Jen Rubio, co-founder and chief-brand officer of Away, followed an unlikely path to running one of the world’s hottest travel brands. She dropped out of college and worked in social media for companies like Warby Parker and AllSaints before raising $2 million to launch a luggage business ... without even having a prototype. Now she and partner Steph Korey have raised over $81 million and are using their cultishly loved suitcase to build an entire travel brand.
Today, on the second episode of Eater’s new podcast Start to Sale, Rubio tells hosts Erin Patinkin (CEO, Ovenly) and Natasha Case (CEO, Coolhaus) about how she raised so much money, averted disaster by listening to her customers, and disrupted a staid industry with storytelling.
On dropping out of college: “I didn’t look at it like this at the time but it was just me following my curiosity and what I was interested in and I was really liking the business classes I was taking and then I really liked the internships I did, I really loved one and decided to stay..I discovered marketing, and I was like ‘This is really cool. This people get to decide how to talk about the product, get to decide how people interact with it and they try to make people love it ... I want to work with them.’ ... So it really just sparked my interest in realizing that the way people could connect with brands and product was a real career.”
On how Away is not just a luggage company: “We have our product nerds who are obsessing over every inch and every stitch and the wheels and all of that stuff. But at the end of the day, we didn’t do this to create a really good luggage brand, that’s not why we’re doing it. We all say luggage is just the beginning, we think all the time about other problems we can solve in the travel space...we’ve done a pop-up hotel, we have a media division so we print an online magazine, we did one season of a podcast last year, we’ve done pop-up airport terminals...I think if we were just the luggage brand, nobody would engage with that, you know?”
On how instagram propelled the business: “We’re in the age of Instagram. A lot of people on Instagram see travel, and all the things you do when you travel, as a status symbol; and it’s not just about the places you’re going. A few years ago, if you had said that people would be taking photos outside of airports, or with their suitcases, that would’ve been really weird. We launched, kind of at the time when that was starting to happen, and part of it was people were traveling a lot more, millennials are traveling a lot more, and we were the bag that they wanted in those photos.”
On raising $2 million without a prototype: We would go into these seed pitches, and talk about how the thing that would differentiate us is brand. Yes Samsonite could probably copy our product overnight, because they have billions of dollars, and lots of factories, and decades of experience, but they couldn’t copy our brand and our community...When you’re starting a company you pitch everyday, whether it’s to investors, to customers, to press. Years and years later you’re still doing it and telling the story. So I’m glad I made it through that. But those first two million were really the hardest.”
Listen to the show in full in the audio player or read the full transcript of the interview below. And please subscribe to hear entrepreneurs from various sectors tell Case and Patinkin about their struggles and victories of business-building in the weeks to come.
Jen Rubio: Hi, thank you, there’s a lot to unpack here. So I’m the co-founder of Away, my co-founder Steph Korey is our CEO and we started it about ... I don’t know, two and a half years ago? So not that long ago, and since then it has been a pretty wild ride, but it basically all started from a broken suitcase, and from that I realized that there wasn’t really a great travel brand or a great luggage brand. All of the luggage brands were talking about the things no one really cares about, like zippers and warranties and all that stuff that we think is just table stakes.
As we saw this exciting opportunity to not only create really amazing luggage, super high quality luggage that would typically retail for $500 or $600 and because we are direct to consumer, we can offer at a fraction of the price. But more than that we just saw this huge opportunity to create a travel brand, and talk about where that bag is going to go with you, and the trips you’re going to take it on, and I think that’s what’s resonated so much with our audience.
Erin Patinkin: Awesome. You speak a lot about the value and the strength of stories in building brands. You had an interesting path that led you to your pre-Away career. Will you tell us a little bit about your college years and how you ended up at brands like Warby Parker and AllSaints?
Jen: My short-lived college years. I grew up in an immigrant family, I moved from the Philippines to New Jersey when I was seven, so I had one of those families that everyone is a doctor or a lawyer and that’s it. I mean, my mom is one of thirteen, all doctors and lawyers.
Natasha Case: My wife is Filipino so I definitely know.
JR: And I think it’s funny because sometimes in interviews peoples are like “Do you have entrepreneurship in your blood?” and I’m like “no, I it’s medicine”.
