Intro: How to Launch a Pop Up Shop
Pop up shops have been popping up in bigger American cities for a decade now. Fast, cheap, and temporary, they are a great way to test a concept or take advantage of an event. For example, chefs with no cash will take over someone else's kitchen for a few nights; big brands launch pop ups around the music festival circuit. This summer, I helped launch a cooperative pop up to highlight the design and craft scene in Baltimore.
The shop was co-organized by Sarah Templin, Andy Cook (who took the great photos in this step), and myself under the auspices of the Industrial Arts Collective. We rustled up 75 fantastic makers and small manufacturers local to Baltimore and presented their wares for two months in a gallery on North Avenue. Along the way, we raised money, pitched media stories, built the display furniture, incorporated a company, and threw some great parties! (For news and info about the IAC and our members, you can keep up with us on Instagram at @ia_collective)
Making local and buying local are great grassroots ways to grow the economy. And, as a worker-organized enterprise, it was an equitable, democratic platform for everyone in Baltimore to grow their businesses.
It was an open, collaborative project with a wide variety of participants, funders, and customers. In that spirit, I've open-sourced the process here so you can use it as a template in your town!
You will need these tools:
- Square, Stripe, or similar mobile payment-processing system
- Google Docs
- Drill/driver set
- Circular saw
- Tape measure
You will need these materials:
- 2x6 scrap lumber
- Scrap plywood
Step 1: Organize Your Community
The Industrial Arts Collective started in the back of the Station North Tool Library in central Baltimore in August, 2014. Nine organizations were represented -- all cooperative workshops or makerspaces of some kind in Baltimore City. We brainstormed a host of potential shared initiatives and agreed to meet once a month thereafter and share ideas over beers.
The group continued to grow, informally, over the next year. Each month a different space hosted; usually we worked on some organizational goals, then did a little workshop or activity organized by the host space. Online, we kept in touch with a Google Group. In April, 2015, we launched a website, www.wemakebaltimore.com, that had shared calendar where organizations could advertise their events and classes. A local firm, Orange Element, donated design services to create our logo.
We kept growing, with now over a hundred members comprising makers, makerspaces, and craft manufacturers. Our goal is to make Baltimore a better place for making things -- growing awareness, audience, and market.
This organizing foundation was absolutely critical to the success of the pop up shop. After hanging out for almost a year, checking out all the makerspaces and workshops in the city, members got to know and trust each other. The particular community you organize for your shop may be different -- fashion designers or local farmers or furniture makers -- but the principles are the same. Finding common cause with what may seem like your competition allows everyone to combine resources to expand the economic pie together.
Step 2: Choose a Theme
Defining a pop up's theme will determine a lot of further choices, from design to marketing to customers. Our theme was easy: we were Baltimore makers! There was also already this beautiful logo designed some years ago by Elizabeth Eadie. It had appeal on multiple levels:
1. It was easy to explain.
2. It had great market appeal with a feel-good message everyone could get behind.
3. Baltimore's taken some hard knocks in the national eye lately, and this was a place-positive story.
4. It was an inclusive idea, allowing us to recruit a wide variety of vendors.
As you search for your own shop's theme, strive to find something that serves at least two purposes: it should be helpful in both curating (helping you make decisions about what to include) and messaging (helping you tell the story about the shop to the public).
Step 3: Write a Business Plan
Once we had decided on launching a shop, we had to design it. Think of a business plan as a sketch or a blueprint for what you plan to do. For a short-term project, it doesn't have to be incredibly long or detailed, but it does have to outline all the key organizational, financial, and administrative components. It will also help with the next step, fundraising.
The Business Plan Canvas is a simple way to get some ideas on paper quickly and organize them visually. Use that to brainstorm, then sit down and write the plan. Typically, business plans have the following seven core sections:
1. Executive summary: Basic description of goals of the business, and description of product or service.
2. Company description: List of personnel, year founded, legal structure, etc.
3. Products/services: Product or service line, including prices.
4. Market analysis: This is the most critical piece of the plan, in my opinion -- it doesn't matter if you have an earth-shatteringly awesome product if there's no market that will buy it. Dig into www.census.gov to find out more about the demographics of folks around your area. Eventually, you can use that knowledge to tailor Facebook or Google ads very precisely.
5. Implementation: of timeline of what's going to happen and who's going to do it.
6. Organization and management team: this is a more important subject when you are trying to set up a more elaborate company (with a board, for instance) or are trying to raise a lot of money (so investors can vet the resumes of the participants.)
