Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Co-Founder + CEO of Glam Squad
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson is the epitome of a girl boss. As a full time mama of two, and co-founder and CEO of the cult beauty brand Glam Squad, Alex has more than a nugget or two of wisdom to share with women (and you too, men!) all over the world about balancing work and play, and what it really looks like to infuse fiery passion in the most menial of day-to-day operations. This woman radiates balance in its most practical form, and we're thankful to have had a morning to sit down with her and pick her brain on beauty and business and everything in-between. Brace yourself for the serious inspiration bomb that is the conversation below...
What was the journey like to where you are now? Did you grow up interested in beauty?
I’ve always been beauty conscious. I was exposed to beauty services and products through my mother, my grandmother and my aunt — I have very strong memories of watching them get ready for their day-to-days, or for a special event. Anytime I smelled a certain perfume around the house, I knew my mom had something important going on.
In terms of services, going to the hair salon with my mother and my grandmother was very much a ritual that we would all do together. On a weekly basis, my grandmother would have her hair set in rollers, and she and my mother would get their nails done. This was something I grew up thinking was just part of what a woman does to get through the week.
So I think it’s only natural that I ultimately ended up in this industry. I wouldn’t describe myself as a beauty junkie necessarily, although, when people see how many beauty products I actually have in my cabinets, they’re blown away, so I guess that maybe I am. But through all that, I wasn’t classically trained in learning how to do my own hair or makeup or nails, so as as a consumer, I really appreciate the services that Glam Squad offers to women.
Right now we're in three cities — New York, LA and Miami and we're focused on a time-starved woman who wants to look and feel her best, but doesn't have a lot of time to sacrifice. I feel like every minute of every day, I'm choosing to be in one place instead of another. And since none of us can be in two places at once, Glam Squad helps enable women’s self-confidence. If she needs to get her work done but also wants to get her hair blown out, Glam Squad makes that possible. We want to make women’s lives better and easier and ultimately, the vision of the brand is to become our client’s beauty obsession, and our mission is to make getting ready a whole lot easier, and a transformative experience that women want to have again and again.
Was there a personal or professional "aha" moment that lead you to Glam Squad?
I’m one of the co-founders of Gilt, and I initially became part of Glam Squad while I was still there. Over the years, I’ve advised a lot of different types of companies that, for whatever reason, really spoke to me — companies who's mission and vision I understood and could relate to. I like consumer-facing businesses, and so I connected with the two founders of Glam Squad, who I’d gone to college with. They had just launched in New York and I thought it was such a fabulous business and idea. At that point, it was just hair services, so I tried it out. I had many, many ideas on how it could be improved and how the business could grow and scale, and so I became an advisor.
I had a little bit of equity in the business, and then a few months later, the team asked me if I would join full-time as a co-founder and CEO — that was nearly two years ago, and it’s been an amazing journey to grow with. We’re doing thousands of appointments every week, and making women look and feel their best. The “aha” moment for me was just recognizing that what I love professionally is getting involved in early-stage companies. I didn’t have the idea for Glam Squad, but I could see the potential and could see so very clearly the paths that the company could take to increase their chances of success and of scaling. I really believe in where the company is going.
How important is it for you to listen to your consumer?
I love listening to our woman. I’m lucky because so many people in my life have become loyal clients. I’m never off, because wherever I am, everyone I speak to wants to share their feedback or their suggestions or ideas. That’s great coming from people I know, but I also love reaching out to people that I don't know and inviting them for coffee to hear their Glam Squad story — I want to know why they use us, and what we could do better. These women are always very direct and incredibly positive, and what’s really fun, is that we know our clients are routing for us. They want us to succeed and they want us to improve and scale and be the best company possible, because we’re making their lives easier and better. When they give suggestions, it’s because they really care. If you don't like something, then you just walk away and go to a different restaurant or store. Whereas, our clients want us to grow and succeed and be in every city that they travel to.
As an entrepreneur, I think the tendency is to want to try to do everything. It takes real discipline to say, ‘Yes, that might be a good idea, but not for now.’ We can’t do everything right now, and we have to be disciplined about that. There are moments when I want to explore so many different things, and I’ll do initial research, but then have to refocus on the three cities and the three services that we do have, and nail those. We’ll continue to expand when we’re ready, and our investors have been supportive of that.
What is your philosophy on quality over quantity?
If we don't have quality, we won't have a lasting business and we know that. So the way we've designed our on-boarding process of bringing on new beauty professionals is designed with that in mind — with really getting the very best quality of beauty professionals possible. Our creative director Giovanni Marco came to us from Frederic Fekkai, and our director of makeup artistry Kelly Bartlett came to us from Mac, and together they’ve designed what has become a scalable process to make sure that we not only have incredibly talented beauty professionals join our team, but people who are reliable and understand how Glam Squad operates different than a traditional salon.
We only take 6% of the makeup artists who apply, and 8% of the hairstylists. We’re really strict and take it very seriously, because we’re going into a client’s home — it’s a given that she needs to have an excellent service and feel really happy about how she looks at the end of the appointment. There are elements of personality that have to come in too. A lot of our clients are really high profile, but we want every Glam Squad client to feel like a celebrity. We have to make sure we’re giving her the best of the best.
