Project Pop-Up businesses going the distance with 14 operating from Wilmington to Milton

Wine Knot Shop and PC Rods are run by husband and wife team Amy and Patrick Conroy. Their Federal Street businesses in Milton are two of the 2014 Pop-Up success stories.
Wine Knot Shop and PC Rods are run by husband and wife team Amy and Patrick Conroy. Their Federal Street businesses in Milton are two of the 2014 Pop-Up success stories.

By Christi Milligan

She’s earned her captain’s license to run a 100-ton vessel, but these days Amy Conroy is busy seeing to the details of her Milton-based business Wine Knot Shop, a wine paraphernalia and nautical-themed home décor shop.

After three months’ free rent and financial and marketing advice as part of the state’s Pop-Up Program, Conroy and the six other retailers that are part of this year’s initiative are moving ahead under their own financial steam.

Three of those businesses are in Wilmington, two in Milford and three in Milton, including Conroy’s.

The success of the Delaware Pop-Up Program, part of the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO), is generating national buzz, and DEDO’s Diane Laird and Ken Anderson, who have run the program for three years, will head to the National Main Streets Conference in Atlanta this month to share their approach.

“How TEAMWORK Expanded Entrepreneurial Impact in Delaware” will show how the format ignites collaboration between entrepreneurs and small town leadership to create sustainable businesses.

For Anderson, the short answer to its success is a long-term vision.

“We vett them out so that they can enter into a longtime lease — that’s the best practice and that’s what’s different,” said Anderson, director for entrepreneurial and small business development at DEDO.

Since 2012 Anderson and Laird have helped launched 16 brick-and-mortar sites, and 14 are still in business. This year, they also launched several incubator businesses in Wilmington, a move that’s in step with other Pop-Up programs that, Anderson said, focus on small start-ups and incubators.

Ken Anderson, DEDO
Ken Anderson, DEDO

But it’s the traditional storefronts like Conroy’s that have staying power. Their success, coupled with the strength of the state’s Main Street program, has allowed pop-up businesses to flourish. Ironically, Anderson said the program’s success in filling empty stores could mean a shortage of available properties for future programs — at least in some towns like Milton and Milford.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Anderson. “If we could sunset our way out of this program because of that, then hallelujah.”

One game changer could include more Delaware towns with Main Street designations, or using proximate streets for business fronts, rather than limiting the selection to main streets downtown, said Anderson.

For Conroy, whose business is housed directly next to her husband’s custom fishing rod pop-up, P.C. Rods on Union Street, the learning curve since their October opening has been sharp, laced with late hours, hard work and the support of the Milton community.

“The good discoveries is how much support there is in a small town,” said Conroy. “Everybody’s willing to lend a hand and I’ve met a whole lot of new people.”

Still, Conroy, who worked as a bartender with her husband before starting their businesses, said the work is all consuming, but worth it.

“You don’t clock out and go home, you close out and then go home and go to sleep,” said Conroy, who said she tries to work closely with customers and satisfy their specialty gift requests. She and her husband, Pat, have each signed a 15-month lease at their locations. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

Neither does Hillary Reid. As the owner of Nest Spa & Skin Care Boutique in Milton, Reid had worked in a small business in Milford. But as owner of her own shop, she admits to a few challenges, including mastering a new computer system and program.

Reid employs a massage therapist and skin and nail care subcontractors, and said her enthusiasm for the business compensates for long hours.

“I think because I absolutely love what I do it doesn’t feel like I’m going to work.”

Diane Laird, DEDO
Diane Laird, DEDO

Reid said word-of-mouth has driving her marketing, but she would like to ramp up that part of her business. With marketing such a crucial component, several Pop-Up businesses have already reached out to neighbors to create events or special promotions.

Conroy said business was brisk leading up to Christmas, but the winter months haven’t seen nearly as much traffic — something they expected. To save money, Conroy taught herself how to build a website and an extensive email list, and held her first wine tasting last month, though the store does not sell wine.

“It was great because it made people aware of the wine store in Milton and it brought people into our store,” said Conroy. “We’re trying to get people out tasting and socializing,” she said.

Jason Aviles, owner of Flyogi in Wilmington, has also created other outlets for his yoga business – flexibility he says is key for a pop-up business to succeed.

“The ability to make this situation work for you is how well you can learn, adapt, and work on your feet,” said Aviles. “It’s always changing. The question is, ‘How can you be creative?’”

Aviles will partner with Howard High School for four weeks to offer a holistic education program, and he’s taking yoga to Delaware Tech’s Stanton campus.

Ositadinma Ofuani, owner of FitBody Personal Training in Wilmington, will move from his current Ninth Street space to a larger space on Market Street. It’s a calculated move that marks the end his three-month pop-up start and a strategic decision to move to a space that’s larger and more functional.

“As far as taking a look at the revenue and overhead, I had to figure out what would be the best for allowing my business to grow,” said Ofuani, who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria nearly 20 years ago. He said his revenue has doubled since he opened under the pop-up program. He praised the marketing and business support he received from the program with giving him the tools to take the next step.

But he said he wishes he had saved more money for the business.

“I didn’t plan for the cost, especially the cost of marketing,” he said. “But this has always been my passion.”

Conroy said she was ready for the pressure of being a small business owner. “I always take jobs that I’ve had in the past very seriously,” she said. “I give it my all.” ♦

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