How unique markets drive small businesses to become big

Unique Markets, an IRL market event that combines the elevated feel of a festival with the retail element of a curated marketplace, creates huge pop-up markets that showcase the best small businesses. But this is no ordinary market – it’s unique as a leader in the small shop movement, helping small businesses grow big since launching in 2008.

“I think we’ve worked hard to not be seen as ‘just a shopping event’, but really as a breeding ground for entrepreneurship and creativity,” explains founder Sonja Rasula. “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. Sell ​​at Unique markets allows entrepreneurs to practice their sales pitches, test new products, meet fans and build relationships, gain insight into what sells and what doesn’t, and much more – this stuff is invaluable.”

Don’t get it twisted: Small businesses are big — and Rasula was a champion of indie businesses before it gained traction as a movement, earning her the nickname “small biz fairy godmother.”

What drew her into this before it became a buzzword?

“I know that small company is big business – small businesses 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 Unique Markets’ first indoor IRL return since Covid (so since December 2019), in its Los Angeles home base on Saturday, December 10 and Sunday, December 11, followed by DC the following weekend (the holiday market series began 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 there will be 150 businesses on display this weekend in LA, with approximately 6,000 to 7,000 visitors over two days. (This is strategically lower to comply with Covid guidelines.)

“Another reason we are unique is that we have provided free education to our salespeople from day one in 2008, both in an in-person conference format we call Unique University, and with online classes and mentoring sessions. It’s a huge investment of time and money which is probably why no other market is doing it but I do believe that empowering people will not only change the trajectory of their business but also have a lasting impact in our local community. I don’t just want to spotlight anyone at an event, I want to help them get the needle in their business and go with me to that million dollar milestone! Success doesn’t happen overnight, it happens about nights – we are here to help them on their way.”

With well-known names such as Dream Pops, Hedley & Bennett and photographer Gray Malin exhibiting at Unique Markets early in their growth phase, Unique Markets’ track record is strong.

I spoke to the female founders of two companies who participated in Unique Markets early in their journey: PF Candle Co. and Tea Dropsto shed some light on 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 that Unique Markets was launched by the way). “The brand started as an Etsy store and in 2012 we launched the line of amber jars that we are so famous for. 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 that Unique Markets had successfully pushed the button for their business: “Our business has always been self-funded and so we try to be frugal wherever possible. We shared a booth with my friend, 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 the candles sold out quickly.

Launched in 2015, Tea Drops is about creating magical tea moments that connect you to what matters – whether that be a connection to yourself, your loved ones and/or the community.

Founder Sashee Chandran shares, “One of the first shows I ever showed Tea Drops at was Unique LA. It was my first time 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 the tea boxes 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 boost Tea Drops’ growth to over 400,000 online customers – and counting. “Since 2015, we have grown to more than 3,000 store doors nationwide and will launch in Target in January 2023.”

IRL markets like Unique serve as storefronts – a place to sell directly and get to know the customer without retail overhead. “It created a place where people could know to expect us and come back again and again, providing reliable income – very important,” continues Pumphrey.

What makes the experience at Unique Markets so powerful for sellers, especially early on, is the real, direct feedback from customers.

“Events like Unique Markets provide a unique opportunity for creators to share their story live and get insightful feedback that can help them move their business forward,” shares Chandran of Tea Drops. “There is nothing like seeing a customer try or taste your product in front of your own eyes and get direct feedback from them. I still think about how crucial it was for me to do more than 30 shows in 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 personal nuance of a long conversation with a client or colleague,” explains Pumphrey of PF Candle Co. from. “Getting to know my fellow entrepreneurs has also helped us to grow. During slower times we exchanged tips and commiserated. Growing a business, especially a digital one, can be lonely, but shows like Unique build your community.”

The common denominator of both brands (PF Candle Co. and Tea Drops): They both revolutionized industries that were stale and brought so much big change.

“In 2014, PF was picked up by four national retailers in the space of a year. That’s when we knew our approach to high quality, unisex design and accessible price points had an impact.”

Speaking of impact, small shopping has a huge impact on the economy and the founder of the company.

“We’ve all seen the memes saying ‘when you buy from a small company someone does a really happy dance’, but it’s so much bigr than that. Your dollars go directly back to your community and our economy – more jobs are created, corporate taxes help public schools, libraries, park improvements and more.

Rasula noticed the shift early on for Unique Markets, as a leader in the elevated market space.

“When I started the markets in 2008, there was no such category. There were flea markets and craft fairs, but nothing organized, inside architectural spaces, and certainly no events that charged an entrance fee. It seems 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 perspective and get the masses on board, from soccer moms to party kids, you have to educate them and also attract them with eye-popping glamor. I don’t see our markets as a shopping event, but rather an experience that brings joy to people, lets them wander and discover, is inspired and creates beautiful memories.”