After Jen Rubio broke her suitcase at the Zurich airport, she quickly “stuffed her clothes” into the broken case and “duct-taped the mess” to keep it all together. Jen contacted her Facebook friends- 2,600 of them- to ask what she should buy to replace it. Nobody had any suitcases to recommend. She complained about it to her friend Stephanie Korey, and that’s how they came up with idea of starting a luggage company. They interviewed hundreds of people about their own luggage needs and compiled all those ideas into their carry-on suitcase design. Their goal was to create a travel brand which “spoke to millennials” and anyone who wanted to have a different travel experience. They were rejected by dozens of investors before landing the right ones, which included Comcast Ventures, Accel, and Forerunner Ventures. They had done their homework. They learned how people pack their suitcases and what they wanted to help make traveling with their suitcases a better experience.
1. Away launched with no products but landed $12 million in the first year.
Here’s what happened. According to Burt Helm of Inc.com, Away founders Jen Rubio and Steph Korey had planned to launch their luggage brand for purchase in time for Christmas gifting. But, they discovered that they wouldn’t have any suitcases ready to sell. They decided to create a hardcover book titled, The Places We Return To instead. It was November 2015 and they sold their book along with a gift card which could be used to redeem a suitcase in February. The complimentary book was something to give along with the preordered luggage. The book was very interesting because it told the traveling stories of people who were already known in the creative community for their work as photographers, artists, and writers. Storytelling became a foundational element of their marketing and the talking about ideas is now essential to selling their suitcases.
2. By 2018, Away had landed an additional $50 million to support its already profitable growth.
According to Elizabeth Segran, writing for Fast Company in 2018, Away had already sold over half a million suitcases. Away’s growth trajectory was giving the startup the chance to move into a new office in New York. That new space would open 56,000 square feet for doing business and kick-start plans to hire another 246 employees over a five-year span. Away had begun campaigns in Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Milan, and Paris with a dedicated team set up to provided service throughout Europe.
3. One of the guests at Meghan Markle’s baby shower bought Away suitcases for all the guests.
For Jen and Steph, that was one of the most exciting sales Away has had. It also made them realize that their product was successful. Markle was just one of many celebrities who have already bought Away suitcases. Due to social media and “constantly gathering referrals” the company has grown incredibly quickly. By 2019, Away had received an investment of $100 million based on a valuation of $1.4 billion. It took just 3 years from their founding to emerge as the sellers of more than a million pieces of luggage, place stores in 7 locations with plans to place 50 more around the world, and created a diverse line of luggage accessories to go along with their popular luggage.
4. Jen Rubio was born in the Philippines and immigrated to New Jersey when she was just seven.
She came with her family. While working for Warby Parker, the online eyewear retailer, the Filipino-American young woman met Steph Korey, who was to cofound Away along with Jen. Steph left Warby Parker to earn an MBA. The two women teamed up and created Away to be the “brand that would meet the needs of millennial travelers”.
5. A former Away employee criticized the company for ‘it’s extensive and ruthless slackbullying’.
According to a report by Zoe Schiffer for The Verge, the former employee was ‘invited to join a Slack channel which was “a safe space where marginalized employees could vent” and comprised of people of color and LGBTQ people’. This type of communication was “against company policy”. Company rules discouraged employee commiseration about workdays and were not allowed to email each other. Unfortunately, the desire to create transparency resulted in what employees felt was “a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance”. Even more unfortunate was when Steph discovered how Away employees were using their Slack channel, posted on it, and then began to fire people the next day, “one by one”. Company transparency began to seem to disbelieving employees as “a pretense for Korey to micromanage and exert control”. An additional employee described an environment where working overtime was valued to the point where employees felt manipulated to take on excessive work hours and miss holidays in order to prove they valued team success. Those who interviewed with The Verge ultimate left Away. Away hired a defamation law firm as its response to The Verge article.
To counter claims of Away’s allegedly toxic work environment, Clare Locke LLP lawyers were hired to “identify deliberate lies and distortions in The Verge article. The top drawer defamation law firm set about immediately to identify what Locke described as ‘some of the worse journalism designed to damage Away’s reputation’.
6. Steph apologized for her management style, stepped down, but ultimately returned.
It took Steph just a few weeks to decide that she was mistaken for stepping down from her CEO position due to the “social media firestorm” caused when the public became aware of the The Verge allegations. She had issued a long apology and decided to step down as CEO. Away made plans to hire Stuart Haselden as the new chief executive. He’d been recruited from Lululemon Athletica. But, Steph, supported by the company’s board members, decided not to leave after all. Steph and Stuart would be moving forward with the company as co-chief executives. The board members described their response as ‘feeling like victims of a Twitter mob’. Steph spent almost a month “bombarded by criticism on Twitter and other social media platforms”. According to the January 13, 2020 New York Times article by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Steph had already recruited Stuart to be Away’s president with the promise that he would “take the company public” as chief executive after a period of transition. Steph’s pregnancy was being included in some nasty Twitter posts alluding to her possible poor treatment of her baby. It seemed like the proper course to simply “accelerate” the transition plan. But, Steph ultimately recognized her mistakes and believed that she had been misrepresented, which hastened her return to work.
