Profile: Jen Rubio on taking it Away
Aug 31, 2017
Two years ago, Jen Rubio, a former Warby Parker executive who ran the disruptive eyewear company’s social media marketing, joined forces with her former colleague Steph Korey, who ran Warby Parker’s supply chain logistics, to launch luggage label Away. Their aim? To shake up another staid industry. Their medium? The “perfect carry-on”(as described by Vogue), available in four sizes, each with thoughtfully designed interior compartments and battery USB ports.
Geared equally towards the overnight business trip as a week by the beach, Away’s luggage retails at less than $300, undercutting the competition by as much as 70 per cent – hence the “first class luggage at a coach price” tagline. How? Just like Warby Parker, Away bypasses the usual retail conventions to sell direct to their clients.

It’s an approach that has seen 100,000 of their hardwearing yet flexible bags fly off the shelves since their launch in February 2016 – if there were any shelves, that is. Until they opened flagship stores in New York and Los Angeles in 2017, Away’s full product range was only available via their website, dramatically reducing their overheads. 

This strategy has seen Away net over $12 million in revenue since they launched. But it’s not only economic acumen that has seen Rubio appear on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of young entrepreneurial hotshots, or join as a guest speaker at Business of Fashion summits and TED talks around the world. It’s also for her knack for understanding how to communicate to her audience and their lifestyles. With Away, Rubio has zeroed in on a sweet spot; capitalising on the way that millennials spend more on experiences, such as travel, and selling them a product meant to enhance those experiences, rather than selling an end product.

We caught up with Rubio in the week that Away launched Here, a travel magazine available in print and online, to discuss the dynamics of the direct-to-customer retail approach, the role of physical stores in the age of click-to-buy and the meditative qualities of piloting a plane.

Xerxes Cook: Let’s start by talking a bit about where Away has taken you this year. Do you have any idea how many miles you’ve flown, for example?

Jen Rubio: I’ve already flown over 100,000 miles this year and it’s not even August. Over the past few years, I’ve averaged about 200,000 miles per year for various reasons – a mix of work and play. When we were first starting Away, I amassed miles on our frequent factory trips to Asia. Nowadays, I’m all over the place. I’ve flown from a photoshoot in Jaipur to an event in New Orleans (not directly, of course). I’ve looked for retail real estate in LA before flying to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to work with our non-profit partner, Peace Direct, then to Berlin to meet with an investor. There was even a week that I began in Nicaragua for our team trip, then went to Stockholm for a campaign, with a weekend stop in Ibiza for a friend’s birthday. And even with all this travel, it’s still important for me to spend time at home and in the office, so there’s a lot of resetting happening back in New York.

XC: Which destinations are on your list for the coming year?

JR: I feel like Cuba, Lisbon and Iceland are on everyone’s list – and Instagram – but I’m looking more at a safari in Botswana, a post-US sanctions visit to Myanmar, as well as unique hotels that are destinations in themselves, like the beach-jungle-nature reserve that is Cuixmala in Mexico.

XC: Are there any hotels you keep returning to?

JR: For laid back do-nothing vibes, I love the Rockhouse Hotel in Negril, Jamaica. Ett Hem in Stockholm feels like the home of my dreams with its Ilse Crawford interiors. Amastan in Paris is hip and impeccably designed in a city that’s usually more stuffy. For a staycation? The Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, which might as well be my second home.

XC: Where does this passion for travel come from?

JR: I was lucky. From an early age I was taught that anywhere in the world is accessible, so I never felt like any destination was out of reach – some places were just harder to get to. That’s why Antarctica didn’t feel insurmountable (I went in 2012), and doing a month-long overland adventure across Africa as a teenager seemed normal.

XC: When did the penny drop to combine your Warby Parker experience and your passion for travel to launch a luggage label?

JR: I’ve always been a big traveler, and the idea for Away came while I was at an airport. My suitcase fell apart and when I got home I started asking around for recommendations for a replacement and no one I talked to could think of anything that fit the bill. Everything was either well made but with an exorbitant price tag, or cheap in price and construction. I contacted my old Warby Parker colleague and friend, Steph Korey, and after doing a bit of research on the luggage industry, the two of us came up with a business plan.

