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How Away Travel Got Their First Few Customers

Away Travel is now a $1.4 billion startup with $100m plus in revenue. But here’s how the company landed their first customers.

10 Minute Read

This year Away, a suitcase startup, raised $100m in new funding at a staggering $1.4 billion valuation. The company has raised a total of $181m and is rumored to have over $125m in revenue. The stats alone are quite amazing.

But what makes Away particularly special is that the company was founded in 2015 and is only 4 years old.

At one of our events, when Away was only two years old with $20m in revenue and 60 employees, I interviewed founder Jen Rubio and asked about their first few months of business and how they generated so many sales as quickly as they did.

Below is the interview.

Jen, luggage is not a particularly sexy industry… It is now. But it wasn’t! Why start a luggage company?

When we started working on this in January 2015, everyone was making all of their home goods and objects “smart.” There was a big push toward the internet of things. We just decided to take a step back and take a little bit of a different approach. It basically started with my luggage broke and I was asking my friends for recommendations. There just wasn’t anything out there that anyone was really passionate about.

Like you said, it’s just not really a sexy thing to think about. People love thinking about travel, but they don’t actually want to think about what they’re packing their stuff in. Everything out there was either really cheap and flimsy, or super expensive and costs $1,000 for a suitcase.

If you’ve ever been in a luggage store, probably looks something like this. The luggage buying experience just completely sucked and we knew there just had to be a better way. What we did is we dove in, did a ton of consumer research, focus groups. We just sit in people’s houses and watch them pack, which is really creepy now that I think about it.

We really just got to the core of how people travel, what their pain points are, what they really need in a suitcase. That’s how we came out with one perfect suitcase for everyone. Everything you need, nothing you don’t. We like to say we have a thoughtful luggage brand, not a smart luggage brand.

At the core of what we’re doing, it’s pretty simple. We’re a direct-to-consumer company that sells one product: rolling suitcases. And last year, we launched with just one suitcase. It just came in a carry-on size, and four colors, and it only has one “tech” feature, which is a USB charger built into the bag to charge your devices while you’re on the go.

You came from Warby Parker, where they took glasses, which aren’t incredibly sexy, and they made the brand really cool. Now everyone wants a pair of Warby Parkers. Luggage is the same way. You don’t exactly Instagram your new luggage, but AWAY has somehow managed to get people to give a care about something that was typically so boring. How did you define your brand early on?

Context is everything. We started out with an idea for a luggage company. But early on, we realized that there was a huge gap in the travel space. Everyone loves going on vacation and taking trips, but the actual companies involved in the travel space suck from a brand perspective. They just don’t care about the experience. There was a big gap for a brand that thinks and talks about travel and experiences the way we like to travel – the way you probably like to travel. A brand that cares more about experiences than things and ratings and reviews. That’s how we thought about starting the company.

We wanted to build a travel brand, and we just happened to start with luggage. Since we launched, we’ve been labeled with the holy grail of marketing buzzwords: a lifestyle brand. It’s because from day one, we’ve really thought about context and storytelling.

If you think about other luggage companies out there, their imagery is all about zippers and wheels and materials. They don’t give you any insight into what this luggage is supposed to help you do better or what it enables you to do.

From day one, we wanted to take a different approach, even if it was just starting with our first photo shoot. In terms of starting a lifestyle brand, the first product we ever sold wasn’t actually luggage. It was a book. Back in November 2015, having worked for direct-to-consumer brands and fashion brands, we knew that the holidays were a big moment that we didn’t want to miss. We knew there were a lot of big press beats we wanted to hit. But the luggage just wasn’t ready. We were working with our factory and they were making it as fast as they could, but we didn’t want to rush that process.

We thought to ourselves, “How do we get in front of all these people? How do we get into these gift guides that we know would make a huge impact on our business? How do we do it without crowdfunding or doing pre-orders?” We wanted to be a brand, not just a one-hit product, so that route was very much not part of our strategy; it works for some people, it’s not something we wanted to do.

