Alan Donegan: PopUp Business School Co-Founder, Entrepreneur, Financially Independent Pizza Lover, Marvel Movie fan and soon to be Script Writer
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So why is it so hard to get an empty space to be able to use for your PopUp shop, or PopUp space? Why won't landlord let you in and let you use the space. Surely it is better off being used rather than left empty?
How do you create a PopUp space or shop?
I created the PopUp Business School back in 2012 with Simon Paine and for the last 7 years we have been travelling around the UK and recently the world running our events in other people's spaces and I wanted to share with you how we do this and a guide on how to get your own PopUp space
Have a clear vision
The first step to all of this is to have a clear vision of what you are going to do with the space. Are you going to run a PopUp event? A PopUp shop? A PopUp Tea Room? There are so many creative things you could do with an empty space. Start making notes, sketch things out and get creative.
One of the most amazing businesses we helped start was a PopUp team room that travelled around the north of England brining with it amazing China Cups, tea and lovely scones and setting up in the most amazing locations. They created an incredible business running PopUp Tea Rooms around the north of England.
Here are some questions for you to explore to help clarify your vision for the space:
The clearer you are on what you are going to do with the space the easier it is to pitch it to the landlord/council or any other partners you need to make this happen.
Take that vision and put it on a one page document that you can share with people. After you have pitched they will invariably say that is great send me some "stuff" and if you have got it then you can stay on their heals and press to make it happen!
We have an expression that we repeat at the PopUp Business School which is:
You don't get what you deserve in life, you get what you ask for - Alan Donegan
Most people are realistic about what they ask for. They start by asking for the small space (and maybe that is where you need to start to prove yourself) and then they get rejected.
Ask for the big space, the huge empty shop, the key space and be unrealistic with what you are asking for. They can always decline you and give you a smaller space or you might just be lucky and get the unit you ask for. You don't get what you don't ask for!
Thinking about rates and mitigation
Back in 2016 we borrowed a space in the Oracle Shopping Centre, Reading to run a PopUp Business School. We borrowed the old Waterstones unit at the end of the main shopping centre. It was a HUGE unit and even with an event of 80+ people and setting up shops we probably only used about 40% of the space; maybe less!
About a month later I got a nasty shock through my letter box! It was a letter from the local council asking for the rates on the unit and that total £20,000 a month! They sent me a bill for 3 months in total which was £60,000! I had only been there 2 weeks!
£60k at that time might have sunk our fairly new company and I had to fight hard and work to get it all sorted out. In the end I fixed it but there was a lot of stress for a few weeks!
Don't let this happen to you. If you are going for a space you need to be really clear on your rates mitigation strategy for the unit. You need to have the conversation up front with the landlord, the council and anyone else who is involved and get it in writing that you are not liable for the business rates!
This one point is actually one of the major reasons we have our headline sponsor for PopUp because the company they used to use that did something similar ish to us went out of business because they could not pay a rates bill that was levied against them!
There are lots of creative rates mitigation strategies that you can use but here are three to get your brain thinking:
These things can take a long long time to organise so you need to start early. I remember one shop unit we were taking on the council couldn't even find on their books and it was iff the shop didn't exist! That took a while to sort out.
Don't expect this to be quick and easy but with persistence you can make it happen. Get confirmation in writing that you are not liable for the rates before you take a PopUp shop or space.
Walk round the area you want the space and start to notice the empty units. They will be all around you but you might have walked past them so many times that you no longer notice them.
Take notes of the different empty buildings, mark them on a map, find any landlord details or rental boards and capture the details, take photos and make notes as you go round. This is going to help you as you start to try and find the landlord.
Look for specific spaces you would want to use and that you can see you vision coming to life in.
As you look around thing through and make notes on the following points:
If there is someone in the building then go in and chat to them. The whole building doesn't always have to be empty for you to borrow it. You might be able to borrow a room, space or area in another businesses building if you ask nicely. If you see someone in the space you want to borrow you need to go and speak to them and start the conversation.
This not a time to be shy; this is a time to pluck up your courage and approach them and get them talking. More on that next.
What is the best way to approach a landlord? Should you call them? Should you just drop in? Should you write them a letter?
In the past this is a question I would get very hung up on but now I just get on and do it in anyway I can and sometimes in every way I can! Let's look at the different ways you can approach a landlord or someone in charge:
One of the best ways you can do it is in person. If you live in the area then go in and visit them and make friends, get to know them and find out about them. The reason to do this is that it is one of the best ways to build trust and if someone is going to lend you their space or empty building then they need to trust you are going to look after it.
