5 Lessons from Pop-up Businesses

Pop-up businesses achieve success by being temporary, hard to find and transient– qualities that seem to fly in the face of traditional business logic. Yet since 2008, businesses such as food trucks and pop-up shops have emerged by the hundreds and, despite a recession, grown revenue at a rate most brick and mortar establishments would envy.
We’ve followed this trend at Karten Design and, in the latest event in our Conversations series, decided to explore the strategies that have propelled pop-ups to prosperity. We invited the owners of Los Angeles’ most prominent pop-ups, including CoolHaus, Green Truck, NomNom and Royal/T, to join us and share their stories. Although there are many different strategies these businesses employ to stand apart, we’ve outlined some common threads that any business, mobile or not, can take away.

Stand for something. Each of the businesses we spoke with stood for more than just food or shopping. CoolHaus’s founders, both architecture enthusiasts, name their ice cream sandwiches after LA’s most influential designers to stimulate conversations and build awareness. NomNom has a mission of bringing authentic Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches to neighborhoods outside of Little Saigon. Green Truck started to give construction workers access to healthy, organic food on the job site and continues to operate all trucks on renewable fuel sources. Royal/T presents its customers with an authentic contemporary Japanese experience and introduces the cosplay style of performance art. Yes, customers gravitate to their delicious food. But having a mission and offering an experience that people can feel good about is a recipe for customer loyalty.

Build a recognizable brand. Without a fixed location, pop-up businesses need to promote themselves, their current locations and their new offerings continually. One key to their success under these circumstances is a strong brand with instant visual recognition. NomNom in particular uses its trucks as visual billboards that are visible on the street from the freeway. One consistent graphic Royal/T uses to identify themselves, despite changing sales, is the pink crown. This ensures customers recognize a consistent brand, even through Royal/T’s content might change.

Know your customers intimately. The business owners we spoke with closely monitor customers’ response to their brands, products and services. Susan Hancock, owner of Royal/T, reads every review on Yelp and frequently responds to customers. Freya Estreller of CoolHaus uses customer photos from Twitter to ensure quality of service, making sure that each ice cream sandwich served is big, beautiful and highly satisfying. Because they’re flexible by nature, pop-ups can quickly make changes based on customer needs.

Turn customers into stakeholders. With Twitter contests for naming the newest addition to the NomNom fleet or to coin the next NomNom Word of the Week (last week’s winner: “Nom-nivore”), Jennifer Green and Misa Chien offer customers the opportunity for emotional investment into their brand. CoolHaus similarly adapts their offerings to the needs of the customer; at the Conversations event, SKD’s logo was printed onto the edible wrappers and we were able to provide input on which flavors we’d like them to offer. In essence, CoolHaus was infused with SKD for the evening.

Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself. “Throw a bunch of shit on the wall and see what sticks.” Though Green Truck’s Kam Miceli quickly recanted this remark, we think there’s something to it. Pop-ups, with all of their impermanence, have the chance to re-invent themselves whenever necessary. Kam himself has served food to audiences and locations from construction sites to Century City office parks to production catering in the desert. CoolHaus is moving into new cities and moving beyond its food truck roots through retail partnerships with locations like Whole Foods. With each partial reinvention, pop-up businesses are using a key part of the design process: iteration. Or course, most brick and mortar businesses have more constants and constraints than pop-ups, but they can still benefit from an iterative process for integrating new ideas, practices and products.

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