Essays and deadlines and exams aside, my memories of student life blur into one big concoction of fun.
From too much tequila where you’re too drunk to care whether the barman gave you salt and lemon on the side; group huddles when ‘Wonderwall’ comes on and everyone’s high on life (but oh so sad that the lights are about to come on which spell the end of the night); to coming up with excuses as to why we deserve “just one more” episode of One Tree Hill, before we headed back to our desks to revise during exam season; it wasn’t glamorous fun by any means, but fun it was nonetheless.
This interview opened my eyes to an entirely different student experience; one of which Aileen Gilani knows about all too well.
Having partnered with a number of private members clubs in London such as Alberta Club and Quaglinos; affluent lifestyle brands like Nespresso and Quintessentially Travel; and high-end stores on Sloane Street including Chanel, D&G and Louis Vuitton; in 2017 Aileen launched The Luxury Student – a private members club and concierge service for wealthy students and/or students who aspire to live a luxury lifestyle.
It’s Thursday 1st February and over coffee and nibbles at Home House in Marylebone, I sat down with Aileen to find out the story behind her brand; and what led her to target students over anyone else…
Aileen Gilani. They’re our niche market and that’s why it works so well because we don’t target everyone. It’s also why it’s been so exciting because we’ve been able to find a market where people appreciate the services that we give them!
We try and create a really nice lifestyle for them so it’s not just focused on fashion or travel. We can organise private travel requirements, we can organise private shopping sprees with the various luxury brands on Sloane Street; we can give them anything they want be it nightlife or just a relaxing spa day!
She can. She did. The Gossip Girl fan in me loves this! What inspired you to come up with the idea?
Having studied hospitality at Oxford Brookes and worked at The Marriott in Grovesnor Square during her placement year; Aileen spent a year observing its wealthy guests.
AG. I was actually quite surprised at how young the demographic of the guests was. They could afford everything and rooms cost £600 a night so that to me was already interesting. Anyway, then I studied my postgraduate in law at The University of Law in Bloomsbury and I was surrounded by wealthy students, a lot of which were international students. The course cost about £20,000 which was a lot to me but I realised it didn’t mean anything to them.
Realising quickly that law wasn’t for her, half way through the course Aileen started a blog called ‘Luxury Student’.
AG. I wanted to become a blogger like everybody else so I just started talking about my lifestyle! I didn’t go out and get drunk much; all my money went on things like blow dries or getting my nails done!
SC.SD. Completely the opposite of my uni experience then…!
AG. Everyone says that! I thought why not explore this more though and that’s when I came across my now-mentor. His name is Sir Eric Peacock and he’s absolutely brilliant! He has his own history of entrepreneurship and has mentored so many people so I messaged him on LinkedIn saying: ‘please can you have a look at my website? All I want is your thoughts etc…’ I knew there was so much potential in it but didn’t know exactly how to make it work as a business so I wanted some professional guidance…
Later that day, Aileen went out for a meal in Mayfair and as if by luck, Sir Eric pulled up in a taxi directly outside and walked in to the restaurant where she was sat…
SC.SD. No way!
AG. I know! I just couldn’t believe it! I was just sat there stuffing my face with chocolate cake and I said to my friend, “oh my god it’s him!” and she was like, “it’s who!?” and I said, “it’s Sir Eric Peacock!” I was properly fangirling over him!
It was such a weird situation but I just felt like the stars were aligned and it was meant to be! I didn’t want to interrupt him though but a few minutes later he came over to our table and he just said, “YOU! You messaged me this afternoon didn’t you?”
SC.SD. I love stories like this!
AG. I just felt like it was meant to happen and without going all spiritual on you, when you have this ambition deep down to start something that’s so out of your comfort zone, you rely on those signs because it’s the shove in the right direction that you need.
I ended up convincing him to mentor me and he ended up saying, “Aileen, just drop the law degree. Education will always be there but work on this now!”
With that, Aileen’s focus moved almost entirely to the blog…
AG. I didn’t do very well on my law course! My friends always joked that whenever they couldn’t find me in lectures, they’d just look on the website and find out I’d been in Covent Garden researching the trendiest café!
With Sir Eric’s guidance, she spent the end of 2016 and the first half of 2017 playing around with ideas, attending entrepreneurial events as a blogger and gaining as much feedback as possible.
