When everyone wants to work at your startup, what do you do next?
Luggage startup Away is quickly becoming one of the most well-known direct-to-consumer brands. Co-founder and CEO Steph Korey is now hard at work to make sure her company’s culture is as popular as the products themselves.
It was in January, right around when she had hired her 100th employee, that Steph Korey realized her next hire might be her most important. Korey is the CEO of luggage startup Away, and all signs were pointing to her brand breaking out into mainstream success. Since Away’s launch in 2015, the suitcase company had cult fans. But in 2017 things went viral: revenue quintupled. To date, the company has sold more than 500,000 pieces of luggage.
Korey had money she wanted to put toward the company’s first senior leader and her debate was who to go with: a chief marketing officer to ensure the startup’s hockey-stick sales growth continued, or hire a chief people officer to start thinking seriously about company culture.
In a move that isn’t often seen among growth-obsessed startup founders, Korey chose the latter, appointing The New York Times’ Erin Grau to lead people and organizational development.
“We are building what will be the biggest travel brand in the world and short-term consumer growth is not how you lay a foundation for that,” Korey, now 31, said. We were sitting in a conference room with seemingly budget Ikea furniture and minimal attention to design in Away’s overcrowded office space near New York University. “We lay the foundation for that with a really solid foundation of people-first policies.”
Korey is among a growing generation of startup founders who are consciously investing early on in human resources and recruitment. Scandals at well-known startups such as Uber, Theranos, Zenefits and more have shed light on just how wrong things can go when early-stage tech companies prioritize scale over all else. Korey and co-founder and Chief Brand Officer Jen Rubio are now focused on putting in the work now to avoid the same fate.
Ranked No. 30 on the LinkedIn Top Startups list, Away is among the top private companies where jobseekers want to work right now. The startup receives nearly 3,000 unique job views for each open position, making it among the top for a startup its size on the list. In the past 12 months, just 100 job openings at Away have received nearly 70,000 views.
“You don’t have great product unless you have an amazing place to work,” Korey put it simply. “We don’t start with product. All of it comes from people.”
And now, with $81 million in funding and 100 more jobs projected to be filled by next year, Korey says she’s just getting started making sure Away remains a top place to work even as it nearly doubles again in size.
Help wanted: No experience please
Korey has learned from experience that the consumers are hungry for new brands and new ideas, even in old industries. Before starting Away, she cut her teeth at direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker and Casper. What she saw there was that the best ideas weren’t coming from industry vets, but people unencumbered by common beliefs.
Away mirrors that belief: Of its 235 employees, Korey knows of just two who have built their resumes in traditional luggage companies. She doesn’t want to hire people who know where the $32 billion luggage industry has been. She wants to hire people who can unpack where it’s going. This kind of company-building makes culture even more essential: There’s no shared history or even conventional wisdom to fall back on — growth comes only from people feeling comfortable sharing and testing the best ideas.
“What we try to ask ourselves is not ‘How do we take what already exists and do it better?’, but ‘How can we actually just ignore what already exists and say, if none of these things had ever been done before, how do we develop it from scratch,’” she said.
Korey’s appointment of Grau in January to lead people is a testament to that philosophy. Grau, a soft-spoken woman with a serious yet warm air about her, was a 7-year veteran of The New York Times. She had no experience with luggage, had never worked in the travel industry and hadn’t even dabbled in e-commerce. But there was one experience that jumped out to Korey: Grau had pushed the 166-year-old company into doing things it had never done before — and seen real results. Among her initiatives, she led efforts to modernize the newsroom’s policies on paternity leave, elevating it as a top place to work for female technologists.
“At The Times, I felt like a disruptive leader,” Grau said. “It made so much sense for me to go to a company that was disrupting an industry. It felt like my people, my place.”
Hiring Grau was a bet for Away, said early investor Daniel Gulati. A partner at Comcast Ventures, Gulati had initially introed Grau to Korey, but it wasn’t lost on him that making the newspaper veteran Away’s first senior hire was unconventional, to say the least. To spot something in Grau that perhaps even Gulati was unsure about is one of Korey’s key strengths as a founder, the investor said.
“They [Korey and Rubio] are able to not just lean on if you have done it before like so many CEOs and founders, but what is your true potential,” he said.
People as puzzle pieces
It’s not just with senior leadership where Korey is willing to try novel approaches and novel people. Away has typical job descriptions — lots of bullet points and broad strokes about responsibilities — but once the candidate steps into the room, everything is up for grabs. In interviews, Korey says she often tells that person to forget about the job description entirely. Instead, she wants to know what the candidate is interested in (and good at) to see if there is an even better role that can be created just for him or her.
Whitney Bauer, a 30-year-old who left an operations role at Gap to join Away four months ago, says that it was attractive Instagram ads for Away’s luggage that initially got her interested in working for the startup. But when she started looking for open roles, she was intrigued by the job descriptions Korey and others carefully craft to find the right people.
