Unique Markets pop-ups are creative, modern marketplaces that help independent designers, artists and emerging brands sell their products while encouraging people to shop local and support their community. Their next one is in Washington, D.C. this weekend, December 17 and 18 at Union Market.
We sat down with Sonja Rasula, founder of Unique Markets to learn more about how it started, why it’s coming to D.C., and entrepreneurship.
District Fray: What was your initial inspiration for Unique Markets?
Sonja Rasula: I wanted to create a pop-up mall of sorts. Instead of shopping from massive corporations, people could come discover loads of small businesses under one roof.
I’m a kid of the 80s and 90s. The mall was the coolest thing to do back then. It was fun and exciting. I feel like traditional retail is completely stale and has been for decades… I wanted to make shopping fun again, so we add things like free drinks and photo booths to make it an experience and memorable.
How has it grown since the first one in 2008? What was the first one like? And what are they like now?
I really believe in the phrase, “Go big, or go home,” so that very first event held in Los Angeles had 225 small businesses showcasing their products!
It was larger than most trade shows and made a huge ripple in the industry because nothing like that had really been done before. That’s the best way to describe the first one. The experience is like a trade show, but the public can shop and interact with the actual founders and artists themselves.
It’s extremely curated, so very different from flea markets and outdoor markets. We expanded very early on to cities across America, such as New York City, San Francisco, Austin, but scaled way back after Covid. We are now in Portland, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Why Washington, D.C.?
We actually started doing the holiday markets in D.C. in 2018. To be perfectly honest, it blew all the other cities out of the water — 3,000 people attended in just one day!
My husband’s family is in the DMV and I visit a lot and love it. In my opinion, it’s one of the most exciting cities right now because the younger generation no longer wants to live in the suburbs. I feel like there is a huge creative community that’s growing in the city. There are amazing restaurants, really great design, and of course all the art! While it used to be very traditional and buttoned up, I am seeing a huge new wave of creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and amazing diversity!
Any vendors you’d like to highlight?
That’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite kid! I love them all! This year, there are absolutely amazing artists, ceramicists, clothing brands, homewares, beauty/wellness brands, gifts for kids, even gourmet food items (perfect for stocking stuffers)!
But I will shout out two D.C. area businesses that have sold with us since 2018. I’ve loved watching them both grow: Romy Studio, a really amazing jewelry design brand and Buldano, which makes Turkish towels and robes.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and creators?
If you have a great idea and believe in yourself, go for it, because only you know your true capabilities!
I would highly recommend small business owners and people thinking about starting a business, to join a community so you have help and access to those who have done it before. We actually just launched a digital membership community called the Unique Assembly.
What about specific advice for AAPI entrepreneurs?
You deserve to and should be at every single table. I would tell any marginalized person the same thing. You are going to have to work harder and smarter, but don’t let that discourage you. In fact, the things that others don’t see in you are your superpowers. Never take no for an answer and build your own table!
What have you learned since starting Unique Markets?
Probably about a million things! A few of the most important lessons I’ve learned are probably all centered around leadership and management.
Find people who genuinely believe in your mission and what you are doing when you start to hire and build. I believe in passion sometimes over experience or a resume. If someone is not a good fit, you need to remove them immediately before they create a toxic work environment. Understand that if your business is successful, it won’t just be you but you managing many employees. You become a manager and need to understand all the skills that go along with that.
What is in the plans for Unique Markets in 2023?
Keep building and adding more cities!
Unique Markets is at Union Market December 17 and 18. Grab tickets here.