See below for the example of two of our past participants of the PopUp Business School and how they got a free space to launch an escape room by knocking on the door and just turning up!
Use your best smile and introduce yourself and see where it goes.
How easy is it to ignore an email? How easy is it to delete an email? This one is the cowards way out of making the phone call that sometimes works. You might email the right person at the right time and just by chance get a yes!
it has happened before and it will happen again but in my experience the likelihood of this happening is small. You normally have to combine email with phone calls and other methods of contacting a landlord to get the meeting you need to pitch your idea.
If you just email and do nothing else you might be waiting for a long time for a response.
This is probably the most powerful tool you have at your disposal for making things happen and organising events. It is also the one that most often ignored as people are uncomfortable making "cold" calls.
If you want to get hold of the landlord then get on the phone and call them. If you go through to voicemail then leave a voicemail and then send a follow up email. Quite often people will get the voicemail and that will prompt them to email you back. The combination of email an phone calls works really well.
Just get on the phone and introduce yourself!
Focus on what you can bring to the party
When most people enter negotiations or meetings they are so focused on what they want. The entire meeting is about what they want to get, they want a space to do X, or they want a shop to sell Y. I understand it, I have been there, you are so excited by your idea your single mindedly pursue what you want.
The problem is this: does anyone else care what you want?
The other person in your meeting, or reading your pitch document is probably thinking "it is great you want to use my space, but what is in it for me/our business?"
The whole focus. of your pitch emails, letters and meetings should be what you are brining to them. Please take this in the right way but they don't care what you want, they care about what you can give to them.
So what we need to do is focus on what we can give. You need to clearly work out what you are giving to each of the parties you are pitching to (and they need to care about what you are giving!)
The mistake some people make is listing what they are giving to the community and then thinking that the corporate cares about that. They might care about what you are giving to the community but they probably care more about what you are giving them. Here are some steps to be able to do this:
We have a different pitch for every type of person we are working with. If I am pitching to a Housing Association then I would pitch very differently to a corporate sponsor or someone that is lending us venue. The reason the pitch is completely different is because they all want different things. If you haven't taken the time to work out what the other person really wants it is pot luck if your pitch hits the target.
You need to focus on what you can give the other person in exchange for what you are asking for.
In a normal business meeting this is a financial thing; "I will give you my space for £X" but it doesn't always have to be money and in some cases there are things that people are more interested in than money.
Publicity, leads, future business, promotion, good PR or more. But you need to be giving something in return for what you are asking for. Balance the scales by giving them things in return for what they are giving you.
Behind every corporate goal is a personal goal
One thing I have learned is that every person that works for a big organisation has their own agenda. Sometimes they care less bout the corporate aims and objectives and more about what they get personally out of this deal. It is amazing how much of the organisations money they are willing to give away to make their life easier. What you need to find out is what the individual is interested in as well as the organisation.
Every big company is made up of individuals and people buy from people. We need to not only understand the company we are pitching to but more importantly the individual and what they want.
If you can do this it is amazing how far you can get.
The antithesis of this is where the company that you are pitching to wins but the individual ends up with lots more work that doesn't help them. How excited are they going to be helping you achieve your goals if it is a lot of work and does nothing to benefit them personally?
As you structure these deals you need to think through all the different parties involved and how they all come out of the deal better. How will your deal help the landlord? The business you are pitching to? The community? Everyone involved in the deal?
One example of an unintended consequence of our workshops that actually was very valuable to the people who where giving us the space was that whilst we were running one of our events in a large shopping centre the other shops in the shopping centre saw a 7.9% increase in sales whilst we were there! We had bought lots of other people into the chopping centre and they spent money and that impacted all the businesses in the centre positively and made the shopping centre owners look good. How might you be benefitting the other people around you through your PopUp event or space?
Take the time to think through how each group/individual in the deal is better off working with you. If you focus on what you can give rather than what you want they you are more likely to be able to structure a deal to borrow a space to do a PopUp event.
Reasons Landlords say "NO"
You are going to get rejected. If you aren't getting rejected then you aren't being bold enough in what you are asking for!
To things I wanted to chat about is the reasons why you might get rejected and then what actually to do if you do actually get a "no!"
There are so many different reasons why a landlord or someone who has control of the space might say no to you. Thinking through these different reasons before you go and make a pitch is so important to make sure that you are prepared and increase your chances of getting the space. Here are some of the reasons why you might get rejected to help prepare you for success:
It is your job to be prepared to handle as many of the objections that they will throw at you and keep bringing the conversation back to what you are giving them and how they will be better off working with you.
