SL 48: Melissa Gonzalez, The Lionesque Group

The Pop Up Paradigm.

Welcome to the Supreme Leadership podcast where we interview business leaders every entrepreneur should follow. I’m Alinka Rutkowska, CEO of Leaders Press and today I’m excited because we’re taking to Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of The Lionesque Group.

Melissa explains how a pop-up (a short term retail experience) is an opportunity for brands and retailers to make a human connection with consumers.


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Alinka:                     Melissa, welcome to the Supreme Leadership podcast.

Melissa:                  Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Alinka:                     Very exited to have you here. I am looking at your book, The Pop Up Paradigm, and my first question is, what is a pop-up?

Melissa:                  Sure. A pop-up is a short term retail experience, it's an opportunity for brands and retailers to make a human connection with consumers and their customers.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative), and you're an expert of that. You've created hundreds of those, correct?

Melissa:                  Yeah, I think, we've lost count a little bit, our last count, last year, was like 150, but we have been doing it a while. I did my first pop-up with a brand September 2009, so we're all most at a decade here, and so we definitely have vast experience in pop-up retail.

Alinka:                     So, about one a month?

Melissa:                  One a month, but there's definitely quarters where we do multiple a month, so, yeah, and it's been very diverse over the years. In the beginning, we did it with a lot of emerging brands, Shopify was just becoming a thing, so many of them didn't have e-commerce, and now you're really seeing it becoming kind of a mainstream opportunity for brands and retailers. And so, we've done it for a decade across sectors, working with apparel and accessories, but also working with mattresses and luggage, and cheese. And so, yeah, it's been a very exiting time.

Alinka:                     What's your signature story? Your favorite experience?

Melissa:                  Oh, you know, people always ask that, I have favorites for very different reasons. We recently did one, at the end of the last quarter of last year, that was interesting to me because it was a little bit different for us and there wasn't necessarily a retail component. But, we did a pop-up dinner with Amazon Prime Video to gain awareness around the season two premier of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel show, and we did it by creating a 1950s version of the very iconic Carnegie Deli that used to exist in New York City. And so, that was just a really fun activation from the creative side, and creating an authentic environment, and really immersing people in story telling.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, can you give us some more detail? How does the business change when you come in?

Melissa:                  What do you mean? How does the business-

Alinka:                     For the company that works with you.

Melissa:                  So, how do we work with? So, well, the first thing we do is we dive into what are they looking to achieve? Who's their customer? What is their journey like today? What's the story we're telling in the space? What's the right location to do that? What's the footprint we need, to do that? So, we really dive into an ideation phase before anything, and some have more figured out than others when they approach us, but that's really how it starts. We try to understand as much as we can and do a deep dive with them, and then create a program on top of that.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, so this is quite a unique field, where you basically become the mayor of this corner of the universe, right? You're the person to go to. So, my question is how did you get to where you are? And how have mentors helped you on the way?

Melissa:                  Sure, yeah. So, it's definitely been a journey, and we've taken our twists and turns over the 10 years, and evolving as retail has evolved, and I didn't leave Wall Street saying, "I want to do pop-ups." I left Wall Street saying I wanted to do something more creative. I think Wall Street has giving me a solid foundation in having a business acumen, and also working on a trading desk, like you're problem solving, you're matching markets, or digesting information as quickly as possible all the time. So, that's definitely given me a good foundation, but, and I also had an affinity to retail stocks and technology stocks, which is really relevant in what I do today. 

                                    In understanding what makes a company work, and what moves the needle for them, and what becomes a challenge for them, and what hits their margins, and things like that. So, I think that's given me a unique perspective and really created a creative team around me, although I am creative, I also did produce indie films and host a TV show while I was working on Wall Street. But, really bringing in a design team, and project managers that understand retail. And so, it's been kind of marrying the two, and over the 10 years just making sure that I'm learning as much as I can, and we're staying nimble, and we're adjusting as the world is, and I think over the past five years it's happened at such a rapid growth rate. 

                                    So, working really hard to making sure we're understanding technology, and understanding how that technology is shaping consumers, and expectations and needs, and how retailers have to really listen to that and be mindful of that, and keep that in mind when designing and masterminding and in-store experience. So, it's like, we have to make sure, I make sure I take my pauses to read and to go to trade shows, and to go to conferences, and making sure that I'm always learning as much as I can to be at the forefront of the conversation so we can bring that to our clients. But, it's definitely been a learning curve over the past ten years, too. I'm always working on, how do I scale the company? And how do we have the right team in place to provide the resources that we need to our clients? And what are those needs? 

                                    And, we really have three buckets of clients. It's the fast growing digital natives, and for the most part they don't have in-house store teams because that's not what they're born on. They're digital natives, and they know e-commerce really well, so we really serve as an adjunct retail department to them, that currently doesn't exist. When we work with our second bucket, which are those mass brands that may have had stores but are looking to rethink physical, or elevate the physical experience, it's a different kind of conversation. We're working very closely with an existing store team, and so we have to be as synergistic with them as possible, in helping with some of those pain points. 

                                    And then, the third bucket is real estate, and that's been a very interesting change over these ten years. When we first started, we would be hitting the phones and begging landlords and real estate developers to allow us to do short-term retail, and now it's become table stakes for many of them, understanding they have to have platforms for it. So, we are now serving as advisors to many of those developers, and thinking, what's the right footprint to short-term retail? What does it mean to create a turnkey program? What should they invest in? How do they think of [inaudible 00:07:12]? How do they attract brands? So, yeah, it's been a very interesting evolution over the ten years.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). You mentioned that you go to conferences and events, can you recommend some to our listeners?

Melissa:                  I mean, I think Shoptalk is a great conference, they've really become the conference to go to for thought leadership very quickly, so Shoptalk is always on my list. Definitely go with a game plan, because it's a robust conference where you can do a lot in the few days you're there. If you're looking at retail tech, I still like NRF in January. RetailX, which has now combined GlobalShop, Retail TouchPoints, and RFID Journal, and IRCE all at the same time, in Chicago in June, so that's a big one. And, I also think it's important to think worldly. There's a lot of innovation that's happening in the retail world outside of the U.S., so I'll be going to the World Retail Summit in May. And, I think, finding an opportunity at least once a year to do something a little bit more global, so you can see what's happening in other parts of the world, is really insightful.

Alinka:                     Absolutely. You also mentioned that you like to read books. What type of books would you recommend to our listeners? Especially books that could help them in their careers.

Melissa:                  Sure. It's a mixture, I like books, I like magazines, and I like podcasts. So, on the book side, ugh, you catch me off guard here. I have a stack in my office, I might have to think about what they are, but I actually have one that I... Thanks For Showing Up Late is an interesting one that I've read, and it's just kind of, it's an interesting story about how an opportunity came up, yeah, it's called Thanks For Being Late, an opportunity came up because somebody showed up late and it gave this person an opportunity to just sit and think of an idea. 

                                    And, I think the greater message is that we're always running as fast as we can, as founders, to do the next thing, and sometimes we think being busy means being successful, but sometimes it's when you carve out those moments of quiet that the best ideas come out. And so, that's a good one. On the podcast side, in addition to yours, of course, I recommend How I Built This. I mean, How I Built This definitely has a lot of great stories of founders and how they created their paths, and the challenges that they've had, and they definitely have great conversations in that aspect. And then, I'm always kind of keeping up with Forbes and Inc., and, in the retail world, also design:retail magazine, VMSD, Women's Wear Daily, of course, Glossy, Digiday. They're all really helpful publications.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative), that's great Melissa. Well, we talked about events, conferences, books, these are all mentoring devices, but we also learn through mistakes. Are you willing to share any mistakes that you've made on the way to getting where you are?

Melissa:                  Sure, yeah. I mean, there's mistakes and there's just like experiments, right? And so, I think you can think of both. On the experimental side, when I first started the company, I thought we were dealing with emerging brands, and none of them really had proper e-commerce because it was 10 years ago and Shopify wasn't as robust as it is today, and I don't even know if Square existed. And so, my first experiment was I thought I was going to scale by creating an e-commerce marketplace, and did that for about 18 months, and very quickly realized, well, that's not my core competency, and I like to be in front of people. And, physical retail is really what exited me, and e-commerce is a whole other animal. 

                                    So, did a small friends and family round for that, did it, kind of burnt through that cash and then shut the company down. And, in the time of it, you're still emotionally connected to it, and it was so painful for me to say, "this just doesn't work," but sometimes that's the smartest thing you can do. And, understand very quickly if something doesn't work, and it sometimes has nothing to do with you or your skillset, or your ability, it's just like, that wasn't the right fit. And so, I definitely had that, that as a learning, for me, but, on the other side it's made me such a better consultant because in that period of time I learned a lot about e-commerce and those challenges. And, if we're going to create successful store experiences, we need to understand how the online world works. 

                                    Sometimes, I think a mistake is like you just say yes to everything, and I think, in the beginning, it's what you do, and really learning to edit. And, some of that's been helpful by becoming a mom, and it has also picking my time and my bandwidth, and I'm definitely more protective of my time since I've had her. And, well, you do things to be supportive of others, but other times you're like, do I do this, or do I go home and have some family time? Right? And so, that life balance has been a good check for me, but in the beginning I said yes to so many things, and sometimes you do things because they seem to be free, but nothing's free. They might not cost you any dollars, but they cost you time, and time is money, and it can be a distraction. And so, definitely, that, I would say, has been one of my biggest learnings along the way. 

                                    And then, the second has been just being smarter about how I build a team. And, I've had some great team members along the way, in the decade, but being smarter and smarter, as a founder, of understanding, what's the team you need around you? And really identifying your strengths, and, as the company evolves and grows, what are the skillsets you need around you? What complements you? In the beginning, I think I hired a lot of people that did the same thing, right? And so, we weren't as well rounded as we could be, and I, kind of took me a minute to lean back on my learnings from working on a trading desk where it's such an open air environment. It's funny because, in the entrepreneurial world, everybody talks about this open office environment by being so new and innovative, and that's exactly what trading desks were forever. 

                                    So, I came from that world, and, when you're in that open, collaborative environment, you learn so quickly how culture matters. And, I think I didn't pick that up and bring that in-house as quickly as I could have, probably, because culture is everything, and especially when you're a small company. But, that's the only way you have change, that's how you have internal synergy. That's how people thrive off of each other, if it's good cultural fit. And so, understanding that, it's skill set and cultural fit, being so important, and, as we've continued to kind of fine tune that, I've seen changes happen with how we operate as a team.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). These are some incredible pieces of advices Melissa. I really like what you said about, you know, even if it's free, financially it's just, no, it still requires your time, so you have to learn how to say no. And, when you're a mom, you really do have to figure out what's important, right? What matters right now. You don't want to wake up in 15 years and figure out that you missed your child's childhood.

Melissa:                  Right, exactly. Exactly.

Alinka:                     So, I mean, as you speak, you're obviously a mentor yourself, so are you also formally a mentor? Do you help others run their businesses, or do you mentor your team? How does that look like?

Melissa:                  Yeah, sure. I've been a mentor for XRC Labs, which is a retail tech accelerator program, and so, I can't say I'm involved on a daily basis in that aspect, but I have been a mentor, and I find it to be interesting, and they learn from you. Megan Berry, who's the founder of by REVEAL, was a company that I was a mentor to, and they're in the pop-up world but in a different way. They do it by having kind of like a pop-up kiosk, which is interesting. And so, having had the opportunity to work with her, and help her kind of shape her offering based on what I've seen in the market, it was exiting, and I root for her, and when I see her win awards it's, you know, I'm happy I was able to be a sounding board for her.

                                    Sometimes, when you're a founder and a mom, and all this stuff, you only have so much bandwidth, but I try. And, sometimes it's one-off, I just kind of am an advisor to one-off capacity, and we definitely get phone calls through people who are trying to get into this market. Not necessarily in a competitive way to me, but maybe they're trying to figure out how they attack it from a real estate side, or brand side. And, I was an advisor to the founding team of Storefront for two years, and advising them of how you think of markets, and what's the most important thing to focus on for growth. 