XC: What type of research did you do?

JR: We did a lot of consumer and market research, which was key, since neither of us had any luggage industry experience. We spent months testing every suitcase on the market, doing a deep dive into the industry, and most importantly, talking to travellers about their habits and routines – how they pack, how they get to the airport, how they act at the airport, and what they do when they arrive at their final destination. It wasn’t just about creating a feature list for a bag. We really wanted to understand how everyone approaches each aspect of their journey, and design the perfect suitcase from there.

"The direct-to-consumer business model is why we're able to sell such a high quality product at a fraction of the price, which is vital to our USP. That means we have to be good at storytelling and marketing to ensure people hear about us – and when they do find us, they should discover a brand and a product that they fall in love with."

XC: What are the risks of the direct-to-consumer sales approach?

JR: By being direct-to-consumer, companies risk missing out on the major sales and awareness that can come from having a presence in multi-brand retailers. That being said, the direct-to-consumer business model is why we're able to sell such a high quality product at a fraction of the price, which is vital to our USP. That means we have to be good at storytelling and marketing to ensure people hear about us – and when they do find us, they should discover a brand and a product that they fall in love with.

XC: In the age of click-to-buy, what role can physical stores play?

JR: We realised pretty quickly that our assumption that retail wouldn't be a big part of Away was totally wrong. Although we offer an amazing customer experience and a 100-day trial, we've learned that plenty of people still value face-to-face interactions. Not only that, people love the experience of shopping in person. As with many other like-minded brands, we feel strongly that experiential marketing goes a long way. We host in-store events and activations to get our customers in for more than just buying luggage – past events include anything from concerts to yoga classes to a live recording of our podcast Airplane Mode. This has allowed us to connect with our customers on a deeper level.

XC: You recently launched a line of all-yellow, Minions-themed luggage to mark the release of the film Despicable Me, and last year you released an all-fuchsia range in collaboration with Generation-Z accessories label Pop & Suki. Why is it important to work with other brands?

JR: It's one of the ways we stay relevant, top of mind and worth talking about. Not only do our existing customers love our limited edition collaborations with other brands, these also allow us to reach new groups of people and build a narrative around how they travel and see the world. We're continuing to work on more partnerships that'll expose the brand to new communities as well as excite our existing customers.

XC: Having focused on making one product and doing it better than anyone else, do you have plans to expand beyond bags?

JR: We've always had plans to expand beyond luggage, and we have some great new products in the works. We founded Away to make travel more seamless, and it only makes sense for us to continue providing our customers with products that do just that. Aside from partnerships and opening more retail locations to formally introduce Away to new people around the globe, our main focus is to make Away the number-one travel brand in the world. We're doing it in unique ways, like Here, the online and print publication we just launched.

XC: What do you think is the biggest risk you've taken as an entrepreneur?

JR: I know that objectively, starting Away was a big risk. The two of us didn't know anything about the multibillion-dollar luggage industry, but we believed we were uniquely equipped to build a brand in the space that people love. So in that way, it never felt like a massive risk because I really thought we could do it. Almost every time I'm at an airport, I see at least one Away bag – at places like JFK and LAX, where we have a ton of customers, they're abundant. When we were in Jaipur one of our camera guys spotted an Away bag and went up to the owner thinking they were part of our crew, but it was just a stranger on holiday. It's the most rewarding part of all of this, to actually see people using these things on their travels.

XC: Has there been a recent trip that completely surprised you – perhaps inspired a new approach to business?

JR: We work with a non-profit partner called Peace Direct that has a grassroots approach to peace building. Instead of forcing a foreign hand in conflict areas, they support community partners who are making a huge difference on the ground in such places. Just a few months ago, we went to visit some of Peace Direct's local partners in northern Nigeria, which completely shifted my perspective on how people can make a difference.

XC: I understand you have a pilot's licence?

JR: My dad got me to take flying lessons when I was in high school. It's funny, because it's actually the opposite of travel for me: the type of flying I do, in a four-seater Cessna, doesn't really take me anywhere far. Often I'll take off and land at the same airport, so it's not about going from Point A to Point B. It's not so much travel as it is a meditative experience, being up in the clouds.