Book by founders isn’t worth its weight in gold

A few years ago I was having lunch with a friend, when she started going on about a new shopping site she had discovered. “It’s totally addictive,” she said. “It’s like a daily sample sale: You log on at noon and race to put items in your bag before anyone else. I am spending so much money!”

The shop was, the New York membership e-commerce site. It combined the idea of the sample sale (an end-of-season, very cut-price, one-off way for high-end brands to get rid of excess merchandise) with exclusivity (it was invite-only), limited time and limited merchandise to such a buzz that five years after launch, it has been widely expected to be a big Internet initial public offering.

When about 10% of its staff was let go this year, the move was interpreted as an effort to tighten the company’s balance sheet with a view to listing.

Presumably this was also part of the logic behind publishing “By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop,” as told by the site’s founders, Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson. However, though I am a member — I joined after the conversation above — I have never bought anything, and after reading the book published by Portfolio I think I never will.


Not because the product isn’t any good (the merchandise, which ranges from Stella McCartney to Brian Atwood, is covetable enough) or because there’s some revelatory and terrifying information in the book, but because there isn’t. There really isn’t much.

How-we-did-it books tend to provoke one of three reactions in a reader: amazement at the genius behind the business; respect for the genius behind the founder’s mind; or disillusionment at how far from a genius the person behind the business turns out to be. “By Invitation Only” falls into the latter camp. It is both badly written and unilluminating, not to mention rife with business cliches.

The book begins with the friendship of the founders, young women who met at Harvard Business School. There is a fair amount of time devoted to their mutual admiration, as well as their early careers, the birth of their joint shopping idea, how they got it off the ground and so on.

So far, so standard, though less usual is the decision to write the story in both the first and third person, so the narrative voice switches between “we” and “Alexis” or “Alexandra,” because, the authors say, they both wanted to “emphasize that . . . the stories of Alexis and Alexandra are fortuitously intertwined.” Unfortunately, this makes the reading experience jarring.

Even more confusing, the chronological chapters are broken up by what are clearly intended as user-friendly business checklists (“Is this risk a good risk?” and “Elements of a successful VC presentation”) and tips (“Riding the anticipation curve: how to time your fundraising”), which ultimately prove more obvious than insightful.

Most frustrating of all, however, is the sense of a missed opportunity. The fact is, Maybank and Wilson did have a terrific idea and they did make it happen. Their story could have been full of drama but they seem unable to humanize it, instead concentrating on a relentlessly perky tone and skimming over struggles.

The authors acknowledge that start-ups are scary and draining — but never dramatize how. They say they were nervous about being typecast as fashionista types by bankers, but never seem to have encountered any such prejudice.

And though they write with gusto about the online space, it’s hard not to wonder: If that’s true, shouldn’t this have been an e-book?


Friedman is the fashion editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.