JR: But I was raised to believe I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer and I was not interested in medicine at all. So I always thought I was gonna be a lawyer, but I ... didn’t get into the pre-law program that I wanted to get into and long story short, I ended up taking business classes at Penn State. And it was a temporary thing, since I had been deferred. I loved it, I stayed, I took more business classes, did a bunch of internships, did one of those long internships, like a six month co-op where you leave for a semester and then I never came back. I really clicked with my team that I was working for, I asked them to keep me on.
EP: Which company was that?
JR: I was at Johnson & Johnson. I just really wanted to stay. I was like “I’m going to finish, I can do the last few credits online” ... I never did so ... I don’t have my diploma.
NC: You are an elite class of entrepreneurs.
JR: But I think it is really interesting because I didn’t look at it like this at the time but it was just me following my curiosity and what I was interested in and I was really liking the business classes I was taking and then I really liked the internships I did, I really loved one and decided to stay. And I loved the work I was doing, even though had you asked me about that work a year before that, I didn’t even know it existed. I was doing financial analysis on new product development and looking at the portfolio of new products. And in doing that I was working with a lot of different people across the company and I discovered marketing, and I was like “This is really cool. This people get to decide how to talk about the product, get to decide how people interact with it and they try to make people love it ... I want to work with them.” And I needed an MBA to do that, at a big company, which obviously I couldn’t get. I was like “Oh wait I need another degree first”.
So it really just sparked my interest in realizing that the way people could connect with brands and product was a real career and I guess I didn’t really know that. For me marketing was a class I had to take a few semesters. And I think that’s what really got me into all of this and long story short, I end up leaving, I was kind of in the right place right time, doing social media. So I joined twitter, 2007, when it first launched I think and was helping small businesses and food trucks do it and got bigger.
And I ended up being Warby Parker’s first social media manager and I think there are maybe 15 people at the time. My co-founder at Away, Steph, also started on the same day. So she was doing supply chain analysis and we both had fairly middle of the road roles at this very new very fresh thing and any time you’re in a company that’s growing really quickly, your role grows really quickly, changes every day, the team grows and that was like boot camp. We learned so much in those couple of years there.
NC: So meanwhile, as all of this is going on, what’s your family saying? Do they kind of finally let go or are you just kinda off doing your own thing?
JR: It’s so funny. I think there’s still a part of my mom who thinks I’m going to go back. When my LSAT scores expired she actually mentioned it and was like “Of all things-”
EP: Oh my gosh, she had an alert on her calendar.
JR: She has a paper calendar and so the day was circled.
NC: She wanted to check in with you.
JR: But yeah so I think my mom doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, but she does see ... It’s funny: She didn’t care about the New York Times, didn’t care about Vogue, she saw me on local news and was super excited about it. She saw me on the Filipino channel. Part of our PR strategy is getting my mom to believe that I have a real job.
NC: That’s so typical.
JR: What’s funny is when I was actually doing social media and digital marketing, my mom told everyone I worked at Facebook. Because she couldn’t-
EP: Because that’s the only company that does that.
JR: Yeah she just couldn’t fathom that there was ... It was just the easiest way to explain to her friends. But anyway, I love her, she’s an amazing dentist and oral surgeon, who has no idea what I do.
EP: Well, that’s okay.
JR: I’m gonna send this to her.
EP: Entrepreneurs explaining what they do to their parents.
JR: That is an amazing idea.
NC: Because really they don’t ever understand.
EP: I read you said that the difference between a good product and a good brand is emotion. I love that, that how people interact with the brand builds value in a way that only making stuff doesn’t. Was there a brand that you really related to while you were growing up, that you felt connected with and emotionally connected with? Or what other brands have inspired you to create a brand that really starts with a story?
JR: Isn’t it funny that no one’s ever asked me this? Like growing up?
NC: That’s why we’re here.
JR: When I was like 13, 14 I was in love with this boy and he was a skater and he used to go to PacSun and I remember ... I mean I’m totally making this up because I’m sure when I was 13 I wasn’t like “These brands are amazing”. But I remember-
EP: But there are certain things you’re really drawn to.
NC: And maybe it’s more real at that time in your life too, because you’re just open to these new ... You don’t have all these walls necessarily.
