Game Changers: Jen Rubio and Stephanie Korey, Co-Founders, Away
This article originally appeared in the cover story of Total Retail’s Summer issue, Game Changers. Total Retail is the sister publication of Women in Retail Leadership Circle.
Total Retail: Where did you get the inspiration to launch your company?
Jen Rubio: My old suitcase broke during a trip, and while looking for a replacement, I realized that everything on the market was either way too expensive, or affordable and bound to break after a few uses. On top of that, I couldn’t help wondering why there wasn’t a cool luggage brand that cared about the travel experience as much as I did. I connected with my friend and former co-worker, Steph, and a short phone call turned into an all-night planning session. She convinced me to move back to New York from London so we could start Away.
TR: What was the “ah-ha moment” when you realized you might have a successful business?
JR: Truthfully, when we were researching the travel industry, we found that few people truly cared about the luggage they used from traditional brands. For most customers, it was more of a necessity than something they were proud to buy or own, or it was a gift they received for milestones like graduations and weddings. Before we started Away, there wasn’t another brand that resonated with how people live and travel today. We set out to be the brand that could get people as excited about their luggage as they were about the trips they were taking — and I feel like we’ve accomplished that.
TR: What was the the pivotal marketing campaign or channel that really catapulted the business in its early days?
JR: Instagram and social media have always been crucial tools for us. Even before our official launch, we offered our bags for pre-order, along with a book that we published called “The Places We Return To.” The book went viral on social media and sold out early. That was in late 2015, and were ’re still investing heavily in our social media presence and utilizing it to the fullest extent. There’s no better way to connect with your community.
TR: How are you planning to scale your business?
JR: We’re building out our team and continuing to make big pushes to increase awareness in new markets. It’s been an exciting year — over 100,000 suitcases sold in 15 months — but we still have a long way to go before everyone knows about Away.
TR: Can you tell us about a successful initiative for your company that was launched in the last year?
Stephanie Korey: We were blown away by the feedback to our first collaboration, a limited edition line with Pop & Suki. The bubblegum pink suitcases sold out in a couple of weeks and have been spotted on celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski, Jessica Alba, and Jenna Dewan, along with tons of customers all over the world. We’re still getting requests for it months later!
TR: What are your goals for the business going into next year?
JR: We want to become the top travel brand in the world and make travel seamless for everyone. Over the next few years, we’ll work towards that goal with new product launches, entry into new categories, opening brick-and-mortar retail locations at home and internationally, and by connecting with customers all over the world.
TR: What types of retail technology are you watching closely and/or thinking of implementing in your company?
JR: We keep an eye on all technology, not just retail-related things. We look at things we can implement immediately, like payment options and CRM solutions. In the longer term, we’re interested in things like how artificial intelligence will shape customer experience in retail (affecting things like recommendations, inventory management, consumer insights).
TR: Tell us about your hiring strategy.
SK: Hire slow, fire fast. We’d rather have a few openings and take time to hire the right people than end up with someone who wasn’t a great fit for our team or their role.
TR: Tell us about your leadership style.
SK: Jen and I have both found that giving our employees freedom allows them to do their best work.
TR: What can traditional retailers learn from your business?
JR: Direct-to-consumer (DTC) really is the best model for customers. Aside from being able to offer higher quality products at a more affordable price by cutting out the middleman, our customer experience team is next level. They know our product better than anyone else, and they go above and beyond to make sure that each and every one of our customers is cared for. When we talk about the future of retail, I think that offering a best-in-class experience is something that customers are going to come to expect across the board, largely due to the incredible service Away and other DTC companies are able to provide.