Unique Marketplaces are creative, modern marketplaces that help independent designers, artists and emerging companies sell their products while encouraging people to shop local and support their community. The next one of them entered Washington, DC this weekend, December 17th and 18th at Union Market.
We sat down with Sonja Rasula, founder of Unique Markets to learn more about how it got started, why it’s coming to DC, and entrepreneurship.
District Fray: What was your initial inspiration for alternative markets?
Sonja Rasula: I wanted to create a kind of pop-up mall. Instead of buying from big companies, people can come and find a bunch of small businesses under one roof.
I am a child of the 80s and 90s. The mall was the coolest thing to do back then. It was fun and exciting. I feel like general merchandising is old and has been around for decades… I wanted to make shopping fun again, so we added things like free drinks and photo booths to make it a fun and memorable experience.
How has it grown since the original in 2008? What was the first one like? And how are they now?
I truly believe in the phrase, “Go big, or go home,” so that first event in Los Angeles had 225 small businesses showcasing their products!
It was bigger than most trade shows and caused quite a stir in the industry because nothing like it had ever 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 original creators and artists themselves.
It is extremely selective, very different from crowded markets and foreign markets. We expanded early in the morning to cities across America, such as New York City, San Francisco, Austin, but we went back after Covid. We are now in Portland, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC
Why Washington, DC?
We actually started doing holiday markets in DC in 2018. To be completely honest, it blew all the other towns out of the water – 3,000 people were there in just one day!
My husband’s family is in the DMV and I visit them a lot and love them. In my opinion, this is one of the most exciting cities right now because the younger generation doesn’t want to live in the suburbs anymore. I feel like there’s a great art community growing in the city. There are amazing restaurants, really beautiful design, and all the art! While it used to be very traditional and buttoned down, I’m 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 child! I love them all! This year, there are absolutely amazing artists, working in ceramics, clothing brands, homewares, beauty/wellness brands, baby gifts, and even delicious food items (good for stocking stuffers)!
But I will give a shout out to two DC area businesses that have sold with us since 2018. I loved watching them both grow: Romy Studioan amazing type of jewelry design and Buldanomaking Turkish towels and clothes.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and creatives?
If you have a good idea and believe in yourself, do it, because only you know your true abilities!
I would highly recommend small business owners and people thinking of starting a business, to join the community for help and access to those who have done it before. We actually just launched a digital membership community called Unique Assembly.
How about some advice for AAPI entrepreneurs?
You deserve and should be at every table. I can tell any disadvantaged person the same. You will have to work hard and smart, but don’t let that discourage you. In fact, the things that others don’t see in you are your greatest strengths. Never take no for an answer and build your own table!
What have you learned since starting Unique Markets?
About a million things! A few of the most important lessons I’ve learned are almost all about leadership and management.
Find people who truly believe in your work and what you do when you start hiring and building. I believe in love sometimes over experience or progress. If someone isn’t a good fit, you need to get rid of them quickly before they create a toxic workplace. Understand that if your business is successful, it will not only be you but many employees. You become a manager and you need to understand all the skills that go along with that.
What’s in the plans for different markets in 2023?
Keep building and add more cities!
Unique Markets is at Union Market on December 17th and 18th. Take the tickets here.
Different markets: uniquemarkets.com // @uniquemarkets
Union Market: 1309 5th St NE, DC; unionmarketdc.com // @unionmarketdc