JR: Yeah because you’re not thinking about people marketing to you. There are things that ... When you’re first going through puberty and you get your first Victoria’s Secret bra and you keep going to the mall and you’re like “This is the bra that’s a grown up bra”. I’m an adult, I’m an angel. It was like Victoria’s Secret and the skater brands in PacSun.
But it is interesting because, like you said, you’re not thinking about how people are marketing to you. Now it’s really hard for me, it’s hard for me to actually see anything interesting without being like “What was the budget for that?”. And yeah, I guess when I was younger those small brands, you would spend every day after school ... I grew up in suburban New Jersey, but it wasn’t until probably right before college, I got really into handbags, and I go through these phases where I’ve really nice really expensive handbags and then just put everything into Whole Foods’ totes. But it was actually really interesting to me because there was this forum called Purse Forum, and I would go on Purse Forum every day and there were just thousands and thousands of women talking about handbags that I couldn’t afford.
NC: And drag queens.
JR: Just insane that if you think about people going on their computer on the dialogue days and literally taking pictures and talking about colors of handbags and all the releases and things like that and I think that was the first time I realized you could be obsessed with a brand. And obsessed with anything that a brand did and what a brand put out there. So I guess like that, the luxury world opened that up to me but I would save up and buy a Louboutin coin purse that was like $200. But I treasured it and then ... I don’t know, I think that community still exists and obviously on Reddit now there’s all these communities about other brands. There’s Away communities, which I really love, which kind of takes me back to that time of like “There are people sitting here discussing every aspect of our product and brand and everything we’re doing”, which is wild to think about.
NC: That’s awesome, and I think what you’re saying really hits on something important as any successful brand has to create an obsession, you’re not going to get enough people, or you’re not going to get devote enough a following. So speaking of that, I know there was a moment with starting Away where the light bulb bit, when the bag broke, and “This could be done better”. But so much of what you’re doing seems equally about passion for travel and maybe that’s almost equally the obsession. How do you bring that together? You have the product, you have the obsession with travel, how do you connect that passion that I imagine very much coming from you, to your following and to your customers?
JR: Yeah I mean, candidly, Steph and I, didn’t grow up thinking about luggage or dreaming about it or really knowing anything about it, but we both love to travel, we both come from very international families and we’re lucky enough to have travel as a big part of our life. We just really didn’t know how to do it any other way, which is a nice thing to say in hindsight but the thought of making a piece of luggage, no matter how nice it was, and then just selling it on the internet, was not that appealing to me.
And if you think about there’s 200 people who work at Away now, I don’t think any of them would say to you “I’m here because I love to sell luggage”. They’re there because they love travel and they love talking about it, and thinking about it, and we’re genuinely creating a product that empowers people to do that.
We have our product nerds who are obsessing over every inch and every stitch and the wheels and all of that stuff. But at the end of the day, we didn’t do this to create a really good luggage brand, that’s not why we’re doing it. We all say luggage is just the beginning, we think all the time about other problems we can solve in the travel space and even in the last two and a half years if you think about some of the cool things we’ve been able to do as a brand ... So we’ve done a pop-up hotel, we have a media division so we print an online magazine, we did one season of a podcast last year, we’ve done pop-up airport terminals. Things like that, those are all things where, if we were just a luggage brand, nobody would engage with that. And I think if we were just the luggage brand, nobody would engage with that, you know?
I think people from the start saw that we stood for more.
EP: This is actually moving into a question we had for you, which is you’re moving into that experiential marketing place where you’re not just selling the bag. You’re creating an entire environment for people to interact with. I know it’s very faddy right now to do things like that. So two questions. One, do you plan on doing more? But also, how do you avoid becoming like the next museum of pizza?
NC: We keep seeing other brands do these types of experiences, but they don’t seem to really fit within in the brand, or really feel like there’s a real human emotional connection with the thing. So how do you avoid doing that, how does that inform what you build?
JR: Yeah. I mean, first I have to say that the Museum of Ice Cream and all of those, that they basically exist for Instagram. Whether or not you agree with it, it is crazy what they’ve been able to do.
EP: I’m not knocking it, but at some point there’s so many of those.
