Gilt Groupe Co-founder Tries Her Hand at On-Demand

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GlamSquadEarlier this year, Glamsquad, a seed stage startup offering in-home hair and makeup services, made a high-profile hire. The company brought on Gilt Groupe co-founder and early advisor Alexandra Wilkis Wilson as chief executive, turning the collective head of New York’s burgeoning tech scene.

Fast forward three months, and the hire has already paid off. In late October, the company closed a $7 million round of funding led by Softbank to transform it from a small-scale entrant in a busy on-demand market to a full-service beauty brand —  with a strategy that looks to carry the firm well beyond in-home blowouts. This week, the company is catering to the celebrity set in Miami during the avant garde Art Basel festival.

The new role is a happy medium for Wilkis Wilson. She has spent her career in the fashion industry, working at Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, where she helped lead the brand’s retail efforts in the U.S., before leaving to build the flash sales site in 2007. Now, Wilkis Wilson wants to bring her knowledge of selling in stores and online to a company that works to blend the two.

Street Fight caught up with Wilkis Wilson last week to discuss the move from Gilt and the challenges in merging the data-driven ecommerce approach with the realities of running a real-world service.

You spent seven years building a massive ecommerce business at Gilt where consumers only experienced the brand through a browser, a package and the clothes within. What changes in a model where you’re sending a person — not a box — into the homes of consumers?
I came from the brick-and-mortar world before Gilt, and when I made the switch to digital I worried about a similar problem: how would you understand the consumer without interacting with him or her every day? How could you build a meaningful brand without those rich experiences?  But I learned quickly that there’s so much valuable data, which you can collect about your customer, in the digital world and that makes it possible to replicate a personal shopping experience through technology.

What we’re trying to do at Glamsquad is combine the power of face to face interaction with technology which enables intelligence. Today, both of those worlds are really coming together nicely.

The number of startups building on-demand marketplaces has exploded recently. Where does Glamsquad sit relative to Uber, Handy and some of the other well-financed firms?
I wouldn’t call us a marketplace. The way I think of the word marketplace is akin to eBay: a platform that matches supply and demand without much vetting. We do not do that. Every hair stylist and makeup artist that we present to our clients has been very much vetted and indoctrinated into what Glamsquad is and what we expect in a client experience. We’ve received over 1500 applications and accepted a little over 150.

The business you see in December of 2014 is not going to be the same as the business you’ll see in December 2015. The way to understand what we offer today is an on-demand service for beauty. But our vision is much larger: our vision is to be our clients’ beauty obsessions. I came from a branding world working for Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, and Gilt. No one feels lukewarm about any of the brands I worked for.

Glamsquad CEO Alexandra Wilkis Wilson

What do you mean when you say a “beauty obsession?” Where do you see Glamsquad expanding beyond providing a service to customers?
One thing I find really special about Glamsquad is that our clients are welcoming people into their homes. When you have your hair and makeup done you’re very vulnerable — all of your imperfections are shown. What’s fun to me is to see how excited the beauty brands [are about our services] whether it’s hair or makeup, skin care, nails etc. All of these CPG brands are watching us very closely because they realize the beauty business has relied on the act of sampling for so many years.

Our teams can see the clients in the comfort of their own homes. The can see the beauty products they have on their shelves. If one of our makeup artists says, “I noticed your skin is dry, consider using this serum.” That’s not a sales pitch. What we find is that our clients are seeking out the products we use with them. That’s the opposite of the department store model where you have a bunch of sales people approaching you from everywhere in a place where you’re not comfortable.

Would you consider opening an ecommerce business in conjunction with the existing on-demand service?
We don’t currently offer it. But yes, one day, yes.

And a brick-and-mortar salon? Is that antithetical to the current model?
You never know what the future holds, but opening a salon is not antithetical to what we’re doing. It’s a possibility.

Often, critics say these on-demand services are niche products catering to the wealthy population in the biggest cities. Do you think these are fundamentally urban products?
We’re starting to live in an on-demand economy. The consumer today is extremely demanding especially in urban and dense markets where these conveniences are critical. That’s here to stay.

If anyone is going to figure it out, it will be Uber. There are ways to tap into relevant markets that are not high density major cities where there’s still both supply and demand as well as smaller, affluent towns: places like Greenwich, Connecticut, many parts of Long Island, Silicon Valley and the like.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.