When start-ups want skin in the bricks-and-mortar market, they turn to Storefront

The San Francisco-based start-up helps small businesses find short-term retail spaces for rent, usually for three to four weeks. Cash-strapped companies swear by it, and co-founders Erik Eliason and Tristan Pollock estimate they've helped over a hundred brands.  

Of course, Storefront isn't Erik Eliason and Tristan Pollock first business venture. The pair founded  SocialEarth, a social network for eco-minded millennials, in 2009. However, Storefront is their most successful company and raised $1.6 million in seed funding last week. 

Inc. recently spoke with Eliason about how the perks of going offline, his craziest start-up experience, and where he sees retail technology headed. 

Inc.: What inspired the idea for Storefront?

Tristan and I are both from Minnesota, which has huge retailers like Target. Some of our friends were selling online but got frustrated when they transitioned to physical stores. We just saw how easy it was for retailers and artists to set up stores online and thought, "There there's got to be an easier way to do that offline." 

Why are pop-up shops so hot right now?

Offline, there are certain attributes that aren't online. It's a tactile experience -- "I can feel the clothes, the furniture" -- that increases trust with the brand or with the maker. Second, there's a conversation -- "I can meet the person who made this and understand their concept with the business." It really becomes more about the experience offline. It's evolved from these 20,000- 30,000 sq. ft. stores to a 2,000 sq. ft. store with a more engaging experience and better customer service.

So, who are your customers?

We work with brokers and landlords, but also individual boutique storeowners in the neighborhood. They might want extra foot traffic, and a lot of customers are finding us through outreach. Artists are finding us through searches and online channels. It's like Airbnb, but for retail.

What's been the most exciting part of launching Storefront so far?

We did our first pop-up last December here in San Francisco. It was at the Westfield Centre and it wasn't a small place. We actually signed the lease ourselves for an entire month on December 4. And then December 5, it was like, "We have no idea what we're doing." Some of the team slept there overnight and we ended up getting about 12 other merchants doing sustainable clothing, candles, and footwear. It was a trial by fire -- we're mostly software folks -- so we were very much out of our comfort zone. But it was a great way to learn what our customers are going to be thinking.

What's next for the company?

We'll be moving, making it easier to find a space, and expanding to New York. We're thinking of what products work in a certain space. And we're making it more personal, depending on what kind of events you're setting up in your store. So if you are a jewelry maker, then you can find a space that best fits what you're selling.