Any successful startup knows the reality of long hours, late nights, and thankless tasks infringing on planned holidays. But at Away, the direct-to-consumer suitcase startup recently valued at $1.4 billion, former employees allege those growing pains lasted for years beyond what's typical--and affected their mental health. The toll was especially great on the customer experience team, they say, even as that department grew beyond a dozen people.

In a report published Thursday on the Verge, the former employees say they were asked to work exceedingly long hours and had their paid time off limited during crunch times that would last months. Internal communications were messy, in part a result of Away's policy regarding in-office communication platform-of-choice Slack. "Their projects were brutally criticized by executives on public Slack channels. They were reprimanded for not answering messages immediately--even late at night and on weekends," the report reads.

As the company, which was founded in 2015, developed a cult following for its Instagram-friendly candy-colored suitcases, employees say executives up to co-founder and chief executive Steph Korey created a culture of fear that began with bizarrely restrictive communications policies. (Away did not respond to Inc.'s request for comment in time for the publication of this article.)

From its early days, Away's staff used Slack to communicate, and its founders, Korey and Jen Rubio (who appeared on the cover of Inc.'s July/August 2019 issue), reportedly set a policy in which open groups in Slack were to be used for nearly all company communication. One-on-one messaging was to be limited to casual requests unrelated to work, such as lunch plans.

The policy was designed to foster open communication, Korey said in a statement to the Verge: "Over the course of our careers, Jen and I observed situations where women and underrepresented groups were often excluded from key emails or meetings. Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesn't."

Former employees allege that the policy didn't allow them outlets to express their concerns about work or management, and created a culture of intimidation. Korey jumped in often, above managers, and sometimes in the middle of the night, to express discontent at a group's progress. One screen grab shows her messaging a group that a person in charge of a monogramming project must have been "brain dead" and threatening to take over the project. Korey also allegedly sent the CX team a series of Slack messages offering them "career development" with a lesson on accountability, which meant not approving any paid time off or remote workdays until the team reached five consecutive days of passing a customer service test administered at random by Korey and others.

Rubio is engaged to Slack's co-founder Stewart Butterfield. She's been candid with Inc. about other challenges the company has faced, including a wave of confusing and negative press and customer reactions to airlines banning certain in-suitcase batteries. 

The allegations in the new report show a far different kind of growing pain. Former employees allege the vision they were sold of their employer shaking up the travel industry and inspiring voyages didn't line up with their grueling schedules, which through the holidays of both 2017 and 2018 forced them to cancel family dinners and long-distance travel plans.

Startup founders seeking fast tracks to growth, especially those funded by venture capital, often peddle visions of enlightenment and world disruption--as well as big future stock returns--to employees. But in this lens, Away can serve as a cautionary tale.

Sometimes, you're just selling suitcases. And providing decent jobs, with paid time off, regular hours, and reliable communication of expectations, is never bad business.

Published on: Dec 5, 2019