JR: But I think those work, because they’re playing into just kind of people’s desire to have interesting content to post on social media. I think what’s been really interesting for us, and what’s probably contributed to our momentum, is the fact that we’re in the age of Instagram. A lot of people on Instagram see travel, and all the things you do when you travel as a status symbol; and it’s not just about the places you’re going.
A few years ago, if you had said that people would be taking photos outside of airports, or with their suitcases, that would’ve been really weird. We launched, kind of at the time when that was starting to happen, and part of it was people were traveling a lot more, millennials are traveling a lot more, and we were the bag that they wanted in those photos.
All of the wonderful things about our product aside, it was a great prop for all of that. But it’s still, again, stems from a place of authenticity, and we actually talk about travel, and that’s not all we are, it just happens to look really good in photos which helps.
EP: It leads into another question, so you have to do that with your customers? You already talked about how you have to do that with your staff, the staff has to believe in the story of the brand too. How does that affect how you talk to funders? You’ve raised a lot of money, and you’ve sold the story to VC’s before you had a product, which is amazing. You didn’t even have a prototype.
So what was the story that you sold them, was it similar? How did you frame that for them?
JR: Well, I think it’s a very nice thing to be able to talk about our story in this way, but it’s not the reality when you’re talking to investors. We’re really lucky in that our biggest investors around the table have been with us since in the beginning, so they’ve seen the evolution of the brand. They invested because they believed in brand and marketing, and that was really important to us, because there was some investors, I think, when we were doing our seed round, that we could’ve tried a little harder to convince.
But our thinking was if we have to convince them now of this most basic thing that we believe in, we’re gonna have to explain all of our decisions.
NC: Totally, and also they’re investing in you and you’re co-founder ultimately.
JR: But I mean, I think now, there’s a lot more investors who specialize in direct to consumer who understand that brand is a big part of the differentiator. If you think about, before us there’s Warby Parker, Bonobos, Casper had started a little bit before us. Then came Away and Glossier, and Allbirds, so we’re this other wave.
There aren’t that many examples of why a company worked, or why a company didn’t. Now anytime there’s a new Warby Parker for X, every time there’s a new industry that people are trying to create a direct to consumer brand for, it’s easy to tell who’s gonna win based on the brand. But even as recently as three, three and a half years ago when we were fundraising, that wasn’t really a thing.
We would go into these seed pitches, and talk about how the thing that would differentiate us is brand. Yes Samsonite could probably copy our product overnight, because they have billions of dollars, and lots of factories, and decades of experience, but they couldn’t copy our brand and our community. You have venture capitalists who are looking for massive, massive returns, and you’re trying to tell them that they’re gonna get it because you have good brand and community that doesn’t exist yet?
So I don’t blame some of them for not understanding, but I think the ones that did, Four Runner Ventures, has been literally around the table with us since the beginning. Having investors that really understood that from the beginning and supported our decisions, and funded our decisions, really made a huge difference.
EP: You two were first-time entrepreneurs when you went to table with these investors, right?
EP: Did you feel like you had any, from the first meeting to the last meeting, a growth in how you presented yourself to those types of people?
JR: Yeah, after every meeting. So we had this Google doc of maybe 50-ish investors who we thought we might have a chance with based on their existing portfolio, or based on a company they invested in that was similar to us. Basically after every meeting, we would sit on the subway and recap what went well, what went wrong, and then change on our pitch based on all of the meetings that came before that.
I think that was a huge period of growth for me, when we were seed fundraising. We raised two and a half million dollars in that round. We’ve raised more than $81 million in total.
EP: Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
JR: Yeah, but I think that first two million, that’s the hardest because you’re really just trying to get them to invest in you. We didn’t have a product, we didn’t have a brand, we didn’t have customers.
EP: You had performers that are really just based on nothing, and everyone knows that.
NC: But in a sense isn’t it, I mean, you could also make the argument that when something doesn’t exist, it can be as big as you’re saying it is.
JR: You have to be a good storyteller. It was a little deflating at times because one, it’s like it’s so repetitive. You’re like “Okay, let me tell this story again, but with the same amount of fervor and excitement as the first time”. And then you’re like kind of reading their body language and you’re like “They don’t really care, what else can I say?”. Whereas our Series A, B, and C it’s like, look at the traction, look at the numbers, look at the growth. VCs pay attention to that.
