When Jen Rubio was left dragging a not-so-trusty suitcase, with only half the wheels working, through Zurich Airport, the former global head of innovation at fashion label AllSaints was forced to shop for new luggage – and the endless options were overwhelming. Cases with a price tag of just $40 were positioned right next to bags selling for more than 10 times that and, to Jen, they all seemed the same.
So, having recently left her post at AllSaints, Jen teamed up with friend and former colleague Steph Korey, with whom she had previously worked at Warby Parker, the iconic eyewear company, to see what opportunities might exist in a market set to be worth more than US$40 billion.
“There was either cheap suitcases that were going to break quickly and weren’t that great quality or there was high-end luggage that was good quality product but so expensive that it could cost more than the trip you were going on,” laughs Steph, who was previously the supply chain head at Warby Parker, which pioneered the modern direct-to-consumer model.
Jen and Steph decided it was time to do the same for luggage; strip out the middleman and sell online. Their resulting company, Away, launched to much fanfare less than 12 months ago with just one suitcase – a model similar to mattress-in-a-box company Casper, where Steph once worked.
“Both in the case of Casper and Away, a big part of solving the problem for consumers was to get rid of that overwhelming wall of options, and say, ‘You know what, all of those options are out there to confuse you and make you spend more money,” explains Steph, as Away’s two office puppies, Mugs and Nacho, run around her feet in their downtown New York loft office.
After a year spent in development, the duo invited a small number of NYC respondents to come in for focus groups.
“It was funny, one of the things we kept hearing was, ‘I know this is about luggage and you can’t solve this, but my phone always dies when we travel’. And we thought well, maybe we can.”
The end product – a carry-on case with an in-built battery that can charge your phone up to five times, removable laundry bag and silent, 360-degree wheels (which you can’t find on many other cases under US$1000) – sold 5000 units in the first four months.
Steph attributes their success, and quality product, to their attention to detail from day dot – their wheels went through 20 prototype iterations while Away, Box Clever and their manufacturer worked collaboratively to find the right suppliers for the other 80 suitcase parts they needed (and though Away has direct relationships with every supplier, due to language and time zone barriers it’s their manufacturer that handles day-to-day ordering and deadlines).
And while Steph and Jen also benefit from an advisory board, there’s the added benefit that the board also includes their former bosses and Warby Parker co-founders Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, from whom the girls have taken a few positive pointers.
“Jen and I both loved working at Warby so much, we feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work there,” Steph says. “A big part of that is because the corporate culture, and because the team there does such a good job at making it, just an enjoyable place to work where you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than just going to work.”
Steph also points out that the brand’s ‘buy a pair, give a pair’ campaign goes deeper than their outward messaging to customers.
“Beyond [that program] they really live those greater impact values more wholeheartedly, so the company as a whole is carbon neutral,” Steph explains. “They take every effort to minimise the carbon footprint of the company and then at the end of every year they purchase the carbon offsets to make the company be carbon neutral through the net zero impact fare.”
Not only that, but the team is actively encouraged to use social enterprise as a way to build stronger bonds within their organisation.
“Every team at the company is not only allowed but encouraged to take an outing together once a month during work hours and go volunteer together and bond as a team, which was really awesome,” Steph says. “Because at a lot of companies you and your team can not sort of know each other outside of work but the fact that Warby you were encouraged to get to know people on a different level and kind of being able to give back on company time, which was a really awesome experience.”
So what exactly have they taken to their own company?
“We’re definitely trying to bring a lot of that type of stuff, so we haven’t announced it quite yet but we have an exciting re-used program coming out soon to help discourage waste,” Steph says. “And as a team we all go out for lunch together to kind of spend some time together outside of the office, we encourage everyone on the team – if you’re having a check in with your boss or with any of your direct reports try to go and do it over coffee, get out of the office for a little bit and get that re-set because it’s so important to have that.”