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Consumer

Jen Rubio & Steph Korey

Cofounders, Away

Consider Away founders Stephanie Korey (left) and Jen Rubio the queen and queen of commerce. They met over vertically-integrated eyewear at Warby Parker (Korey ran their supply chain; Rubio, social media) before moving on to respective jobs at Casper and All Saints. And now with the first business of their own, they’re offering “first class, direct-to-consumer luggage at coach prices”—not dissimilar from the angle taken by their previous employers.

“But I wouldn’t call our business an iteration of another company’s model,” says Rubio. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time… We worked for and with some of the greatest minds in e-commerce and are now separately participating in this larger, Internet-driven revolution.”

With price points set at $225, $275 and $295, there’s no question: Away’s luggage, which hit the Internet this year, is more affordable. Its hardshell exterior accommodates inset wheels—giving you extra room—and a row of three chargeable USB outlets means never having to say, “I’m sorry, my phone died.”

But is a direct-to-consumer model enough to differentiate their product from legacy competition like Tumi? And how did the pair decide this idea was the idea to pursue? Here’s what company’s founders had to say:

How to start an e-commerce business

“The right idea, like the right cofounder, isn’t a choice. It just happens. I never consciously chose Away. I called my friend Steph with an idea, then flew to New York to talk about it and ended up sleeping on her couch for three months while we built a company. We were so passionate and so thoroughly believed in the idea that Away was just kind of born. I think that, in order to be successful, every entrepreneur should feel that way about their business.” Rubio

When did you know this idea was The One?

“You’ll hear it again and again, but the best cofounder is one whose skills are complementary to yours. I’m clearly left-brained, and Steph is right. But that shouldn’t mean you take care of your specific parts of the business and are then done. Just because there’s someone else doesn’t mean you can do half the amount of work.” Rubio

Speaking of cofounders, why do you two fit?

“You can’t go in thinking, ‘Here’s an industry and I’m going to disrupt it.’ That’s not enoguh. The people I’ve seen be successful found an idea they were really passionate about and executed on it in a way that ultimately changed the industry. If we had just decided to disrupt luggage without a true understanding of what that means or an undying passion for the idea, we would never have seen the kind of success we have today.” Rubio

Is applying the Warby Parker Model to new verticals enough of an idea?

“The internet has certainly lowered the barrier to entry. And as a result, I think we’ll see competition in every category of direct-to-consumer retail. I know Warby Parker saw plenty of online eyeglass companies come to market in 2012; Casper experiences a constant crop of copycats; and even at Away, there are already people observing our success and saying, “How quickly can I get a luggage e-commerce site up and running?” On the bright side, I think competition makes everyone strive to be better.” Korey

Since there are few barriers to entry than ever before, are you scared of competition?

“That was a really smart acquisition for Unilever. They’re a legacy company that’s strong in distribution and R&D, but weak in end relationships with consumers—mostly because that wasn’t the way business was done until very recently. Now Unilever can not only access DSC’s fan base, but also learn how they were able to build one. As an entrepreneur, however, you can’t just be thinking of an exit strategy. Away has focused our energy on building the world’s best travel brand—not on whether we’ll sell it in the future.” Korey

Is acquisition the ultimate goal, like Unilever's purchase of Dollar Shave Club for $1B?

“It’s funny, because people are always eager to say print media is dead until they’re in it. You always want that story in the New York Times that you clip out and hang on the wall. What we love about digital is, though, is the ability to track what media performs best and converts sales, then pursue those channels accordingly—it enables you to be far more efficient.” Rubio

Speaking of digital fans, do you ever think about print?

“One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen startups make in the last five years is spending too much on customer acquisition. You can’t overestimate the lifetime value of a customer. At Away, we have a cap on how much we’re willing to spend for a conversion, and that varies by channel. If an area isn’t performing, we cut it… We still make money on every sale.” Korey

What about customer acquisition?

“I think business school and whether or not you should attend depends on your individual goals… but if you are going to go, find a program that teaches skills you haven’t learned in your previous positions. After working at Warby, I knew how to create a supply chain, how to market a product and how to think about branding. So, I focused my degree on general management and leadership, and that experience took me to the next level.” Korey

As a final question, should we go to business school?

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