This spring, Cleveland is the Land of the Flea

For some, sixteen candles is the magic birthday number. For the Cleveland Flea, it’s six. The popular shopping event and small business incubator turns six this April—with plans to celebrate in a big way at its first 2018 market on April 21.

The occasion also marks the Flea’s headfirst forays into several significant new ventures: a custom-built co-working space, an online creative business school, and an on-site workshop that will soon include retail components. It’s a lot to take on all at once, but founder Stephanie Sheldon believes the time is right.

“For the first five years, I needed to spend all my energy on becoming the technician of my business—becoming a boss, managing finances, negotiating liquor licenses, learning social media,” says Sheldon. “Now we’ve built up such an entrepreneurial community in Cleveland that it’s time to respond to their growing needs. To me, the city is changing, and we were a huge part of that. We need to continue to remain at the helm and remain innovative.”

<span class="content-image-text">Stephanie Sheldon</span>Stephanie SheldonIndeed, the Flea has played an instrumental role in launching successful local businesses like Brewnuts, Fount, Old City Soda, Oceanne, Articles, and others. She's hopeful that the new ventures will continue to pump more entrepreneurial energy into the city.

"One of the things I've known to be true for Cleveland Flea is that when you bring amazing people together, magic happens," says Sheldon, "and that will happen here in the space."

This one’s for the dreamers and the doers

For several years, Sheldon has hosted informal gatherings and events for the local creative community inside the Cleveland Flea offices—earning the space the nickname “Creative Clubhouse.” In early May, Sheldon plans to expand those efforts by opening a full-fledged co-working space right down the hallway from their headquarters inside Tyler Village.

“We outgrew the Creative Clubhouse [concept], so it was time to make things much more official,” explains Sheldon. “As we’ve grown, we wanted to create a space that was accessible to more people.”

Another development necessitating the expansion was Sheldon’s recent decision to share the Flea’s offices with nonprofit videographers Shape Cleveland and event photographer Julianna Arendash—two of Sheldon’s frequent collaborators. “We’re getting more serious with our business partners, and we’re moving in together,” says Sheldon. “So now the office space that used to host events is just for the three of us.”

Enter the new 3,600-square-foot co-working space, which Sheldon is partnering with local painter and artist Lauren McKenzie to bring to life. The colorful space will offer both monthly unlimited memberships and drop-in rates—with what McKenzie calls an "inclusive and inviting" lounge area, dedicated desks for members, and custom-built art desks for makers (along with secure storage space).

One distinctive aspect is that the co-working space will be open only to those who identify as women, a move that Sheldon hopes will enable the Flea to better “respond to and meet the needs of our vendors. A lot of women are breastfeeding, and it’s hard to take a pump into Phoenix Coffee [to work].”

McKenzie is currently creating two murals for the space, one of which is a “celebration of women.” She feels that opening the niche co-working space “is a great step for Stephanie, who’s always been very focused on making sure the Flea is inclusive. As a woman of color, I’ve never felt unwelcome or that the Flea isn’t a place for me. [The co-working space] really embodies the ethos of the Flea.”

This one’s for the learners

Along with the co-working space, Sheldon is also soft-launching "Flea School” in mid-April. An extension of Sheldon’s private business coaching services, the school will operate via paid subscription (although Flea vendors will get free access as one of their perks). The content will be tailored not only to the nuts and bolts of running a creative business, but also to more personal aspects such as overcoming fears and managing self-care.

According to Sheldon,one of the key components will be “candid conversations, podcast-style” with movers and shakers (such as Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Ice Cream). “Right now, we’re taping interviews with tons of vendors and people throughout the city,” says Sheldon. “We’ll have a soft launch in April and then more of a real launch in June as we continue to tape more interviews.”

<span class="content-image-text">Flea dates for 2018</span>Flea dates for 2018

Sheldon also plans to offer three meetups each month to give insights into successful local businesses and DIY operations. (Examples might include a brewing demo at Platform, or a tour of Fount Leather). “We consider ourselves maker matchmakers, so we’re extending that philosophy to Flea School by having creative meetups for Cleveland’s business community,” explains Sheldon.

For Sheldon, it’s an exciting way to expand her coaching services without overextending herself. “Most of my focus is on executing an event one day per month,” says Sheldon. “Flea School is helping me reach more people in the community. My mission is to help dreamers become doers.”

Sheldon says she wishes she herself had access to resources and support like this when the Flea was ramping up. “It’s been very hard to launch this business and extremely hard to continue it,” admits Sheldon. “Money is just one thing—you also need encouragement, knowledge, coaching. There isn’t a lot of support for small-scale businesses, and that’s why the Flea exists.”

This one’s for the makers

Completing the Flea’s trifecta of growth is the “Flea Shop” being developed on the ground level of the Flea’s Tyler Village building. The space will serve as a workshop for building what Sheldon calls Flea “infrastructure” such as ticketing booths and bars for the events; right now, they're knee deep in a $20,000 build for this year's events. In the future (likely this summer), Sheldon envisions incorporating a retail component into the shop—with items from vendors and custom collaborations that would be exclusive to the Flea.

On a practical level, Sheldon says having the shop will be a real game-changer for the regular Flea events, most of which happen in the Tyler Village parking lot.

“Our events are like the equivalent of moving your whole house in one day—it’s a really, really labor-intensive business, and it’s exhausting,” she says. “We used to have to go all the way up to the third floor and back down, and now we’ll have our whole workshop on the ground floor, along with adequate, efficient space to build things.”

With the new developments, the Flea expands its footprint inside Tyler Village from 4,200 square feet to 14,000 total square feet (not including the parking lot). “Before, we were doing everything in one space,” says Sheldon. “Now we’re taking those pieces and dedicating their own spaces to them.”

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.