The genesis of luggage company Away starts like a lot of other modern brands: founder breaks suitcase (or loses glasses, buys yet another bra that doesn’t fit, etc.), can’t find a product that fits their needs and their budget, and so decides to make their own revolutionary version of said thing and sell it directly to consumers online.
Away’s founder – the one with the broken suitcase, Jen Rubio – also just happens to know something about industry-disrupting startups. She was one of the first employees at Warby Parker; but she never dreamed she’d follow in its footsteps and start her own D2C business. Her background was in marketing — at Warby, she worked as Head of Social Media — and she had always been more interested in brand development than business development.
As Rubio explained in an episode of NPR’s “How I Built This With Guy Raz,” after her suitcase busted, she crowdsourced recommendations for a new one on Facebook, and found that most people fell into two camps: pro travelers with super-expensive, essentially unattainable luggage; and people who found a random suitcase on sale at T.J. Maxx, had no idea what brand it was, and didn’t really care for it anyway. But what struck Rubio more than the fact that no one was really satisfied with their luggage was that there was little brand loyalty for any luggage maker. “It was crazy to me that all of these people, including myself, who traveled all the time and packed a suitcase every time, really had no connection to this thing they brought with them on every single flight,” she said.
That’s what sparked the idea for Away: to create luggage that was more like a lifestyle accessory; something people would be as excited to carry as they were about the places they were going and the clothing packed inside their bags.
Fast forward, and Rubio and co-founder Steph Korey (another Warby alum) formulated the concept of a new travel brand that would start with a carry-on suitcase. The proposed launch was December 2015, but as it turned out, the product wasn’t ready in time. So rather than pushing their launch date, the pair switched up their sales strategy and decided to create a preorder coffee table book featuring travel memories from creatives and influencers instead. It was pretty smart: a unique way to communicate their brand ethos and get their story out, creating buzz even before product dropped. Even better, if you bought the book, it came with a voucher to redeem a suitcase a few months later. People ate it up – and bought up the luggage, sight-unseen. The company sold out of their entire first run of 1,200 copies.
Now they produce bags like gangbusters, but have also supercharged their content play, becoming a multi-faceted producer of all kinds of lifestyle-marketing-making stuff, including a podcast, print and digital travel magazines, plus, of course, their social content, mostly curated with images posted by Away luggage owners. And as for sales? The company just reached $1.4 billion in sales in May after raising $100 million in funding, and have sold more than 1 million suitcases to date.
It’s an incredible success story. And there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the founders’ smart, strategic moves:
Away’s focus on editorial content makes the company emotionally and intellectually valuable to their customers, and allows them to align their suitcases more with a feeling or a lifestyle (emotion) than a product feature (logic). People buy things at least in part based on emotion, not entirely on logic, after all. But Away isn’t just telling good stories, they’re creating culture that surrounds their brand with interesting things to talk about. For example, when Away considered offering monogramming, instead of simply doing it and promoting the new feature, they partnered with a lettering artist who hand-paints buyers’ initials on the suitcase, and then featured her heavily on their website and social. “You don't push your product. You create things that are fun to talk about, to write about, to share,” Korey told Inc. Magazine.
While the bag was the obvious place to start, creating anything new is complicated and delays are typical. Especially when you’re looking to maintain high standards at a lower-than-market price. We see this happen all the time when creating digital products, and it’s often the point when someone will say, “Why don’t we just launch an MVP (minimum viable product)?” One of the risks of the MVP, however, is it can easily become the product. Done ends up seeming “good enough”, and you might make minor updates, but no real progress over time. Away hit a snag in production partly because of the way they designed the bags and because of top-of-the-line components they sourced. But because they weren’t willing to compromise on quality, they smartly decided not to launch with a lesser-than product and looked instead at what they could immediately impact, which was to sell the brand story and let the product ride its wake.
The best companies and the most beloved brands, “make” so much more than just their product. The cautionary tale of Blockbuster vs. Netflix is a great example of this. Blockbuster pigeonholed itself into “we rent movies.” Netflix could have seen themselves similarly. However, they saw their purpose in the world as something bigger — “We provide entertainment” — which isn’t dependent on a physical item and can’t be made obsolete by technology. It left them wide open to become content creators, to explore any technology for distribution, to change as the needs of the market changed and to keep evolving time and again. Away did this as well: They may have started with luggage, but the ambition of the brand has always been to build a travel company that connects with the modern consumer; the suitcase is just part of the experience.