Objections are buying signals
This took me many years to learn and I am still working on my ability to handle them in the moment. What I think will really help you to deal with all these objections is to see them as buying signals.
When someone gives you a problem what they are normally looking for is how you would deal with it rather than saying no. If someone says I don't think it would work because of the H&S problems involved; then see this as your opportunity to show them how you would handle the H&S problems and make sure they come out of it smelling of roses.
Seeing the objections as buying signals enables you to look at them as just problems you need to solve on the way to making the deal happen. If someone is giving you challenges they are looking for how you would respond to them.
If they are ignoring you they are not interested at all! If they are in dialogue with you telling you the issues they see then they are helping you to think through what you need to do to make your idea work! treat them as buying signals!
If you do get a hard "no" here is what happens next!
Persistence and different approaches
Just because someone says "no" to you it doesn't mean no forever. I would like you to take no in different ways:
No is not no forever and how you respond to no is far more important than the no itself.
Sometimes the "no" is not in the form of a direct objection or someone actually saying the words to you. Sometimes the no comes in the form of ignoring your communication.
I was pitching to get one shopping centre to host one of our events. I had walked around the venue and knew the unit I wanted and a couple of other options and I had worked out what is in it for them.
I found the name of the centre manager who would be the person in control and sent them an email and followed up by leaving a voicemail. I heard nothing back. Tumbleweed.
What do you do when they ignore you? I know it is obvious now that you should go again but when you are in the moment it takes quite a lot of energy to have the persistence required to break through.
So I called again and this time I got through. We had an ok conversation that wasn't that easy. I told the lady what we wanted and we connected ok but it wasn't a great call. At the end she asked me to send her some information. This is always an ending I hate because you are then waiting and having to follow up again!
So I followed up and I followed up and nothing I did seemed to work. I made call after call, email after email and nothing back at all. I chased and chased and didn't manage to get anywhere. What do you do when they ignore you completely?
Firstly do not get grumpy. As soon as you get grumpy and get annoyed you have lost the battle and you will never get the space. You have to follow up positively.
Secondly change tact. Maybe try a different communication method, maybe write a letter instead of an email, send a tweet or go old school and send a fax!? Or the method I used in this particular instance was to go through a partner. We had got the money to run the event through the council so I told them where I had got to and asked them if anyone on their team knew the centre manager. One of their team didn't know her and was going to an event with her in the near future so they said they would mention the project to her and it was support by them.
This worked really well and the centre manager came back to me. The doors where opened for me to pitch the project and idea and we were back on track. I still had to go to the centre and pitch but it was our partners that opened the door for us. Which brings us onto ……….
Partnerships - working together
Everything you want in life is done through or with other people - Alan Donegan
I believe that one of the main reasons that PopUp Business School (my business) has been so successful is the people we work with; the partner businesses that hire us, work with us and help get people to our events.
Where these partnerships are strong business is easy and quick and where these partnerships are weak it takes time, there is a huge cost to business and we don't always have fun doing the events. The strength of the partnerships is so so so important. In this section I wanted to suggest how to identify potential partners, why you might need them and how to approach them.
Why you need partners and different types of partners
Here is how our partners have helped us to be successful over the years building PopUp Business School. Always remember that whilst they helped us a lot we have worked equally as hard to give to them in return.
If you can find the right partners it is incredible the doors that open to you as you build your event and start to make it happen.
How to identify partners
Sometimes it is challenging to identify the right partners to work with and whilst you will never truly know whether they are the right partner until you get in and run the event here are some thoughts you can use to identify who to partner with on your PopUp event or space.
Firstly let's look for organisations that have some cross over with the audience you want to serve with your event. If you event is aimed at young people who else wants to engage those young people? Who else is looking to reach young people? Or if your event is targeted at anyone who likes afternoon tea then who else is looking to serve or help that audience?
Secondly after thinking through what you can give to potential partners (see above) make a list of all the organisations that are looking for these benefits. This gives you a list of people to approach. One of the ways we have done this at PopUp Business School is to think who else is looking to serve entrepreneurs (all our events are filled with entrepreneurs)? Who would like to reach an audience of entrepreneurs.
It was this questions that led me to thinking about Microsoft as a potential sponsor of our event. I knew that their new product the Microsoft Surface (I am writing this article on one now!) was targeted at entrepreneurs and creatives and that is who they wanted to get their product in front of. So I pitched them the idea of sponsoring a PopUp Business School so that they could get their new product in front of their target market. They ended up sponsoring 2 events in Bristol and Brent Cross at the end of 2016.
