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November 02, 2010

Company Focus

Gigi Hill: Two Busy Moms, One Big Dream

by Tori Brown


Gigi Hill’s growth is 100 percent organic and based on referrals, according to DeSantis-Cummings. For example, a stylist in Texas will share Gigi Hill with her a sister-in-law in Louisiana who, in turn, will talk to a friend in Florida and, literally, that’s how it grows—organically. Gigi Hill now has close to 700 stylists peppered across almost every state (more than 40 markets), without intentionally targeting a specific geographic area. “Word-of-mouth travels wide and fast,” says DeSantis-Cummings. “That’s why having a great product and a sound reputation is essential.”

Gigi Hill Handbags are delighting bag-lovers across the country—from their roots in sunny California all the way to the sultry cities of Florida, and just about every state in between. These fashion-meets-function bags, which have been on the direct selling market for a mere two years, have quickly developed a cult-like following along with a growing realm of enthusiastic stylists (or sales representatives). And it all started with two busy moms who had a dream… and dared to make it come true.

The Idea

Monica Hillman“We were two moms who met on the soccer field,” says Monica Hillman, Gigi Hill President and half of the vibrant duo who founded the company. It was late summer 2003 in Yorba Linda, Calif., and Hillman’s husband was the exuberant coach of the girls’ soccer team. The two moms, who met along the grassy sideline, would spend time chatting—and then complaining about, you guessed it, soccer bags. They, like so many women, couldn’t find a big bag that was attractive and functional enough to meet the dynamic needs of their busy lives. And that’s when the initial idea hit.

“We were two moms who met on the soccer field.”—Monica Hillman, President, Gigi Hill

Hillman, who was knee-deep in the corporate world, was looking for something new, while Gabrielle DeSantis-Cummings, the lively Gigi Hill Chief Executive Officer, was a longtime entrepreneur. The pair became fast friends and quickly began brainstorming about crafting the perfect bag. As luck would have it, they came across a beautiful oilcloth that DeSantis-Cummings’ mother had brought back from a recent trip to France. The ladies were inspired and energized. “We thought: ‘Wouldn’t this make a great bag?’ And started from there,” says Hillman.

Gabrielle DeSantis-CummingsDeSantis-Cummings and Hillman then began to research the marketplace and confirmed that a stylish, functional bag was sorely lacking. Their research also showed that bags, in general, were highly marketable. And further research confirmed that direct selling was an excellent avenue to market products. “We put two and two together and knew that we wanted to pursue direct sales for our bag business,” says DeSantis-Cummings. The team spent the next two years creating and perfecting their all-about-function bags aimed at the direct selling/busy mom market. Then it was party time.

“We had 100 bags made and threw a party at our friend’s house in California,” says DeSantis-Cummings. “We were in business that night—July 28, 2006.” With a stellar response from party attendees, the ladies continued their successful bag parties for several fun-filled years. Then, in February 2009, Gigi Hill commenced a full-scale launch, with a complete line of fashionable and functional bags with their Signature Pocket Design and eye-catching fabrics.

Through the process of establishing their business, the well-organized twosome, who typically plan every move, split their work responsibilities in an unexpected manner. In Hillman’s words: “It just unfolded day by day.” And there may be something to this approach. Hillman, who had a background in human resources, fell into managing the finances, operations and software, while DeSantis-Cummings took on the marketing role, handling advertising collateral, public relations and the website. Sitting side by side, every decision was—and still is—completely collaborative. The professional pair is self-described as the sky and the ground. “I’m the sky,” says DeSantis-Cummings, “and Monica is the ground. She brings me down to reality.”

The company, which jump-started in the living room of Hillman’s California house, now boasts real-life offices in Yorba Linda (although they often work from home); a professional website, complete with an online store; accounting software; a fulfillment center and a growing salesforce. “It was a lot of work, but now we’ve arrived,” Hillman says. And now that they’ve arrived, Gigi Hill (from their cushy offices in Yorba Linda, Calif.) will continue to focus on the wants—and needs—of their target audience of active moms and women on-the-go.

What Women Want

“We don’t just design for mothers, we design for busy women,” Hillman says. The busy-woman company started with tote bags; then handbags were successfully thrown into the mix, along with accessories. “Our customers wanted handbags, so we designed handbags,” she says. “Then they wanted accessories, so we designed those, too.”

“Our customers are excited to tell us what they want next,” says DeSantis-Cummings. Every request is carefully reviewed and considered, resulting in everyday-life designs that are true customer-company collaborations.