I call anyone who’s part of Glam Squad — in any way shape or form — part of the “Glam Fam”. We have a mixture of full-time employees and freelancers, and everyone is so incredibly important to the brand. We do periodic gatherings around the holidays, and over the year, where we gather our beauty professionals, as well as a lot of our clients — it’s a special community that we’re building. For beauty professionals like makeup artists — who use to work behind counters and were only measured on how many units they were selling — they’re working in an environment where they don’t sell anything and feel very appreciated for their work.
I do want us to sell products in the future, but right now, their number one responsibility in an appointment is to make a client look and feel her very best. Our whole aesthetic has been developed between Giovanni and Kelly — we call it “enhanced natural beauty” so it’s not heavy makeup. If there’s a client who wants super heavy makeup, we can certainly do whatever it is to make her happy, but our signature look is meant to be a guidepost for inspiration. It’s something I guess you could call the “no makeup makeup look”.
What is a typical day for you like, as a mother and a CEO?
No two days are alike, but I thrive on that. I don't like extreme routine where everything is the same. I like some variety. At Glam Squad, it could be a combination of traveling to our two other cities to spend time with our teams, or running around to make meetings.
I love meeting and connecting with people. I’ve been spending a lot of time the past few months on business development and partnerships that might be somewhat unexpected. What I’m focused on right now, in terms of a partnership perspective, is new client acquisition, which really has to do with awareness and finding companies where there could be a relevant consumer overlap. Sometimes, I think a client needs to hear about something multiple times before they pull the trigger and actually make their first purchase.
For example, a Glam Squad partnership with Sakara Life — I think that’s an example of the type of partnership that if a prospective customer just hears about enough through people that they respect and trust, it can make a difference. I work on that, and I also try to come up with deals for other revenue streams. What we're finding, is that a lot of unexpected types of companies, not just in the beauty category, want to work with us and they recognize that we have access to really special real estate in a woman's life; we're in her house. She's typically in her bathrobe or in her pajamas, so she's vulnerable.
Every imperfection is visible in this circumstance, and that's an interesting moment to market to her — whether it be on the beauty side of things or not. It could be telling her about new products and new product launches, or it could be something like a water partnership, because so many times when I get my makeup done, the makeup artist tells me my skin is dehydrated. Which it is, because I don’t drink as much water as I should, so it would make sense to partner with a water brand.
There's a lot of interesting partnerships that we have been digging deep into, and some of them can drive large amounts of revenue for the business, which is exciting because our price points are pretty low. It's $50 for a blow-out and $75 for makeup, so our business is really about volume. But when you can do a partnership, that could be a couple hundred thousand dollars. That's the equivalent of a lot of individual blow-outs, and so I'm trying to spend my time just meeting with so many different types of companies that recognize there could be value in partnering up.
What does the role of a "leader" feel like for you?
There are so many different types of leaders and I love observing and learning from others to see their leadership style, and incorporate elements of that into my own style. When you’re in an early stage start-up, I think you have to do a lot of leading by example, because there’s just not enough bodies. It’s not like you can stand there as a figurehead and dictate a vision and mission and then just sit behind your computer and call it a day. You’re doing the work and you’re hustling just as much as everyone else. Which means that you as the leader are just as stressed as anybody else. You’re thinking one day at a time, one month at a time, maybe one quarter at a time, but you’re not really planning marketing calendars years into the future.
You just can’t operate that way, because there are so many unknown variables. Right now, I think we’re at the stage where we really need to set out the ground work for what’s to come, and there are really exciting things coming. We have an amazing team, and we’re growing, and have such loyal clients that every time our investors look at them, they’re blown away by how loyal they are.
What elements of the beauty-consciousness you were raised with do you pour into your vision for Glam Squad today?
I think it’s really important to get into the client’s mindset and to understand how they could perceive the business. We aren’t relevant to everyone, but maybe we could be. Is it that we need to speak different languages to different customers? I was playing around on Instagram this morning while on my way in, and saw a bunch of prom pictures — that’s not our target demographic, but we have that girl’s mother, and knowing that prom is such a big deal in her daughter’s life, maybe she’d book Glam Squad for her too?
We hear so many stories of girls literally saving up their allowance and booking Glam Squad, and I love that! I think that for some people, we’re super aspirational, and for other clients, like our really high profile celebrity clients, we’re the company that they turn to for their everyday beauty maintenance. We’re not their special occasion go-to-person, but we’re the ones that they go to just to make it through the week. It’s nice that we can be different things to different people.
When I started with the company, I started spending some time with our power users to understand them. This one woman told me that she’s used Glam Squad consistently since we launched, two to three times a week just for hair. She has very curly hair and likes it blown pin-straight, and she said, ‘I don’t think of you as a special occasion case for me. When I have a special occasion, I go to my guy, but he charges me $300, so I only go to him maybe every three months.’