You can see the event videos from those 2 events below:
When identifying partners to work with focus on what you can give and then who would benefit most from that. These are the partners that are then going to be easiest to pitch to and get an appointment with.
Sometimes the places that you are looking to get space from are looking for proof that you can actually deliver what you are saying you can deliver. You need to prove you can deliver. The proof doesn't need to be that you have done it before though, the proof can be that you have done other similar things and that leads you to believe you can deliver.
When I am pitching to get a space, run an event or something like that I have plenty of examples of other things that I have run that have been successful. It is these stories that are the proof that I can deliver.
The action I would like you to take is to list out all of the things you have done that show you have the skills to deliver this project. Have you organised the school sports team? Have you run events for 75 kids (it doesn't matter it was your kids birthday party!)? Have you promoted or sold an event before?
This is a good exercise for 2 reasons. The first is helps you to feel more confident that you can do this. The second is it will help the people you are pitching to and selling your popup event or space to; to feel confident as well. They need to have confidence in you and your ability to deliver.
If you don't have any proof at all at the moment then I suggest you do a small version for your friends at home as practice and that will give you all sorts of interesting stories and proof to be able to deliver in the pitch meetings. If you are wanting to do a popup restaurant do the first version at your dinning room table at home, you want to launch an escape room do the first one in a community hall or in your spare room at home for friends. You just need to get going and do the simplest possible version to gin the confidence and develop the proof to be able to pitch it to other people
Start where you are
This also brings me onto the start where you are principle. Most people are waiting to get the perfect version of what they want to do before they launch; which leads to them never launching and the idea remaining exactly that; just an idea.
What you have to do is get the first version done and launch it! Get it out there and make it happen and that will give you the courage and stories to sell the next version. Let me give you a real life example.
Katie and Andrew came on our PopUp Business School events in 2016 and got inspired to start a business. Katie' first business was hand painted lamps but she soon changed and decided to launch an escape room.
For those of you who don't know an escape room is where you get looked in a room and have an hour or so to crack the puzzles and escape. They are great fun! Try one!
They took the PopUp Business School principle of start where you are and they ran their first version at the Reading Fringe Festival. It was a PopUp version and they just got it out there at the 2 day event and proved that it worked!
That 2 day Fringe festival was enough to show them that their idea would work! They made money and had fun and they wanted more.
After our workshop they went traipsing around Reading, Berkshire to try and find a space they could try and borrow to do a PopUp escape room. They spent the entire day being rejected by landlords and managers of businesses and more. They all said "NO".
They were about to give up and as they walked back to the car park at the end of the day they saw one last hotel. It was called Great Expectations (You can't make this up can you!?). They stopped in and made friends with the bar manager and told them about their idea for a PopUp Escape room and they told him what they could give. The hotel wanted more customers for the hotel and the restaurant/bar and that is what Katie and Andrew could bring to the party.
The hotel had a spare room at the front of the building they didn't actually know what to do with and they did a deal to do a 6 week PopUp trial of their idea right there and then!
They traded there in Great Expectations for 6 weeks until they had earned enough profit to set up their permanent space in Reading. They put the deposit down and build their first game their from their profits not from debt like so many businesses do!
Katie and Andrew just started where they were and with what resources they had and they built their way to a permanent space. They didn't try to jump to the end result using debt they build from where they were and they have created an incredible business.
If you want to go and do one of their escape rooms in Reading check them out here
Once you have got the space
So you have got the space, you have got agreement to do it and now you have to deliver! You thought the hard work was getting the space?
Here is a step by step guide to making it happen afterwards:
You probably pitched your vision of the PopUp to the landlord and hopefully you have already written some of that down. If not write down how you see it going and get as much detail out as you can.
There is going to be a lot to think through so start making notes and capturing ideas. At the PopUp Business School we use OneNote which is a free note taking piece of software to capture our thought and collaborate with people. You can use anything, Evernote, word or even good old fashioned paper. You just need to start capturing all the different elements you are going to have to work on.
The key is to give yourself the space and time you need to properly set it up and get it ready for your launch day. If you want to see the opposite of a well run programme then watch the documentary about the FYRE Festival. it is scary how wrong that team got it!
Getting the space is just the start of the game. Now you have to focus on delivering what you have talked about and making it real. We will write another guide on making things real and link it here in the future.
What could go wrong? You are doing a PopUp event, you are interacting with the public and you are making things happen. Their is always something that could go wrong. Step 1 is to do a risk assessment (see below) and then you need to make sure you have the right insurances for our event.
