Unique Markets, an IRL market event that fuses the elevated feel of a festival with the retail element of a curated market, creates massive pop-up markets that showcase the best small businesses. But it’s not a regular market – it’s unique as a leader in the small store movement, helping small businesses grow since its launch in 2008.
“I think we’ve worked hard to not be seen as ‘just a shopping event’ but really as an incubator for entrepreneurship and creativity,” says founder Sonja Rasula. “It’s almost impossible to stand out, especially in the digital age, but we’re here as a bridge between emerging brands and potential customers. Selling on Unique Markets allows business owners to practice their sales pitches, test new products, meet fans and cultivate relationships, understand what sells and what doesn’t, and so much more – it’s all invaluable.
Don’t get me wrong: small business is big – and Rasula was a champion of independent business before it gained traction as a movement, earning her the nickname “fairy godmother of small business”.
What drew her to it before it became a buzzword?
“I know that this small business is large businesses – small businesses create 1.5 million jobs a year and account for 64% of new jobs created in the United States.
This year is special because it marks Unique Markets’ first indoor IRL return since Covid (so since December 2019), in its home base of Los Angeles on Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, followed by DC the following weekend (his serial holiday market kicked off in Portland, the first weekend in December). Rasula has also become known as someone who knows how to cultivate community, a skill that has served her well during the pandemic.
Rasula expects 150 companies to be showcased this weekend in Los Angeles, with around 6,000 to 7,000 attendees over two days. (This is strategically lower to meet Covid guidelines.)
“Another reason we are unique is that we provided free training to our salespeople from day one in 2008, both in the form of an in-person conference that we call Unique University, and with online courses and mentoring sessions. It’s a huge investment of time and money, which is probably why no other market does it, but I truly believe that empowering people will not only change the trajectory of their businesses, but have a lasting impact in our local community. I don’t just want to introduce someone at an event, I want to help them move their business forward and join me at that million bucks! Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight, It Happens more nights – we are here to help them along the journey.”
With now household names like Dream Pops, Hedley & Bennett and photographer Gray Malin having featured at Unique Markets early in their growth phase, Unique Markets’ track record is strong.
I spoke with the female founders of two companies that participated in Unique Markets early in their trajectory: PF Candle Co. and Tea Drops, to discuss why participating in IRL Markets can have big results for your business.
PF Candle Co. was co-founded by Kristen Pumphrey in 2008 (the same year Unique Markets was launched). “The brand started out as an Etsy store, and we launched the amber jar line we’re so well known for in 2012. We believe in bridging the gap between high-end home fragrances and affordable prices, making home fragrance a daily luxury.”
Pumphrey and his life and business partner, Tom, knew that Unique Markets had successfully shifted the dial of their business: “Our business has always been self-funded and as such we try to be frugal to the extent possible. We shared a booth with my friend, jeweler Jamie from Axe+Apple in the winter of 2013. Tom and I had a queue of over 30 minutes! We were blown away – and we quickly ran out of candles.
Tea Drops, which launched in 2015, is about creating magical tea moments that connect you to what’s important – whether that’s connecting to yourself, your loved ones and/or the community.
Founder Sashee Chandran shares, “One of the first shows I ever performed Tea Drops at was Unique LA. It was my first time sharing my invention with the world, and getting a positive response through kind comments and more importantly purchases was so rewarding. We sold out all the boxes of tea I brought to the show and it was very clear to me during that show that I was onto something.
Appearing on Unique Markets helped elevate Tea Drops’ growth to over 400,000 online customers – and counting. “Since 2015, we’ve grown to over 3,000 retail doors across the country and plan to launch into Target in January 2023.”
IRL marketplaces like Unique serve as a storefront – a place to sell directly and get to know the customer without retail overhead. “It created a place where people could know they were waiting for us and coming back again and again, which created a reliable income – very important,” continues Pumphrey.
What makes the Unique Markets experience so powerful for sellers, especially in the beginning, is getting real, direct customer feedback.
“Events like Unique Markets provide a unique opportunity for makers to directly share their story and get insightful feedback that can help propel their business forward,” shares Chandran of Tea Drops. “There’s nothing like seeing a customer try or taste your product in front of your own eyes and getting direct feedback from them. I’m still thinking about how essential it was for me to make over 30 emissions the first year because it really helped me validate and improve my product.
“Online is great – you hear a lot of comments – but nothing beats the nuance in person of having a long conversation with a client or peer,” says Pumphrey of PF Candle Co.. “Getting to know my fellow business owners also helped us grow. During quieter times, we exchange tips and sympathize. Growing a business, especially a digital one, can be lonely, but shows like Unique build your community.
The common denominator with the two brands (PF Candle Co. and Tea Drops): they both revolutionized industries that were obsolete and brought so many great changes.
“In 2014, PF was taken over by four national retailers within a year. That’s when we knew our approach to high quality, unisex design and accessible pricing was having an impact.
Speaking of impact: buying small has a huge impact on the economy and the entrepreneur.
“We’ve all seen the memes that say ‘when you buy from a small business, someone does a real happy dance,’ but that’s so bigr than that. Your dollars go directly back into your community and our economy – more jobs are created, business taxes help public schools, libraries, park improvements, and more.
Rasula noticed the change to Unique Markets early on, as a leader in the high market space.
“When I started the markets in 2008, there was no category of this type of business. There were flea markets and craft fairs, but nothing organized, indoors in architectural spaces, and definitely no paid events. It sounds selfish to say, but we’ve been leading the way since day one. My motto is “Go Big or Go Home” and that’s what we’ve always done. If you want to change the consumer point of view and attract the masses, from soccer mums to partygoers, you need to educate them and attract them with dazzling brilliance.I don’t see our markets as a shopping event, but rather as an experience that brings joy to people, allows them to walk and discover, to be inspired and to create good memories.
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