AG. I already knew that there was something in the idea so it was just a case of finding out what the end goal was. From the initial concept of the blog where I was doing something exclusively for students on behalf of brands, my first client became The Telegraph which essentially came from spending four months working on a website that might work or might not work! It was just a great start and even though nothing actually materialised from that, it was the sign I needed that I was onto something…
SC.SD. I think when big brands like that give you the time of day in the first place, it validates that there must be something of value in there worth pursuing!
AG. Exactly! There are some brands that I never would have thought would be interested in this market but actually, students really appeal to them and just being able to see that goes a long way.
AG. Anyway, I could see that there were loads of blogs that had already established themselves and they had over one million followers and it’s just so competitive, so it became a case of trying to turn this into a business. We tried switching the format to make it a blogger community site where we had bloggers writing for the page but after about five months, we switched our focus to solely students.
We realised that the people that are buying the latest Chanel bag or the latest luxury products were the students that were following these bloggers who had the money to do that. Stereotypically people think students are always on a budget when actually there’s a whole other realm of students that don’t have to think twice about what it costs…
SC.SD. It’s so funny you said that because I went to Leeds…
AG. And it’s full of private schools?!
SC.SD. Exactly! I remember really noticing it in my first year and it felt at times, like we were living in completely different worlds up there…
AG. Completely! It’s so cliquey, everyone knows everyone and it’s a community in itself!
In the initial months when I met The Telegraph, I only ever used to speak about my own personal experiences at University because I’d just graduated and that in itself was interesting for them, regardless of The Luxury Student website. I just said to them, “I was surrounded by girls – and I was one of them – where every girl had a Chanel watch on them, every girl had the latest designer bag on them” and that in itself says something; that students can afford it.
SC.SD. I think it speaks volumes about your business mind set though. That you were able to not just observe that world but actually see the value in that crowd and act on it…
AG. Completely! It’s still so taboo to talk about people’s wealth because you don’t want to make people uncomfortable but from my point of view, it was just a case of acknowledging that actually, there’s a lot of money that can be made in this…
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the nitty-gritty stuff… Talk to me about the baby steps you had to go through to make it a fully functioning business…
AG. One of the beauties is that we are very much living in a digital world now. People get so scared of things like building a website; they think, ‘gosh it’s going to cost me thousands of pounds’ but I’m currently using Wix! It’s become so accessible that you don’t need to take out a business loan to make it happen!
I find the majority of students on Instagram though by looking through the student union pages. It’s slightly stalkerish (!) but then again it’s research that’s already there for you!
SC.SD. Did you reach out to unis directly too?
AG. Definitely! If I was going to target students, I knew I’d have to have a good relationship with universities because unis are becoming more and more protective about what’s being advertised to students.
I started preparation for the launch in Fresher’s Week in March 2017 because you have to work a few months ahead so is just a case of introducing myself and the company to the career departments, the unions, and even some lecturers as well! I also gave a lecture myself at Bournemouth University and at Richmond University. It was just a good way of working out who’s who and getting feedback as well…
SC.SD. And what was the verdict?
AG. Everyone reacted so well to it! Universities – especially now – are quite nervous about the blogging trend. It’s an industry where you don’t need a degree but you can earn a lot of money for it so trying to break down that barrier between the professors and students was interesting!
SC.SD. What about financing the business?
AG. I was so lucky because as well as Sir Eric, I have another mentor called Paul Hinder who I tend to meet up with when I’m in panic mode! I met him when I went to see Sir Eric speak at an event and Paul was sitting next to me! At the time, I was desperately seeking a start-up loan and I was actually looking at Virgin’s start-up loans and he happened to be a mentor for the Virgin start-up loan scheme…
SC.SD. You have the most incredible luck!
AG. I know! In the end I realised I didn’t actually need the loan but he ended up mentoring me for the whole finance side of things! I think, “hey! How are you? Let’s go for coffee!” can go a long way; especially in that first year!
It’s interesting because I think the term ‘mentor’ might sound intimidating to a younger audience but at the end of the day; it’s like making another friend! And it’s funny because students often find the word, ‘networking’ intimidating but again it’s just socialising!
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree with that more! It’s one of the things I really try and get across with She can. She did. – Especially with all the finance jargon you hear when it comes to start-ups – because fancy terminology aside, the concepts are so much simpler when put into practice than they sound!
In September 2017, The Luxury Student was launched…
SC.SD. Do you have an ideal type of student in mind? Is it a case of, the wealthier the better!?
