Prem Sonegra, 34, isn’t a two-time entrepreneur. He’s not even a three-time entrepreneur.
He’s a ten-time entrepreneur.
A variety of businesses have formed under Prem’s leadership since before he even graduated from high school — since he was 13, in fact — and his first businesses were collecting businesses: selling things like LEGO, Pokémon cards, board games, toys, cosmetics.
“I can really understand a collectible market,” Prem says.
He’s still doing collectibles, but these days, he’s gone underground with it.
By which I mean: He’s a crystal seller.
Every Tuesday evening, during live shows on his Instagram, Prem entertains and sells crystals and minerals to eager buyers.
A whole lot of crystals, and a whole lot of buyers.
He might move hundreds of pieces a night at a variety of price points — some under $15, and some ranging into triple digits.
The shows last six hours, and he started them last year, right around the time that the pandemic lockdowns began to get under way.
Timely stuff. Last May, Bloomberg’s Hannah Elliott wrote that crystals are outshining diamonds in the Covid era.
At the time that all of North America was isolating at home for weeks and even months on end, as people searched for ways to continue to connect and find community, Prem, coincidentally, launched his sale shows.
Based on customer comments, people seemed to gravitate to his crystal shows for the love of the product, yes, but for a secondary purpose of accessing community, a sense of connection, and maybe even lending cadence, structure and a brief entertaining respite to a weekly schedule gone topsy-turvy.
Around 100 people tune in at any given moment to listen to Prem talk about, and show, crystals. Some people join in for a few minutes only, popping in and out, while others stick around for the entire show, listening to Prem discuss, for instance, amethyst mines in Thunder Bay, or the metaphysical properties of labradorite.
Prem says that as a child, he had a small rock collection. Like many childhood rock collections, it was eventually disposed of by his parents, but he says his prized specimen was actually the yellow Tonka truck he used to carry the crystals around.
The truck was lost in childhood, too, but a few months ago, he bought himself a replica of the truck (pictured at the top of the page), to remind himself about his geologic roots.
He says he’s planning to display it in the showroom where he does his Instagram shows.
He first became aware of crystals as an adult a couple of years ago, as he had a friend running a similar business in the United States. Prem had long been interested in geology and ecosystems, and he went to a few local crystal shops for research, whereupon he realized he could do the same, but better. Prem describes himself as someone who can take in a ton of information at once and synthesize and retain it. He says he also likes to learn everything he can about topics he’s interested in.
So when it came to crystals, Prem learned the names, the origins, the metaphysical properties, the physical, scientific properties, and the geology. He might study what type of formation it is, where it comes from, how it’s made, how it’s mined, and, perhaps most importantly, how old it is.
“When I started seeing the same numbers, millions of billions of years — I can’t comprehend that number,” Prem says. “And here I am holding it, playing with it. Amber sometimes has insects in it, and it’s incredible to think: This actually trapped a creature millions of years ago. Or Kambaba jasper, which is a fossilized moss colony. It outlived the dinosaurs.”
There is obvious reverence in his voice as he talks about this, and I understand why. I feel a similar draw about these tiny gifts from our planet: It seems miraculous to look at them, and then think about just how long it took to form beautiful, intricate structures of vibrant color and depth that can be held in the palm of the hand.
Magic can appear, after all, as the simple passage of time.
“I get to share this experience with people,” Prem says. “During the show, it’s exciting to tell people, ‘You get to hold this and own this. This is a part of our history.’ And when they take a chance to breathe that in — that the youngest thing here is 500 million years old — it’s always powerful.”
Prem has converted his natural enthusiasm for the product into an incredibly successful business, during a time when very few new businesses launched, and even fewer found success, in part by cultivating great relationships with his customers as well as his suppliers.
He runs a proudly Canadian business, and he won’t work with third-party suppliers. He speaks to locals; all his suppliers are based in North America, and he is either speaking to the person who owns the mine or has direct contact with them.
He’s yet to go visit the mines due to Covid travel restrictions, but there are some Canadian mines for which Prem is now the exclusive buyer, and he says it’s not uncommon for them to find something new and call him directly.