7. Both Jen and Steph are alumni of the Forbes 30 Under 30.
The duo's employment with Warby Parker, the company famous for eyeglass retailing without the middleman, provided the two business women with the proximity to share experiences and expertise. They both continued to grow with collective skills and abilities. Both were featured in the November 30, 2018 issue of Forbes, with Steph garnering a front cover photograph as the new CEO of Away. Jen admitted that it was the business model Warby Parker adopted which led her to think about how that model could also be adopted for a luggage brand.
8. Away describes its suitcases as ‘first class luggage at a coach price’.
According to Conde Nast Traveler contributor Cynthia Drescher, the success of Away isn’t due to a revolutionary product. She doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea that Away’s products are first class. She believes that Away’s success has come because of Facebook marketing and the founders’ reputations as “Girlboss-style scions”. Though Drescher finally purchased a plum-colored Bigger Carry-on from the limited-edition collection designed by Rashida Jones, Drescher ultimately returned the suitcase with the time allowable for returns. The reason? Airline staff constantly insisted that it was too large for a carry-on bag and told her she had to check it. All of this Drescher endured on a trip across the Maldives, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Drescher felt that the Away carry-on “didn’t perform any better” than her previous one. She’s long been devoted to high-priced Rimowa and Filson products, and retained her admiration for those after her trial run with Away.
9. Away isn't focused to keep a co-CEO structure in place indefinitely.
Writer for New York Magazine Josh Barro reflected on this news with an analysis of other co-CEO arrangements made by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of leadership studies at Yale School of Management. Sonnenfeld noted that most of the Fortune 500 firms which have tried this corporate structure have abandoned it within a short period of time. He described some instances where co-CEO structures have worked because the duo sharing the title have a long relationship of trust, where the duo rose through the ranks together in “a very well-defined management culture”, where the duo is married and own their business together, or where “a legendary founder retains key influence within the company” and watchfully mentors the duo. Away has been struggling with the need to simultaneously project the image that Steph is in charge and is not; particularly after The Verge article prompted so much instability.
10. Away collaborated with actress Rashida Jones to create a luggage line inspired by the colors of Stockholm
When InStyle asked Jones why she selected Stockholm as her inspiration for the new collection of luggage she had created with Away, she told reporter Claire Stern that Sweden was “really magical”. She added that the country had not participated in any wars for hundreds of years, and that the “incredibly old country” had embraced “extremely evolved attitudes towards gender equality”. Jones said that she has always “been incredibly charmed” by the design elements in Scandinavian clothing, textiles, architecture, and furniture. Away’s collaboration with Jones resulted in Away: Edition RJ, which features the muted colors which Jones adores. A portion of the proceeds were earmarked for the International Rescue Committee, whose non-profit mission provides refugees with humanitarian aid.
11. Away hired 24-year-old Emma Bates as Head of Global Marketing and Operations.
Emma had been a consultant whose clients came to her by referral and networking. She told The Life Style Edit that she “took full advantage” of many different channels to focus on “forming strong relationships with influencers and photographers” to build community through brand marketing strategies. She initially set out with friends to cultivate activism through education. Together, they had launched The Un-Idle Collective. Through Emma’s consulting work, she developed skills such as balancing multiple projects at one time, managing her time well, and working with several start-ups ranging from fashion to tech. She was initially hired to open Away’s London pop-up. She joined the New York team to collaborate with the Pop & Suki Pink limited-edition collection.
12. Away created luggage in all the colors of the rainbow when partnering with Flour Shop.
The limited edition was created in eight vivid polycarbonate colors. Two shades of hot pink, two shades of blue, purple, orange, green, and yellow were used on the luggage exteriors and for the packing cubes. These were made available in two options, either warm or cool colors. The exploding party cakes created by Flour Shop owner Amirah Kassem promoted the colorful collaboration. Kassem grew up in Mexico learning to bake and sculpt with her mother. Kassem’s artistic cakes have been featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum, and “every fashion party in New York City.
13. Design Director Alejandro Largo served as consultant to create a design system for Away.
Largo worked with photography art direction, print and environmental, marketing and advertising, and digital elements which would ‘reflect Away’s constant focus on movement and celebrating in-between moments’. Largo is based in New York and is a strategic creative director with 12+ years of experience creating ‘meaningful and strong connections between people and the products they use’. Largo holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design and a Masters in Branding from the School of Visual Arts. He has worked as Design Director in various capacities with Columbia University Press, Apartment One, Paddle8, and other clients such as Coach, MoMA, Bronx River Alliance, 2U and others.