“The job description said that I could create my own role and have a lot of freedom,” she said. “And when I came in to interview, it was clear everyone really thoroughly enjoyed what they were doing. Having interviewed at other places, that is not always the case.”
And one of those interviews was with Korey herself. Korey takes pride in showing up at as many interviews as she can. She wants to know who’s working at Away, sure. But she also needs to know where she can slot people in inevitable reorgs. Her goal is to hire people who want to build a job for themselves from scratch.
Fast-changing roles are sold as a perk of Away, not a bug.
“We are a quickly growing company,” Korey explained. “We can sort of rejigger these puzzle pieces so that every single person has a role where every morning when they wake up, they can’t wait to go do that.”
Korey, a tall brunette who graduated from Columbia Business school, says that rejiggering has already happened several times in the short time Away has been in business. Xandie Pasanen and Eliza Weiss, two of Away’s first handful of employees, worked in everything from customer experience to data entry and shipping and receiving. Pasanen now works with Grau on “workplace experience” initiatives, and Weiss runs overseas production for the startup.
Korey explained that her philosophy toward hiring and career development stems from experiences early on in her own career where she felt bored. Whether it was because she grew beyond the current roles and responsibilities of her job or because she wanted to move on to something else, she remembers what it feels like to be told to “stay in her lane,” as she put it.
To ensure that her own employees never feel like that and walk out the door as a result, Korey is partnering with Grau to put systems in place to identify the warning signs.
“If you are hungry, ambitious and passionate, you never get bored at your job,” she said. “So how can we systematize just having a sharp eye for someone who is starting to have mastered their role so that you keep giving them new or challenging responsibilities?”
Building an open-book company
One of those systems relates to one of Away’s core values: Accessibility. At Away, employees have never been allowed to send internal emails. Instead, everything related to the business must be discussed in open rooms within the messaging platform Slack that all employees can access at any given time. And by everything, they mean everything.
Korey’s logic is while email can exclude people within her organization who have additional context or a better idea, open Slack channels guarantee that person will get to weigh in. When IT manager Himtang Wong joined Away in July, for example, he said that by going back and reading the history on certain projects, he was able to have an impact much faster than he did in previous roles.
“You know when you start at a company and there is all this institutional knowledge that you don’t have, that isn’t written down and no one will ever tell you? It’s actually all there now,” Grau said. “The entire history of the company is in one place, and everyone has access to it.”
The way Korey and Grau speak about building a successful company culture sounds like business fundamentals that every startup founder should know. But Korey acknowledges that a lot of her founder peers still see culture as a “checklist” as opposed to something they spend a lot of time thinking about. In fact, Grau’s title — vice president of organizational development — was an intentional move on the company’s part to ensure that culture is embedded in the rest of the business. Rather than silo Grau into conversations about human resources, she sits in on most meetings about how the startup is driving the business forward.
Among her friends who are leading high-growth businesses, Korey said she has noticed, amid numerous HR-related scandals at other startups, a shift in how they are viewing the role culture has in their success. But that shift is most acutely observed in her founder peers who have lived through dysfunctional workplaces that did not support them in the past, she said.
“There is probably some connection between people who felt like at some point in their career they weren’t treated fairly… that leads that person to taking a different approach to how they want to create career opportunities at their company once they are in charge of decision- making,” she said.
Pointing to research that suggests women often are the ones who get passed up for career opportunities, Korey said it’s no accident that woman comprise three quarters of Away’s leadership team. The past experiences of a lot of those women is what’s fueling their desire to focus less on stereotypical startup perks like free lunch and Ping-Pong tables and more on systems that create a productive and inclusive work environment.
One of Grau’s initiatives to that end is a familiar one for her: parental leave policy. Given that early-stage startups often attract younger workers, founders generally don’t think about benefits like leave until the first employee becomes a parent. Yet Grau and Korey have been partnering on Away’s policy since January, which grants up to 16 weeks off for birth mothers and eight weeks for all new parents.
It wasn’t until early August when Mark Chou, Away’s VP of Growth Marketing, was the first employee to become a parent. Research has also shown that men, even when granted generous parental leave, do not take the full time they are entitled to. To ensure that they set the right precedent for taking time off to raise children, the leadership team at Away worked with the new father to make sure he was comfortable taking the full eight weeks to care for his daughter.
To make room for the 100 new employees it’s projected to hire in the next 12 months, Away will relocate this fall from its 8,000-square-foot office space to one seven times the size in SoHo. And with all those open Slack channels, Korey and Grau know that small decisions that employees like Chou make today will continue to have an outsized effect on what Away’s staff will look like tomorrow.
“We value difference over sameness and I don’t think that’s true of everywhere that I have worked,” said Grau. “I want to try and build a company I want my daughters to work in one day. We spend a lot of time talking about that.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that Away has sold more than 500,000 pieces of luggage to date and Grau’s title is vice president of organizational development.