the cleveland flea thrives as small business incubator

Here in Cleveland, our thriftiness is a large part of our charm.
It seems that at some point in the gradual course of our renaissance as a city, we made the collective decision to embrace the term “Rust Belt.” It doesn’t seem long ago that the phrase was thrown around to categorize us as a postindustrial city with a chip on its shoulder.
Now, it almost comes as a relief that “Rust Belt” is ingrained into the titles of dozens of thriving, local, independent businesses as a term of endearment and a testament to our authenticity.
Although thriftiness is one of our defining characteristics, a little over a year ago, Cleveland lacked a monthly flea market that unifies handmade items with vintage vendors, upcycled goods, antiques and local food.
Luckily, Stephanie Sheldon believes in the thrill of the hunt and spearheaded The Cleveland Flea.
The Flea is a pop-up market that is as Sheldon calls it, “part urban treasure hunt, part culinary adventure, part maker center” with roots in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood, where it was first launched with a test-run at the Kurentovanje Festival in February 2013. The first full-scale event took place in April 2013.
Sheldon put her consulting business, Indie Foundry, on hold to found The Flea in hopes of connecting a network of creatives to an instant test market, exposure and most of all, a supportive thriving community.
Stephanie Sheldon - Suzuran Photography
With support from the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation, which provided a $27,000 Retail Ready grant funded by Charter One Growing Communities and the Charles M. and Helen M. Brown Memorial Foundation, Sheldon pumped her energy into The Flea and within three months, the concept took flight. The market is organized entirely by Sheldon and her assistant Sarah Wilt and each vendor is selected through an application process. St. Clair Superior continues to provide some ongoing support, but the Flea is largely self-sustaining.
Sheldon seeks businesses that will prove to be a good fit, namely makers who take their craft seriously and are producing handmade goods in an interesting, innovative way, and collectors selling quality vintage, salvaged or upcycled items. She says some applicants are better suited for traditional craft and fine art festivals.

“To be relevant monthly The Flea has to be changing constantly,” Sheldon says. “If it was just handmade goods there wouldn’t be as much thrill of the hunt.”
The food at The Flea also changes seasonally. At the upcoming Holiday Kickoff Market this weekend November 21st-23rd, expect to see mulled wine, hot cider, holiday cocktails and craft beers as well as a pop-up café by Spice Kitchen+ Bar (Sat. 10-7 p.m.) and brunch by Jack Flaps and Luxe Kitchen & Lounge (Sun. 10-3 p.m.).
Currently, The Flea is home to 150 local vendors and receives on average of 20,000 visitors a day. At The Flea’s inception last April, there were 40 businesses and 1,500 visitors and Sheldon didn’t charge a vendor fee. As the market’s popularity increased, the vendor fee became $25. The current vendor fee is $75 and will increase slightly in the New Year.
“We hit the ground running pretty quickly,” Sheldon says. “I had huge goals for the flea and it’s far surpassed what I thought it would be but, at the same time, I knew it wouldn’t be something small and I knew it had the capacity to really inspire the city.”

Building it up from the grassroots

The Flea operates under Sheldon’s consulting business, Indie Foundry, dedicated to developing, branding, and visioning for small businesses. Typically, Sheldon splits her time 40 percent on The Flea and 60 percent on Indie Foundry. All profits from The Flea roll back into the cost of running it (and paying her assistant). However, Indie Foundry operates as The Flea’s parent company and Sheldon's clients come to her directly from the market to further grow their businesses.
“I spend my days caring a lot about these people and building their businesses,” she says. “I’m invested in growing each small business in a very authentic way.”
Another huge factor in The Flea’s success is its use of social media and striking visual marketing. Sheldon teaches business owners how to brand themselves and use social media outlets to create engaging posts and build a fan base.
The Flea has over 13,000 “likes” on Facebook, nearly 3,000 Instagram followers and over 3,500 Twitter fans.  She also works closely with Suzanne Price of Suzuran Photography to create a distinct visual language.
“We do inexpensive photoshoots for makers,” she says. “We’ve rebuilt probably 40-50 over the last year. We are aligning tools in an economically feasible way with people who are really great at what they do and from there they can just take off running.”

