used the “F” word, which is fail. We just moved on.
I worked in environments from investment banking to luxury goods that were much more cultures of fear. It was so much more exciting to work in an environment where things were expected to go wrong almost all the time — and it was all about trying to predict what could go wrong, anticipate it and then problem-solve in advance. How can you troubleshoot and make things better for the next go-round? It was really fun for me to be in an environment that wasn’t about finger pointing.
You have an extensive background in retail and luxury goods. Over the last decade, what trends have you seen in that field and what have you done to keep up with the changing ways that consumers shop and experience marketing?
An interesting trend is this idea of luxury services, and the types of things that were originally only accessible to the 1% or the half percent. They are now becoming accessible to many, many more people. Having your own makeup artist or hair stylist come to you was something unfathomable years ago. I think there are a lot of other services that we will see expand in the future — possibly in areas like fitness or health.
Tell us about your marketing efforts at Gilt and Glamsquad.
When we launchd Gilt in 2007, for us it was all e-mail marketing initially. We were anti SEO and SEM. No search. You had to be a member with a password to get behind the registration wall. We did not think about social media in the early days. One of my really good friends called me a week after we launched and said you should really have a Facebook page. Then a year later, we were actually getting our act together and realizing that Facebook and other social media channels are really important.
But e-mail marketing has always been huge at Gilt. Given that our inventory was changing every day, people really relied on that e-mail. They actually thought that if they didn’t receive that e-mail they couldn’t access our site. Of course they could have gone to Gilt.com and accessed whatever sale was live.
There was a point in time when Pinterest started driving lots of traffic to Gilt. We quickly learned that companies and brands that have beautiful imagery can do so much with Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat etc. Really early on we started using Twitter at Gilt as a customer service tool, which is now pretty standard.
Tell us about personalization at Gilt.
Gilt had an incredible technology team and we could personalize our messaging to all of our different customers. If everyone in this room subscribed to our Gilt e-mail, they would all look different — based on your gender, what you purchased in the past, what you clicked through, put into your cart, where you live etc. For example, if you’re in the Sunbelt, you might not care about winter coats. That sort of thing.
At Glamsquad, how has user-generated content affected the business?
After we perform a service for a person — like hair or makeup — they automatically feel great about themselves, they feel confident, they stand up straighter etc. So they’re more likely to take pictures of themselves and hopefully they’ll tag @glamsquad.
We have been beyond delighted with how influencers — really high-profile women, fashion designers, company founders and even celebrities — use our service. Whether they have professional photos taken or just a selfie, they’ve been quick to share their photos on social. We didn’t anticipate that. We thought we were going to be a customer’s special secret, but we’re not. That’s really was an ‘a-ha moment’ for us.
Do you pay influencers or celebrities to post about Glamquad?
If we’re spending $15,000 or $50,000 for someone to do a post, we think our customers would see right through that. We’d rather our UGC come off more authentic. We’ve been really lucky. It’s happened more organically.
At Gilt and Glamsquad, I know one of your major roles has been to put together strategic partnerships. Talk about why that’s so important for helping you grow these businesses?
I love partnerships, I love sales. I love cold-calling. I’m kind of weird in that respect. I love going to trade shows, walking up to strangers and shaking hands. That’s what I did for my seven years at Gilt. Now I’ve started adapting that thinking to Glamsquad.
At Glamsquad, we recently did a cool partnership with Dyson. It launched a $400 hairdryer, the most expensive on the market. We partnered with Dyson to really be their army of hairstylists, having our 500 beauty professionals use the dryers while they’re doing hair in people’s homes. It’s been an amazing win-win for everybody.
Do you think there’s still a place for brick-and-mortar stores?
I do. It’s funny, there have been a lot of amazing startups that began digitally — Bonobos, Birchbox, Rent the Runway, Warby Parker — but now all of those companies have a physical presence. I joked [with my co-founder Alexis] that we’ll never have a Gilt store, now there is a Gilt store down the street.
The great companies are doing a terrific job of marrying the two, creating a fluid omni-channel shopping experience. Now you can be in a store dressing room trying something on, and if they don’t have your size or the color you want, you can click on an iPad and it’s delivered to your home the next day. That’s a great experience and is starting to seem quite normal. Even five years ago that would not be normal.
If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would have said “don’t worry so much.” I’m naturally a worrier. I wear my heart on sleeve. I would tell myself that patience is a virtue and things will work out like they ought to.
What’s your mantra?
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I think that the great things we get don’t fall from the heavens into our lap. You have to fight for them. What’s the worst thing that can happen, someone says no?