So we did what probably all of you would do in here: We wrote and published our own book. We hired a writer. We interviewed 40 influencers. They weren’t celebrities or household names, but people at the top of their fields in fashion, in art, in music, in food. The writer interviewed them about travel, and wrote a book called The Places We Return To. We turned it into a beautiful gift set and sold it for $225. Inside, there was a gift card for our luggage that was set to launch in a few months.

We were like, “Okay, this is either brilliant, or just a really weird convoluted idea that is definitely not going to work.” That Christmas, we were in over 100 gift guides and in all the top publications. It was the perfect gift for every traveler in your life. We sold out of thousands of the books and gift cards in a few weeks – all before our luggage had even launched.

You tinkered with and tested the first luggage piece for a year. Then you raised a seed round about 15 months ago. Starting around that time, AWAY was in a lot of outlets, and a lot of journalists were writing about you. How were you able to get all that press so early on?

Having a great product isn’t enough to keep the good press going. We were really lucky in that we had really solid PR and press around our launch, but someone can only write about suitcases for so long before it gets really boring.

Once we had been in all the big publications, we realized very quickly that you have to consider every single moment to be a storytelling moment. Let me give you an example. A couple of months after we launched, we started thinking about launching monogramming, which is a pretty standard offering when it comes to luggage. It’s just putting your initials on your bag. We were thinking about how to turn it into a press moment.

So we hired three Brooklyn-based artists who each had their own monogramming style. For one month only, we said that we were going to offer monograms, hand-painted by these artists in our studio. The New York Times wanted an exclusive on the story, and all the fashion magazines picked it up.

When you really think about the concept, we did not optimize for scalability or operational ease. You can just ask our office team, who still hate me. We optimized for the story and for something that people would talk about. We actually tried to end the promotion after a month, but it was in such high demand from editors, influencers, and customers that to this day, we have a hand-painted monogramming studio in New York with a dozen artists just painting initials on bags, all day long.

We were just thinking about the features we were putting out there and how we could write a bigger story around them. It didn’t have to be something that we built out with our company, we did with monogramming, but it’s definitely a big part of something that it gives people something to talk about.

Another huge part of our growth has been collaboration. We are lucky that travel is a field that spans different industries. We look into each of these verticals that we want to hit, who have people that we want to engage with, and we find the best people and the best companies to work with – the ones that have loyal, engaged audiences. We launched a pink suitcase with Suki Waterhouse and Poppy Jamie’s accessories line. We did a suitcase for Charity: water. We launched one with Madewell.

Just this week, we did a yellow suitcase for Despicable Me 3, which was an inbound request from the studio, because they’d seen all the other collaborations we have done. All of these collaborations have sold out within a few days. The biggest benefit is just the spread of awareness. Even if someone’s not going to buy a yellow suitcase or a pink suitcase, they see the press. People are talking about it, and we actually see sales of our number one product – a navy carry-on – go up when we launch these collaborations.

We use a lot of data to identify other key business moments for our company. There’s a big gifting moment in luggage for holidays and birthdays. We decided to capitalize on that in a brand-lead fashion.

For this Father’s Day, now with an in-house editorial team, we wrote another book. In it, a lot of influential dads talk about their first trips as fathers or with their fathers. We partnered with Harry’s to provide a shave set for every luggage purchase for Father’s Day. Again, we were in tons of gift guides, got tons of press, were featured in big events, had lots of mentions from influencers as a perfect Father’s Day gift.

The focus has been on capitalizing on those moments that we know, as a business, work for us, but that we need to make a little more exciting for our consumers. Then lastly, there are a lot of big cultural events. Whether it’s South by Southwest, Coachella, or Art Basel in Miami. A lot of companies think that you need a huge marketing budget to go to those events and be relevant.

