A year ago, luggage designer, manufacturer and retailer Away was just getting started. Now, it is closing a roller coaster of a year with sales exceeding $10 million, most of them online.
Away this year walked a similar path as several other fast-growing web merchants: It used the internet to disrupt and rewrite a product category by eschewing traditional sourcing and retail methods. Dollar Shave Club (razors, and No. 238 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide), Casper (mattresses, No. 290) and Warby Parker (eyewear, No. 197) are also in this group.
Away co-founder and co-CEO Stephanie Korey, in fact, led supply chain operations at Warby Parker for four years before launching Away with Jen Rubio, who used to head up Warby Parker’s social media and later was apparel chain AllSaints’ global innovation lead.
Away started with $2.5 million in seed investment last fall. Early investors include Andy Dunn, founder and CEO of apparel e-retailer Bonobos (No. 245 in the Top 500) and Brian Lee, the founder of ShoeDazzle Inc. (now part of JustFab, No. 79) and current CEO of The Honest Co. Inc. (No. 132). Away used that funding to get off the ground—designing Away’s first product—a hard-shell carry-on suitcase decked out with a battery for charging devices, TSA-approved locks and other features—sourcing materials globally and initiating production in China.
Away shipped its first suitcase in late February. Two months later, responding to feedback from customers using its first carry-on suitcase, it launched a second suitcase design, a slightly larger carry-on manufactured to fit the bag sizers airlines use. Away staff went to airports and measured the sizers themselves to confirm. “We found that dimensions airlines say they accept and the sizers some of them actually use at the airport were different, so we designed the bigger model,” Korey says.
That direct feedback from customers is part of what’s helping Away excel, Korey says. “With that direct feedback loop we are able to constantly iterate on our core product. And from a supply chain perspective, that lets us be lean and efficient.”
That’s very different from traditional brand manufacturer and retail models, where a manufacturer would create a line of merchandise, market it wholesale to retailers and distributors who, in turn, would mark it up and sell to consumers. Going from manufacturer to consumer cuts out the middleman and allows for faster innovation and greater cost control, Korey says. Away’s luggage is similarly priced to good quality luggage found in stores, ranging from $225 to $295 per piece.
Korey says the company, which now has 25 employees, doesn’t consider itself a product-based company. “We are not a luggage company or an e-commerce company. We are a travel company and our mission is to make sure travel is an amazing experience,” Korey says. “People can feel bogged down by the frustrating parts of travel. Our goal is to do everything we can to make travel as seamless and joyful as possible.”
Away—selling at the web address AwayTravel.com—drew $8.5 million in additional funding in September. The lead investor was Global Founders Capital, a venture-funding arm of Rocket Internet AG, the e-commerce holding company whose assets include Germany’s Zalando SE, the No. 7 e-retailer in the Internet Retailer 2016 Europe 500, Dafiti (Latin America), Jabong (India) and Zalora (Southeast Asia and Australia).
Away is applying some of that funding to operate its single permanent retail shop in New York City, where the e-retailer is based, as well as temporary showrooms in Los Angeles, London and Berlin. The New York store, initially intended to operate as a pop-up, opened in May. Consumers can buy from the selection in store or order what’s not in stock in the store online. “The performance in that store blew every plan we had out of the water,” Korey says. The plan for the Los Angeles, London and Berlin stores is to operate at least through the holidays.
Most of Away’s sales come from its website, Korey says, and the top three ways customers learn about Away is through media coverage of the company, social media and through word-of-mouth. “From a marketing perspective, we know if you create a cool experience the press will write about it. We’ve gotten a lot of earned media about the brand because we are doing something new and different in the travel space,” Korey says. That, for example, has landed Away’s products on numerous holiday gift guides for avid travelers this season.
Away’s work extends into social media and word-of-mouth efforts as well. For instance, Away regularly hosts events—travel-related and not—in its shops. Recent events on the calendar include yoga and dance classes, and film screenings.
Korey characterizes the experience of helming the brand’s rapid development over the past year as like riding a roller coaster—in a good way. “We’re having so much fun. Sometimes I take a step back and think ‘Oh my, look at what we’ve created. This is really awesome,’” she says.
Internet Retailer included Away on the 2017 Hot 100 list of innovative e-retailers. Learn more here.