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“Don’t start a business just because you think you have a great idea. Be sure that your idea solves a specific problem” – What does it take to build a thriving direct-to-consumer brand in today’s challenging climate? Jen Rubio of premium travel brand Away shares her journey



According to Jen Rubio, the idea for her direct-to-consumer premium travel brand Away, which she co-founded with Stephanie Korey in 2016, came from a personal problem. “My suitcase broke while I was at the airport, and none of my most well-traveled friends had any brands that they could recommend for a replacement. I’d spent my career thinking about the ways that brands connect with their communities, so it surprised me that there weren’t any luggage brands people were excited to associate with, even though it’s something you take on every trip,” she recalls...

A chat with her friend Stephanie Korey, who’d she had worked with at Warby Parker, and the two determined two things that inspired their business launch. “Firstly, luggage was either cheap but poorly made, or it was more expensive than the trip you were taking it on; and second, that luggage brands were talking about the features of their products, like the zippers and the wheels, but none were talking about travel,” she says. To date, Away has sold more than 1 million suitcases and they’ve just closed a $100 million in Series D funding round. They also just collaborated with Alex Eagle (you can read her profile on The Grace Tales here) on a limited-edition collection of luggage. We found out more about their inspiring journey, which is just beginning.

Go to www.awaytravel.com


What was your childhood like? And how did your experience instil a love of travel from a young age?

I was born in Quezon City in the Philippines and moved to the US when I was seven. Some of my favorite and earliest memories are taking trips all over the world with my family, and I credit my dad is the person who instilled my love for travel—he took me on my first trip to Paris when I was five, encouraged me to get my pilot license with him when I was older, and taught me that everywhere is just a plane ride away (some trips are just longer than others). Having these experiences while growing up made me into an adult with a more global perspective.


What inspired the launch of Away?

The idea for Away came from a personal problem. My suitcase broke while I was at the airport, and none of my most well-traveled friends had any brands that they could recommend for a replacement. I’d spent my career thinking about the ways that brands connect with their communities, so it surprised me that there weren’t any luggage brands people were excited to associate with, even though it’s something you take on every trip.

I called my co-founder Steph, who I had worked while we were both at Warby Parker, to see if we could figure out why that was the case, and we found two things that we decided we could change with Away: first, that luggage was either cheap but poorly made, or it was more expensive than the trip you were taking it on; and second, that luggage brands were talking about the features of their products, like the zippers and the wheels, but none were talking about travel.

Through our direct-to-consumer model, we’re able to cut out the middleman and sell directly to customers, offering a high-quality product at a fraction of the cost. We’ve also focused on building a brand and telling a broader narrative around travel—one that gets people excited about where they can go with luggage and what they can do with it.


You managed the perfect pivot when faced with a potential challenge in launching Away—which involved the creation of a travel magazine. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Do you continue to use this thinking-outside-the-box method for finding solutions to challenges today?

Steph and I planned to launch Away just before the holidays — a perfect time to reach customers when people were thinking about giving the gift of travel. We realized that the first production for our first product, The Carry-On, was not going to be ready in time for the holiday season, and we knew we only had one chance to launch Away in a meaningful way. Instead of pushing our timeline, we decided to publish a book titled “The Places We Return To,” which was a collection of travel stories featuring artists, writers, and photographers on their favorite destinations. It sold with a gift card that was redeemable for The Carry-On when they become available in February of 2016. We had 2,000 copies printed, which sold out in weeks, and it was the first moment we realized that people resonated with what we were building and what Away stood for.

I think that set the tone for a lot of the ways we still approach problem-solving at Away. We’re building a culture that fosters curiosity and viewing mistakes or potential problems as an opportunity to always learn and iterate. It was one of the first moments that we were able to get creative, and think about how we could create something that our customers would love and resonate with.


Away has been valued at $1.4B. Did you have high expectations and targets from the very beginning?

We’ve never spent too much time thinking about our valuation or celebrating the amount of money raised: for us, what we’re most proud of is what we’re creating for our community and how we’re continuing to thoughtfully grow the company in order to continue transforming the travel experience for people. We’ve always said that luggage is just the beginning for Away, but what we’ve achieved so far has truly surpassed our wildest expectations. We’re definitely conscious of taking the time to step back and recognize everything we’ve accomplished, but we also view this milestone as another goal we’ve reached, and other stop along the journey.


