Rage Against The Machine - Boston's War on Mobile Retail and the Renegades Who are Fighting Back

Tuesday May 29, 2012 by Jesse Waites - Plate Techtonics: When Unstoppable Forces Meet Immovable Objects

I remember the first time I heard about the Green Street Vault. I was hanging out with my buddy Chris Yim and I asked him what all of the noise was. Chris is a venture capitalist who lives on Newbury Street and we were walking towards the Common for some afternoon Frisbee.

"That's Green Street.", he says. "These guys play rap music and sell shirts out of this converted U-Haul truck. They use Twitter and Facebook to tell their fans and friends where they'll be and people show up. It's in-person flash sales through social media, basically."

We walked past the mysterious truck playing Jay-Z and went on our way.

Meanwhile, I was actually impressed with this for multiple reasons and couldn't get it out of my mind. First of all, I had never heard of such a thing. I've grown an appreciation for what modular technology and businesses have become in what seems like months, and this was a perfect example. These guys didn't invent Twitter and they didn't invent Square, a device that plugs into a smartphone and allows you to run credit cards on the go, but they were the first people that I noticed, to hook these previously unconnected services together to create something new. It's a simultaneously simple, elegant, cool, and yet obvious business model that hadn't been done before. Second of all, I really like Jay-Z. I had to meet these guys.

Following the local news over the next few weeks, I heard that brick-and-mortar businesses had begun calling the police whenever they spot the big green truck. Green Street held a "Hawkers and Peddlers" license, but have been told that this form of license is not appropriate for their operation. The permit they need doesn't actually exist yet.

The only permits that currently exist are for vendors selling roasted nuts and sunglasses.  Some brick-and-mortar businesses are afraid that mobile retailers like the Fashion Truck and Green Street could be stealing their customers.

I reached out to Green Street through Twitter and connected with Derrick Cheung, one of the co-founders. He invited me to attend a meeting with the handful of other mobile retailers to discuss the problems they've been having with the city.  I met Derrick at their temporary popup shop on Newbury St.  After grabbing tea at Wired Puppy, we walked down Dartmouth Street towards SOWA for the meeting. Derrick is a young guy with cool hair, tattoos, and a confident walking style that belies his young age. Swagger. And when he talks, it takes you only a moment to realize he completely understands business, his goals, and the future of commerce. He knows what he is talking about and can be articulate about it when he waxes poetic about business.

"I was educated in this city", the Emerson graduate says. "Everybody keeps talking about this "Brain Drain" going on around here, with people getting their education in Boston and heading elsewhere. I'm trying to show love to this city. I'm trying to employ people in this city. I'm trying to pay taxes in this city." Derrick is referring to the depressing fact that in 2008 the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reported that half of college students leave the Boston area after graduation, and that New England had the greatest rate of outflow of recent college graduates of any US region. Things haven't gotten any better either. Wasn't a little startup called TheFacebook started here and is now located in California?

Derrick and I hit the SOWA where I met a few other mobile retailers, including Emily Benson. Emily started the Fashion Truck in 2008 after being inspired by the mobile food truck revolution in New York City, she brought her mobile boutique to Boston. "Some of these retailers love me," she says. "I get emails from brick-and-mortar businesses all of the time asking me to park on their property. I can go to the right building, send a few emails, post to twitter and have 30 girls come out to buy stuff," she tells me.

Fighting Back

Emily, Derrick, and a few other mobile retailers get right to business and discuss their strategy. "Intellectually, I understand the city's position," Derrick says. "Mobile retail was basically invented here and there is a lot of pressure on the city to get it right. People all over the country will start doing this and people will look to Boston to see how they regulate it. However, they need to move faster or it will kill our businesses." Emily goes over a list of potential parking spaces to present to the city in an effort to show that they are interested in being partners with them in creating a solution.  Mahlon Williams of Boston Sports Apparel Company, a truck that sells sports related shirts at ballgames, says "Don't sleep on Dorchester, now.  Dorchester has money." I made a mental note to adopt that rather inventive turn of phrase and the other mobile retailers confirm his statement. "I've made a bit of money in Dorchester myself," someone says. They complete their list and divide up tasks amongst themselves and end the meeting. Mahlon says to Derrick, "I was so happy when you guys appeared on the scene. I've been fighting the city about this for years and now I've finally got others shaking the same tree."

Derrick and I walk back through the South End and head through the Back Bay.  I couldn't help but notice a few boarded up stores that we passed along the way, and I felt hopeful that Green Street and the others won't meet the same fate. These guys were ambitious and creative enough to invent a new retail model and I certainly think that working with this group of smart young men and women would be a great way for Boston and Mayor Menino to show him commitment to Boston innovation. After all, he just broke ground on the Boston Innovation Center. The center supposedly will be "a hub for entrepreneurs to meet and exchange ideas, to convene programs and events, and to build the City’s innovation economy." I imagine there were no problems getting the proper permits.

 

Jesse Waites is an animal lover, writer, technology activist, Founder and CEO of PNTHR.com, and is on the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovation Series Planning Committee.  You can usually find him walking his dog Finn in and around Boston or reading physical novels made out of actual paper in locally owned coffeeshops.  He can be reached @JesseWaites on Twitter.

 

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