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We’ve Got Pop-Up Stores; How about Pop-Up HQ’s? December 15, 2010

Posted by Bob Cook in Corporate HQ, Financial Planning & Analysis.

T’is the season for pop-up’s. 

They’re everywhere.  Retailers have figured it out.  If you do most of your business at only certain times of the year … Christmas, Back-to-School, Summer Vacation … then why rent space all the other times?  There’s a lesson here for corporate headquarters.

The Pop Up Phenomenon

In early fall, Halloween stores appeared.   The chain of “Spirit Halloween” stores, for example, opened nearly 900 pop-up’s around Labor Day and kept them open through Halloween.   Then in November, Christmas gift stores began popping up.  Many examples here, but perhaps the most notable: Toys-R-Us opened over 600 “Express” stores this season and resurrected the “FAO Schwartz” name in the form of 10 pop-up’s in tony locations to serve the top (or you might say “over-the-top”) of the toy-buying  market.

Trendwatching.com takes credit for coining the term “pop up store” back in 2004.  As the examples on its website shows, the phenomenon isn’t just for Halloween and Christmas.  Pop-up’s pop up year-round.   They sell the gamut of merchandise … from designer clothes to gourmet food to cat snacks … and they’re run by all types of retailers … from small-time, one-timers like the Meow Mix Company … to big-time, part-timers like MTV … to big-time, full-timers like Target and JC Penny.  Pop up’s aren’t just for mom-and-pop’s anymore.

And they might not just be for retailers, anymore, either.

Entropy and the Corporate Headquarters

It used to be that all the folks “at headquarters” were, in fact, physically, at headquarters.   Not anymore.  In this day of specialization, getting the right person for a high-level position often requires ignoring geography.  If the best CFO-candidate is in Houston and he won’t move to headquarters in Atlanta, then give him a cell phone and VPN-access, and he’s good to go.  The same goes for middle-level managers and individual contributors where the competition for talent is strong.  As for the lower-end of the corporate hierarchy, those headquarters functions are more-and-more outsourced, off-shored, or near-shored.   When an employee calls “headquarters” to find out why his travel expense hasn’t been approved or what his HR benefits are or how he should connect his computer to the company’s main servers, those calls rarely go to anyplace one might think of as headquarters.   In fact, in the modern corporation, it’s often difficult to identify where headquarters is.  There’s no “there” there anymore.  “Headquarters” no longer has a physical connotation.

Where’s the center?

Yet, many think there is a need for some sort of center. … a place that symbolizes and embodies the company’s values, it’s soul.   If we’ve learned anything about corporate management over the last few decades, it’s that culture is important.  Read Good to Great.

For many companies, the center is now the company’s intranet.   That can work pretty well.  If you’re an employee, the homepage lets you know what’s happening around the company.  Video-on-demand lets you actually see the CEO talk about things he thinks are important.  And the use of social media … including that old-fashioned thing called “email” … allows employees at all levels engage in “water cooler” conversation, virtually.   This leads some to observe that the importance of physical place is dead.  But is it?

Different companies with different cultures answer this differently.   For some, a traditional corporate headquarters with “all hands on deck” might make sense.  For others, a totally virtual headquarters might be better.  For most, though, something in-between works.  But there’s a lot of terrain between the two extremes, a lot of room for different headquarters models and hybrids.

Why not a  Pop-UP HQ?

Consider a company that has headquarters personnel widely distributed  … perhaps globally.   It might have an address where some of the executive management and headquarters staff have offices, but it does not have anything like the traditional headquarters with most headquarters folks under one roof.  Company management feels a need for more face-to-face interaction across the headquarters staff.  Solution:  No need to lease a big corporate headquarters building; instead, have a pop-up headquarters a few times per year.

Now, many companies are already doing something similar.  Many have an “annual meeting” that takes place in a location like Las Vegas, where there’s an emphasis on building relationships via having fun.   It’s usually two or three days with a few convocations, maybe some training sessions, and a lot of golf and partying.

I’m talking, though, about something else.   I’m talking about creating a place, albeit temporary, that functions like a headquarters.  You don’t party at headquarters, and you wouldn’t at a Pop-Up HQ.  What happens at the Pop-Up HQ wouldn’t “stay there”.  What happens there … the sharing of stories, ambitions, insights, ideas … would build a culture that attendees would take back with them.

And the time at the Pop-Up HQ would not be structured around big presentations, training sessions, and the like.  That stuff can happen better on the intranet.  That’s not what happens at a headquarters.  Instead, attendees would meet with one another in groups of their own choosing.  Need to talk to the CIO?  This is your chance.  Need to know the real skinny on how a project is doing overseas, talk to the director in charge.   Need an impromptu meeting because of an issue that arose during a planning session earllier in the day, now’s the time to get all the folks together.

And the Pop-Up HQ would have to last a lot longer than a few days … and be more frequent than once-per-year.    You’d need at least a week; two would be better.  People need time to meet and then set up meetings based on the outcomes of those meetings.  As for frequency, quarterly feels about right.

Cost?  Certainly no more than renting and maintaining a headquarters building to house people who are rarely there.  Where?  Hotels, convention centers, and … if the phenomenon took root … empty (perhaps former traditional headquarters) office buildings that have been repurposed to serve as Pop-Up HQ’s.

Farfetched?  Maybe.   But two decades ago, the idea of loads of headquarters workers not being at headquarters would have seemed farfetched, too.



1. Larry Matarazzi - December 15, 2010

Bob, This is a great idea!

2. Laurent Dhollande - December 15, 2010

Excellent article Bob!

If you ever need an actual case study of a pop up HQ in action, come join one of our corporate meetings any time. CEO is based in Palo Alto. COO is based in Walnut Creek, CA. Corp Development EVP based in Sacramento, like our CMO but they are in buildings 10 miles apart. Our head of Finance is in San Mateo, CA. Our Head of Facilities is in San Diego. And I can go on and on.

The executive team physically meets once a month in alternative locations. In part to give a chance for “town hall” discussions with the company folks located in that particular area. We also have quarterly meetings where we bring the whole management team and supporting cast, typically also on a pop-up basis, here and there.

The rest of the corporate interaction is quasi entirely virtual. And it works well for us!

Now we are only a $10 million company with just 50 people spread in 14 locations… but there is absolutely no reason why this model cannot scale to the $billions and tens of thousands of people
we believe we will keep the same virtual HQ organization as we go to 5,000 people and beyond.

I hope to show it to you in a few years. As “Cloud Officing Corp” we, of course, better live what we preach!

3. Richard L. Podos - December 15, 2010

Interesting, in a sort of science fiction kind of way.

1) This has been discussed for at least 25 years.

2) Re-read “Good to Great”… how many of those companies would have developed culture over an intranet?

3) Ask Google what they think, being a logical company for what you contemplate (the most logical?)… it has been the most interesting “workplace” discussion for the last two years.


4. John Bretthauer - December 15, 2010

I like this insight! Now I learned many lessons here on corporate headqaurters and others. But how about Enthropy? I’m gonna bookmark this page to my site.. I suggest you make another post especially about San Jose because your good in posting.

5. Joel Binstok - December 16, 2010

I think this is concept that has legs to it and is probably already a reality for how some companies function- good reading. thaks

6. John Lind - December 17, 2010

Imagine the boom to the hospitality industry if 10% of corporations that now hold one off-site AGM closed their headquarters and had six meetings a year.

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