7. Financial plan and budget: how much money do you need for rent, staff, insurance, credit card fees, and all the rest.
Step 4: Raise Money
For a cooperative venture like the Made in Baltimore shop, there were three possible ways to raise some money: take a consignment or booth fee from vendors; run a crowdfunding campaign; or ask for sponsors to underwrite the startup costs. We discussed all, but settled on the third option. It would allow us to pass 100% of profits on through to vendors and, through sponsored events, get vendors in front of new potential clients.
We sent sponsorship letters to about 15 local organizations. Good candidates in your town might include the local Chamber of Commerce, arts council, or manufacturing alliance. Two organizations, the Baltimore Integration Partnership and the Baltimore Development Corporation, sponsored us after meetings where we presented the idea. Our third funding stream came from Baltimore Office for Promotion of the Arts, from whom we won a small grant. You'd be surprised -- when you have a good idea, lots of people want to help! I've attached a Mad-Libs-style fill-in-the-blank sponsorship letter to this step that you can download and use.
The rest of the partners listed helped us with in-kind donations.
- DETAILs Deconstruction provided salvaged lumber for shop displays
- Indigo Ink did our wall graphics pro-bono
- Frank's Pallets donated 42 pallets for shop displays
- WYPR donated some ad spots with a media sponsorship
- Station North Arts and Entertainment, the nonprofit that administers the arts district, did a bunch of promotion
- The Station North Tool Library donated tool use for construction
- The Neighborhood Design Center donated architectural design services
Step 5: Find a Space
The whole idea of a pop-up shop is predicated on existential brevity; for that reason, they are usually housed in storefronts that are between long-term tenants, buildings slated for demolition, or in nomadic structures. Following that template, and keeping in mind that we wanted to be easy-to-find above all, we looked high and low. We looked in an empty warehouse, a former car dealership, a handful of storefronts, and finally got a great slot at SpaceCamp, a gallery. Another great option, if the shop will be during warm weather, is to approach the city about securing a permit to use public space over a weekend.
We were hampered by our low budget for space ($0), but if you can raise enough money to cover even a modest rent, property owners may be easier to get on the phone! Look for, at a minimum, a clean weatherproof space with electricity. Plumbing is a bonus, and Internet access is golden.
We didn't have heat or cooling, but SpaceCamp had high ceilings, clean white walls, and beautiful lighting. Even better, an IAC member, Baltimore Print Studios, is right next door, so we were able to get fast, clean wi-fi in exchange for chipping in on their bill.
Step 6: Recruit Vendors
While the IAC was already a decent foundation for finding vendors, the success of a shop like this is dependent on diversity -- of products, price points, and people! We started with our members, who were our best participants and advocates. We asked IAC members to reach out to their maker friends, started a social media campaign on all the major platforms, and Googled furiously. I found dozens of Baltimore makers I had never met online or on social media and reached out to them with a personal email. We released the call on several mailing lists maintained by local arts organizations. And, with summer block-party and festival season in full swing, we hit the pavement and asked folks in person at events like Artscape.
Administratively, we set up a Google Form. If you've never done this before, it's very easy (and free). At the top, we had a clear explanation of the dates and times for item drop-off and pick-up; the location of the shop; and a statement saying we were not responsible for lost, stolen, or damaged items. Then we asked for name, name of company, contact information, address, and detailed description of what they wanted to sell. Answers to this form were kicked to a Google Sheet, which allowed us to easily sort through the data. Later, when actually onboarding inventory into the payment system, we already had an inventory list to reconcile with.
Step 7: Design the Shop
Designing a shop with a group like this can be tough -- everyone has their own opinions about what will represent their products best. We enlisted the help of the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit group of architects, to guide the group through a facilitated discussed. They used a couple of great brainstorming tools, including lots of sample images from magazines and online. They also broke us into small groups at times to keep the conversation from getting dominated by any single voice. The agenda they used is below; use it as a rubric to figure out your own approach.
Once they had processed their findings from our group, the NDC sent over a PDF with ideas for space, lighting, furniture, and branding. The guidelines were loose, with lots of example images and hand sketches. They proposed simple, modular display furniture; flexible graphic elements like chalkboard painted walls; and lots of ways to use free or cheap repurposed materials.
6:10pm Introduction: What do you want to get out of the pop-up experience?
6:25pm Storytelling – What kinds of stories do we want to tell through this event? Break into pairs, each pair gets one group and gives us three things we can tell. Vote on top three most critical things to share.
6:45pm Challenges/ Opportunities
7:00pm Experience Map
7:20pm Look & Feel
Three stations, rotate
1) Borrow/ Build/ Buy – Post up pictures (mostly borrow and build)
2) Gotta, Nice, Nope – bring images, people post up in the 3 categories
3) Space Sliders
Step 8: Build the Shop
Given my furniture-building tendencies, this was my favorite part of the project! With some of our sponsorship money, we were able to hire out the Surface Project crew for two Fridays. They let us take over their shop and helped us build a bunch of great display furniture.
