Wed, 10 July 2019
Selling Luggage and a Lifestyle
How Steph Korey and Jen Rubio co-founded a luggage company for the modern adventurer that is taking the world by storm.
Jen Rubio called her friend Steph Korey to vent about an irritating, expensive problem that just about any frequent flyer has endured at some point. She had a busted carry-on.
Rubio was suffering from suitcase-demolition blues, and Korey wasn’t sure what brands to recommend. So Rubio texted a dozen of their trendiest, travel-savvy friends—the kind of people who would know all the best hotels in Bangkok—but they had no clue where to direct her to buy the perfect suitcase. They were quick to tell her which brands to avoid—sharing similarly frustrating stories of failure—but no one had the answer she was searching for.
The search seemed hopeless.
A single, action-packed year later, Korey and Rubio shipped the very first piece of Away carry-on luggage.
Today, the luggage company that is so much more than a luggage company has sold over a million bags to customers across the world and captured the imagination of a generation known for its desire to chase down experiences instead of possessions.
“This business isn’t really about luggage or suitcases at all,” Korey says. “What we’re really creating is a travel brand, and travel has the ability to really impact someone’s life.”
With an eye on revolutionizing the luggage industry while leaving the world better than they’d found it, Korey and Rubio designed a bag that is durable, practical, and looks dang good in an Instagram photo.
And that was only the beginning.
Charting the Course
In the beginning, Korey wasn’t sure she even wanted to start a business. She just wanted to learn more about the way other people traveled.
She and Rubio had become friends while working together at Warby Parker, the online store that home delivers hip eyeglasses at affordable prices, so they knew firsthand the challenges that come with life at a startup.
Rather than cannonballing into the deep end, the pair chose to start small and simply follow their curiosity. They decided to create a survey and send it to 50 people in a vast array of demographics, including male and female students, young professionals, established professionals, and retirees, who lived both in the US and abroad.
After sharing information about how they traveled, how they packed, and what travel products they used, each person taking the survey was asked to forward it to five of their friends who also came from varied backgrounds.
When the survey finished making its rounds, Korey and Rubio had over 800 responses to sift through. The pair was quickly able to start noticing themes, particularly when it came to how the existing luggage industry wasn’t meeting travelers’ needs.
The survey results showed that travelers wanted a light piece of carry-on luggage that maximized packing space and still fit in the overhead compartments of airplanes. They also dreamed of a bag that could take a baggage handler’s beating if they decided to check it, including wheels and zippers that wouldn’t fail.
Respondents also expressed the need for a place to put dirty, sweaty laundry after trips to the gym, summer walking tours through cities, or perilous mountain climbs. Oh, and they hated traveling with dead cell phones.
With these results in mind, Korey and Rubio moved into the next stage of development.
Korey says they were still unsure whether they wanted to start a business when they sat down with a group of designers from the fashion, luggage, and industrial design industries. They weren’t even sure when they decided to partner with two industrial designers to transform their findings into a product design.
The team had plans for their new carry-on bag in one hand, and plane tickets to Asia—where they planned to meet with dozens of luggage manufacturers—in the other, but were still unsure where this journey would land them.
It was only when a family in the manufacturing business told them their radical design could be actualized that it all clicked together. And just like that, the family agreed to manufacture the first 3,000 Away carry-on bags.
Well, not quite.
“I’m glamorizing this story a little bit,” Korey says. “It’s, in reality, probably a little more along the lines of we begged them to work with us.”
Korey and Rubio spent days with the family, attempting to convince them to manufacture the bags. With every new pitch she used to convince the family—that they were about to revolutionize the luggage industry, and their business model was totally unique, and this was a chance to get in on day one with a company that was going to be huge one day—she felt herself becoming more convinced that this was it. It was finally time to start this business.
Their manufacturers came around, too.
“I’m entirely certain that they didn’t believe any of that,” she says. “Actually, they’ve told us that they didn’t believe any of that, but that we were so sincere and passionate about what we were doing that they just couldn’t turn us down.”
Now that the ball was officially rolling, and Away was on the verge of becoming a reality, they had to jump a final, daunting hurdle. They had to find the money.