The Gigi Hill ladies knew that direct selling was the ideal, high-growth business model for their budding company. But more important, the dynamics and structure of the direct selling industry were sure to meet the needs of the two busy mothers, as well as other moms who could join the business. “We liked how it helped other women start their own business,” Hillman says. Giving women the opportunity to work at home and help their families was a win-win for all involved. Hillman, coming to direct selling from the corporate world, had always longed to have the opportunity to work from home and be able to pick up her children from school. DeSantis-Cummings, on the other hand, wanted to maintain her flexible work-from-home environment. She says “I adored working near my children and wanted to give that opportunity to other women.”

Although Gigi Hill stylists work primarily from home, they are expected to run their office like… an office. Paperwork, customer service and every detail of their business are required to be highly organized. Stylists know their numbers and their bottom line, along with key performance indicators (KPIs). “They are expected to show up and run it like a business. We don’t like to dumb it down. Our stylists are better than that,” says DeSantis-Cummings.

Leadership and Training

Right off the bat, Gigi Hill provides everything a new stylist will need to get her business started, including orientation materials, training manuals and marketing tools. Plus, a Gigi Hill mentor (or stylist leader) is assigned to each new stylist to help guide her every step of the way. Each stylist is given access to the online Stylist Studio, offering a wealth of information, support, webinars, worksheets and additional training tools available 24 hours a day. Live, weekly calls with the founders are also offered (and encouraged) to provide continued support and training. For stylists looking to rise in rank, Gigi Hill offers a Launch to Leadership program complete with executive training and a yearly Leadership Retreat in Del Mar, Calif., at the beautiful L’Auberge Hotel. Plus, the Gigi Hill annual convention (named each year by their creative stylists) in Orange County is an all-out event, and a whole lot of fun!

“We have set up our business model to be simple, easy to duplicate, and most of all, fun,” says DeSantis-Cummings.

The Gigi Hill leadership team, aka the Founding Style Leader Advisory Board (est. 2009), comprises 20 founding style leaders. The team serves as an invaluable advice board, among other important duties, and is the all-important eyes and ears of what’s going on in the field. The company’s emphasis on field communication allows Hillman and DeSantis-Cummings to stay abreast of both stylist and customer requests. Also, the entire group has an intimate bimonthly teleconference to discuss every detail of company news. Hillman and DeSantis-Cummings, who prefer to hear everyone’s voices, choose teleconferences over mass-emailing to relay company information. This companywide conference is both highly collaborative and personal, characteristics the company continues to promote and value.
Hillman believes that the leadership team, as well as the stylists, have been essential to the company’s growth, and suggests that their enthusiasm and desire to succeed has made this company what it is today. “We handed them our vision, and they avidly extended it to their family and friends, consistently exceeding our expectations,” she says.

When We Grow Up

Gigi Hill grew an astounding 900 percent last year, according to DeSantis-Cummings. To be more specific, in 2008, the company grossed $100,000 in sales, and in 2009 grossed over $1.3 million. Hillman and DeSantis-Cummings’ keen business sense and willingness to make snap decisions have paid off. The two, extremely methodical yet quick on the draw, explain that they don’t waste time sitting on the fence. DeSantis-Cummings clarifies: “That’s the mistake that many small companies make—analysis paralysis—and they don’t execute. That’s why we are where we are today. Because we made it happen. We knew we had something that was great… and we executed.”

As part of their growth and execution process, extensive financial analysis and forecasting was incorporated, along with delicate fine-tuning of every aspect of their business. “We had to determine where our money was going and make sure we were putting it in the right places—and decide what the right places would be,” Hillman explains. It was, admittedly, a huge goal. And now implemented, the detailed (and sunny) forecast puts Gigi Hill strategically on target to more than double their profits each and every year—with little chance of rain.

Gigi Hill relishes being part of the industry and having the opportunity to learn from leaders in the direct selling world. “We share this space with a number of outstanding companies and are inspired to grow up and be like them one day,” says DeSantis-Cummings. And in the end, success isn’t just about following the leaders; it’s about finding a niche in the marketplace and understanding your customers. And Gigi Hill has that more than covered.

“We are our customer,” Hillman says. “We live the life that our customers and our stylists live.” Running from soccer practice to fundraisers to PTA meetings, and with two children in tow, these “mompreneurs” are living the lifestyle of so many busy moms—and inspiring other women along the way. “Our stylists know that we’re just like them, and they appreciate that,” Hillman says. “It allows them to see that they can do it too!”