First by the Heart, Now by the Handzy: Suzy & Brittney’s Story
Handzy Shop + Studio co-owners, Brittney Braemer and Suzy King, are two ladies who embody the entrepreneurial spirit through a commitment to each other and their definition of success. It was warm enough outside to leave the door open last week when we joined them in their shop to talk about the idea origins of Handzy, work-life balance, and their insights for entering the entrepreneurial space.
Tell us about yourselves.
Brittney: I’m newly married. I have two dogs. Handzy is my life. If you’re looking for what I do for fun: I enjoy my family, I work on my house, I read – that’s all. I know that’s boring, but I’m living my dream. I moved from Lancaster to go to the Cincinnati Art Academy for a year. My grandparents live down here, so Cincinnati has always been a home away from home for me. Then I realized the academy wasn’t where I wanted to be and transferred to University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program to do fashion design. After some foundational courses in that program, I tried out graphic design instead.
Suzy: I had a similar path to Brittney, but I’m from Cincinnati. When I graduated high school at the ripe old age of eighteen, I was ready to say, “I’m out. Okay, bye.” So, I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design for a year. I studied graphic design there, but then I thought about how the cost of tuition wasn’t really worth it when I had such a good design school back at home. I loved Savannah, but it was around that time I realized how important family closeness was to me. I moved back here and I haven’t looked back since.
After college, I think Brittney and I both knew the corporate design path wasn’t for us. Brittney worked for a corporate design firm and pretty immediately understood, “I was right: not for me!” For me, I think I always knew that wasn’t how I was going to do graphic design. So, when Brittney quit her job and said, “I’m going to do this thing, and you should too,” I was ready to try it. Now, Handzy’s my life too.
What’s Handzy’s origin story?
Brittney: When I graduated, I thought I was going to work as a waitress for a year to balance the burnout I was feeling after school, but the moment I got a job offer, I accepted it. I think I was money-hungry. They were offering me a salary and benefits, and it was simply hard to refuse. It was an awesome job with a lot of learning opportunities, but I would say about six months in was when I knew. I found myself imagining all these scenarios that would make me late for work or make it so I couldn’t make it in at all. Still, I wanted to stick it out for a year, and in the remaining months I began making plans for what would eventually become Handzy. I left that design firm in May 2015 and I secured a studio in Brighton. I had already been doing design work for Eli’s Barbecue, so they were one of my first clients. The owner, Elias, connected me with a lot of great small businesses. My studio was in his building, so really, he gave me a space – he gave me my clients. He really helped me out and believed in me from the beginning.
Basically, Handzy started as just freelance graphic design. We started printing cards and selling them at the City Flea once a month during the summer. Suzy came on board around October, bought a desk and a music speaker, and moved right in. It was somewhere around then that we secured our first monthly retainer client and that allowed us to have stability while we grew in other ways. In May of the next year, we saw this place in Covington up for rent and I said to Suzy,
“Hey, remember when we used to joke about having a really cute store? Let’s call this guy and see about rent.”
Then she called, we looked at it, and the rest is history. That’s really about all the planning that went into it.
Now, we have so many facets to our business. We have consulting and branding work for clients, custom wedding design, retail, our own line of stationary and goods, and we host creative workshops.
Suzy: Even in the beginning when we didn’t have a lot of work, we were both really good at just showing up. And we are pretty good at being true to us. We were both committed. We would meet at 8 a.m. every morning and were eager to figure out how to make it work. I paint things, and she handles the lettering. We occasionally switch it up, but for the most part that’s what we do. That’s how we knew we’d make good partners. We’re effective at critiquing the other’s work and not all people can do that.
Brittney: We both know our strengths and weaknesses. That doesn’t mean if there’s something I’m not good at, I won’t try to get better, but at a certain point we lose efficiency if we don’t approach projects with a plan for each of us to use our individual strengths – it comes intuitively and honestly.
Your team hosts quite a few community workshops like flower arranging, letter patching, meditation to name a few. Where did the idea for workshops come from and how do you choose your subject matter?
Suzy: We recently had a goal setting session where we reviewed each other’s personal and professional goals for the year and really hashed it out – that’s when we decided to do workshops. We brainstormed about all the talented people we know, knowing that we’re very open-minded to anything. And with every workshop theme, we find a way to bring stationery into it. For example, when we had our “Meditation Workshop,” we provided stationery for reflective journaling at the end of the session. It’s fun to find connections in things that maybe aren’t obvious at first.
