November 01, 2012
Gigi Hill: Fashion Meets Function
by Lin Grensing-Pophal
There’s a reason that “soccer moms” get so much attention, and soccer moms Gabrielle DeSantis-Cummings and Monica Hillman are prime examples. The two women met on the soccer field when their daughters, in kindergarten at the time, ended up on the same team.
As young moms everywhere can attest, lugging around all kinds of “stuff” can be challenging; finding a bag to not only accommodate all the “stuff,” but one that also looked fashionable, was virtually impossible. But that was then—this is now.
The company they co-founded, Gigi Hill, addressed this need through a line of bags and accessories that are high quality, stylish and—most important—offer the functionality that busy women need to be organized, whether they’re moms, grandmothers, busy professionals, travelers—or anything in between.
DeSantis-Cummings, Founder and CEO, is the “natural entrepreneur” of the pair. When they met, she had just moved to town. Having spent most of her life on the beach, she found that when she moved inland to Yorba Linda, Calif., and had to drive her kids to the beach that the right bag was suddenly a necessity.
“I’d never really thought about there being something in between being in the corporate world and being at home.”
—Monica Hillman, President
Gigi Hill Founders Gabrielle DeSantis-Cummings (left) and Monica Hillman (right) launched a casual friendship into a successful handbag company.
Hillman, Founder and President, came from a corporate background, and at the time she met DeSantis-Cummings, was looking for “something different.”
“When I met Gabrielle and she started talking about how she had started her own companies, it really opened up in my mind the idea that there were more opportunities out there,” Hillman says. “I’d never really thought about there being something in between being in the corporate world and being at home.”
Those early discussions led to the realization that they definitely wanted to start a business together, but what kind of business?
“What really rose to the top of the list,” Hillman says, “was the need for a better bag.” Their own experiences and those of their friends who were going to the lake, the beach or the pool, initially made them realize that the bags they were using simply weren’t delivering—“they were ugly bags and they didn’t have any pockets,” Hillman recalls.
“We definitely knew there was a need out there and the more we investigated it the more we knew we could provide a great product that was fashion-forward but really delivered as far as being functional—it had pockets for everything, it had water bottle pockets, it had a strap that was comfortable. We really thought about all of those things that so many of the bags on the market didn’t address whatsoever.”
Developing a Prototype
Entrepreneurs everywhere know that the development of a sound business plan is a critical first step for any successful endeavor. Many entrepreneurs, though, fail to take this step formally. Not DeSantis-Cummings and Hillman. Their collective experience led them to spend a significant amount of time researching their idea, potential business models and their market.
“Once we knew what the product was we really just put one foot in front of the other and started to build on our ideas,” says DeSantis-Cummings. On the business side, the women developed a business plan based on a review of case studies of others who had gone before them and on consultation with industry experts.
In addition to a solid business plan, they knew they would need to create a prototype that they could use to bring their product to life.
Neither of the women had any design expertise, but they didn’t let that hold them back. “We cut out patterns from paper bags,” says DeSantis-Cummings with a laugh. “We pasted, glued and stapled them together and then took them to a local seamstress and asked her to make a bag and she did. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for that moment,” she recalls.
After that, they connected with a manufacturer who, she says, “does make handbags for a living.” They took their rough prototype to him and “he turned it into a real bag from a real manufacturer.”
With an actual prototype and a manufacturer, the women next went out to the marketplace and looked at fabrics. “We picked fabrics that were appealing to us—we wanted them to be vibrant so we looked for vibrant patterns,” says DeSantis-Cummings. They picked about 100 patterns, which they narrowed down to about 35, which were launched as a test in 2006 at their first party.
“That night we were in business,” she says. “We spent the rest of 2006, 2007 and part of 2008 doing parties. Monica and I went out and did parties every week and we learned so much about the business model from the business side and about the consumer and the purchases they were making. From that experience we learned about the best of Gigi Hill and what it was going to be.”
When they officially launched the company in 2009 they had a well-developed product line and a comprehensive and competitive business model. The rest, as they say, is history. Now their goal is to achieve $100 million in sales.
The Gigi Hill Platinum Showcase is offered to stylists at an affordable price and includes a variety of bags, accessories and business tools to launch their business.
Growing to Meet Demand
Hillman and DeSantis-Cummings knew early on that to grow at the pace they envisioned, and that demand suggested they could achieve, they would need outside investment.
“In 2008 we knew that we wanted to go national and we knew at that point we needed to bring in an investor,” Hillman says. While many companies find this to be challenging—think of the experiences of those eager entrepreneurs who pitch their ideas on ABC’s Shark Tank—Gigi Hill found themselves in the enviable position of having investors come to them.
