Friday, December 7, 2012

How Kiva is keeping pace with mobile business trends

These days San Francisco is crawling with mobile business entrepreneurs.

One example: Repurposed trucks peddling gourmet street food, serving up the cutting edge of culinary fashion and fusion with dishes like pad-Thai tacos, Vietnamese sliders and curry chicken burritos. 

But at the Topshelf Boutique, fashion rolls.

Topshelf is a miniature replica of a chic “brick-n-mortar” fashion boutique, only there’s no seasonal store front display -- just a set of alluring pastel stairs leading into the back of a platinum and pink truck.

Founder and Kiva Zip borrower Christina Ruiz, a Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising grad and former buyer for Macy’s, decided on a truck business only after several months of fruitless hunting for an affordable store space. 

“Affordable commercial space is really hard to get," she says. "That’s kinda how the truck idea came along. It was out of more frustration than anything else, but once I switched over, I started getting a lot more support. People got excited and thought it was a really clever idea.” 

With some of the lowest retail vacancy rates in the country, San Francisco has seen a spike in rental costs for commercial space. Not only do truck vendors avoid this crippling market, they also save an additional expenditure on space design and renovation. For Ruiz, building her shop into a truck gave her business novel flair and a convenient edge. 

For her boutique, Ruiz salvaged a 24-foot-long bright canary yellow 1981 Chevy step van P30 she found on Craigslist. It used to serve as a portable portrait studio in Vallejo. Around $10,000 later, and she’s completely remodeled the vehicle into a running functioning store, complete with shelves and hangers, a dressing room and a cashier’s station. It’s been a year and half since Topshelf Boutique first hit the road and business is good.

“People just want to buy something on a truck,” says Ruiz. “Like being in the truck is a big part of my shopping experience.”

The name Topshelf speaks to Ruiz’s other career as a bartender, where the best of the best is kept on that top shelf. With a $100 price-line and merchandise selected by Ruiz — like mini dresses by Ezra and quartz cocktail rings by Adina Mills to rocker-inspired T-shirts by Purrr —Topshelf delivers the high quality customer care of a small boutique but without the high prices.

“It was important for me to bring cute fashion at an affordable price in a boutique environment,” explains Ruiz.

The Topshelf Boutique can be found at many popular Bay Area events, like the Urban Air Market in Hayes Valley or the annual Treasure Island Music Festival. Ruiz sees the change in scenery as more fitting to her lifestyle.

“I didn’t like the structure of a 9-to-5 job,” she says. “And not being stuck in a store is really nice. You get to make your own schedule and you get to kinda pick and choose which events you wanna do or be strategic about where you place yourself and take yourself to your consumer.”

For Ruiz, the dream to start her own boutique was many years in the making. As is true for many small businesses, her biggest obstacle was finding the financial means.

Increasingly, small businesses have very little access to loans from large banks, which prefer established businesses that can prove lower risk.

Fortunately, Ruiz found Kiva Zip, received a loan for $5,000 -- and is now in the repayment process.

“I needed that loan,” explains Ruiz. “It was the last chunk of change to push me over the edge.”

Thanks to innovative small loans through Kiva Zip, unique business ideas like Topshelf Boutique are made possible.

“Sometimes I can’t even believe this is happening,” Ruiz says. “I knew I wouldn’t qualify at a larger bank, it was a block in my road.”

To keep up to date on Topshelf events and appearances, visit And to learn more about how Kiva Zip can help small business owners, check out the Zip homepage.