BY STEPH KOREY, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, AWAY
Since we launched Away in 2016, my co-founder Jen and I have inevitably gotten one question more times than I can count: What’s your secret? I’ve always said–and firmly believe–that there is no secret. There’s no magic formula, or some untold truth everyone’s hiding when it comes to building a business. But the foundation? An incredible team.
Here are a few of the ways we’ve approached building that team, and defining how that team works, and what you can do to build a stronger team (and business):
1. Treat the way you build your culture as a core part of your business strategy, because it is.
Before Jen and I started Away, we made a list of things that we knew would be fundamental to our success, and most were ones you’d probably expect: things like creating a strong financial foundation, giving our community an unparalleled customer experience, and building a brand that people were actually excited to associate with.
But the first thing we included on the top of that list? Create the kind of company that people love to work at. We’ve always believed that if we that prioritized our team and our culture first, success across every other element of the business would naturally follow. It’s why we hired a VP of Organizational Development before a VP of Brand Marketing, and why we treat our culture strategy as a building block for our business strategy. The best business plan in the world can’t be executed without a team to bring it to life.
2. Hire for passion and potential, not necessarily skill or previous experience.
We’re a travel brand, but only two (two!) of our current employees have ever worked in the luggage industry. As one of our investors put it, innovation rarely begins with the status quo, so when we’re looking to bring someone onto the team, we’re looking for something different: a mindset.
We’re looking for people who aren’t afraid to take thoughtful risks, and who won’t rest on their past experience to approach their day-to-day. This means we’ve assembled a best-in-class team of scrappy problem solvers with diverse experiences and perspectives who are eager to learn and find the “Away way” to make it happen. That entrepreneurial spirit is what’s driven our team to swing big, and to be comfortable with the inevitable ambiguity that comes with building a business without a playbook.
3. Invest in your team’s futures and careers–as people, not just employees.
It’s an inevitable truth that your employees are unlikely to stay at your company for the entirety of their career. In fact, Millennials tend to change jobs at least four times within their first decade out of college, and according to LinkedIn, one of the main reasons is because they don’t feel satisfied or challenged by the opportunities offered in their current role. So while we embrace that our employees might not stay forever, we both acknowledge that truth as a core part of our talent development philosophy, but also work to make Away a place they’ll continue to find rewarding.
We create ways for our employees to build skills they need to do their jobs here, and we give them tools that we know will set them up for success as future leaders regardless of where their careers might take them next.
This might sound counterintuitive to some, but we’ve seen two direct benefits from this approach. First, it actually improves our retention–employees want to stay at a place where they’re learning. And second, it allows us to develop existing employees into totally new roles–giving them new skills and stretch projects so they can evolve as the business does.
4. Empower those employees to do the best work of their life.
When you’ve built a team of ambitious and passionate people, and you’ve given them the tools to succeed, you can never let them get bored. One way we do this is by asking our employees what they want to do, and what they think is possible for their role or for their team, and then giving them the space to actually do those things. We’ve hired them because they’re the expert in that area of the business, so we empower them to put that expertise to work for the company, and to think creatively about how they might be able to approach their work. Beyond the obvious morale benefits–high performers want to perform!–you’ll also see direct benefits to your bottom line.
5. Make sure that your core values are more than writing on the wall.
Our core values are (literally) written on the walls of our office, but they’re so much more than that–they’re ingrained into the way we work. It’s not uncommon for founders to determine what those values are before they even hire their first employee, but it was important for us to involve the team in that process.
Beyond our earliest employees who developed our values and their definitions, we’ve continued to revisit them as the team has grown, finding a way to involve and engage our newest employees as the team grows. As the team doubled, and again once it tripled, we came together and asked, “Are these still our core values? How do they come to life?” It’s about giving our team the context to understand why they exist, and how they actually guide our work.
The result? Our values aren’t just words on a wall, but a guiding philosophy that we put into practice every single day. Whether it’s being iterative to respond to the evolving needs of our business, our team, and our customers, or being accessible to encourage transparency and collaboration, or being in it together, reminding ourselves to take the work seriously, but never ourselves.
Culture isn’t a buzzword, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s not kombucha on tap or an unlimited vacation policy, but the very foundation for how your team works, and ultimately, whether or not your business will be successful.