I think for me, because I’m the one who’s all about brand and storytelling, the seed was the hardest for me because it was like a true test of my ability to pitch it. When you’re starting a company you pitch everyday, whether it’s to investors, to customers, to press. Years and years later you’re still doing it and telling the story. So I’m glad I made it through that. But those first two million were really the hardest.
NC: What about convincing partner manufactures? And this is something that comes up in the food industry a lot. I have friends who, they want to go and start to scale. And they’re like “I can’t convince anyone to ... we call it co-packing or co-manufacturing in our world ... but they have such a hard time selling the vision or they’re in between the first PO. So can you talk about that and maybe give some advice to our listeners? How to really sell to a manufacturer, when you’re going to be coming in with a tiny, tiny piece of the pie chart of their business?
JR: I would say it’s the same exact thing as our seed fundraising. We had to do the same thing too. We went and looked for the best luggage manufacturers. They were all in Asia. We flew over there countless times to meet with manufacturers. We had to convince them too as much as we had to convince investors is not more. Because they have real customers, who are paying them real money. And you’re asking them to reserve factory lines for you.
EP: And learn a whole new product.
JR: Exactly. I think what got them really excited ... and we love our manufacturer, they’ve actually become a real partner to us. What got them excited is that we came with a real vision for what we wanted to create. It was nicer than anything they’d ever done. For them too, it was also a challenge. It was something that they hadn’t done before and they saw the potential.
I think if we had went in there with just some design and they were like “Okay we could do that in our sleep” I don’t know if they’d have taken us on. But I think they were excited to actually create the product that we were talking about.
All pitching is just to figure out what that other person -
NC: What they’re going to get out of it -
JR: Yeah, what they’re going to get out of it. They don’t care about you if they don’t know you in the beginning. You build the relationships over time. But investors are looking for returns, factories are looking to make more and more of your product and have you become a big part of their business, like ours did. Customers are always looking to see what they can get out of it. I think it’s not about changing your story but framing it in a way that makes sense to who you’re talking to.
NC: I’ve also found, I think ... some of it is just, if they’re going to say no a lot of people because it’s not a good fit also, they’re going to start to choose who do they want to work with on a personal standpoint. I think it’s such a deep connected relationship. There’s something to be said just about, maybe they just also saw in both of you, this is going to be interesting. We’re going to have fun. These are people that I actually want to work with and be partners with. There’s sort of a personal level to it too. Because people do business for people at the end of the day.
EP: One other thing is, if you’re a smart manufacturer, who realize that the younger brands are the future of your company. And that’s something I think that when you end up finding the right manufacturer, co-manufacturer, it’s also a person who has a vision.
JR: Exactly. And I think it’s funny because there were so many manufacturers who would pick us up from the airport or the train station and just be waiting. Like they’re waiting for the guys to come. And they didn’t expect to see two . I think that we were, Steph and I were maybe 27 when it was all happening. And we’re in our yoga pants and hoodies being like “Hi, it’s us. we’ve been emailing”.
NC You guys are badasses, I love it.
EP: I agree.
Jen: Thank you.
EP: Speaking of being a badass, your company is in this group of companies that has become known as a disruptor brand. Before Away ... something we were talking about ... there was Samsonite and then we’re like “What’s another luggage brand? Tumi?”. I can’t really think of another luggage brand that’s doing what you’re doing, because obviously those brands haven’t connected with me. My guess is that they’re the bigger boys in the market, you talked Samsonite has billions of dollars. Do you think those companies are afraid of what you’re building?
JR: I don’t know. I think that if they were the type to be afraid, they probably would have done something ... and not with us, but I mean before we even existed, they probably would tried to create new things or to innovate. I’ve worked at really big companies before and I’ve worked at really small companies and I think it’s almost ... what I’ve noticed is that there’re individuals within the companies who notice when there are up and comers on the market. We actually see them look at our entire company’s Linkedins, we see them visit our stores. All of these employees from the incumbents but I don’t know if that actually goes anywhere. Or I don’t know if the leadership is going to do anything about it. And there’s not really initiatives towards it.