AG. We have a lot of Middle Eastern, Russian and Italian students! Perhaps it’s a cultural thing- I’m Middle Eastern myself and we don’t tend to save money!
With regards to wealth, it’s interesting because there’s a middle ground. I’ve met some seriously wealthy students who honestly have everything. In fact, in one of my lectures, I mentioned that we offer private travel and one girl turned around and said, “well I already have a private jet so I don’t need that.” That’s been really interesting actually- working out who is my target audience!
Membership costs £50 per month and whilst we’ve had a few students say, “this is too good to be true” I’m also interested in making it accessible so it appeals to not just those that can afford it but also those that perhaps aspire to live that luxury lifestyle…
SC.SD. Let’s talk securing partnerships… how did they come about?
A few days before launching The Luxury Student, Aileen secured Nespresso as the company’s first major partner.
AG. It completely blew me away because I really thought I’d have to persuade them but they were totally on board with it! For about a month, I was speaking to sales person after sales person though and no one knew who to direct me to because it wasn’t like I was just one person wanting a machine! I was talking about a whole market!
Finally someone directed me through to the Head Office in London though and they said, “we’re so keen.” What’s interesting to them is yes, we target wealthier people but they’re young people and that’s a whole different market for them. I learnt a few months ago actually that we’re one of the first start-up companies that Nespresso has partnered with!
SC.SD. That’s amazing! That must feel good?
AG. Really, really good! A few years ago I passed Nespresso on Regents Street and I thought back then, ‘one day I really want to collaborate with them’ so it’s so nice to look back on that memory and know that I’ve come full circle!
SC.SD. For anyone reading this that’s interested in working with partners themselves, did you go to that meeting knowing exactly what you wanted to achieve or did you collaborate and make it up as you went along?
AG. I think the best advice I can give is to go into a meeting knowing exactly what you want to get out of that meeting. I think some of my pitches have failed in the past because I have an end goal.
When you’re a start-up, you’re so desperate for that partnership that you go with the flow so I think that yes, you want to introduce yourself and your brand but you need to remember your worth at the same time. Both sides need to be imaginative as well. Start-ups are flexible so it’s good to be able to say, “yes you’ve done events for this brand and that brand, but let’s try and think about something new that we can do together.”
SC.SD. Absolutely! And was it natural momentum that led you to add the concierge service, the travel service, the private shopping experiences etc…
AG. I think momentum just picked up, yes! I go to a lot of networking events and a lot of masterclasses that I now have the confidence in my brand to know what makes a good partnership and that the minute I say, “I work with wealthy students” people are interested! There’s so much opportunity out there but I never thought it would move this quickly!
Managing sixty five members since its launch in September, I was intrigued to find out how Aileen juggles their individual needs on her own…
AG. It’s so many people to deal with! I have student brand ambassadors based at universities though who help with recruiting members and they also lead The Luxury Student members activities in that area.
SC.SD. A bit like a sorority then?!
AG. Yes! I found a lot of them via recruitment sites and social media and we got so many applicants from day one! I don’t think many recruitment sites had offered that before: “we are recruiting for a private members concierge service for students…”
SC.SD. Do the brand ambassadors get anything in return?
AG. So they receive a complimentary membership which in itself is worth £600 a year and a further £100 for every new member they sign up. It’s very generous! I try and make it fun and every few months I take them all out to dinner so I get to know them all too!
SC.SD. Let’s get the low points out the way! What have you struggled with most since launching this business?
AG. Erm… I think there’s always going to be people that are really, really happy with the service but then you’ll come across one or two that want more from you so when students have joined and then a month later turned around and said, “actually it’s not for me,” I took it really personally at the very beginning. It’s just a case of accepting that there’s always going to be people that have differing opinions but actually it’s been good feedback. Students, at the end of the day, do follow trends so it’s forced me to make sure that we are constantly on top of those trends.
That being said, I think the lowest days were probably at the very beginning when I felt like we didn’t have enough to offer. I think I was just nervous looking back now but now we’ve got more partnerships, it’s a lot more exciting!
SC.SD. What about highs? I’m guessing Nespresso was a big one but have you had any other standout moments where you’ve been really proud of yourself?
AG. I think any time a brand has come on board I’ve been really proud of myself but only last week, I had a real high!
