31 January 2019 Courier Dec/Jan 2019

Away co-founder Jen Rubio on opening up shop

‘Our strategy has always accounted for retail. It just became part of it a lot sooner,' she says.

Away began its brick-and-mortar retail journey in 2016 with a pop-up in New York’s NoHo district. 

‘We only had the carry-on in four colours,’ says Jen Rubio, who co-founded Away with Steph Korey that same year. The pair had worked together at holy grail DTC glasses brand Warby Parker, and applied the tricks of the trade – cutting the middlemen, stylish branding – to their suitcases, which can charge phones and still fit in a overhead locker. 

Rubio says Away approached physical retail with a theory. A pop-up would be great brand exposure, but not a huge sales driver. After all, until then Away had spent all its time finessing its digital experience. ‘We had this great online experience, shops aren’t going to matter, but let’s do it for the brand exposure,’ Rubio says of her thoughts at the time. 

It turns out, they were wrong. Many of the pop-up’s customers, the founders quickly realised, may never have shopped with Away online; they needed to see the products in the flesh first. 

Today, Away has five shops and is fresh from a £38m fundraising round in June. The cash is being put towards a new 56,000 sq ft New York office, opening more shops and creating around 250 jobs. 

Away keeps track of the financial success of its shops, but Rubio is keen to point out that Away doesn’t silo the numbers into online and offline. ‘It’s one brand and one goal. We make sure the shops are profitable, but if you strictly divide it up, you are incentivised to do the wrong thing,’ she explains. ‘The metric we are rallying around is top-line growth.’

As for future locations, incoming customer requests and the top performing regions for online sales provide good indicators. According to Rubio, Away hasn’t yet figured out a specific formula for where to launch – as a three-year-old company still testing the waters in retail, this is perfectly reasonable. 

Rubio has noticed that in each city it chooses, it often has similar neighbours. ‘In DTC, when one or several companies starts to do something, the others do it too,’ she says, pointing at the trend for startup brands to advertise on the subway. ‘People joke that the MTA is subsidised by startup and VC dollars.’

This is the area where DTC brands are most likely to get into trouble. ‘You see startups of all sizes opening shops,’ she says. ‘There’s this misconception that there’s a playbook, but we don’t approach customer acquisition in that way at all – tapping out one channel and going to another. We have a portfolio of different ways to acquire customers.’

This year, Away hit profitability. It has a total of £62m in VC cash behind it. Its founders are not chancers, having essentially completed an apprenticeship in DTC strategy from Warby, one of the most pioneering brands in this space. Plenty more online consumer brands will open physical shops in 2019. But if they haven’t already achieved Away’s success, they might struggle to survive.