I think what’s been interesting in the luggage industry specifically is that we were kind of the first to really talk about luggage as it fits into your lifestyle, and really tried to make it a lifestyle brand. And we’ve seen a shift towards that kind of marketing and that kind of content in the luggage space from a lot of other companies. Which is definitely ... I don’t want to say it us and our idea, but it’s definitely flattering and exciting to see that -
NC: You made the right bet.
JR: Yeah. And that there’s a real shift in the market for how people are talking to customers who want to buy luggage.
EP: So, how do you respond nimbly to changes in the marketplace with such a new product?
JR: I think we’ve always been the kind of founders and the kind of team that knows that there’s always gonna be surprises and that seems obvious now, but there are so many founders who are like, “I never planned for this,” and it’s like that’s your whole life. Just surprises and things coming at you and curve balls. But one of the things we value the most is our relationship with the customer. It’s why we’re so obsessed with the direct-to-consumer model. And I think we’ve really seen that benefit us. Earlier this year or at the end of last year there was a change in the airline regulations about being able to bring lithium ion batteries on board and our carry-ons have one and it’s removable and it abides by all the rules, but we had two version of the bag. One version where the battery was removable from the inside. And one where it was more easily removable from the outside.
And it could’ve been disastrous. I don’t think we realized just how bad it could’ve been, but it actually put some of our competitors out of business.
JR: And we didn’t realize that at the time because of what we were thinking about is, okay we have this one version of the product, but we could make it better for our customers by having it pop out of the outside and we actually listened to that customer feedback. So by the time these airline regulations came into play, we actually already had the new product out on the market and we did this whole thing to actually switch out the battery for our earlier customers. Just as a show of, you know, we wanted them to have the best experience, you know, airline regulations are not and I think that it honestly resulted in so much goodwill for the company.
EP: And also that you were ready for it.
EP: If you had not prepared to have a new market or new bag to market by the time the regulation was in place that could’ve been -
Jen: Yeah, we didn’t even know the regulation was coming. It was just that
EP: It was about listening to customers?
JR: It was about listening to customers. Yeah, so we listened to the customers, we created this product and the timing was just really perfect. And it was hard and our team was working around the clock and there were customers who had bad experiences because of the airlines that we did everything in our power and sometimes tried to go above our power and talk to the airlines and helping them solve it.
But, there’s no way we could’ve done that without that customer relationship because we know every single person who had one of the older bags. We could reach out to them, we could swap out their battery pack, and I think that’s something that we really value and that’s what, because we have that relationship we can kind of just roll with the punches. And our customers appreciate it that we’re in it together with them.
NC: So because, I think what’s exciting about lifestyle brands that they’re such a kind of strong core of values and vision is it does leave the door open for the possibility of doing more things with that, you know, kind of core that you establish. There’s definitely potential for more whitespace there. Do you see your brand doing more extensions? Where do you see this all going?
JR: It’s really just the beginning. We’ve talked about so many things and we still ... up until a few months ago we still just sold the suitcase. We just started selling travel goods that were not the suitcase, earlier this year. We still have so much to go in the travel goods space. And if you think about all of the things that are wrong in travel ... I mean pretty much everything
NC: Can you fix my chair on the plane?
JR: That would be amazing, right? People talk ... you know what’s funny with all the different things people bring up to me? Someone’s like “Please fix airport lounges”. And I’m like “I don’t know if that’s a top priority”. And I’m not saying that we want to own a fleet of airplanes, or own a ton of real estate, and do our own hotels. But it’s like, how can we uniquely solve it? I think one of the beautiful things is that Steph and I didn’t know anything about luggage so we didn’t look for the right way to do luggage, we just looked for the best way to solve this problem. As we think about hotels and airlines and booking trips and experiences that you have while on those trips, we also don’t have experience in those things. Besides, we stayed in hotels and gone on a lot of flights and gone on trips. So I think we actually have a really interesting challenge ahead of us, in creatively solving these problems.
NC: It’s sometimes good to be an outsider.
JR: It’s honestly the best thing. There’s one person on the entire team who’s ever worked in luggage before.
NC: Wow, amazing.
EP: And you have 200 staff?