“We had the opportunity of being interviewed for the Los Angeles Times and we were very open about what our goal was and what we needed,” Hillman says. “Our phones didn’t stop ringing for the next three weeks after that article came out.”
The women found their first angel investor through this experience, and the funding helped them lay the foundation to launch nationally in 2009.
Then, in 2011, another investor found them. “We were not out seeking any venture capital,” says DeSantis-Cummings. In fact, she recalls, the investor found them through Direct Selling News. “They saw an article about us in there and cold-called. We always say that Direct Selling News was responsible for connecting us with Maveron.”
Maveron is a venture capital firm that was established in 1998 by Dan Levitan, who had been a director at one of Wall Street’s leading investment banking firms, and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbuck’s.
“It was huge—it really was,” says DeSantis-Cummings.
“We plan to be $100 million-plus in the next several years. We spent the last 16 months really laying the foundation to be able to support that growth.”
Both Hillman and DeSantis-Cummings feel that their relationship with Maveron is a perfect fit. “Maveron is a consumer products investor,” says DeSantis-Cummings. “They, first and foremost, are looking for consumers products that are very e-commerce driven.” And, she adds, “They really let us spend the last 16 months doing what we needed to do to lay the foundation for our growth.”
Iconic is the latest Gigi Hill collection for Fall, featuring beautiful blues, reds, animal prints, and statement-making blacks and whites in a range of fun fabrics.
Recognition is a big part of Gigi Hill culture. Stylists celebrate their sales and leadership achievements at the annual Success Summit.
Offering Independence and Balance to Stylists
Gigi Hill’s vision is to “empower women to accomplish their unique goals and achieve success by sharing a lifestyle collection that offers function and style and enables customers to be confident and fashionable.” They’re achieving this vision by providing their sales team—who they call stylists—with an opportunity that fits their lifestyles and personal needs.
Hillman and DeSantis-Cummings had researched the direct selling business model before they launched their company and felt it was a perfect fit. “If our bags were sitting on a shelf in Nordstrom’s they would not get the attention that they get in a living room at a party in front of several women,” Hillman says. “The stylist can really describe the bag and explain it to the customer. The customer can really hear the full story about how this bag is going to add value for them.”
The business model resonated with Hillman, in particular, because she had been searching for this type of opportunity—an opportunity that would bridge the gap between a full-time, corporate job and staying at home to be with her family.
“It was a very comfortable business model because it was really fulfilling what I wanted and also giving other women that same opportunity,” she says. “It’s about doing something else while you are a mother, while you are a wife, and having the ability to bring income into your household but not sacrificing your ability to be with your family.”
That model resonates with others as well. Gigi Hill has benefited from a passionate team of stylists who love the product and love holding parties to talk about and demonstrate the product to other women.
“We love our stylists,” Hillman says. “They’re very passionate about our product, so it’s really fun. They’re so passionate about their stories and how they use the product. They always say ‘it’s just so much fun.’ ”
Training is a large part of the support that Gigi Hill provides to stylists and something that has been done very intentionally to help build the brand and ensure a consistent message.
“We learned very early on that the best way to communicate your brand and get the message across is that they’ve got to hear it from us,” Hillman says. “So we provide very extensive training through videos, webinars, live training—just giving them the brand awareness, brand education, product education, so when they’re out at parties they’re truly communicating the message they heard from us and not a watered down version of it.”
Gigi Hill stylists can work as little as 3 or 4 hours a week and earn an average of about $650 a month holding a single party each week—or as much as they’d like based on their own needs and busy schedules. At a five-parties-a-week level, Gigi Hill estimates average potential earnings of about $3,250 a month, with an investment of about 15-20 hours. Sponsoring new team members can lead to even greater rewards through commissions on team member sales. Stylists can also qualify for free products and business tools, monthly and annual sales recognition, training and access to Gigi Hill home office-sponsored events, as well as vacations and other incentives. A low startup investment also makes the company attractive to potential stylists.
Gigi Hill’s success has been built on the basics, says DeSantis-Cummings. “This business is back-to-the-basics,” she says. “It’s the training, it’s the support, it’s the messaging, it’s the branding. And that’s really what our focus is to get us to the next level with our company.”
The passion that DeSantis-Cummings and Hillman have for their business is apparent and has not dimmed since their initial meeting on the soccer field. “Right now we feel really good about where we are,” says DeSantis-Cummings. “This is what we love; this is our passion.”