Gilt’s Alexandra Wilkis Wilson Headlines 2014 WJA’s In the Know

Before the world of online sample sales—aka flash sales—there were live sample sales that you had to hoof it to and actually look through the racks in search of deals. But that was before 2007 and Gilt.com, one of the founders of which addressed attendees at yesterday’s Women’s Jewelry Association’s In the Know conference in Manhattan.

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, one of Gilt.com’s founders, shared her story, including its challenges and opportunities, with the audience at the WJA event, which was held at the Hearst Tower in Manhattan.

Wilson and her friend, Alexis Maybank—both Harvard grads and sale junkies—founded Gilt.com to capture the “frenetic, not psychologically sound, adrenaline rush of bringing the excitement of a New York City sample sale online,” she dished.

Friends and godparents to each other’s children, the pair launched the business without market research, a business plan, or focus groups. “We were the end consumer,” she explained, and later followed a fundraising path. “The reality is that entrepreneurship is about execution,” she said.

Their first sale happened in 2007, “six months before world started falling apart,” Wilson said, and the financial crisis inadvertently had a positive effect on the fledgling business. “A lot of brands made decisions that they might not have made in really amazing times, and there was a lot of inventory available,” she said. “We were getting access to inventory from the best brands possible.”

And with the boost of some fortuitous PR mentions—including one on The View, which tripled membership in three hours—as well as leaning on close friends and family to help spread the word about the new online shopping format, Gilt.com began steady growth. (The site now has 8 million members and ships in excess of 25,000 packages a day.)

“I am a huge believer in PR, especially if you’re building a consumer-facing company,” Wilson said. “And I do believe you get what you pay for in PR; a lot of the best publicists are really creative and know what competitors are doing.”

Some of her tips for business owners included:

Get the right team. “When you get that team wrong, that’s the primary issue that causes failure,” she said. “Mistakes fall on people not on ideas.” (Hint: Try the Myers-Briggs personality tool in your workplace to help build a great team.)

Hire people unlike yourself. “Most people hire people just like themselves, and that’s not always the best thing for a team—especially a small team,” she said. “Hire for diversity of thought. Entrepreneurs tend to be idea-driven people, but you need a Debbie Downer for balance and to answer the questions of ‘how much will it cost,’ etc., and to help build a framework.”

Remember that relationships are important. “You will only succeed or do as well as others around you want you to do,” Wilson said. “And when someone offers you an introduction, you say yes!”