This Civic Start-Up Revives Empty Storefronts

What do you do before (or after) you’ve crowd-sourced? How about crowd-servicing? That’s where Eric Ho and miLES come in. The socially-minded New Yorker and architect founded the “civic start-up” to help rethink the traditional storefront business model and benefit the local community in the process. From his small base in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he’s driving an urban economic movement and making global waves.

Together with a network of like-minded local artisans, entrepreneurs and the support of the digital innovation community, Ho has spent the past two years tapping into underused commercial resources in the area. When an initial plan to find funding for the project through grants proved challenging, he turned to a bootstrap model to propel the small team forwards for the first few months.

Now miLES helps secure space across the city for independent projects and businesses to host everything from short-term storefronts to pop-up dinners. The model can help test proof-of-concept, build brands, reach consumers or simply host one-off events. It’s the next steps for those who have crowd-sourced funds or ideas and want to put them into action. Empty space is put to good use and urban areas revitalized. Artisans and entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to expand their footprint without the traditional overheads. Consumers get to experience novel concepts flavored with the one-off “pop-up” caché. Everyone wins.

Ho’s project also provides a lifeline for groups already in the spaces. As the growth of coworking spaces in New York can attest to, this is the era of the shared-space economy. Ho’s model works for almost any kind of business other than those requiring a commercial kitchen. Unfortunately the bureaucratic burdens of running this type of space proved too prohibitive given limited budget and resources. Instead, innovative as ever, miLES partners with food companies such as the community arm of Whole Foods and fellow social innovators Prime Produce to curate a weekly dinner salon in their spaces.

Two years on and Ho has helped more than 100 businesses tap into NYC’s street scene. Projects and businesses have the opportunity to rent one of up to fifteen spaces around the city (mostly in LES) on a short-term basis for far less than the cost or complexities of securing spaces by themselves. Most businesses usually rent out space for one to three days or up to one month during the holiday season. Rental fees typically average $700—800 per day, $2,000—4,000 week up to $4,000—10,000 per month in LES. miLES takes a small percentage of the rental fee to plough resources into new economically-deprived areas across the city.

Ho’s organization also provides opportunities for participants to learn about ideation, sustainability and branding as well as receiving a range of business services. For example he pours his architect know-how into modular design systems to set up spaces more easily. NYU also provides support to the community. This is a two-fold business model: part transaction, part creative agency. miLES’ list of partners also extends deep into the digital realm: Square is supporting efforts to create a “regenerative ecosystem” for small businesses and consumers alike (known as the “long-tail” in tech circles). With what he deems as Square’s excellence in PoS (“Point of Sale,” or systems to facilitate purchasing) Ho seeks to help both entrepreneurs and, by extension, the local community thrive.

Another opportunity for entrepreneurs and ideators to get involved with miLES is the Do Tank, the organization’s innovation lab, which also feeds into OpenIDEO, a digital platform for collaborative social innovation. Participants sign-up to take part in series of ideation sessions focused on solving some of the world’s biggest sustainability challenges. This fall the theme is food sustainability. Over the course of eight weeks a team of ideators, much like OpenIDEO’s online community, are working together to discuss, create, iterate and ultimately innovate solutions to tackle global challenges. The current focus includes composting, a particularly acute food waste challenge in dense urban areas like New York.

Good ideas get around. The founder is now part of a global community and happy to “cultivate a community of ideas” both in the US and beyond. Ho has spent time with similar groups in Berlin as well as London, where new artists can exhibit in the trendy — and therefore prohibitively expensive — Soho and Shoreditch neighborhoods. In the meantime his New York movement continues to grow. This fall the organization is launching a new site called any city can apply the same successful model to rejuvenate economically-deprived neighborhoods and spaces.

miLES is a catch-all. For new business concepts, brands and non-profits the organization provides an easy way to reach New Yorkers. For communities seeking help and a fresh coat of paint, Ho is help. For innovators, ideators and entrepreneurs looking for an OpenIDEO-type platform to call their own, that they can. For big brands and digital innovators looking for the long-tail, the organization brings the people. For the food, socially or sustainability-minded (or better all three), there’s Do Tank. For a local seeking to serve his community, he’s got crowd-appeal. This is demolishing, building and renovating all at the same time. Leave it to an architect from New York. Crowd-construction anyone?

Ruth Temianka

Ruth Temianka is a writer, editor and entrepreneur.

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