The buying process is done by volume, so that the seller will tell him roughly what the material is, and he’ll name a weight — 50 kilos, say. The bulk purchase price has “six zeros” behind it, which he says is more purchasing than he’s ever done, and the numbers often stress him out.
Plus, neither he nor the seller knows exactly what the package will contain until it arrives at his Toronto-based office, so unboxing the new specimens is always accompanied by anticipation for Prem and his staff.
I asked him if he ever keeps things for himself.
“That’s happening too frequently,” he jokes. “With crystals, I’ve been breaking that rule about not sampling your own product. I found a piece of septarian with a starfish fossil from millions of years ago.
“It’s like that old drug dealer joke — I try not to get high on my own supply,” he says, though he says he does occasionally stumble across pieces, like the septarian, that he wants to keep. He says he made the mistake early on of not retaining certain special pieces from a batch for himself when they came through, not realizing that there are certain pieces that come available only rarely, such as moldavite.
Prem is a crystal generalist in that he likes to own one of each type of specimen, but he also has certain favorites: amethyst, citrine, and quartz.
He describes a recent sale wherein a stunningly clear quartz enhydro arrived that had been fully polished and looked like a large medallion. Enhydros often form around water tables, and they have trapped pockets of air and water inside the crystal, which sometimes moves. The water contained inside these specimens is more than 100 million years old.
This particular specimen had an especially large water bubble inside it. Because it had been a pre-sale for a customer, Prem had no option but to proceed with the sale, though he described it as a wrench.
“I’m like, ‘How do I keep this now?’ But I had to go through with the deal cause that’s who I am.”
Prem says the hardest parts of the business are the financial stress inherent in making purchases with six zeros behind the dollar sign, as well as learning the intricacies of taxes, installment payments, and financial projecting. He also has found that handling so many heavy specimens has taken a physical toll on his hands. After more than a year of handling specimens that might weigh up to 25 lbs each, the muscles in his hands and fingers have grown about three inches. As a result of putting on all this new muscle, his hands are stiff, and he’s added stretching, ice baths, and physical therapy to ensure his hands stay healthy.
He’s also an essentialist, which means he prioritizes himself and his health over making money.
“I prioritize my sanity and home life, my family,” Prem says. “So instead of doing ten shows a week, we’ll do one. One show, really well done, so I can have weekends off, so I can have nights off with my wife and pets. They need to see me. I don’t believe in working 12-15 hours a day, and I don’t believe in grinding, grinding, grinding.”
With Prem’s previous businesses, like when he sold Pokémon cards, it wasn’t uncommon for friends to pull his wife aside at parties and ask, with concern, “Is that a real business?” and she would have to reassure them: yes, it’s real, and yes, he makes good money at it.
In fact, at the time, he was one of the biggest vendors in Canada.
These days, however, when people find out what Prem does for a living, it’s more common for the person’s eyes to light up in recognition and intrigue. He says roughly one out of three asks a follow-up: Can he source a particular stone or specimen for them?
Perhaps these folks are remembering fondly their own childhood rock collections, or they simply are one of the millions of people who have bought into this fast-growing industry, which experts have pegged at around $1.5 billion.
“It’s such a great way to connect,” Prem says. “When I show people pictures of geodes, people always love those. It’s really cool who’s interested in this. And it’s every walk of life, every type of person. Everyone wants a cool mineral or geode. I’ve only run into a small number of people who weren’t interested at all.”
I ask Prem why he thinks people are so drawn to stones.
“Beyond a deep psychological analysis,” he says, “they’re so fun to look at. ‘This is an amazing piece.’ ‘This came from the earth.’ Or with polished pieces, ‘How did someone get this from a rock?’ You can find new crystals all the time, so you can always expand your collection with something beautiful, natural and real.
Prem’s shows run on his Instagram every Tuesday evening beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. He sells small handheld pieces as well as larger, museum-quality collectibles.
But if you happen to see the yellow Tonka truck in frame, don’t bother — that one’s not for sale.