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Why pop-ups and markets are great for your online business

(Photo credit: Jessica Wittman)

Artist Heather Buchanan’s website has a whole section called “Bad Puns”, where you’ll find original illustrations playing with pop culture icons adorable anthropomorphic food and some prints and greeting cards that are strictly not safe for work. For example, her print “Tina Fey’k it ‘til you make it,” is a dead-on portrait of the comedy queen, and “Choy to the world!” shouts a tiny, smiling bok choy plant.

Work like hers is artistically beautiful, but also irreverent and funny — some of her items will make you laugh out loud.

But Buchanan doesn’t often get to see the smiles of her many customers because, like so many self-employed people, she works from home and sells her wares primarily online. The exception is when she packs up her things and sets up shop at pop-up events and markets.

“I think [pop-ups are] sort of what started making me think I could do this full time,” said Buchanan. “It’s the bridge between having the raw skills and making a career out of it.”

Events like craft shows or markets are an opportunity for artists, artisans and small business owners — who are used to working out of their home offices, garages or kitchen tables — to take the “e” out of “e-commerce” and interact with their customers in real life.

“It’s how I earn a lot of my income every year,” said Buchanan. “It’s a huge thing in my life.”

There are many benefits to getting out from behind a screen that affect the way digital shop owners make their products. Real-time feedback from customers — and sometimes more importantly, those who pass on your products — can shape the direction of what you make faster than waiting for your monthly analytics to roll in. Pop-up events are also a great place to test new, experimental products to see if there’s any traction before mass producing.

Buchanan says the benefits to this modern version of bricks-and-mortar are also mental. “It’s a boost when you see people actually enjoying your work and you can see the sincere look on their faces. It makes me think I’m doing the right thing.”

That’s the feeling Angel Guerra and Angela Dione try to foster at every Market Collective event. Market Collective is a Calgary-based artist market that runs eight times per year.

An aerial shot of people waiting in line for a beverage.

(Photo credit: Mike Tan)

Guerra and Dione founded the event in 2008 when they noticed there wasn’t a space in the city for artists to gather and form a community while also making money. Market Collective vendors keep 100 per cent of the profits they make, where some local stores take up to 50 per cent commission to sell an artist or artisan’s work, says Guerra.

The sense of community was Guerra’s main focus upon co-founding the event. Running Market Collective is her full-time job, so she knows the stresses of the small business owner and how isolating it can be for some.

“It’s important to work with people who are doing the same thing and have the same drive and passion for the city,” said Guerra. “Being surrounded by like-minded people is always comforting.”

It’s not just about business-client relationships; vendor-to-vendor interactions are just as important.

“The small interactions that happen among people build a community of strength,” says Dione.

And while the two started the event using only $50 almost a decade ago, it’s grown into an integral hub of Calgary’s arts scene.

“Calgary really needed viable reasons to keep the creatives here, which is always great for a city because it keeps it viable and colourful,” said Guerra.

Buchanan has sold her work at Market Collective for over five years now and considers it a huge boon to her career as an artist.

“I feel a lot of gratitude for them and what they’ve done because I don’t know if I could have made a career as an artist full time without them.”

For her, it’s as much about making those connections with other independent vendors as it is about the financial security the market brings.

“We’ve all chosen this crazy life of long periods of isolation and then intense bursts of selling at markets. There’s a sense of community around that because all these people just get it. Everyone there is so in love with what they do.”

And when a customer picks up one of her pieces and cracks a smile, it makes the extra effort all worth it.

“One of the biggest payoffs of making work that’s kind of intended to make people laugh is getting to see that payoff,” said Buchanan. “It feels so good. It’s kind of what I live for.”