Retail pop-up Sook calls time amid tough trading

The Startups 100-listed flexible retail space provider had been riding high following initial investment, but Sook's founder has announced closure after failure to scale funding

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Written and reviewed by:
Richard Parris - managing editor of Startups.co.uk

In a sign of just how tough the UK funding environment is becoming, the modular retail space innovator Sook has gone from one of the UK’s startups to watch, to shuttering its business, nearly overnight.

Posting on LinkedIn last week, Sook founder John Hoyle announced with regret that the business would no longer be trading.

“In spite of the extraordinary efforts of our team, growing sales and achieving international scale we were unable to raise sufficient investment to continue in the current environment,” Hoyle stated.

We'd picked Sook out as a brand to watch for 2024, following its successful application to the Startups 100, and its inclusion in our previous Startups 100 list for 2023. Yet the sudden collapse of Sook's business shows just how much the high street is in dire trouble. The vicious combo of an economic downturn, rising rent, painful business energy costs, and challenging business rates have meant many new businesses don’t dare dream of a bricks and mortar outlet.

Meanwhile, an unfathomable number of big UK brands have gone into administration amid the crises, leaving high streets hollowed out across the land. While Sook’s business model looked like a welcome tonic for this tough environment, sadly the business has come to join the very trend it was looking to turn around.

Sook’s modular approach not built to last?

The Sook model sought to quietly redefine retail space in a post-pandemic world.

The business provided modular fit-outs for popup store spaces and events. Commercial landlords with an unoccupied space could turn to Sook, which, in turn, helped businesses launch pop-up events and in-store experiences with a seamless setup and flexible lease length.

“The relationship between commercial landlords and occupiers is a broken one due to the misalignment of expectations,” Hoyle told us last year. “Landlords are struggling with high vacancies, but offering traditional terms, while occupiers demand flexibility.”

Among Sook’s pop-up space alumni are Depop’s number one global seller, Danielle Mass, founder of Remass. Danielle used a Sook store fit-out to connect in person with over 3,000 consumers.

By the end of last year, Sook was offering retail units in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and other UK destinations. In October 2023, the business launched a space in the Mall of Africa, South Africa, with a franchise agreement set up for further expansion potential.

Sadly, all these expansion plans now look set to finish. At the time of writing, the Sook website was still live and with the appearance of being open to new business, but Hoyle's LinkedIn message suggests this won't be the case for long.

Hitting the rocks of funding

Sook’s early funding journey took the business from initial seed investment, to crowdfunding, to angel investment, including from Tobin Capital.

However, to achieve its growth ambitions, the company had earmarked further investment requirements, which failed to materialise as 2024 began.

Access to sufficient capital continues to be one of the greatest challenges for the UK startups scene, and it’s a critical issue for businesses seeking to scale up and realise their growth ambitions.

Hoyle remains proud of the Sook journey to date, and in his LinkedIn post, emphasises the strengths and capabilities of the Sook team.

“I’m so proud of all that we achieved and incredibly sad that we cannot continue. Please support our team members as they search for new roles.

“They have first hand experience of disrupting the retail and real estate sectors during incredibly challenging times. Thank you to everyone who supported us over the last five years.”

Written by:
Richard Parris - managing editor of Startups.co.uk
Richard joined the Startups team in 2021, and has a career in publishing that has spanned over 15 years. As a researcher, writer and editor, Richard has worked on brands across the UK, US and Asia in both print and online, including at the BBC, on the US-focused tech industry site Tech.co, plus at Which? magazine and its website, where Richard oversaw technology reviews and advice publishing. Richard has been an interviewee and contributor on television, radio, newspaper, magazine and online publications, and has featured in interviews including on the BBC and The Scotsman. Richard is passionate about converting potentially complex topics into clear, actionable advice and recommendations, and works alongside the in-house Startups team and its growing network to promote the needs of the UK small business community.

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