Sonja Rasula started pop-up style markets a decade ago. Now, her novel, yet simple idea of bringing small businesses together several times a year, is entering a new era — of franchising.
After a career in tech and media, she was frazzled in 2008. She moved back to LA, found herself sitting in classic Los Angeles traffic and thought: “What if I didn’t have to do this every time to shop for friends or gifts?”
That’s when she put her entire 401K towards an idea that everyone thought was wacky: a market hall of designers, small businesses, and local artisans. She called it Unique Markets, since there was nothing of that nature. It had a look that since become ubiquitous: minimal decor, clean walls, modern designs.
There were farmers markets then, and the odd pop-up shops by brands. But there was no concept, under all one roof, that celebrated local makers and made it easy for shoppers and vendors. “It’s not a flea market. It’s not a mall. It’s none of those things. It’s curated,” she clarifies.
She opened the first Unique Market in her hometown in downtown Los Angeles; over 200 vendors showed up that first year. “It was profitable from day one,” she says.
And it didn’t stay in LA, she says. Quickly there was demand to take it elsewhere, causing her to expand across the country. Now Unique Markets take place in the following cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Austin, Boston, Seattle, Washington, DC, Phoenix, Denver, and Minneapolis.
Starting as a sole founder, self-funding the whole venture, Rasula admits it was not a cakewalk: “There were definitely days that I wish I had a business partner.”
But 50,000 people routinely attend her markets, making them profitable and in demand. Though it’s hit the big urban centers, Rasula recognizes that there are smaller, more semi-urban communities who are also interested in this concept: “There’s been a resurgence of interest in the handmade, in connecting with the maker.”
Thus, she’s hopeful that a franchise model, where the entrepreneur gets handholding from her and her team, will enable Unique Markets to span corners of America that are too far for her to reach personally.
“As a journalist and someone in tech, I knew how to reach people, drum up interest, and in the early days, I was doing much of that leg work myself, or asking anyone I knew who owed me a favor, to chip in. Franchise owners can benefit from what we’ve built and take this concept much further,” she argues.
Every year, thousands of vendors apply to be a part of Unique Market, she says, and some have to be turned down. Much of this is because Rasula does not want the same vendors to become pillars of the market; instead, new designers, artisans, and makers should have a chance to debut their wares, she argues.
The concept has also garnered the interest of brands that rely on curation for their stores. For instance, Rasula says, buyers from companies such as Anthropologie might turn up and walk the stalls, looking not just for gifts, but new designs for their own offering. “It’s not a trade show, and we don’t want it to be that ever. But yes, they’ll show up, mix in with the crowd, and spot new designers and makers they’d like to carry.”
In an era of mass production, fast fashion, and commerce overload, one could say, Rasula’s vision for a more localized shopping experience is an idea that was ahead of her time.
The next Unique Market is this weekend in Los Angeles. “Just in time for Mother’s Day and graduation season,” she says.