What is a pop-up business?

Webster City, Iowa, bakery with a retail pop-up business tucked into a corner. Photo by Becky McCray.

Webster City, Iowa, bakery with a retail pop-up business tucked into a corner. Photo by Becky McCray.


A pop up business is just a temporary business. Different authors may add different qualifiers, but I like to keep things simple. A pop-up is a way to take advantage of fleeting opportunities, test whether an idea is workable and to learn from direct experience.

Pop-ups can be:

  • Booths and stands at festivals
  • Short-term stores for the holiday season
  • Displays of items for sale inside another business
  • Fireworks stands around holidays
  • Vendors at the farmers market
  • Sno-cone stands during the summer

Pop-ups may temporarily occupy a full-sized business space like a downtown building, may be located inside another business, or may be in a non-traditional space like a trailer or food truck.

An existing business might pop-up a temporary location, maybe even in another town, to serve a short-term need. For example, a restaurant could set up a temporary kitchen in a nearby town to cater to festival-goers.

In a small town, you might open a pop-up business for many reasons.

  • The local customer base is limited, so the business is only needed during seasonal influx or only for a short time to sell to the local base before reaching saturation.
  • Usable business space is limited, so creative forms are required.
  • Existing buildings may require extensive rehab or remodeling, so testing an idea before investing large amounts is needed.
  • Business financing may be more limited, so a smaller business may be all you could afford to finance yourself.
  • The workforce is limited and may be seasonal, requiring the business to exist only while workers are available.
  • Business intelligence on the potential market may be scarce, so running a temporary test will be the easiest way to find out what is feasible.

Running a temporary business gives the owner a chance to experiment, test the market and gain experience before making expensive investments.

Smart rural economic developers love pop-ups because they get more business ideas going with less investment in less time.

Here is an example of how pop-ups appeared in one small town during the holiday season.

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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  1. Julia McCray says

    Thanks Becky, I love reading your posts and seeing what other communities are doing across the country. This particular post describes something we’ve recently done in our community (Tionesta, PA). I’ll try to give you the short version of the story:

    We had a lot that was vacant for 10 years after a fire in our downtown. Developers had no interest because of our seasonal tourism, low population (500+/-) and declining downtown. Our Industrial Development Corporation bought the lot and created a micro-retail incubator…..but it’s really a pop-up facilitator.

    We called it “Tionesta Market Village”. We designed 1800s style false fronts for standard outdoor sheds. The buildings have no heat, so they are seasonal. They are leased annually, so people can try their business idea with minimal investment (about $500 start-up) and no long-term commitment. We are renting them for just $50 – $70 per month plus electric and the tenants share the cost of collective advertising. We have had a waiting list for these buildings from the very beginning of the project!

    We invested only about $40,000 with site work, furnishings and buildings and opened in June 2013. This year two-thirds of the tenants renewed their leases and we are adding two more buildings, for a total of eleven individual artisan shops.

    The goal was to create healthy traffic in the downtown that would help boost sales at our existing businesses, spur new businesses, encourage façade improvements, and attract a developer to the site. It’s working! Our coffee shop and art gallery extended their hours and saw a boost in sales. A vacant building was purchased and is being renovated for mixed-use. No developer yet……but we have a lot more traffic in our downtown and that depressing vacant lot is now vibrant and attractive. The original intention of the project was that it be a temporary solution, but the community loves it! Artisans are selling their products; tourists are coming to see “the Village”; residents and seasonal residents are coming back to the downtown; a couple of the shops have hired part-time help. This project shows that “pop-ups” work and are good for a community!

    • says

      Julia, I love this! Such a terrific example of getting creative rather than spending a lot of money and also of bringing down the barriers to entry. Beautiful!

    • says

      Julia shared some photos with me, and I knew you’d want to see them, too.

      Here’s the empty lot before:
      Market Village before via Julia McCray

      And here’s the after:
      Market Village Shops_ 7-11-13 via Julia McCray

      Huge bonus points to Tionesta for adding benches and picnic tables! That’s the way to make it a community-friendly space.

  2. Carla Howell says

    Please tell us more about the types of businesses that our populating your pop-ups

  3. says

    Reader and friend Shannon Ehlers commented on LinkedIn with such a smart idea that I had to share it here, too:

    “This is brilliant – what better than to encourage entrepreneurship with low-risk opportunities while also dressing up an otherwise ugly area? More bonus points: any town with a sense of its own heritage could celebrate that heritage very boldly by making the false fronts reflect the architecture of the town’s origin. My small hometown (Soldier, Iowa) is a Norwegian settlement and this could be reflected in architecture and brochures, etc. Very very impressive!”

    • Julia McCray says

      Shannon, you bring up a good point: It’s important for communities to retain and embrace their unique character; that’s what draws visitors and makes your community stand out in the crowd. We wanted the MV buildings to be a compliment rather than a discordant note in our downtown. There were some residents who thought we were going to ruin the downtown with “sheds” and “shanties” and voiced their opposition to the plan. Many of those people are now some of our greatest supporters! I am looking forward to seeing what “spin” other communities put on this concept!

  4. Dandy says

    very good idea to some small villages. heard same idea before but can’t appreciate until i saw this post.

    thank you Miss Becky.