Dec 13, 2019

How an out-of-depth CEO led to struggles at Away

Away founder Steph Korey (left) and co-founder Jen Rubio. Photo: Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

By now you've probably read about the troubles at Away, the smart luggage "unicorn" whose c0-founding CEO just stepped down after a damning story in The Verge about her leadership style.

Yes, but: You also might have read that the CEO, Steph Korey, was subsequently pushed out by investors who had long sought her ouster. According to three sources close to the situation, this is untrue.

The basic backstory is that Away grew too big too fast. Last year it was profitable on around $150 million in revenue, but behind-the-scenes was an understaffed and overworked customer service department, and a Slack-reliant internal communications policy that had evolved from useful for a small startup to distracting and dangerous for a large one.

  • One source says the investors were generally aware that 2018 holiday sales had strained the system, and that Korey in January hired an executive coach and adopted a 360-review process. But they didn't know the extent of personal conflict or her public criticisms of employees via public Slack.
  • Investors also knew that the company sought to add independent directors, following a May 2019 fundraise led by Wellington Management.
  • New investors soon introduced Korey and her co-founder Jen Rubio to Lululemon COO Stuart Haselden for one of the independent director spots.

Multiple sources say that Korey and Rubio were immediately taken with Haselden, particularly given his experience in international expansion and physical retail stores. By late June they were recruiting him for a full-time job and, by last month, he'd privately agreed to become Away's president and COO.

  • There also was an expectation that he'd succeed Korey as CEO in around six months, setting the company up for a 2021 IPO.
  • One source explains the delay as "wanting to make sure the body accepts the organ."

Away had planned to announce Haselden's hire earlier this week, timed to Lululemon earnings, but then The Verge story hit.

What happened: Korey, who has publicly acknowledged her mistakes, felt Away's succession plan had become untenable, an orderly process converted into a social media-fueled hot-seat. So she offered to announce Haselden as CEO, and transition into a full-time executive chairman role where she'll largely focus on product development and with Rubio on design. The board accepted but, again, didn't demand it.

  • An Away spokesman declined to comment on the above timeline, or if the company added independent directors.

The bottom line: Korey should have gotten executive coaching earlier, as should many first-time CEOs, and made serious errors in staffing and communication. But it's also true that our quenchless thirst for startup villains leads to exaggerated extrapolation, even when errors are acknowledged and addressed.

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