I always knew that my members wanted something fashion related with the high-end stores so I just woke up one morning and thought, ‘I’m not going to email them, I’m just going to go in there and speak to them directly!’ You can send so many emails but sometimes brands don’t reply, or it ends up in their spam and you’re left with no answers! But I was so determined so I just decided to walk in to every single store on Sloane Street, I took my business cards, and just pitched!
I said, “look we’ve got members who absolutely love your brand, let’s do something together!” They asked a few questions about my clients and once they realised they had the money to spend and that they wanted to be treated like a VIP when they walked in, I partnered with every single one of them and walked away with about twenty business cards belonging to every store manager on Sloane Street from Dolce and Gabanna through to Chanel!
SC.SD. That’s genuinely incredible!
AG. Thank you! The thing is, just having their business cards and hearing them say, “if you need anything, call me!” was a win for me because it’s that connection.
SC.SD. So now your members can come to you and say, “Aileen, can you book me in with Louis Vuitton please?”
AG. And I’d say, “absolutely, right away!” Touch wood we can add some private events with these places because from a student point of view, being invited to a Chanel private event where you have a glass of bubbly and you’re just looking at the new collection is really exciting!
I’m pleased to say that since Aileen and I met, she has organised a number of private events with these brands for her members…
AG. I remember walking into the first shop and I was so nervous and I’m not normally nervous when I pitch! It’s different when you’re there speaking to them face-to-face and I think I was just really scared of rejection…
SC.SD. Rejection face-to-face is a lot worse than rejection over an email isn’t it?!
AG. It’s so mean! But having that face-to-face interaction is actually really important because they get to know you and they can see that you’re legit! I think I was just so mind blown by the end of the day!
SC.SD. I trust that you celebrated in style!?
AG. I did! There was lots of champagne and I called my parents and partner immediately! I know it probably doesn’t mean much to other people but it meant a lot to me!
SC.SD. Don’t knock it! I think that’s such an incredible achievement!
SC.SD. Has anything taken you by surprise since launching?
AG. I was definitely quite naive at the beginning and there are few costs I paid where looking back now, I probably didn’t need to. It all comes down to confidence though. Partnerships should be a two-way street so that’s been the main thing for me.
Now I know my clientele better and I’ve got some bigger brands behind me I feel more powerful and I also feel a lot more confident rejecting brands if they’re not a good fit. At the beginning, you just want to collaborate with as many people as possible and say “yes” to everyone when actually that’s not always a good choice.
SC.SD. So much comes down to confidence though; you learn as you go…
AG. Absolutely! I made the mistake of paying for some web developers to design my website at the beginning and students would go to pay, the website would crash and I ended up losing some sales in the early days. It’s all of those little things where you don’t ever think they’ll be problems that end up being a problem- that was definitely a learning curve.
In October I ended calling them and not in an Alan Sugar way (!) but I did have to say, “listen I can’t work with you anymore because this time is too valuable for me and everything keeps going wrong!”
SC.SD. First impressions count though don’t they?
AG. Absolutely! When you’re having technical issues with your website and you’re trying to pitch that you’re a luxury service, it leaves people thinking you’re dodgy and I’m not dodgy! Customers don’t actually care too much but it’s such a huge deal to me!
It just takes confidence and it’s something I’ve learnt because you can’t be a pushover when you have your own business. You have to be quite selfish because you can’t have anything ruining it so I ended up going back to Wix and Squarespace. Moral of the story, less is more!
SC.SD. How did those closest to you react when you said you were going to launch this business and have any relationships evolved for the better or for the worse?
AG. They’ve been brilliant! At the beginning though, I definitely think they were nervous. There was lots of, “so it’s a concierge service? But then it’s for students? But it’s a website with a membership..?”
SC.SD. It’s definitely not traditional!
AG. Exactly! So there was a bit of confusion initially but having some partnerships on board now makes it easier to grasp I suppose. I think a lot of people I know are quite traditional so it’s almost as if they wanted to see it to believe it! Overall though, I’ve been so emotional and stressed and upset and anxious and they’ve just been amazing!
SC.SD. Haha! You and me both! You really come to realise how incredible your safety net of friends and family are in those moments though don’t you? This isn’t easy!
AG. Oh my gosh! The amount of times I’ve cried, “I’ve got no energy left, I’m not going anywhere, this isn’t working, this is going to fail” and then the next day you get a new partnership!
SC.SD. It can be volatile can’t it?!
AG. So volatile! Super lows and super highs…
SC.SD. And has that affected any relationships?