14. Away’s luggage is manufactured in China but uses sourced components.
The company uses the “best German polycarbonate and high-end Japanese wheels” on their luggage. Those “Japanese wheels” are actually 360-degree Hinomoto double-wheel spinners.
15. Away’s focus on social impact has settled into partnering with Peace Direct.
In an interview with Grant Trahant for Cause Artist, Steph described the company’s brand-building philosophy. Along with Jen, the idea they developed is that global conflict may be eliminated when human beings travel and interact with different cultures and traditions. In fact, the two women decided that they would partner with Peace Direct even ‘before they sold one single suitcase’. Steph has felt that travel shaped her perspectives on the world. She traveled with her family while growing up because her mother was born in Romania and her father was born in Lebanon. She and Jen have used their belief in travel and storytelling to help change the world. They do more than give monetarily, their Away team donates time and experience to the Peace Direct team. Because Peace Direct supports local people and grassroots organizations, this model for change inspired Steph and Jen. It’s parallel to the way that world travelers get to know people up close and personal when traveling the less-taken paths.
16. Away collaborated with Charity: Water on a fundraising suitcase.
The suitcase design is brown with a bright yellow zipper and geometric interior liner fabric inspired by Nigerian prints. The brown and yellow colors also evoke the earth and the yellow color of water containers. Charity: Water founder Scott Harrison expressed his hope that the partnership with Away would “bring many more people clean and safe drinking water. The Away luggage collection for Charity: Water was scheduled for launch on World Water Day, March 22, 2017.
17. Away launched a Star Wars collection on Star Wars Day-May 4, 2018
What made this Away collection unique was not so much about the day it was released, but rather the colors. Away took inspiration from favorite locations in the original trilogy. From the ice planet Hoth, an icy blue; from the desert Tatooine, an orange shade worthy of the dry and dusty spot; and from the lush Ewoks forest home of Endor, a rich, mossy green color- and each of these paying homage to those Star Wars classics. The luggage interiors were lined with patterns which ‘referenced an element’ unique to the location which inspired the exterior color. Adding some fun, these bags also included luggage tags in the shape of the Millennium Falcon.
18. Jen dropped out of college and Steph didn't.
In an interview with Amanda Kludt for eater.com, Jen described her time with business classes as enjoyable. She also started to love her internships and “decided to stay” with one because she ‘really loved’ it. She first started working with social media as Global Head of Innovation for All Saints in London, and then, Warby Parker. She discovered a keen interest in marketing. The prospect of ‘talking about a product, deciding how people interact with it, and then encouraging people to love the product’ intrigued her. She realized that she wanted to work in marketing once she ‘realized that a real career could be made of connecting people with brands and product’.
As co-founder and chief brand officer of Away, Jen now wakes up every day 6 a.m. Her sleep app Pzizz sounds the morning alarm and she works out on her Peloton bike. She told Cara Gibbs of Wall Street Journal that she prepares for each day by taking an hour of alone time before she heads out to work. She considers New York and San Francisco home, but also travels regularly between Away’s offices in SoHo New York and London.
Steph was born in the United States and grew up in a 55,000 square foot historic mansion in Ohio. The home had three dining rooms and an indoor swimming pool. Steph studied international relations at Brown University and graduated from Columbia with an MBA.
Steph and Jen were born just three weeks apart, which may explain part of why they bonded so well. But they described themselves as having “little overlap” in their daily work. They view themselves as very different: “completely left brain, right brain”. When working together at Warby Parker they would meet for coffee and a breather- just to vent. They started talking about luggage in earnest, began to do consumer research, and realized that they should work together to close what they learned was a significant market gap. They took their varied experiences and moved forward. Steph traveled to China to meet with manufacturers immediately after she completed “the last class” for her MBA.
19. Serena Williams helped designed her own collection for Away in a new hue named Rouge.
The new collection includes four sizes of the soft side expandable cases and four of the hard side suitcases. The interiors are lined with multi-colored camouflage material. Luggage tags printed with Serena Williams’ signature add a distinctive addition to the suitcase collection. But the Shoe Cubes, which recently were sold out in the Rouge color, were introduced to help travelers successfully organize and separate footwear from the rest of the packed items. Away offered this new travel accessory along with the Williams’ collection knowing that shoes are an essential item for active women and athletes like her.
20. Away recently raised $100 million to expand beyond luggage sales.
In an article for Skift, Sean O Neill reported that Wellington Management was the 2019 funding round leader. Since Away successfully sold $150 million in luggage and related products during 2018, its goal was to double that amount in 2019. The new funding would develop additional travel products such as lifestyle accessories, wellness, and apparel items. Away also deftly maneuvered past the 2018 ban on smart luggage. Away simply used easy to remove batteries which were below the power limits set by the United States TSA.
Written by Allen Lee
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