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Up, Up And Away

How two young entrepreneurs used relentless online marketing to make a fortune in suitcases.

Amy Feldman

Jen Rubio was rushing through the Zurich airport when her suitcase broke. She stuffed her clothes back inside and duct-taped the mess. Then she asked her 2,600 Facebook friends for advice on what suitcase to buy. No one had a good answer.

Rubio was an early employee of Warby Parker, the company that upended eyeglass retailing by cutting out the middleman. “I started thinking, How do we do what Warby Parker did for glasses?” she says. “How do we take something really simple, and make people care about it?” If a direct-to-consumer business can displace opticians, surely it can displace luggage stores.

And so was born Away (formally known as JRSK Inc., for Rubio and Korey), a firm that has carry-ons manufactured in China and sells them via the internet and in six company-owned stores. Rubio’s airport mishap was less than four years ago; this year the privately held firm is on target to do $150 million in revenue.

Rubio, Away’s president and chief brand officer, and Steph Korey, its chief executive officer, met at Warby in 2011 when that company was just getting started. Both alumni of the Forbes 30 Under 30 and both now 31, they launched Away in 2015. The company’s roughly $700 million venture-capital valuation—Accel, Comcast Ventures and Forerunner Ventures are investors—makes the two founders’ stakes worth more than $80 million each. Away, based in New York City, earned a spot on our Next Billion-Dollar Startups list this year.

Its first product, a four-roller hard-shell bag that can be squeezed into an overhead rack, comes in ten colors and costs $225, including standard shipping in the U.S.; a similar item from Tumi goes for $525.

Away turned profitable in 2017, a year after it launched its first product. How did Rubio and Korey pull that off while offering low prices?

For one thing, they are not splitting the revenue with high-overhead department stores. Away does the vast majority of its volume online, while stores in high-traffic locations serve as marketing billboards to drum up online sales. The stores, open until 7 p.m. or later on weeknights, host low-budget events like palmistry and tarot readings. Away puts its marketing effort into things that deliver a lot of mileage for the money spent. Its digital presence includes a custom travel magazine. There are 1,000 influencers who push it on Instagram.

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November 30, 2018