Entrepreneurs who create lifestyle brands and concept stores often dream of opening their own storefronts and perhaps scaling from there. Because it offers less risk and up-front expense compared to a permanent commercial space, the “popup” has become an increasingly popular way for such entrepreneurs to test out their business models in an actual marketplace, connecting with customers on a temporary basis.

Evan Nork

Evan Nork

How is a popup designed?

1. It has a Timebox.

First, it is temporary.  This feature makes the popup more like an art exhibit or an urban festival than a traditional retail store. This structures the workflow and creates a pull for visitors who are curious, adventurous and like to be in-the-know.

2. It inspires an Inner Circle of Storytellers.

It is fun to fall in love with a work-in-progress, help it grow and see the results – more fun than being a regular customer! Because of the compressed timeframe, ambassadors and enthusiasts who can get word out quickly via “word of mouse” achieve special status. Their stories serve as fuel to sustain and grow an online community in-between popups.

4. It is, in itself, an Iteration.

How many long-term entrepreneurs wish they could start over and create their businesses from scratch, improving the underlying design and organization?  Through popups, progressive artfulness becomes evident as each iteration improves overall fit-for-context.

3. It is tiny and well-crafted.

Popups manifest a specific creative intent – they cannot do and be everything. What’s not appropriate or practical for one popup opportunity may well be for another.  Those “extra” ideas and the suggestions of well-meaning advisers go on the backlog, where they won’t get lost and can easily be revisited.


5. It is a simple means for Validation.

Startups often use landing pages and Google ad words to validate their assumptions about customer behavior before investing in buildouts.  Popups transfer the same kinds of practices onto the street level.  A tiny window display, for example, can direct people to an online destination.  A nook just big enough for an ATM transaction can be transformed into an intimate shop, where retailers can converse with shoppers one-on-one about preferences and predilections.

6. Retrospecting comes with the territory.

With just a short amount of time to make an impact, entrepreneurs are typically motivated to make the most of it.  They reflect on the artifacts produced from each popup, seek feedback and come to the next opportunity ready to improve in many ways.

7. Everything you know is subject to revision. 

This mindset makes entrepreneurs fiercely adaptable. Need to reroute a floorplan, shift around inventory or change hours of operation?  Someone who has orchestrated their share of popups takes a lightweight approach to such things, even after acquiring their own long-term space.  They know that, after all, all businesses are really popups, in a way.

8. What’s Most Important?

People, people and people!  People like to tell stories.  They like to belong. The space where a retail business takes place is only important to the extent that it enables these functions.

Here are some of the popup people I’ve been involved with this past year:





Art & Design 

And here’s the latest, that got me thinking about these things today. Special thanks to my client, Project Storefronts, a program of the City of New Haven, Connecticut.