NC: I guess it’s also a fairly niche, like we were saying there’s not that many ... well, there’s enough companies base don merit beyond.
JR: Yeah, we hire people based on the experience that they bring to the table in their field. And if someone ... I get resumes all the time where someone’s like “Hey, I ran marketing for this luggage company”. And I’m like -
NC: But we don’t like their marketing.
JR: We literally started this because there wasn’t any good marketing, in luggage so -
NC: That’s a really good point. You make the argument that experience will do something good for, obviously, building your team. But you could be limited in your view. Versus coming from another field you could say “Look there’s a playbook that works” and you could move that across many brands, maybe as long as they’re all premium brands. That’s the only thing that you need to connect with. It’s a really interesting point for the listeners, is “What’s the best criteria?”.
JR: And as we look at the different departments that we’re hiring for ... and there’s so many openings across the entire company ... but if it’s marketing, who are brands that we look to that are really good at certain types of marketing? If it’s manufacturing, that’s different set of brands. So we’re also just not recruiting from the same brands, it really depends on what the job is. But luggage is definitely not a requirement for any of us.
EP: I love thinking about Away as a platform across industries. I want to take my Away plane with my Away bag to my Away hotel. I’m not even kidding. Because I know that that experience would be better than what I’m experiencing today.
JR: And I think it’s like maybe an Away hotel in one market looks totally different from an Away hotel in another because we realize that travelers have the same basic set of needs but all have very different preferences. And that’s how we’re steering the company.
NC: So, at the end of every show, we ask our guests to share one skill, how it helped them build their business or drive growth in one way or another. If you could tell us your skill and break it down for our audience.
JR: I think we’ve talked a lot about brand and storytelling and that’s my only skill. But one of the things I’m really focusing on right now, I think as the company has grown so much, the scope of my role, of everyone’s role has changed. Even if you started at Away 6 months ago, the things that you’re working on now and the people you’re working with, it’s just a completely different landscape. And something that I’m thinking a lot about and talking to the team a lot about is focusing on the right work at the right time. It’s a really hard concept for a lot of people, myself included. Because I’m definitely one of those people that at my worst I over-promise and under-deliver and I want to say yes to everything and I’m excited by everything and I think just by ... the nature of the people we hire is the same. They’re excited to do things and to get them done. But it’s just impossible to get it all done.
So I think one of the skills that we’re all working is trying to figure out what’s actually essential and making sure that we know how to say no to the things that aren’t.
NC: Working smart not hard.
JR: Exactly. Exactly. And I’m actually doing it in my personal life too. I get a lot of invitations to do things. 22 year old me would have been like “Wow”. But I have this whole thing, it’s easier to practice in my personal life, but if it’s not a “Hell yes” it’s a “No”. Even just invites to dinner, where I’m like “Uh, yeah, that could be fun” but the day rolls around and you’re like “Why’ did I say yes to this?”.
I’ve just been very, very selective about what I say yes to at work and in my personal life. It has made a world of difference. Now I’m not complaining as much about not having time. Now I have time to think longer about the creative things. And you guys know in the creative process it’s not like “Is it done, yes or no?”. Sometimes you just need more time and I wasn’t giving myself that time.
NC: It’s kind of never done, right?
JR: I encourage literally my whole team to do it. And I think, especially with a lot of the more junior employees, when I tell them “If your manager is assigning you a piece or work and you don’t have any context and you don’t understand why it makes sense, you can ask and you can push back”. And they’re all like “What do you mean? What company would ever tell us to do that?”. But I think it’s so important, because there’s just a million things going on and you can just spend so much time working on something that’s not actually going to move the needle.
NC: And that’s good awareness for the management, really think about not only the work that you are doing but the tasks you’re assigning. And also I’ve realized that it can very easily happen that a task can get assigned almost really informally. You didn’t realize you were even asking someone to do something. And then they spend their whole day and they’re like, every word counts right?
One of the biggest learning is for me. Sometimes ... I’m very laid back with the whole team so sometimes I don’t realize that I’ll say something offhandedly in a meeting and someone will take it as an assignment and come back to me a few weeks later and be like “Here’s the thing”. I’m like I was joking.
NC: That’s hilarious.
EP: Jen, this has been so awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the show.