Investment remains a largely male-dominated field. How has your experience been in navigating this as a female founder?

When Steph and I launched Away and were meeting with potential investors for the first time, it was really important to us to be recognized as great entrepreneurs, not as great female entrepreneurs. We felt like we didn’t need that qualifier to discount us from being treated as a successful founder.

There were dozens of VCs who said no to investing in Away or thought that Steph and I were crazy with what we were trying to build. I can’t honestly say if that’s because we’re women, but you do of course wonder if that played a role. Steph always reminded me that we were not doing anyone any favors by accepting their money—we were giving people an incredible opportunity to be part of something that we were going to work tirelessly to make successful; I don’t think that mindset comes as naturally for women and it was definitely harder in those first meetings.

When I think about how many private companies have reached a valuation of more than $1 billion, which I’ve read is just over 300, and how many have reached that valuation in 2019 (seven out of more than 120 US companies), it’s disappointing, and it reminds me how important it is to still be recognized and celebrated for being successful women.  


What advice do you have for aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Don’t start a business just because you think you have a great idea. Be sure that your idea solves a specific problem in a way that’s not being done before or offers something that no other brand is, and make sure you’re passionate about what you’re trying to build. If that’s not the case, you won’t be excited or motivated about your brand, and you’ll have a tough time getting other people on board with you.


You’ve mentioned the possibility of expanding into travel-related clothing and wellness products. Can you share any more about what’s ahead for Away?

Luggage has always been only the beginning for us, and I think that our commitment to transforming the entire travel experience—while building a genuine community that’s just as excited about travel as we are—is part of what’s allowed us to explore so many parts of the travel journey in a way that’s always felt intuitive to our brand.

We’re beginning to take the first steps towards that vision by expanding into three new product categories—Apparel, Lifestyle Accessories, and Wellness. Like all things at Away, we’re using feedback from our community to inform what we’ll offer within each of these categories, and we’re in the early stages of developing what that might look like. We’re excited to figure out how else we can play a role in travelers’ journeys, not just focusing on what you use to pack, but also what you might need to bring with you—this might includes things like skincare and supplements, or thoughtful apparel for more comfortable travel.

 


What brands and companies do you look to for inspiration?

I’m really inspired by Nike and how they’ve been able to create such an emotional connection with their community—they’re using their platform and products to make a statement that’s driving a real conversation. We’re always aiming to be purposeful about what products we create or who we collaborate with, and Nike’s managed to do this in a way that continues to keep them relevant.


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What will we always find in your carry-on?

I have pouches of things that never get unpacked so they’re never forgotten: one for toiletries (which always gets replenished), one for chargers and converters, and one with small bills in a few different currencies. One of my packing tips is to always bring travel-sized versions of my favorite toiletries so that I always have my tried-and-true products. The ones I never travel without include: KORA Organics hydrating lip balm; a hydrating mask from Aesop; and IGK dry shampoo.


How do you approach dressing while flying? Do you have a uniform that works for you?

My travel uniform is one in the same with my work or weekend uniform, but it’s not about wearing the items everywhere ago; it’s about ease and having a curated collection of pieces that work for me. I’m often traveling right from the office, to the airport, and straight to a meeting or a dinner when I land, so I need pieces that are practical and comfortable, yet stylish and versatile.

For me, that’s usually a blazer from Blazé Milano, paired with either a black Nili Lotan slip dress or my favorite Rosetta Getty trousers. I often travel in comfortable loafers and pack my Balenciaga boots in my personal item so that I can quickly change when I land.


What’s your approach to self-care? Do you make time for it? If so, what does it look like for you? Meditation? Exercise? Wine!?

I’ve always been a big believer in putting your energy towards what nourishes you, and I’m conscious of making time outside of work (even though I love my work and everything we’re doing at Away!) to do other things that I enjoy.  

For example, when I was renovating my apartment, I often stayed up late to moodboard or sketch plans, and it felt really good to end my day doing something creative that was so different than what I’m usually thinking about in my role at Away. I’m usually traveling more than I’m home, so I also make it a point to carve out time for myself so that I’m still enjoying the different places I’m visiting and not becoming burned out from constantly going from one place to the next. Wellness is especially important to me given how much I travel, so I also use apps like Glo to be able to squeeze in a pilates or yoga class no matter where I am.


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