When we decided to go to Art Basel in Miami last year, we didn’t really have the experience, or the connections, or the budgets to go in and make a huge splash the way a traditional company would, but we did know two things: We knew that there would be cool people there, and we knew that their phones would die. So we built a bicycle charging station. We parked it at the best parties. People talked about it. It was a low-cost, super-effective way to get people talking about something. It was more effective than just putting a charger in a gift bag, and way more effective than just throwing a big party with our logo splashed all over it.

If you provide utility and create a moment around it that’s cool enough for people to talk about, they will. Basically, if storytelling is what’s driving you and your business, people will write about it. People will write about your company, your product, your tactics, you.

We’ve been lucky enough to be in hundreds and hundreds of top-tier publications in less than two years. A lot of our growth can be attributed to word of mouth and earned media. We don’t take that for granted. We know that if we just stop what we’re doing, there really won’t be anything to write about. The bottom line is thinking about how can you make your company into something that people will want to talk about when they’re out to dinner with their friends.

You didn’t have a PR team for that, did you?

We did – that was one of the biggest investments we made early on. We knew that even before we spent a dollar on paid marketing, we wanted to find a great PR agency to partner with. We drove our strategy in-house and decided which stories we would tell, then we used a PR agency to distribute those via their editor relationships.

You talked earlier about how influencers helped you selling out of the first book you printed, and I know they still do that with the luggage. Can you talk more about how you’ve been able to get people to share so much?

We talked about this earlier, but we’ve really created this culture and this community that loves to travel, takes incredible photos, and will photograph their luggage in some pretty unnatural situations. When you have taken the steps to create a brand that people want to be associated with, it organically creates brand ambassadors for you. 99% of our Instagram is user-generated, which breeds more amazing content.

We’ve have two full-time people on our team dedicated to building those relationships, finding out when people are going on cool trips, making sure they have the latest luggage, and getting content back from them. It’s a cycle that continues to fulfill itself. At a higher level, we have tons of celebrities who have come to us or have been seen with our luggage. We also have celebrities who pay for their luggage. It’s been seen on everyone from Karlie Kloss to Adrien Brody to Jessica Alba. We look at who’s actually using our luggage or who’s asking for it.

We talk with them about ways we can partner and work together, versus what a lot of other brands do, which is throw some money at a celebrity to walk around with the product when they don’t really give a shit about it. The most important thing for us has really been our customers and the other influencers we engage with.

You guys have come a long way in 15 months. What comes next?

One of the things we’re going to do next – surprisingly, to a lot of people – is retail. I think a lot of people conflate “direct-to-consumer” with “online only.” The physical experience – the offline experience – is a huge part of what we’re doing.

Even though our luggage is relatively affordable and has a high quality-to-price ratio, it’s something that people still want to see and feel. More importantly, they come to our store to interact with the brand. Last year, we launched pop-up shops as data points in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Berlin. That gave us a real sense of how, where, and why people want to interact with AWAY offline.

This year, we’re opening an East Coast flagship in New York and a West Coast flagship in LA, as well as stores in San Francisco, Austin, and London. We have events and workshops and classes and talks in all of our locations. Right now, we are just a one-product company. But we are expanding into a lot of other content.

Last month, we launched a podcast called Airplane Mode. This month, we’re launching Here magazine, which will be released in digital, print, every AWAY suitcase, and specialty stores. There’s a TV series in the works. Because we’ve built this product in a really thoughtful way, people have come to trust us as a real travel brand, and they’re are asking for more from AWAY.

Anything else you want to say to the audience?

We approach brand-building the way luxury fashion houses do, but we run our company like a lean tech startup. That coupled with our obsession with the customer and the experience is what’s really driven our growth so far. The numbers we have achieved have been really humbling and really exciting. Over 100,000 suitcases sold, and $20 million in sales.

A year ago, we were five or six people. Now, we’re almost 70. Here’s the most important lesson we’ve learned: You need to be more than your product. You need to focus on what your product can enable people to do. We’re not selling suitcases. Well, we are selling suitcases – a lot of them – but primarily, we’re selling travel.

As we launch more products, as we go into media and content, I think that at our core, we are a company for travelers, made by other travelers.