Unique Markets, an IRL market event that fuses the elevated feel of a festival with the retail element of a curated marketplace, creates massive pop-up markets that showcase the best small businesses. But this is no regular market — it’s unique as a leader in the shop small movement, helping small businesses grow big 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,” founder Sonja Rasula explains. “It’s almost impossible to stand out, especially in a digital-first era, but we’re here as a bridge between emerging brands and potential customers. Selling at Unique Markets allows business owners to practice their sales pitches, test new products, meet fans and cultivate relationships, get an understanding of what sells and what doesn’t, and so much more — this stuff is invaluable.”
Don’t get it twisted: small business is big — and Rasula has been a champion of indie businesses before it gained traction as a movement, which has earned her the nickname of “small biz fairy godmother.”
What drew her to this before it had become a buzzword?
“I know that small business is big business — small companies create 1.5 million jobs annually and account for 64 percent of new jobs created in the US.”
This year is special as it marks the first indoor IRL return of Unique Markets since Covid (so since December 2019), in its home base of Los Angeles on Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, followed by D.C. the following weekend (its holiday market series kicked off in Portland, the first weekend of December). Rasula has also become known as someone who knows how to cultivate community, a skill that served her well during the pandemic.
Rasula is projecting that 150 business will be featured this weekend in LA, with about 6K to 7K attendees over two days. (This is strategically lower to meet Covid guidelines.)
“Another reason we’re unique is that we’ve provided free education to our sellers from Day One in 2008, in both an in-person conference format that we call Unique University, and with online classes and mentor sessions. It’s a huge investment in time and money, which is probably why no other markets do it, but I truly believe that empowering people will not just change the trajectory of their businesses, but it has lasting impact in our local community. I don’t want to just feature someone at an event, I want to help them move the needle on their business and join me at that million-dollar mark! Success doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over nights – we’re here to help them along the journey.”
With now household names like Dream Pops, Hedley & Bennett and photographer Gray Malin having showcased at Unique Markets early in their growth stage, Unique Markets’ track record is strong.
I spoke with the female founders of two businesses that participated at Unique Markets early on in their trajectories: P.F. Candle Co. and Tea Drops, to shed some light on why participating in IRL markets can have big results on your business.
P.F. Candle Co. was cofounded by Kristen Pumphrey, back in 2008 (the same year Unique Markets launched, incidentally). “The brand started as an Etsy shop, and we launched the amber jar line we are so well-known for in 2012. We believe in bridging the gap between high-end designer home fragrance and accessible price points, making home fragrance an everyday luxury.”
Pumphrey and her life and business partner, Tom, knew Unique Markets had successfully moved the dial for their business: “Our company has always been self-funded, and as such, we try to be thrifty whenever possible. We shared a booth with my friend, the jewelry maker Jamie from Ax + Apple in the winter of 2013. Both Tom and I had a ‘checkout’ line that was over 30 minutes long! We were blown away — and sold out of candles quickly.”
Tea Drops, which launched back in 2015, is about creating magical tea moments that connect you to what’s important — whether that be connection to oneself, to your loved ones, and/or community.
Founder Sashee Chandran shares: “One of the first shows I had ever showcased Tea Drops at was Unique LA. It was the first time I was sharing my invention with the world, and to get a positive response through kind comments and more importantly, purchases, was so validating. We sold out of all of the tea boxes I brought to the show and it was very clear to me during that show that I was onto something.”
Appearing at Unique Markets helped elevate Tea Drops’ growth to the tune of over 400K online customers — and counting. “Since 2015, we have grown into over 3K retail doors across the country and are set to launch in Target in January 2023.”
IRL markets like Unique serve as a store front — a place to sell direct and get to know the customer without retail overhead. “It created a place where people could know to expect us and come back, time and time again, which created reliable income — very important,” Pumphrey continues.
What makes the experience at Unique Markets so powerful for sellers, especially early on, is getting the real direct feedback from customers.
“Events like Unique Markets provide a unique opportunity for makers to share their story directly and get insightful feedback that can help them propel their business forward,” Chandran of Tea Drops shares. “There is nothing like seeing a customer try or taste your product before your own eyes and get direct feedback from them. I still reflect on how critical it was for me to do over 30 shows my first year, because it really helped me validate and improve my product.”
“Online is great — you get to hear a lot of feedback — but nothing beats the in-person nuance of having a long conversation with a customer or a peer,” Pumphrey of P.F. Candle Co. explains. “Getting to know my fellow business owners also helped us grow. During slower times, we’d trade tips and commiserate. Growing a business, especially a digital one, can be lonely, but shows like Unique build your community.”
The common denominator with both brands (P.F. Candle Co. and Tea Drops): they both revolutionized industries that were stale and brought so much great change.
“In 2014, P.F. got picked up by four national retailers in the span of a year. That’s when we knew that our approach of high quality, unisex design, and accessible price points was making an impact.”
Speaking of impact: shopping small makes a huge impact on the economy and the business founder.
“We’ve all seen the memes that say ‘when you buy from a small business someone does an actual happy dance’ but it’s so much bigger than that. Your dollars go directly back into your community and our economy — more jobs are created, business taxes help the public schools, libraries, park improvements, and more.”
Rasula noticed the shift for Unique Markets, as a leader in the elevated marketplace space early on.
“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 curated, indoors in architectural spaces, and definitely no events that charged a ticket fee. It seems egotistical 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 a consumer perspective, and get the masses on board from soccer moms to party kids, you have to educate them and also attract them with razzle dazzle. I don’t see our markets as a shopping event, but rather as an experience that brings people joy, allows them to wander and discover, be inspired, and create great memories.”
A monthly look at issues facing Wyoming business owners and entrepreneurs from the Wyoming Small Busin
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own. Personal trainer Miriam Fried built her business, MF Strong, primarily by posting ho
TikTok reportedly wants to "more than quadruple" the size of its ecommerce business.
Chris Licht, Chairman and CEO, CNN Worldwide, speaks onstage during the Warner Bros. Discovery Upfront 2023 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 17, 2