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From Pop-Up to Storefront: Three Lessons From a Pop-Up Store Graduate

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A picture of our first store

After a four-months of construction, we opened the doors of the first Boba Guys store in the heart of San Francisco Mission District this past June. To call the project a labor of love would be an understatement. In the end, it was completely worth it -- our pipe dream on a paper napkin in the Fall of 2011 has now blossomed into a real business. We call ourselves graduates of the pop-up class of 2011!

We documented our build-out meticulously in order to share it with the world. Since our days of writing on GOOD magazine, we vowed to impart any lessons learned onto our readers. Having just passed our food inspection, we are happy to write about our experience with no holds barred. We hope this article serves as an example for transitioning from a pop-up to a full-fledged store.

Learning #1: Research, Research, Research
We opted not to hire construction consultants because we wanted to learn the process from the inside out. Thanks to Google and Quora, we found most of the pertinent information online. We read through countless articles and forum posts on zoning, ventilation, and food preparation facilities. Although it may have been inefficient, conducting the research ourselves helped us separate the mandatory elements from the noise of another opinion.

Friendly advice also never hurts. We received a lot of help from our friends and fans across the nation who followed us from our early blog days. Just like in the corporate world, a powerful network is critical for small businesses. Our network helped expedite decisions, find competitive bids, and most importantly, reach reliable vendors. As a prime example, we owe our lighting setup to our friends at Wise Sons, a fellow graduate from the world of pop-ups.

Learning #2: Design as a Language
We originally opted to design our own store from scratch due to budgetary reasons. We funded the store buildout out of our own pocket, so hiring an interior designer would have put us over budget. However, since our days as a pop-up, we always had a vision of store's aesthetic. Pinterest was gaining traction at the time, so we pinned our best ideas in the sea of wedding planning and recipe pins. (We like to think of ourselves as one of the first dudes on Pinterest.)

One customer recently told us, "When I step into your store, I see your fingerprints all over this place. It's what I imagined Boba Guys would look like." I think she was reacting to the consistent motif we carried through the store: white tiles, clean lines, wood accents, and clear fixtures. We weren't trying to win an Architectural Digest award -- we just wanted to stick to our game plan which was conceived when we wrote our first business plan. As long as our designs stick to our core values -- quality, responsibility, and transparency -- our store was just one piece of our brand's tapestry. The white tiles and glass fixtures reinforced our commitment to transparency and responsibility. We wanted people to see how our drinks our made because we felt it differentiated us from others because we were proud of the ingredients. The wood accents signaled quality and aligned with our craftsmen values.

That is not to say people did not volunteer their advice. Many people told us to get hip, modern furniture, much like what you see in a yogurt shop or fancy cupcake house. We decided against these furnishings because in order to build a brand from scratch, we did not want symbols, motifs, or amenities that were associated with other businesses. In essence, having a point of view on design is like creating a new language.

Learning #3: Focus on Core Products
We did not anticipate some of the tertiary issues that arose during the buildout. Our biggest issue was electrical capacity. We realized after we signed the lease that our space did not have enough amps to support our equipment. The oversight forced us to make a crucial decision before selling a single drink -- do we cut our shave ice and coffee program? In the end, we put our shave ice and coffee plans on the shelf for now. We will always remember sitting with our contractors and scrapping our initial designs.

The experience taught us an invaluable lesson: focus is key. When we found out that we could not expand our menu into shave ice and coffee, we immediately began thinking of ways to make our bubble tea experience the best it could be. After all, we were called The Boba Guys -- we should live up to our name! Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise as it was when we starting experimenting with a new concept called the Slow Bar in which we brew tea for our guests on the spot. Now, the Slow Bar has become one of our signature experiences!

The focus also benefits the consumer. As a startup, you can rarely be all things to all people. Product diversity only comes with time and businesses should focus on key messages for new customers. We recommend expanding your product line only when you have a solid foundation of reoccurring customers.

Those are our top three key lessons learned, so we hope some readers find it helpful for their own business. There are more experiences that we will continue to share over the next few months. If you have any specific questions or comments on our buildout process, we'd love to hear from you.

Dream on!