Q&A | Gilt Groupe Founder Kevin Ryan on Growing a Tech Business in the City

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Hiring slowed in October as employers faced more uncertainty over future economic growth, according to the unemployment report released Friday. But even in this weak economic recovery, some companies are growing — especially in the tech sector.

One example is New York-based Gilt Groupe, a web retailer which has been hiring approximately one new worker every day of this year. Gilt was founded by Kevin Ryan, who previously was CEO of the online advertising firm DoubleClick.

Ryan is also a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Economic Development Council for New York City, and a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Applied Sciences NYC Advisory Committee.

Gilt has grown remarkably fast. In 2007 or maybe even a little earlier, you saw an opening to create this business. What exactly was the opening that you saw?

There was an opportunity to solve a three-way problem. Consumers wanted to get great merchandise at great prices. They saw sample sales but they couldn’t stand in line or they lived too far away, they didn't have the time. I saw merchants who had an end-of-the-season problem where they had merchandise left over and didn't know how to get rid of it, and didn't want to get rid of it in a way that would hurt their brand. And then I saw an opportunity to create a company that would bring the two together — to make consumers happy and make merchants happy.

Why are so many of Gilt’s sales at noon?

We had to pick a time of the day that people could get used to ‘cause after a while they actually put it into their schedule. And so we thought noon would be a good time, because it only takes 10 minutes, and that way you could do that, it's lunch break, most businesses don’t have important meetings right at noon, and then you could sneak away and have your lunch right afterwards.

Kevin Ryan, CEO of Gilt Groupe at the company's office in Manhattan. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

You’ve been hiring approximately one new staffer every day of the week, all year. You’re now at 800 workers, and I have read that you personally interview candidates every day. Why?

It’s the single most important thing I do, making sure that the top 60 or 80 people in the company are really great is really important, ‘cause that sets the tone for everything else. They hire great people, great people want to work for them. It’s much more important for me to do that, I think, than it is to go out and even meet with brands, which I do sometimes as well. Hiring a great person who has great brand relationships and knows more that than I do adds more value to the company.

A lot of people in the tech scene in New York are hoping there will be a public offering by Gilt, or one of the other fast-growing companies based here. If Gilt decides to do that, who will get rich?

It depends on the valuation first of all, but investors own part of the company and employees own a big piece of the company, about 20 percent. New York is so big I don’t think it'll change anything dramatically in New York, but I do think that we’re creating an ecosystem in New York that is fantastic, and so there are people who work here today, who three years from now will start their own company, raise money, and continue to build ecosystem, just the way my previous company, DoubleClick has produced at least twelve CEOs so far.

You also are also an advisor to Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg. What’s your wish list from government?

Internet businesses don’t need a lot of changes. We need smart people who want to live in New York City. So the long-term things that really impact us are having good schools good streets, low crime. All the basics that all citizens want. Tax policy is not a big issue for us. The cost of real estate is not a big issue for us.

High taxes don’t bother you?

All businesses would love to have lower taxes. In our industry that’s less important than getting great people. So that's not the top of my list but there are many people who are obsessed with it.

The things I would like are things like more flexibility on visas. We’re gonna hire technology people. A lot of them don’t live in the United States. So either they’re going to come to the United States and we’re gonna hire them, or or we’ll have to employ them there.

Employees cram into the hallways to listen to an all-staff meeting (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Speaking of the abroad, you grew up partly in Geneva. What that like?

Both my parents are from the Midwest. But my father joined Caterpillar and the international headquarters are in Geneva. So we spent five years in Geneva.

I had a great experience growing up. I was first at the international school and then I switched over to be the only American in a French-language public school. It meant that I skied a lot, which I still do today, I played a lot of soccer, which I still play. I think it just orients your thought process to make it more global.

You’ve been CEO of DoubleClick, a big success story, but you’ve also founded a half dozen smaller internet companies. Tell me about one that didn’t work out.

Even when you have businesses that are successful, there are all sorts of things that fail within it. At DoubleClick, I made a number of acquisitions that didn’t work, so that’s gonna happen. You hire people that don’t work. It’s always a humbling process.

Having said that, I started a company called Panther Express which the product was really good, it was a competitor to Akamai, it delivers up content to websites. We got $15 million of revenue in a couple years, lots of clients. Then, the dynamics in the industry changed, pricing went down, and I concluded we just weren’t going be able to make money on our own. And so I made the decision to sell the company. We didn't make all our money back. We and our investors lost money on it, but we weren’t on a path to success, and I think most people have trouble realizing or admitting that that’s not going to happen. And so you have to say, I'm making a decision we're out of here.

But you’re very comfortable with risk, clearly. How come?

I don’t know. To me I don't feel I take enormous risk. I think I'm just very optimistic, I'm thinking all the time about things that can work and seen lots that do work and it can work if you're in a big market that's growing. If you knew it was going to work then it wouldn't be fun anymore.

Giant chess board at Gilt Groupe's main office in Manhattan. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

This audio story was partly informed by the Public Insight Network. To help us cover stories like this, visit wnyc.org/insight.