How do you sell a product that doesn’t even exist yet?
That was the challenge that Steph Korey and Jen Rubio faced when they decided to start their luggage company. It’s funny to look back on now, because Away has gone from a name without a product to a massive company.
They’re the darling of Instagram influencers, and their podcast and magazine are devoured by travelers the world over. They’ve flourished as other luggage brands have fallen off. The crux of their success is storytelling. And it’s something you can use in your business too.
A Creative Beginning
Rubio and Korey knew each other from their time at Warby Parker, the direct-to-consumer eyeglasses brand. The genesis of Away came when Rubio broke her suitcase and went looking for another one. She wanted something reasonably priced and high-quality, but there was nothing on the market that fit the bill.
“She has all these well-traveled friends who can recommend anything,” said Korey in an Inc. interview. “She jokes that she could text, ‘Hey, I need a coffee shop in Bangkok,’ and they would send her recommendations in an instant. She texted them, ‘Hey, I need a new suitcase,’ and they were like, ‘I’ve got nothing.’”
Rubio immediately knew she was on to something, and she and Korey began talking. With the experience and ideas they had under their belts, they were able to get venture capital funding straight away—but there wasn’t a product, and they wanted to launch with a splash to jumpstart demand.
The first step they took was unorthodox. Away sponsored a book, written by respected creative professionals in art, photography and writing. Those people offered their perspective on travel in The Places We Return To, and instead of being paid for their contribution, they were given a gift card for the first piece of luggage that Away was launching: a carry-on bag.
Which didn’t exist yet.
The whole concept of the book was to create demand, then use that demand to fuel pre-orders. It was a smashing success. They sold 50,000 pieces of luggage in the first year off the back of that demand.
Online and Offline
“One thing we are very intentional about is building a product and marketing system that would allow us to be profitable on the very first order,” said Korey in one Fast Company interview. “So for us, it didn’t matter if the customer was ever going to come back and buy something from us. That was something we built as the financial foundation of this business.”
As of 2018, Away was already turning a significant profit—a remarkable position for a venture capital-backed company to be in, as most take longer to get to the point where they can say that. They’ve managed to tap into a huge well of demand with a quality product that’s getting rave reviews from well-seasoned travelers.
What’s not to like?
Away isn’t just a luggage brand, they’re a full-fledged media company. Though Facebook advertising and Instagram influencers have been among the most crucial parts of their growth strategy, they’re also in traditional analog media now, buying billboards and print advertising with the older giants of the luggage world.
The main thing that sets them apart is their direct to consumer model, which draws directly on the experience Korey and Rubio had at Warby Parker. Going direct to the consumer through e-commerce gave them the low overhead and price that they needed to tap into the market for their luggage.
Now that Away is a more mature brand, they’re starting to sell through brick and mortar stores too. Their outlets are scattered in large cities throughout the United States, from Austin to New York, and they have a location in London as well.
But though they’re starting to do more traditional marketing and sell to consumers through stores, the backbone and foundation of their business is e-commerce.
The problem they have now is a good one to have, but it’s an issue: they sell a durable product that they guarantee for a lifetime. Eventually you run out of customers. That’s why Away has branched into accessories for travel like Dopp kits and other small items that are more replaceable.
Away’s focus on fashion has also made its mark on the way they create unique versions of their suitcases. In the phrase marketer Seth Godin made famous, “All marketers tell stories.”
And Away continues to do that.
For example, one of the things that sets them apart is that instead of traditional monogramming, they offer a choice of multiple hand-lettering options for their suitcases. Those letters are painted on manually by the artist that created each lettering style.
That’s a great story. It translates well to social media, both visually and in print. It’s easy to explain. And it makes for a unique product that’s easily personalized and customized, which pays dividends down the road. As Korey noted in her Inc. interview, “You don’t push your product. You create things that are fun to talk about, to write about, to share.”
With the podcast and magazine they support, as well as the content they’ve pushed through their various social media channels, it’s clear that Away isn’t just trying to be an e-commerce company. They’ve set their sights higher than that. They’re angling to be a full-fledged lifestyle brand, a travel influencer that can help their customers see the world in a new way.
Wherever they go, Away will go with them—not just in their luggage.
They began as a small startup with no big-name cachet and only one product, but Away has been a smashing success story so far. They turned profitable fast, capitalized on a demand that wasn’t being met, and became a lifestyle influencer as well as a luggage company.
It’s a great success story for an e-commerce brand, and a case study in what to do right if you want your company to go down the same path. As Rubio says, it’s “not just a company that sells a suitcase.”