AG. I think the biggest eye-opener for me is that I find it hard to switch off. If I’m on date night or family dinners, I’ll have to check my phone because someone has sent me a DM and you want to offer good customer service so sometimes they say, “please stop playing with your phone!” Now I try and structure my day as close to a 9 to 5 as possible but when you’re not working you can’t help but feel guilty. It’s about finding that balance. If Chanel closes at 7pm, why can’t I!?
Going back to relationships though, I haven’t lost any friends but I’ve gained some absolutely amazing people in my life that I never would have thought I’d hang out with. Once you leave uni, you think, ‘right, that’s my friendship groups sorted’ but it’s just incredible how many amazing people I’ve met that are so ambitious and are of all ages. Sir Eric for example- I talk to him not just about business but life in general too!
SC.SD. What’ve you learnt about yourself generally but also as a business woman since launching this?
AG. In a negative sense, I’ve learnt that I’m a complete pushover!
AG. No I really am! I think I just want people to like me!
SC.SD. I think people can relate to that but it goes back to what you were saying about knowing your worth at the same time too I suppose! You can’t please everyone! Have you learnt anything good!?
AG. I think in general, I’ve learnt that I have to run my own business. When you think about people that go travelling for months on end to learn about themselves, I need to learn through business. As cheesy as it sounds, I learn from my own mistakes. University didn’t do much for me because it was so much content…
SC.SD. You need that hands-on experience?
AG. Completely! I think that’s why I was so bad at law because it couldn’t be more opposite!
SC.SD. What does down time look like to you?
AG. Downtime to me is Netflix! But I suppose that in itself is a problem as I spend my whole day in front of a laptop!
SC.SD. Do you exercise?
AG. I have a gym membership but I barely use it although saying that, I’ve just booked a ballet class! I guess it comes down to routine though and when you’re in this start-up mode, routine goes out the window. Some days, I go to bed at 10pm and some days I go to bed at 2am so I’m trying to find ways to change that.
I think it’s quite a lonely world as well when you start a business and even though you’ve got people around you, you’re the one that feels guilty if you’re not working, you’re the one that feels stressed…
SC.SD. The onus is on you when push comes to shove?
AG. Exactly so I’m really trying to find a way to handle that healthily, be it meditation or ballet!
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite motivational quote?
AG. ‘Make your dream a reality!’
SC.SD. Always! Rounding up then, can you see yourself running this business forever or can you see yourself doing other things?
AG. I think this is definitely going to go far! I would obviously love to make this global and I’ve thought about actually providing a venue that is exclusive for the students to use too! There is so much you can do in the luxury industry and there’s so much you can do for students so the possibilities are endless!
I would love to be a speaker as well and mentor people too. I’ve gone through so much, so quickly that I feel like I’ve learnt so many do’s and don’ts to share! To be honest though, I’m making up as I go along but that’s what makes it so exciting!
SC.SD. Last question then, what’s the best thing about owning your business?
AG. The credit comes back to you and the “well done” is for you; that is the most exciting part! There will always be lows and you will always take the front of that blame if things go wrong but when you do get amazing partnerships and you do get those highs you can pat yourself on the back because you made it work! Plus, you know what? I just love attention… I’m a selfish person like that!!
SC.SD. Shall I end it like that!?
AG. Feel free!
For those of you that were die-hard Gossip Girl fans like me back in the day, even though Aileen reminds me so much of Blair Waldorf’s character, it’s the warm, witty Blair with impeccable taste (as opposed to the catty, conceited Blair that we all rolled our eyes at) that I couldn’t help but compare her to as we chatted away!
It takes a lot of courage to walk into the most exclusive stores London has to offer and pitch on the spot about your not-yet-one-year-old business; not to mention to ask one of the UK’s most successful businessmen to mentor you (Google Sir Eric!); and flagrantly admit that the best part about owning a business is the limelight and praise that can come your way; but having met Aileen and admired her natural confidence, it’s undoubtedly the secret to her company’s success.
From not letting the fear of rejection stand in her way of face-to-face meetings, accepting that she learns by making mistakes along the way, to the simple act of inviting those that inspire her out for coffee; even though Aileen’s business prides itself on exclusivity, there are common lessons and practices that we can all takeaway from her story.
(And yes, whilst good timing and luck played its part too, I’m a firm believer in trusting the process and rolling with such signs.)
At twenty six, she’s created something that has such potential for growth and in my opinion she deserves the spotlight that will no doubt follow her path.