You know those super cool pop-up markets you have visited with friends, perhaps around the holidays or Mother’s Day, where hundreds of Etsy sellers and makers set up shop all in one place? If you haven’t experienced Unique Markets, but are thinking the concept genius, meet the Founder and CEO, herself, who came up with the brilliant idea. Sonja Rasula launched Unique LA, the first of the now national Unique Markets, to have a positive impact on the community. From the outset, her goal was to help small business grow and the local economy thrive—how cool is that!? Read on to hear her story and how the entrepreneur has expanded into many different realms including The Unique Space, an awesome co-working space and venue in downtown L.A..
Let’s start at the beginning! Where did you start your career?
Before moving to Los Angeles I worked as a journalist in Toronto, where I specialized in online content. Because I was literally one of the only people with a background in writing and concepting for online, and am a very hard worker, I moved up the corporate ladder extremely quickly. By the time I was 26 I was hiring and managing teams of people, building and running websites for Fortune 500 companies, and achieving amazing results from surpassing sales targets to increasing traffic over 3000% year-over-year. One day in a senior management meeting, HGTV, one of the TV stations that I managed online, said they needed more diversity and I saw that as an opportunity—so I threw my hat in the ring and ended up becoming an interior designer on the channel, using my vacation days to film the episodes.
When did you decide it was time to transition out of design and launch Unique Markets?
In my late 20s, I had serious ‘tech burnout’ and decided to change my life and move back to Los Angeles, where I grew up. The decision to start Unique Markets wasn’t truly planned, it came from a series of events… I ended up getting cast as a designer on TLC’s Trading Spaces (literally my dream job, dream show) but very quickly got let go. I had some savings so decided to spend most of 2008 volunteering for a local non-profit to help register voters and increase awareness around local elections – I met my local city councilor, who is now the Mayor of LA, and was incredibly inspired. That experience showed me how impactful a leader can be on the local level and in their community.
One day, sitting in traffic, it dawned on me that there needed to be a large-scale community shopping event where you could buy lots of cool, curated items in one place. An event that would help hundreds of small business owners reach new audiences and increase sales, and in turn, help the local economy grow and thrive. So I risked my entire 401k savings to start Unique Markets! In December of 2008 we held our first market in Los Angeles, Unique LA, which instantly became the largest ‘buy local’ shopping event in the country. Now we are around the country!
What is, for lack of a more fitting term, so unique about shopping at one of your pop-ups?
Shopping at Unique Markets is about having an amazing experience. Instead of an impersonal transaction online or at the mall, our shoppers get to explore, feed their curiosity, get inspired and have a lot of fun. You get to shop around while a DJ plays great music, there are free arts and crafts projects you can engage in and delicious food vendors to try. The brands, artists, and vendors you discover at our markets soon become brands you support and shop from for years to come. Plus, shopping with us has a positive impact on your community…
Unique Markets gives consumers the opportunity to support and shop from small business owners and makers in their community. It’s a shopping experience like no other because you get to meet and talk with the person behind the product that you’re buying. You hear their story and how the product was made, and all of a sudden that product holds more importance and character than a product you bought online that says “made in China.” It’s so inspiring! Most importantly when shopping at Unique Markets you know where your dollar is going and whose lives you’re impacting, which is way more meaningful than placing an online order with a mass retailer. Besides impacting that small business owners life, by shopping locally you actually are helping put funds back into the local community because those owners pay local taxes that go into our schools, parks, libraries etc.
You have featured thousands of unique small businesses through your pop-ups. After seeing so many success stories, do you have any advice for small business owners who are just starting out?
I always say to trust your gut. There will be lots of people around you telling you what to do but no one except for you knows what you are capable of and what your vision is. I also think it is important to understand the power of your own community and not look at others doing similar work as competitors but as collaborators. We should be lifting each other up and learning from one another.
And now you have the Unique Space as well! Tell us a little about the intended purpose of the space and how it functions today!
I’ve always been driven by the idea that creativity can change the world. With this, I’m fixed on creating businesses that foster entrepreneurship, spread creative thinking, and grow the community. As I started to work with hundreds of small business owners I started to hear some of the things they needed the most help with: it was often education and learning, and the most basic thing like office space. So I realized there was space for a business conference that didn’t take place in a cheesy giant hotel ballroom, and I decided to open an entire office building that is communal and community-driven so small business owners can thrive and grow their companies. The Unique Space doubles as a modern communal office space, wedding venue and private event rental space for the LA community and beyond.
How did you decide on an aesthetic for Unique Space?
I renovated The Unique Space in 2014 to be a hub for the creative community, so my goal was to make it inspirational while also feeling warm and comfortable, like home. I wanted to show off the beautiful, original elements of the 100-year-old building while updating it with modern, playful touches. So you’ll see the original brick walls and wooden beams, next to metallic wallpaper and neon signs that I designed. My goal was to make it inviting, a place that would inspire creativity and collaboration, and to specifically use elements that appeal to women, as I wanted it to be a place that supported other female entrepreneurs and creatives like me. You will not find a ping pong table or beer-on-tap here. 🙂
What is your favorite part about working here?
I love the community. There are small businesses of all types in the building from creative agencies to architects to shoemakers, so it’s really nice to talk to different people and learn about their projects. And we do a monthly wine tasting, which is probably my second favorite thing!
How do you split your time between all your different ventures? What does a typical day look like?
First, I’m lucky to have a really great team who help me with the two businesses. Now that we’ve expanded outside of LA and have our pop-up markets all around the country, it’s busy year-round! Most of my time is spent on Unique Markets between researching retail trends, curating sellers, leading creative direction and design for the company, speaking at conferences and to groups at corporations, and marketing. My typical day involves a lot of emails! Aside from that, I usually have meetings with my team, media interviews, and I try to dedicate time every day to thinking about the bigger picture/see how we’re doing, looking at finances, and reading/surfing the news to keep up with arts and culture.
If you could give your young entrepreneur self any words of encouragement, what would they be?
Don’t worry so much about what other people think of you or your ideas. You’re the only person who knows your vision and capability. Just keep moving forward!