It is difficult to have a sensible discussion about insurance without a risk assessment so if you haven't done that yet then skip ahead and read that section. If you have then there are three types of insurance you need to consider:
We recommend you take professional advice. Speak to an insurance broker about what you might need. Just remember that it is an insurance broker's job to sell you insurance so always double check their advice with independent research.
Let's get onto something that people find scary but is a lot easier than you would imagine!
Now these have been made into a big thing over the years and I think people are so scared of getting them wrong that they don't do them! These are not meant to be complex so I want to take you through a worked example here.
Henry and I are running an event tomorrow in Houston and one of the things we have to do is to complete a risk assessment. All this means is a simple document that we fill in with the risks we think we will face; then we evaluate the risks by the likelihood they will happen and the likely impact if it does happen. The final step is to mitigate against those risks happening.
There are a lot of different risks we could face at an event like this and we need to do what we can to make sure people are safe and looked after.
Step 2 in risk assessments is to evaluate each risk against the probability it will have and the impact it will have. For example let's take someone tripping on a cable at the event; the probability of this happening is quite high and the potential impact of this happening is someone would fall, possibly injure themselves and maybe damage equipment.
So the probability is reasonably high and the impact is medium! This makes it a risk that we want to do something about which takes us to step 3.
Risk Mitigation: This sounds fancy but it just means doing what you can to prevent it from happening and protecting your guests. In this case it is a fairly clear fix to the problem which is buy tape and tape down the wires so people can't trip on them.
You go through this process for all the different risks you might face and produce a document telling people what you have done to protect your guests. In the case that something does actually happen at your event the first thing people are going to check is your risk assessment.
This is a very important step to do and protects you and the people coming to your PopUp event. In most instances your public liability insurance is not valid if you have not done a risk assessment.
Here is the one Henry and I created for the Houston event so you can see what we have built.
Setting your self up for the future
You have managed to get an empty space, you have managed to set up your event and promote it and you have lots of people coming! Before you even run your first event I want you to start thinking about setting yourself up successfully for future ones. The way you do this is to build the list!
We recommend you read the article 1000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly to understand the reasoning behind list building. In the mean time let me give you an example from our world
in 2017 I was setting up a financial conference. We organised the space, put the tickets on sale and started promoting. The actual tickets for the event sold out pretty quickly. After the last ticket had sold we added a small section to the top of the website saying "Tickets are sold out, click here to be added to the wait list and click here to be added to the mailing list for details of the next event"
Even before the event had run we had people waiting for the next one. We left this up for the entire year until the next event ran in 2017. When we launched the next event we had a list of 300 people waiting for tickets for the event and we sold out in a third of the time it took in the first year!
Even before we had run the event we started to build a list of people to sell the next one too which meant when we came to sell it we had customers waiting for us! You absolutely need to build a list of people who are interested in what you are doing! Then when you come to sell your PopUp you have people already interested!
You can even do this before you have run the event! Set up a one page website telling people what you are planning to do and ask them to give you their name and email address if they are interested. This is one of the ways you can pre test your PopUp idea. Put up the page and collect email addresses even before you have launched to see if anyone is interested!
How do you actually do this?
Mailchimp allows you to have a list of up to 2000 people for free on their service and they are GDPR compliant so this protects you and manages the process of maintaining the list for you.
Saying thank you
Reward the behaviour you want to see! Once you have run the event you are going to have lots of people to thank and chat to and make sure that the event worked for them. Saying thank you is so important to building strong relationships and enabling you to be able to repeat your events.
Don't forget the customers!
No matter how the event went thank the people who came along for participating and coming along. Makie them feel special for being part of your first PopUp and part of the exclusive club. Making people feel special is so important in any business.
This is a huge resource with a lot of different sections and information. Let's boil this down into the simple proces that you can follow to help you launch your first PopUp event or shop.
Doing all this takes a huge amount of energy and effort but it can be incredibly rewarding. Be prepared for this to be far harde that you thought to pull off and give the project massive energy and effort.
This is a journey and it is going to take you time and energy. I think people vastly overestimate what they can achieve in a week and vastly underestimate what they can achieve in 6 months with consistent effort and energy. This is going to take you time and energy but it is possible to kick start your PopUp restaurant, PopUp shop or event and create something cool!
I would love to hear from you if you give this a go and what you experience on your journey is. Drop me a comment below or send me an email and let me know how you get on!
* See the source in this recent BBC article on the British High Street