The first piece was the easiest: we picked up two pickup truck loads of pallets from Frank's. We got euro-style (they have six particle-board blocks between their surfaces) because Frank can't resell those very easily. We stacked them into a tiered counter system and set them vertical to hang things from. Last we laid some in the corner to make a raised floor, then linked them together and filled in the gaps with 1x1s screwed across pallets. This gave us defined "living room" display area. We got 42 pallets.
Stacks of scrap 2x6s (you could use anything, really, even firewood) were cut to even lengths and raatchet-strapped to plywood squares. With a few casters, they were convenient bench-hgih rolling platforms. We made 4 of those.
The sawhorses were inspired by Japanese nesting stools, and made from taper-cut 29" 2x6s (allows you to get two legs out of one board) mitered to 15 degrees at each end. Paired with a 15-degree beveled top plate, the legs were offset so they would nest together as shown. We made 12 total, 6 at table height and 6 at counter height. They were simply topped with salvaged doors, painted white.
The jewelry case was made from a windowed door, cut in half and hinged with its original hardware.
Last, we built a ton of 16" and 18" inch cubes out of scrap plywood. The pieces were painted or scarred with other cuts, adding a cool, raw quality to the aesthetic. We built several with half-height sides as well, and put two finger holes in the top for carrying. They were great, flexible bricks that we could build with. We made about 20 of those.
When all the stuff was in the space, and inventory dropped off, we had a big build party to set everything up. People always show up for free beer!
Step 9: Administer the Shop
Now you;re ready to go! You've raised some money, found a space, designed your layout, built your displays, and signed up all the vendors who will make the shop a success. What next? There is a lot to running a store; you'll have to master at least the following essentials:
- Marketing: hit it hard! Once we had an opening date, we sent press releases all over town, had all of our vendors flog the shop on their social media, and then threw a big opening party with free beer from Monument City Brewing. When the shop was going, we posted a new shot on Instagram daily, and were able to build a pretty big following pretty quickly by leveraging the power of our vendor network.
- Staffing: we went volunteer, with vendors signing up to take shifts. We always worked in pairs, so someone could keep an eye on the shop while the other took a bathroom break. We were open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 12-8, which was a manageable shift for most folks at least once over the 22 days we were open.
- Payment system: we used Square, but there are a lot of mobile-payment options out there, all charging somewhere around 3% of each transaction. Sales tax can automatically be added by entering what state you live in. We opted to not accept cash; with an all-volunteer staff, it was deemed safer and easier to keep all the transactions in a trackable app.
- Inventory management: when vendors came to drop off their items, we matched them to the items they had mentioned in their sign up form. Each item was entered into the Square inventory, then a tag was made with the same name that was in the computer. Then, when it was time to make a sale, the cashier just had to search the name of the item and it would pop up in the inventory. Since our store was open for a long time, some vendors needed to re-stock. Square will automatically generate a report when inventory is low; that report got forwarded to the vendor, and new inventory was entered into the database when they dropped it off.
- Vendor Contracts: there are lots of templates online, but at a minimum you have to define what the shop's timeline is, what consignment fee you'll be charging (if any), and language indemnifying the space and organizers for loss or damage to inventory. Make sure every vendor signs a contract when they drop off inventory.
- Insurance: at a minimum you'll need liability insurance in case someone slips and falls in the shop. That is usually inexpensive and easy to get; if the shop is really short-term, say a weekend, you may be able to just get event insurance. We found property insurance very difficult to get -- the insurers wanted to assess every item in the shop, and charge a significant amount. Some of that had to do with being an unproven short-term business, some of that had to do with the neighborhood, and some of that had to do with the inflexibility of insurance companies.
- Taxes: usually this is pretty simple. Withhold sales tax and shoot a check off to the state or local government when you are done. If you pay people to work there, have each of them file a 1099 with you, and make sure to file with the IRS. The form will be different based on your legal structure, check out this link for more information.
- Legal structure: we went with an LLC, which is the simplest business structure in most states. It requires a little paperwork, about a month of bureaucratic time, and a filing fee. Once we had proof of the LLC, we could go open a bank account and set up the Square account and deposit our sponsorship checks.
Step 10: Party!
While the shop was open, we organized a lot of events to engage our vendors with new potential clients. We had one industry night, where architects and designers could come check out the store, and one night with anchor institutions, where big buyers like hospitals and universities could meet local suppliers. Both were longer-term ways to strengthen the small-business community here in Baltimore, and grow market for our makers.
I hope this was helpful, and if you launch a cooperative pop up in your town, please tell us about it in the comments!
Photo above of Bill Cole, President of the Baltimore Development Corporation, speaking at our anchor institution night. Photo by Alan Maddox.