“Raising any kind of capital is difficult, but raising seed capital is particularly difficult, because you can’t really tell the story of your business metrics at all, because they don’t exist,” Korey says. “You just have to tell the story of your vision and what you’re trying to create, and it really takes a leap of faith from investors.”
But she adds that the knowledge she had gathered from her time leading the supply chain at Warby Parker, and Rubio’s experience in the marketing team there, gave them a definite advantage.
“That is for sure the only reason that we were able to convince investors to take that leap of faith,” she says. “We knew what we were doing, and we would create something that resonated and that was successful.”
In fact, she recommends that all aspiring entrepreneurs invest some time working at a startup.
“I think it’s essential that you spend at least a couple years working at a startup first, for two reasons,” she says. “One, find out if you like it! Some people don’t like that chaos. … And then the second reason is it really gives you a sense of context of all the different pieces that go into creating something from nothing.”
In the summer of 2015, Korey and Rubio were ready to create something, so they met with more than 20 different investors across the United States over the course of a week.
After many failed pitches, and several uncomfortable red-eye flights, the pair met with Forerunner Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that invests primarily in early-stage ecommerce brands.
While most of the firms they met with simply didn’t understand what they were trying to do with Away, Korey says that Forerunner was captivated by their vision.
“We’re really creating a broader brand and business around inspiring people to live a life of new experiences, and equipping them with all the products they need to make those travel experiences more seamless,” she recalls saying in her pitch.
Within the first meeting, Forerunner was on board as a partner. With over $2.5 million raised, it was finally time to make some suitcases.
Excited by the prospect of holiday sales, Korey says they set their launch date for November 2015. But as the date drew closer and the production of the first 3,000 suitcases was delayed until February of the following year, they had to get creative.
Instead of selling the suitcases during the holiday season, they published a coffee table book called, The Places We Return To and paired it with a gift card for the February release of the first round of suitcases.
“It was really one of the first moves we did as a brand really establishing ourselves as first and foremost about travel and not about travel products,” Korey says.
In the book, they featured stories and photos of successful chefs, writers, photographers, and other talented professionals. Each person was asked about their favorite place in the entire world, why they loved it, and what they did during their visits.
“We ended up with this collection of short stories that were very intimate because it was about people who were so knowledgeable about their favorite place in the world,” Korey says.
Those featured in the book helped spread the word about the exciting new travel company, its mission, and the revolutionary new suitcase that was on the way. And the word traveled like a millennial with a break between jobs.
Korey says they prepared 2,000 books and gift cards. By Christmas, every one had sold.
Embarking on the Journey
In February 2016, the first ever Away customer (his name is Adam) received his carry-on bag. Three years later, over a million bags in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes have made it across the world in shipping boxes, overhead bins, and car trunks.
The ribbed, hard-shelled luggage is becoming more recognizable by the day. By offering their luggage at direct-to-consumer prices, what was once reserved for only the chicest of travelers could now make it to the general public.
They take their social impact seriously, as well. Away works with manufacturing companies that have, as they say on their website, “exemplary and thoughtful work environments we would want for our own employees.” The company has also partnered with several charitable organizations, including Peace Direct, Charity: Water, and Kode with Klossy.
So what’s next for Away?
Korey says the company is currently working to expand across Europe, Asia, Australia and other parts of North America. Taking a page from Warby Parker and other disruptive ecommerce startups, they’ve also launched a brick-and-mortar component to their business with six American storefronts and one in London.
And as Away continues to expand, they’ll continue to release new products that support the modern traveler.
Korey is excited to see where the company goes next, not merely because she wants the business to flourish, but because she genuinely cares about the needs of Away customers. From the moment Korey and Rubio sent their first survey, they knew that the “why” behind their brand lay directly at the feet of their customers.
“You should never start a business because you want to start a business. It’s a terrible reason to do it. It’s going to be a long slog if you’re not really focused on a particular insight or a problem that you’re trying to solve,” she says. “Whether you’re just getting started and you don’t know where to start, or you’ve already gotten started, and you’re trying to figure out the next step, it really starts with deeply understanding the customer.”
It starts the way Away did: with a need, an idea, and a customer survey.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo