Melissa Gonzalez is transforming our shopping experience with retail “pop up” experiences that connect brands to consumers in exciting new ways. She shares her transformation from Wall Street executive to entrepreneur and must-listen advice for women wanting to change the game of business.
Melinda Wittstock: Melissa, welcome to Wings.
Melissa Gonzalez: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: I’m excited to have you on. I want to learn all about your business. But first, I’m so intrigued by what made you make that Leap from Wall Street into the realm of start-ups?
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah. You know, I was just a time in my life where I knew that my creative passions were outweighing my desire to work on Wall Street, and be part of the financial world. It was January 2009, my boss was promoting me, and I, in turn, asked him to fire. It was a little shocking for him, he didn’t think that was gonna be my response, but was super supportive. I just, it was a time in my life where I was still single, I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have other responsibilities, really, besides myself and my Jack Russell, so it was like, this is my … I need to explore this now, while I have that flexibility.
So, I didn’t leave knowing I was gonna go into pop-ups. I left knowing I was gonna pursue something more creative. At the time I was also producing indie films, and I was hosting a show called Latin Beat as a DJ, and so I thought I was really gonna be more that path, TV, film, but it was really the calling of, I wanted to be in a more creative environment. So it was kind of a happy accident when I was approached to partner and experiment with the space in midtown Manhattan to produce a pop-up store, and it was this serendipitous opportunity to work with creatives.
Because at the time it was a lot of emerging brands, you were working directly with the designers, and they had this creative vision, but I also had a business background, so it was an opportunity to bring the two skillsets together, and help bring a lot of designers ideas to fruition in a psychical space. So, I, from producing film and working in TV, had worked on sets, and understand storytelling, and them from Wall Street understanding how to make markets and bring it all together. It’s kind of just evolved, and a lot of the skills I learned from Wall Street have become applicable to my new path today.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. I think so many people who do very innovative things in business come from a very cross-disciplinary background. It’s like chocolate, peanut butter, putting it together, either within a person, or within a team, where there’s something really unique because of the way things join together. So, this creativity, but at the same time, as you mentioned, the hardcore business, know how to make markets, all of that, with this artistic, creative background, is wonderful.
So, there you are, you start your first pop-up experience, what made you … So, you had this opportunity to do a pop-up store, and it’s like, “Oh, okay, well how hard could this be?”
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: What was it like, just jumping in like that, were you nervous, or did you just kind of-
Melissa Gonzalez: I wasn’t really, I wasn’t really: I can’t say I was really nervous, I wasn’t putting … My biggest loss would have been time, it was just in a time where I had … When I left Wall Street they were very generous to me, so I had a little bit of a nest egg, but also my biggest cost was time, and I had time, so it was … Like I wasn’t putting a lot of capital into it, so it wasn’t that kind of risk, but it was just, somebody offered space, so I had the opportunity for that, and at the same time a friend had a friend who was launching a wine, so it was just stars aligned timing wise.
We had challenges, for sure, outlets didn’t work, we didn’t know if they’d make sales, she paid me in clothes, not dollars.
Melinda Wittstock: I hope they were good clothes.
Melissa Gonzalez: They were. She makes great clothes. I mean, we still work with her today. But I think it was just, we took the four months as let’s just see what happens, and sometimes when you have more of that mindset I think you’re actually more open, because you’re not developing something in fear of failure, you’re just kind of going, and learning, and iterating, and then seeing what happens a bit. So, I think that was helpful, and after four months of working with a couple of brands, and both having the mindset of let’s see what happens, then we know that there was an interest and demand enough to make a business out of it.
Then by January our partner [inaudible 00:12:09 was really investing and renovating the spaces, so that outlets worked, and lights worked, and there weren’t leaks, or any of those sorts of challenges, and you can actually start charging. Then the mindset shifted a bit more, okay, now how do we make a real business out of that?
Melinda Wittstock: It strikes me that your timing was perfect, though, too. Because with online sales, and the convenience of that, retail needed a new trick, and what better than creating, it’s almost like performance art, it’s experience, it’s sensory, it had to be a differentiated experience, to kind of save retail. Is that how you see it?
Melissa Gonzalez: It’s definitely evolved a lot to that. In the beginning, some of the clients were experiential, especially one that sold tutus and made music videos. But a lot in the beginning were emerging designers, who, they sold online, and a pop-up wasn’t necessarily testing by ability of long-term, or anything like that, it was they could only afford short-term, and it was definitely more effective to them to have four walls, versus just being at a trade show, or a market where they sold their clothes on top of a table. It was an opportunity to create a little bit more of a branded experience, and we helped them think through what some of those design elements would be, and some of the storytelling moments.
All of the brands, we produced a video, a three to five minute video as well, so we could tell the story of the brand, and use that for marketing materials. That’s when social media was just starting to really gain traction, ’09, it wasn’t what it is today, but over the years you started to see the kinds of brands that started calling, just be at a different point in the life cycle, so they weren’t as emerging, they were more like proven concept at scale. They were VC backed, they had some money to put towards creating a real experience. They had an established digital presence so they understood great photography and visuals and storytelling. Our job became more okay, well how do we create the physical manifestation of that digital presence? So, over the years it definitely has shifted and become more and more exciting, what we’re able to do as far as storytelling and experiential. Partly because the brands are even more developed and they have bigger budgets and technology has become a more attainable asset to incorporate into the experiences as well.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. You know, I’ve always felt that the best content is actually connection, is conversation.
Melissa Gonzalez: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Melinda Wittstock: If you can tell that story in a way that crosses platforms, you know, from online on social, through to the actual experience and this nice big feedback loop, that there’s something really … I don’t know. It just has so much traction when done right. It’s seamless. It’s kind of what the consumer wants but so few brands it seems kind of get that. Do you have to educate a lot of your clients or do the people that come to you already kind of know and they’re already bought into this vision?
Melissa Gonzalez: I think it’s becoming more and more universal that brands understand it, but I think certain brands are better at executing it than others. You know, we have a number of brands that have pop-ups, especially longer term that do have a concerted effort in scheduling in-store calendar events, that they are building community and engagement around their brand story. You’re seeing more brands who are using Instagram and Facebook and platforms to do live streaming and build community conversations that way. They’re polling people, you know, on Instagram to get feedback and let people feel that they have a say in product development. You know, a lot of brands it’s really important for brands that they’re creating moments that entice user generated content while in-store and people love … Right? I mean, that’s social currency … Is an intellectual [inaudible 00:16:27. That’s a currency of today that consumers value. So, I think that brands definitely recognize that more and more today than even they did a year ago.
Melinda Wittstock: I want to go back to your expertise on Wall Street where you said making markets, and one of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs that have businesses that are innovative and groundbreaking, perhaps cutting edge, even bleeding edge. You know, whether it’s technology or it’s just a new idea, they have to educate that market place.
Melissa Gonzalez: Oh yeah, for sure.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s like an educative sale. It’s hard, right? It takes time. Was it like that in the beginning? How hard was it for you?
Melissa Gonzalez: You know, I don’t know. It’s like it’s different what we had to educate on. It’s so much more competitive now. Before there was some novelty in it, so in the New York market I guess we’re skewed ’cause I think that people understood it and adopted it so much faster. But then if I traveled to secondary markets or more of the Midwest and stuff, there was a lot of, “What is a pop-up?”
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Melissa Gonzalez: You know, whereas in New York people understood it. There was a learning curve a little on the consumer side of like, “Well, what do you mean they’re not staying? Is it safe to purchase? They’re not going to be here next week.” You know, what does all that mean? But from a brand side I think brands understood right away that the value of it, I think the learning curve is more, “Well, how do I understand ROI around it?” That’s a constant learning curve. I feel like we’re always educating around it because I think there’s definitely been a big shift in how brands also see physical within the ecosystem of all the distribution touch points.
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Melissa Gonzalez: What does physical do for your brand and the whole ecosystem of things? So, that’s become the shift in education now, and educating around KPI’s and how you measure them. Then different customers have different conversions before they get to the main conversion of purchase, and so how do you make sure that your different platforms whether it’s physical or digital or socials or website, how do you think of all those different customer journeys and how do you create moments along those paths and then how do you measure them and how do you make decisions from there? Physical’s an important part of that because no matter what you can do online, there’s some things that you can only do in a physical environment. So, there’s been a lot of education on rethinking how you use physical, how you measure it, how you budget for it and how you calculate ROI from it.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. What a wonderful opportunity though for unparalleled customer service, ’cause there’s an opportunity to make the customer feel really special. So, even if they don’t buy from the pop-up they may buy later online or better yet, they’re going to become a viral influencer for you. Wow, it was amazing. The brand or that designer, they treated me so well.
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah. That’s the saying, right? People will always remember how you made them feel.
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly. So, given that retail has had so many challenges. Do you see this as being one of the main ways to kind of revive retail? You know, I’m thinking of much of the country. You know, the death of the mall and the fact that it’s just so much easier just to buy stuff online or just buy it off your Instagram feed or whatever.
Melissa Gonzalez: Right. Yeah. I mean, the purpose of physical has shifted and there’s no two brands are the same and no two cities are the same. But if you have a brand that has properties across the country, you have to evaluate the portfolio and what’s needed in each city. I mean, the same exact format might not work across the board. Some make sense as more distribution and some might make more sense as shoppable showrooms or experiential destinations. New York and Maryland for example, are two different markets so how you address them would differ. But overall I think before, I saw consumers kind of … There was this, “Oh, cool. There’s a pop-up.” Now there’s an expectation, there’s a pop-up so I’m going to be surprised and delighted if I walk in there.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. Well, I remember when I lived in New York I always knew where all the sample sales were. You know? It was that era of my life. Right? It was almost like Brush Fire, you know? That you would know because you knew somebody and whatever, and it was a completely different environment from other cities. You know, like the driving type cities. Right?
Melissa Gonzalez: Right. Right.
Melinda Wittstock: You know, so you can discover these things in New York as you’re walking everywhere. You know, that kind of thing. It strikes me though, I imagine it must be great market research though too? I’m thinking of a company like Warby Parker and how they grew their retail. You know, ’cause they would do pop-ups and then they’d figure out … Like they’d location test that way.
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a focus group. You know? If you create moments of discovery and ah-ha and things that people want to share because you’ve created these Instagrammable photo backdrops, the more kind of vocal that focus group’s going to be for you. They’re going to post on socials. They’re going to say exactly what they think and feel. You’re going to have a digital footprint of what do they gravitate to in your store? If you have 10 products you’re offering, which two are the most popular? Which two are never touched? Then also, you can integrate technology to track how many people walked in, how many people walked by. What areas of the store do they spend the most time in?
So, it’s a great way to collect a lot of information in a lower risk environment than committing to a long term lease from the get-go, and learning about what works and what doesn’t before you make longer term investments.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, really, really smart. So, you’ve worked with so many amazing brands with such diversity, from Estee Lauder to Intel, The RealReal, Julie Wainwright’s company. I mean, so many of these amazing brands. I don’t want you to pick favorites, because that might be awkward for you, but what are some of the highlights of some of the things that you’ve done that you’re just really, really proud of?
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah, there’s so many for different reasons. One I always bring up in that sense about being proud of is we worked with Penguin Random House to open a bookstore in San Juan, Puerto Rico. So, there’s the connection of I’m Puerto Rican, but also a lot of people didn’t realize that when Borders went bankrupt there was a void in the market because that market, Puerto Rico was actually one of the top two highest grossing markets for Borders for book sales.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh.
Melissa Gonzalez: So, to be able to work with a major publisher like Penguin Random House to partner with a local distributor to create this immersive experience of appreciating the journey that reading could take you on, was really fun but also to see the reaction of the customers and the genuine excitement and joy and appreciation of having access again to such an in depth library of books, it was just really rewarding that we did something that actually was really making a difference for that community. People lined up while we were setting up. They sold hundreds of books the first day. It transitioned from pop-up to permanent. So, that was really exciting to be a part of and just see all that engagement.
It’s always exciting too when we work with brands that go from pop-up to permanent as a whole, ’cause you see that you helped them kind of meet their milestones and their goals and learn and then take the next step to go permanent and then grow from there. So, we’ve been fortunate to work with a number of clients to see that transition happen over the past couple years. The RealReal, I mean, I think they’re so impressive with they’re just such a well oiled machine. They’re just such a group of intelligent people who know exactly … You know, they have a great eye for the products that they curate but also logistically and operationally, and I love that they built out 360 RFID experience so that they can really help with their staffers to have a 360 view of how their customer interacts with them both online and offline. So, that was great.
- Gemi, Madison Reed, The RealReal, all examples of brands that went from pop-up to permanent. So, for us it’s always really rewarding to see that.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, that’s so exciting. So, I want to go back. When you were a little girl, did you know that you were entrepreneurial?
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah. I think maybe. It’s funny being a mom now ’cause I remember those things more, like what did I gravitate to? What was I into? What did that mean? I see hints of it sometimes with my daughter already, but I think so. I had a lot of creative ideas for myself. Most of them I think leaned towards creative in some aspect. For sure.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, ’cause I can imagine you as a little kid, kind of in San Juan or wherever, you know, organizing little pop-up experiences. Pop-up lemonade stands or something.
Melissa Gonzalez: I would do pop-up performances for sure in my living room for my family.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome. I think a lot of the clues to what we become, you know, are how we spend our time when we’re little kids. It’s only really when we look back on it, we think, “Oh yeah, okay. So, this is actually my true purpose and my true passion.”
Melissa Gonzalez: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: I ask that because you’re obviously in the zone where you love what you do. I mean, you can tell from your voice and how you talk about it. I’m going to just take a wager on it that when you were working on Wall Street, you might not have felt that same thing. Am I right?
Melissa Gonzalez: Sure, yeah. I mean there was definitely [waves 00:28:07 where you would … there was times where you love it for sure, but there was something missing, and I think you can only be so creative in that environment, and that was what was missing.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, but it’s always good thought too at the same time to get that nest egg, to be able to launch your business.
Melissa Gonzalez: Absolutely. Both financially and intellectually I guess. I would call it almost like a nest egg, because there’s a skill set and a work ethic that you learn from being on Wall Street and being on a trading desk that’s invaluable. I mean, especially the time period I was there. It was ’99, 2000, 2001, we were at the height of a lot of deal flow and tech IPOs, it was very much an environment, didn’t matter how old you were, you were like given the ball to run with it and it was like if you can run, let’s see what else you can do, and multitasking and taking in that information all the time and you’re on the sales desk, but you also have to see what the research reports are coming in while you’re also digesting any news updates that are coming in and what the trading desk is yelling about and then remembering which on of your clients cared about what, and it’s just like, there’s skills you learn in the environment that you’ll never learn in school or anywhere else.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that’s true; I mean I think my experience, that was similar to that, was working as a television news anchor.
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah, I’m sure.
Melinda Wittstock: There were so many things going on and so many things to remember. It’s curious that women, I think, are very good at doing that. Actually holding a lot of different things at the same time, juggling those things, and still like, “Oh yeah, and honey your socks are over there.” And still knowing that.
Melissa Gonzalez: Right, right.
Melinda Wittstock: But to be able to do that in real time, in that kind of high pressure environment, which is something I share with you and for a while I was a business correspondent, so I used to hand around a lot of traders, sort of Wall Street, and also in the city of London, ’cause I was in London for a while, and it’s an interesting thing that your brain can operate on that level and then, is that a harmonica in the background?
Melissa Gonzalez: No, all of that is because I told you mother nature’s gonna be part of this and then tech, but we all just got flood alerts on all of our phones at the same time.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh my goodness, okay, that’s what’s happening. Well I hope you’re safe.
Melissa Gonzalez: We are, it’s fine. We’re five stories up.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh okay. Okay good. So, yeah, and I was the crazy rain storms on the east coast recently. But yeah, just the ability to be able to multitask, how much of that has, that particular quality that you learned on Wall Street informed what you’re doing now?
Melissa Gonzalez: I mean, from a production standpoint, it’s invaluable. There’s so many things, especially when you’re dealing with the popup and everyday counts kind of timeline. When you sign a long-term lease, there’s a little bit of contingency plan in there, and we might open a little late or this might happen, that might happen, when it’s a popup, it’s like we have X amount of days, every single hour counts, and then also a lot of brands, when they approach planning popups, also have a little bit of a last minute decision mentality. So we have to juggle all the time of being ready for the unknown and how are we gonna handle it as quickly as possible and how are we going to work all that magic behind the scenes and make it seem as seamless as possible to our clients, and make sure everything happens on time and within budget, and whenever you’re in a production mode and your background in TV, I’m sure you can appreciate, production is real time unpredictability. So you really have to be able to have a mindset of rolling with the punches a we joke in the office when Scandal was the big show, like we’re gonna Olivia Pope it, and we’re just gonna work it out and make it all come together.
So kind being able to know that, and there’s multiple things happening at the same and I run the show all the time. So being able to have your head around all those moving parts and you have to deal with them and the more organized you are, as possible, the better you’re gonna be able to do it and we as a team are always like building out our vendor database and making sure, I mean, it runs the gamut what’s in our vendor database. Everything from fabrication designers to plumbers to electricians to exterminators. So that’s part of our job too, and I think with production, those moments definitely come up a little bit more than say design and strategy, ’cause it’s just different parts of the process that we’re involved in, but having that mindset, and then just being an entrepreneurial mom, you just kind of have to have that skill set.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh my goodness yes, that’s so true. So a lot of women become entrepreneurs a little bit later in life, and often it does coincide with having young children. [inaudible 00:33:25, I don’t know, when I look back on it now, I launched a business when my daughter was six weeks old.
Melissa Gonzalez: Wow.
Melinda Wittstock: That was a little crazy. I don’t know if I would have done it that way, it just so happened that it just worked out that way, but I think being mom, I don’t know I’m curious your perspective on this, being a mom make you better in business and being in business make you a better mom? Is there a correlation?
Melissa Gonzalez: I once heard somebody say that they, I mean, they would hire a mom hands down, because they know that they’re going to have to be efficient.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh yeah.
Melissa Gonzalez: Right? You just kind of, like the more that’s the thrown out, you just kind work it out. I think on average it just teaches you how to prioritize time and be efficient about it and I think that regardless what business you’re in that’s a valuable skill set to have.
Melinda Wittstock: And so as a women, both wearing the hat of being a woman on Wall Street, but also a woman with a startup and a growing business and growing and scaling that business, what have been some of the challenges that you think are uniquely related to women, and women only? That you perhaps have struggled with or had to overcome? Do you have any kind of feelings about that?
Melissa Gonzalez: Sure, I mean, I think as a mom you have different levels of guilt I think, you know? If you’re not home as much for your children. I just think that that’s like on average. That’s not how it’s always been right? So I think there’s kind of of allowing yourself to not feel guilty about that. I do think it’s newer, that it’s become more collaborative, women as a group, versus competitive. So it’s great to see that that still happens, but I think it could be even more.
Melinda Wittstock: I agree, I think it’s changing a lot, but I mean the whole reason I started Wings is I really wanted to create a ecosystem where women invest in each other and throw business to each other and like lift each other up, hence Wings.
Melissa Gonzalez: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: Because I think as we progress and there’s just more of a sense of abundance around us. I mean there’s less of a … it used to be coming up, I’m old enough to remember those times when it felt like there was limited oxygen at the top and there could only be a handful of women, right? So women were there for competing with other women rather than just competing generally.
Melissa Gonzalez: Right, right.
Melinda Wittstock: And I think that’s changing. I want to believe it’s changing, but I also want to really accelerate that.
Melissa Gonzalez: Yes, I agree, me too. I think so, because if it could, that can happen, I do that there … you kind of understand each other a little differently, right? So then like men and women do, so if we could have more of that comradely, I think it would be helpful.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. Oh my goodness, I really enjoyed talking with you, and so what’s next for you? What’s the big vision? Where do you see your company going from here?
Melissa Gonzalez: Well, we have been working more on expanding our network. This year we’ve seen a lot of demand outside of the New York market. We’ve always seen bits and pieces of it, but even more so this year. Everything from the west coast to outside of the country, like Canada. So that’s exciting, and I think from figuring out, okay if we’re going to expand geographically, what do you need in house, and then how to you create the right strategic partners? Perhaps for execution and the such. So our head of strategy’s been working closely on that with me, and so we’re excited to see how that continues to flesh out.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh that’s wonderful. So tell me a little bit about your book and how people can find it, and also if anybody is listening to this podcast, who has an idea for a popup, how can they find you and work with you?
Melissa Gonzalez: Yeah, so it’s called the Popup Paradigm. You can find it on our site, but it’s also on Amazon. You can get it as Kindle or paperback, and if they want to, they can also find out more information lionesquegroup.com we have a portfolio section so you can see our past work. You can see more on, we work both with brands and with real estate developers, so that’s also been great and we can help real estate developers better think about how they offer [inaudible 00:38:19 brands, because we understand what brands needs are and how those continue to evolve today, and then on socials we’re pretty active. On Instagram, we share a lot of inspirational imagery of what’s possible and in a physical space. And we also do Tuesday talks on Insta-live. So if you follow Instagram, you’ll see announcements with that and that’s where we have conversations with people who are either leaders in technology or point of sales systems or staffing and we have very open conversations and audiences can chime in with their live questions and we’ll answer them.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, that’s wonderful. That’s great. Well, I am so inspired by all that you’re doing and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. Any big kind of popups that we should be aware of in the next couple of months, and anyone traveling through New York or any other major city can go check out?
Melissa Gonzalez: Yes! We do have a number of exciting ones, but they haven’t been announced by our clients yet, so we can’t announce them, but if you follow our newsletter, or Instagram, we will definitely be putting up some teasers once we’re allowed, but we have some exciting stuff coming up.
Melinda Wittstock: Fantastic, well Melissa, thank you so much for putting on your Wings and flying with us today.
Melissa Gonzalez: Thank you, it was great speaking with you.