Sheldon, who is originally from Northern Michigan, moved to Cleveland in 2007 right out of grad school for architecture and was working as a project manager for Cleveland-based Michael Augoustidis Architects when they closed as the economy crashed.
Sheldon has lived in the Hingetown neighborhood in Ohio City for three years, before the neighborhood’s major development. She is an avid traveler and has lived in the Netherlands. Although there were a lot of things she loved about her lifestyle in Europe, she decided that there was something special about the Midwest and Cleveland was the city she wanted to spread her roots in.
“I know how lucky I am to be in Cleveland, because I’ve been outside of here and I’ve always wanted to come back,” she says.
As a project manager it was her job to understand the perspectives of everybody involved in a project, from small detail to large detail. Sheldon approaches The Flea with the same practical yet creative go-getter attitude.
“Essentially, The Flea is popup architecture,” she says. In order to provide adequate and accessible parking, Sheldon became resourceful in choosing the Flea’s location.
She intentionally schedules the market in off-the-beaten-path locations. This summer’s outdoor market took place on E. 55th St. in a parking lot attached to Sterle's Country House Slovenian Restaurant. The upcoming popup Holiday Marker's Market is scheduled Dec. 12-14 at The Nash on East 80th, a historic Slovenian home with functional bowling lanes in Slavic Village. The Flea currently operates from its semi-permanent location inside of Tyler Village. The liveliness of the market can pump life back into underutilized spaces, even if it’s just for the day.

"The amazing energy created by the Flea was critically important to us being awarded an ArtPlace grant," notes Michael Fleming, Executive Director of SCSDC, which won a $375,000 grant for the Upcycle St. Clair project in 2013.
Both a job and a passion

For some vendors The Flea is a fulltime job and for others it’s a passionate side job.
“You don’t have to quit your day job to be a part of the flea — but you can,” Sheldon says. Take longtime Cleveland bartender, Mike Gulley for example, he experienced a lot of success at The Flea and made artisanal soda his fulltime job with the creation of Old City Soda.
His unique soda flavors, including hibiscus, strawberry-ginger, grapefruit and lemon and shaved ice boozy snow cones, became an instant hit at The Flea. When Gulley met Sheldon, he had already been creating small batches of sodas to make cocktails at multiple Cleveland bars. In the early phases of The Flea, he taught a maker’s class on how to make ginger beer at home.
“There was a point where I was getting so popular at the flea that I thought somebody could mimic what I was doing pretty quickly,” says Gulley. “I give the Cleveland Flea credit in pushing me out of the gate and to Stephanie for pushing me off of that entrepreneurial edge. “
He views The Flea as a test market and forum to sell before going somewhere bigger. Without projected numbers and feedback from The Flea, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting investors. “It gave me a direct audience, instant feedback, and I gained an instant following,” Gulley says. “There were people coming up to my stand and buying ginger beer to stock up until the next month’s flea.”
On the other side of the spectrum, there are vendors like Nathan Pozderac of Nathan’s Coffee Roasting. Pozderac lives in Valley City with two small kids and happily works full-time at the family owned business. In his spare time, he’s passionate about roasting fresh quality coffee from small cooperative farms.
Pozderac sells coffee online but doesn’t have time to sell at multiple markets. He vends at The Flea simply because he likes the people he has met and the validation of seeing others enjoy his coffee. At The Flea he serves over 300 pour overs throughout the day and usually roasts about 26-30 pounds of coffee.
For Kelly Pierce of Great Lakes Outfitters, The Flea is a temporary pause from Internet sales that allows her to create relationships with customers face-to-face.
Pierce has a fondness for bellbottom jeans, platform shoes and 50's swimwear.  When she got laid off from her job in 2008, she began selling vintage online. Through her innate passion for shopping or “treasure hunting," her hobby snowballed organically into becoming a full-time small business.
Pierce has sold women’s vintage clothing on eBay for 10 years and on Etsy for about five. “When somebody in an Etsy group mentioned that the Flea was looking for vendors, in back of my mind I knew that I wanted to do shows because the Internet is lonely,” she says.
Typically 35 percent of Pierce’s monthly revenue comes from a single busy day at The Flea. She values the event for the exposure and feedback on her items — but most of all, she has grown to love her fellow Flea venders.
A community of makers

Pierce’s sentiment seems to be a common thread when weaving together the overall impact of The Flea. Perhaps The Flea’s single greatest success is the tight knit and supportive community of makers that it has cultivated and the self-motivated entrepreneurial spirit that they share.
The Flea has played a role in the launch of about 40 businesses and in the growth of 150 businesses. Some owners started their companies there, while others used the event as a launchpad to grow to the point where they could hire a full team. Some entrepreneus have graduated to storefronts, while others have expanded their customer base, rebranded and rebuilt their online image or tested their initial product lines. All of the flea's vendors have made strong business-to-business connections and made it onto the radar of the local Cleveland scene.

“I think we live in a time where we want to ask more from our job, we want to ask more from our relationships, we want to be ourselves and we want to make Cleveland the city we want to stay in,” said Sheldon. “We want to find the things we crave, which is a connection to the arts and interesting small neighborhoods. We can create that on our own.”

Read more articles by Jacqueline Bon.

Jacqueline Bon is a freelance writer that has been contributing to Fresh Water Cleveland since 2014. As a journalist by trade and self-taught photographer, she has a lot of curiosity in people and their stories. She is a graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and has pursued film and digital photography for a decade. She is likely to be the first person on the dance floor, especially if you put on Prince.
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