                                    And, I was also a mentor, an advisor, for a company called FotoFwd, that's now called M-nd, and they created, a technology company, they were one of the early ones of capturing photos from the [inaudible 00:16:29] for designated hashtags. And, we've integrated them into our pop-ups when we could, when it made sense. So, I guess I have more examples than I thought, but I do try to do it when I can, and I think that's how the world goes round. There's plenty of people who have been kind enough to be a sounding board for me, and take the time and sit with me, and help me think through things. Some more consistently, some on a one-off basis. And so, I think it's important, you know? You give back when you can, when it makes sense.

Alinka:                     Sure, I love it. Melissa, what's the area that most people that you help need mentoring in?

Melissa:                  Well, I think I get two buckets. I get the entrepreneurial side, "I've left my corporate job and I want to build a brand, and how do I do that?" And, I always say, "I don't know that I've been the master of building my own brand. I built a company," but I give a lot of advice of staying focused and creating a filter, and that's advice I received early on that I'm always trying to make sure I revisit. And, creating a filter is so important when you first are starting a business, and by a filter, by establishing that, then you help yourself make better choices.

                                    So, a filter could mean, "as a company and I expand, do I want to expand geographically? Do I want to expand vertically? What is my perfect customer, look like?" Even if it's B2B, or B2C, I think, on the B2C side, people kind of go through that practice, "I'm catering to female shoppers, 25 to 40, and this and that." But, on the B2B side I think sometimes a lot of people forget to do the same thing, and so, what's an ideal customer to you? And, making sure you have the right filter. Sometimes you're going to close a deal because of the dollar amount to it, sometimes you might close a deal because it's strategic, and what does strategic mean? 

                                    And how is that going to help you grow? When you're lucky, you get [inaudible 00:18:29] client that checks both boxes. And then, as you think of growth, do you want to be on the East Coast? Do you want to be national? Do you want to be global? So, I do give a lot of advice on that filtering side because I think it's so important in the beginning. And, be open-minded and flexible to it, and making sure that you're going back maybe every six to 12 months and you're evaluating that filter, but it is really important, and it helps you inform a lot of those decisions that you make as a founder.

Alinka:                     Melissa, if you were to write another book, what would be your key message to entrepreneurs, for them to be able to replicate your success?

Melissa:                  If I were to write a book about being an entrepreneur? Oh, because if I was to write another book, I would definitely write about retail 2030, like where we're going to be in the next [crosstalk 00:19:22]-

Alinka:                     Oh, that's exiting. [crosstalk 00:19:24]-

Melissa:                  So, if I was to write a business book, that's what that would be. But, if I were to write one on the entrepreneurial side, I think, I don't know if I would write so much a 'how to do' book, but I would probably, the first few chapters, share my learnings. And, I think I would also tap and incorporate interviews with some people that I've admired and I've seen grow their businesses successfully, and different scenarios, because I think we're so seduced by growth means we raised money, and that's not always the case. And so, I definitely would want to dive into those different scenarios, of when raising makes sense, when it doesn't. The advantages of growing it on your own. When does a merger make sense? And, really walk through those scenarios because I think that, as founders, that's such a tricky area to really understand.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative), I love it. Retail 2030 is such a great title.

Melissa:                  I know, I better get on it. I actually spoke to my publisher for my first book a couple weeks ago when we were toying with some ideas and thoughts of what a second book could look like. So, we shall see.

Alinka:                     Awesome, I love it Melissa. Well, thank you so much for your insight, you've shared so, so much here, and I think people will extremely benefit from it, and everybody should go ahead and grab your book, The Pop Up Paradigm. And, where else can people go ahead and get more of you?

Melissa:                  Sure. I'm active on social, so LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. My personal handle is @melsStyles, and then @LionesqueGroup, so on either [inaudible 00:21:10]. And, we do have a contact form on our website, which our Head of Strategy actually actively responds to, so either way.

Alinka:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative), love it. Fantastic, Melissa, thank you so much.

Melissa:                  Thank you so much, it was great speaking with you.


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