I was happy to hear that for her, we weren’t special occasion, whereas for a lot of other people, were totally special occasion. We’re something that people discover when they get engaged for their wedding, or for all wedding related events. We can get a lot of people ready at the same time because we have such a big team, so that’s pretty special — you can’t really do that in a salon.
How do you balance work and play?
I love learning from women who have older children and understanding how they managed motherhood with their professional careers over the years. I think that it’s hard to be A+ at everything, every single day. There’s certain days where, like if I’m traveling for work, I’m probably not going to give myself an A+ in motherhood, but I do the very best that I can. By nature, I’m very organized, which I think is helpful for many reasons, but especially as it relates to a working mother. If I wasn’t organized, it would be harder.
On Sunday nights, I send out an email to my husband, my parents and my caregiver with all the activities for the children throughout the week, where they need to be, and who’s picking them up. My parents are super involved and local, which helps a lot. My husband and I both work, but he’s on a trading floor so he’s really un-involved in the morning, because he has to be at work so early, but he can get home early. Sometimes my career definitely has a night life with dinner and cocktail events. I get invited to a lot of stuff, but I don’t go to everything. I have to say no a lot.
I try to be present in the morning, knowing that my husband can be there in the evenings. The weekends are sacred family time. We almost never have work obligations on the weekend. Obviously, I’m checking my email and thinking about work, but I prioritize family on the weekend.
I’m not so good at “me” time, but I’m also not one of those people who needs alone time. I have friends and people I’ve worked with who get their inspiration, literally, from quiet time and being alone. I get my inspiration from being with other people. I’m very extroverted and like listening. I like to learn and ask questions from others to understand what makes them tick. I think that goes towards leadership style too — when you understand what motivates a person and what their end game is, what their thinking about, and where they’re coming from, then you can manage them better. When you know these things about your team, you can set them up for success, and knowing that about yourself is important too.
I’d say that I’m a pretty curious person. Since I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve gotten a clearer sense of knowing what I know, knowing what I don’t know, and being upfront about not wanting to fake something if it doesn’t do anyone any kind of service.
What is it that you look for in people to become part of the Glam Fam?
Especially in a start-up, it’s so important that you like the people you work with, and that you respect them. I think that start-ups are more emotional than regular corporate environments. It’s really important for me to respect people when I hire them — it doesn’t matter what their job function is, I need to feel a sense of passion from them. Because if they’re not passionate or don’t understand the mission and the vision of the company, then it’s going to be really hard for that person to be happy over a long period of time.
Also in start-ups, people often work longer hours and they’re paid less than they would be if they were in a big company. They’re stretched thin because there aren’t as many resources. But what I do think is so great about a start-up, is that you can punch in above your own weight class, meaning you get exposed to things you wouldn’t if you were in a much more structured corporate setting.
I now see more millennials gravitating towards start-ups. The other night at a dinner, I sat next to the president of college and she was telling me how the number of people applying to MBAs is so much lower than ever before, and she thinks that a lot of that is because the attraction to a start-up is so great. But who knows, because the reality is that most start-ups don’t succeed — it’s hard to get funding and it’s especially hard for women founders to get funding.
What’s the best advice you've ever received?
In the early days of Gilt, it was very hard for me to delegate things that I knew I could do really well, and I didn’t have faith that others would do it as quick or as efficiently and effectively. But I learned pretty quickly that you have to delegate — you can’t do everything, and if you’re going to grow and groom a team, you have to start delegating.
Micromanaging also isn’t ideal, and I used to do that when I was more nervous about delegating. Fast forward eight years, and the pendulum has swung in the other direction — I now give a lot of freedom to the people that I trust. They have to earn my trust, but once they do, I give them a lot of power and flexibility. There will always be some team members who want to be micromanaged because they’re scared, but there are others that are allergic to it and really need freedom in order to thrive.
Any morning and nighttime beauty routines?
Dr. Neal Schultz has a line of products called BeautyRX, and I’ve been using some of those products, which include glycolic serums and pads. I love those products. I love the sun and I have to be so careful and wear a lot of sunblock, because I’ve spent many years in the sun and really don’t want to have brown spots.
I also have a lot of Dermalogica products, and we’ve done some cool partnerships with them. I’ve been out to their facility and institute in California and it’s amazing. They have some really mild cleansers. There’s also a brand I love called Sonage, and they have a cleanser that I’m really into right now.
When I’m so exhausted at night, I might cheat and just grab a toner to take my makeup off and that does the trick — but I don’t recommend it. I love the Biologique Recherché Lotion P50, but I don't use it all the time because it's so strong.
I'm also obsessed with Aquaphor — it has so many benefits as a mother.
What's your idea of legacy?
For ten years, I went to all-girls school in New York City, and everything we were taught from age five onward had to do with girl power and that "women can do anything". In that academic environment, we were never raised to think that there would be anything or anyone out there stopping us. It was always like, 'You should be the President! Follow your dreams!' And I think that's so important, and I think the world is getting so much better for women — so many women are achieving greatness.
My legacy would be along those lines — to help to show women that if you work hard and set your mind to something that you're passionate about, and if you build a really strong network around you and find mentors, then you should believe that anything is possible.