How Away Shook Up the Sleepy Luggage Market With a Simple, Colorful Carry-On

Co-founder Jen Rubio shares the story behind the startup's rapid growth

Jen Rubio (pictured here) co-founded Away with Steph Korey in 2015. Photographed at Hudson Yards Loft by Justin Bettman for Adweek
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Jen Rubio remembers the first time she saw a piece of Away luggage out in the world. It was February 2016, and Rubio—who founded the company with fellow Warby Parker alum Steph Korey the year before—was on a moving sidewalk in JFK’s Terminal 4. The brand had just begun shipping its first batch of 2,000 colorful, hard-shell suitcases. And suddenly, there was one of them in the hands of an ordinary traveler.

“I’ll never forget it,” recalls Rubio, seated at a conference room table at Away’s downtown Manhattan office on a recent stormy afternoon. “It was next to gate B28, and I remember trying to run after them to talk to them.” But Rubio was late for her flight to San Francisco to meet with one of Away’s VC partners. Besides, the sidewalks were moving in opposite directions. “I never found out who it was,” she says.

If there’s a conciliation for Rubio, it’s that she’s since had the opportunity to talk to other people she spots in airports pulling her products behind them—and these days, that is a lot of people.

In business less than three years, Away—the most buzzed-about player in the $630 million smart-luggage segment—has sold well north of half a million suitcases. It’s an eye-popping figure that’s by no means the only one the brand can point to. The company’s revenues surged to $12 million in its first year alone, and it was in the black by year two. According to research firm Technavio, Away grew by a staggering 500 percent between 2016 and 2017. It’s little wonder the brand was able to secure $50 million in Series C funding in June, a sum that brought Away’s total venture-capital funding to $81 million to date.

That’s a nice kitty to fund continued expansion, which continues at breakneck speed. At press time, Away had outgrown its existing office space in Manhattan’s Astor Place neighborhood and was readying for a move to 56,000 square feet of new space in SoHo. In May, Away landed $4 million in performance-based tax credits from New York state, pledging to create 249 new jobs.

“We’ve grown from four employees to nearly 200 in just over two and a half years,” Korey says. “Maintaining the culture we had in the early days can be challenging because the needs of our team, our business and our customers are always evolving.”

Away, then, has come from out of nowhere to notch triple-digit growth and, essentially overnight, shake up the sleepy luggage category, whose last big innovation was adding wheels to suitcases in the early 1970s.  How did it all happen so fast? The answer has less to do with product than you might think.

Video and Edit: John Tejada

Away’s formula is ­more about lifestyle than luggage, and it has everything to do with marketing—specifically, getting the right mix of young and influential people to work their social-media magic. It’s a strategy that’s won no shortage of admirers, even if it has others wondering if the startup darling also has staying power for the long term. How can the company, known for a product that you hope to purchase once, one that even comes with a lifetime warranty, keep growing at this pace?

A hole in the luggage market

Rubio likes to tell the story of how the idea to start Away came after her flimsy suitcase busted apart in the middle of the Zurich airport, dumping her clothes onto the floor. That was a formative event, but not compared to what followed. As Rubio shopped around for a replacement bag, she discovered a hole bigger than the one in her suitcase—this one in the luggage category itself. There was the super high end (say, the $970 Rimowa aluminum classic), the low end (your $49 cheapo spinner at TJ Maxx) and precious little in between. Not only was luggage a “super fragmented market,” Rubio says, it had “very little brand loyalty.”

This story first appeared in the September 24, 2018, issue of Brandweek.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.