Designing a Pop-Up Model for Small-Business Success

by Laura McCamy on February 21, 2014
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Creative entrepreneurs Sarah Filley and Alfonso Dominguez (pictured) had known each other for many years before the day in 2011 when they hatched the idea that would transform a California neighborhood and spark national interest.

“We literally ran into each other one day,” says Filley, a sculptor who had done metal fabrication and design for film sets and museum installations. Dominguez, a trained architect, was lamenting the five empty storefronts across the street from Tamarindo, the Old Oakland restaurant he co-owns with his mother. Filley remembers him saying, “I wish there was something we could do.”

Within a week, the two met and hatched the idea for Popuphood, a small-business incubator. A week after that, the city of Oakland invited them to a business roundtable, where they presented their idea: Place five small businesses in the vacant storefronts, rent-free, for six months. Support the retailers with advertising, publicity, and business assistance, in the hopes that they would find a customer base and become long-term tenants.

“Phase your growth according to your means,” Filley says. “As you grow and get stronger, the neighborhood grows and gets stronger.”

“The city loved the idea and asked us, ‘What do you need?’” she recalls. “The property owner took more convincing.” Oakland contributed more than $25,000 in matching funds for projects, such as facade improvements, and has waived permitting fees to help the pop-up businesses get off the ground.

The property owner ultimately agreed, and in November 2012 five new retailers opened in the formerly empty storefronts. Two stores — Marion & Rose’s Workshop and Umami Mart — signed long-term leases. A third, Crown Nine, moved to a larger space around the corner, so its owner could combine her studio and retail spaces.

Popuphood has continued to curate the remaining spaces in three adjoining historic buildings. It organized special holiday pop-ups and brought in two new retailers: Flora Cultural Society, which makes bouquets from locally grown blooms, and Sobu, a husband-and-wife furniture design store and another new long-term tenant, Manifesta Salon.

“This pop up-to-permanent program we developed has changed that neighborhood quite a bit,” Filley says. “We didn’t attract retail and market empty spaces; we put in retailers and marketed them for the success of the neighborhood.” She adds, “I think this model has underscored the need for retailers in transitional neighborhoods to work together.”

Reinvesting in Old Oakland

Since the start of Popuphood’s program in Old Oakland, thousands of dollars in new investments have revitalized the neighborhood. In addition to funding from the city, the property owner and pop-up stores have paid for building and signage improvements, and the area business district has also put part of its budget behind the new enterprises.

The business model, Filley says, works like this: Property owners pay a consulting fee to Popuphood, which matches them with appropriate retailers, with the goal of getting long-term lessees into formerly empty spaces. Entrepreneurs who are accepted into the program pay a modest monthly fee when Popuphood finds them a space, in exchange for assistance with business activities such as marketing, negotiating a lease, doing financial projections, or moving a mobile business into a more permanent space.

“It lowers as many barriers as possible,” Filley says. “The capital that is required is phased over time.”

Popuphood has attracted attention far beyond Oakland. “We’ve traveled extensively. We were very fortunate to participate in the Venice Biennale,” Filley says, adding that Popuphood has spoken or consulted in other cities, including Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Melbourne, Australia. “In Chattanooga, they ran with our model and have had a lot of success,” she says.

Popuphood’s latest project is consulting on an economic-development plan for the historic city of Marysville, Calif.

Photo courtesy Eva Kolenko.

Laura McCamy is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. She writes about small business, real estate, and development. An avid urban bike rider, she also loves to cover bicycling, urban planning, and the intersection of bicycles and business. Follow her on Twitter @lmcwords.

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