Tag Archives: Storefront

Of Start Ups and Pop Ups

8 May

Pop-ups such as Community Phone fill a void where view could be long-empty storefronts

 

John LaGue, with business partner James Graham, has moved Community Phone, a small phone service provider, into pop-up space in Harvard Square: a former Starbucks on Church Street. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone, a small phone service provider, has been in pop-up digs in the heart of Harvard Square for three months now, and may be out on the street by midsummer. That might be nerve-racking for proprietors with tightly focused strategic plans and warehoused inventory; the youthful founders of this startup aren’t worried at all. They’re month to month in the old Starbucks coffee shop on Church Street and, like the low-cost cellular plans they offer and tailor to customers’ needs, are adaptable, lean and flexible.

The company, incorporated more than a year ago by James Graham and John LaGue, 20-something Wisconsinites, began hawking its product on the street, but with help from the Harvard Business Square Association and executive director Denise Jillson, reached an agreement with 31 Church St. landlord Janet Cahaly. She had her own motivation: not having a storefront vacant for a long time before finding a longer-term commercial tenant that would pay market rates.“Landlords really do want to do the right thing,” Jillson said.

The Starbucks closed in November, while the Cambridge Artists Cooperative down the street announced in April it can no longer afford to stay in Harvard Square and will be gone by June 30. A basement-level Fire + Ice restaurant that closed in September 2016 has yet to be filled – though its signs are still up. The clothing store LF closed on Church Street, telling The Harvard Crimson that “Harvard Square is not a shopping destination anymore,” while keeping a Newbury Street location in Boston.

Community Phone, whose customers have an average age around 58, has installed a rotary phone to help test customers’ mobile phones. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone buys service wholesale from cellular networks such as AT&T and Sprint and passes savings on to end users. What’s special is the customer service, LaGue said. “There’s no waiting on a phone or in a long in-store queue. You just walk in and talk to one of us,” he said, literally helping an octogenarian with a cane enter to ask a question. “Plus it’s 100 percent hassle free. You don’t have to do anything – we take care of moving your plan and setting you up.”

The space is inviting, spartan yet cozy, with crate-like barriers and a café ambiance. Up front, a giant stuffed bear – nearly twice the size of an adult – greets customers, and old Starbucks Christmas decorations still frame the large window pane. The store keeps a classic rotary-dial phone (operating off the cellular network) on hand to dial the mobiles they set up, a way to test a plan and phone activations.

Community Phone’s primary aim is to make cellphone use affordable and simple. “Many of our customers are people over 55 who aren’t tech savvy,” and the average customer age is around 58, LaGue said. The other side of the customer base, now a few hundred thousand people, is small businesses and students who aren’t on family plans. The company offers flip phones in the $20 range, but also iPhones and other high-end smartphones with plans as low as $15 for unlimited calls and texting.

The real killer is data costs; LaGue cited an example of couple with a $240 monthly cellular bill. “They had a big data plan but hardly used much of it.” By dialing back the data plan and creating a family account, LaGue was able to cut their costs to less than $40 monthly. There are no contracts with Community Phone – like the company’s housing arrangement, it’s all month to month – and should it disappear tomorrow, the network providers would take over the service and accounts, though costs would likely increase by a small percent.

The company is looking to expand and offer new products, which likely means getting venture funding, LaGue said. For now, it remains on Church Street. “We are actively looking for a new location in Harvard Square, Somerville or possibly Back Bay. We are still trying to find the best way to help the most amount of people, and have several exciting partnerships in the works. No matter what, we’ll be available 24/7 over the phone and online as we always have been for our members in over 30 other states,” he said. Continue reading