Brittney: In addition to that, we are finding substance in retail through our creative workshops. It’s how we answer our own questions of “How can we have a greater impact?” or “How can we build more community connection?” as a retail shop. And it helps us keep learning about our business as well.
Where do you see the business being in a few years from now? What’s your ideal business situation?
Brittney: In five years, we’re going to be millionaires. I mean look, you’re interviewing us now! Who knows what could happen in the future? But, I would honestly say in the next five years we’ll be in the refining process. Like I said, we have our five revenue streams and we’d like to become even more comfortable with the percentage of work going towards each of them. We want to find the right effort balance and have time to do more fun stuff like workshops. Oh! And next year, I think we’re going to move. If all goes as planned, which it never does, we’ll have a place that can hold us as well as our first part-time employee, Leah Kroeger. She’s the shit. We’re hoping to have her work full-time at some point next year and have a whole small team in the works.
What are your thoughts on work-life balance? What are your strategies?
Brittney: When it comes to strategies, it has honestly just been about making the decision. Even scheduling this interview at 4:30 p.m. was almost breaking our rules – not that we aren’t interested, but we often have people that want to meet later in the evening and there are many times we just have to say “no.” Because as soon as we start bending the rules, even a little bit, then we’ll find ourselves working crazy hours. So, we decided in the beginning that work-life balance was important and we keep it in mind in most of our business decision making.
Suzy: We also have a personal trainer. You have to be healthy to work, it turns out. We go in the morning before work and it’s a great way to start the day. It’s also something we haven’t been able to afford on our own as individuals, so it has become a corporate benefit! Another thing we do is close the shop on Monday. It’s a good thing because every other day of the week we’re literally trapped here. It’s not like we can both just leave the shop unless Leah is here.
Not to mention, we have to do everything together. We know this isn’t the most efficient thing, but it’s just who we are.
That’s why we made Mondays our day to build into ourselves. Maybe it looks like us working in the morning and then going to get a manicure, or maybe we’ll go to Coney Island. This year, we even got passes. We’re super aware of how crazy our summers can get with wedding season and craft fairs, so we wanted to build in a time for us to go to the pool.
Brittney: As you can probably tell, there’s an efficiency even in our downtime and I think that’s because we prioritize it almost just as much as the work we do. We know it’s a balancing act and we have our goals. If you want to be a millionaire in five years, you have to schedule out some time for self-care.
What life experience prepared you most for the business and your current lifestyle?
Suzy: I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit – a very independent spirit. I also don’t like to be told what to do. I remember even in art class growing up, teachers would say, “Let’s make this pastel project,” and I would manage to use colored pencils, too. I just wanted to do my own thing. I would do the project, but I would find a way to make it my own. That drive to make my own way has always been there.
I’d say my biggest life experience that changed my path, or if this hadn’t happened I would have gone a different way and I’d be working at design firm right now, was taking a NOLS course ‒ an outdoor wilderness expedition experience ‒ instead of co-oping through school for a semester. After that, I taught canoeing through Voyager Outward Bound School for two summers. I basically graduated from university and moved to Minnesota to work that job. The course was transformative because it gave me a different perspective on what life could be after graduation and gave me confidence in my abilities. And when school was over, I felt prepared by that experience to come into my own and be confident in my abilities. I felt like I could pursue anything and if it didn’t work out, I could just move on and find something else.
As part of the female entrepreneurial space, what advice can you give to women aspiring to start their own businesses?
Brittney: Just show up. People ask us for advice all the time and it’s difficult because I don’t know if we have some magic formula or gut instinct that we rely upon. It’s not some pretty picture like that, because we’re scared a lot and we’ve had to try so many things to make it work.
Another thing is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. One of the first steps we took when we started the business was to find a mentor through SCORE, a free business counseling service in Cincinnati. We knew there were things we didn’t know, but we didn’t want to waste time learning things we didn’t need to know. It helped us figure out when to outsource and how to delegate tasks. Most importantly, I think it’s about realizing you can do what you want to do. My grandparents would ask, “What kind of job can you get by studying what you do?” It’s not that they weren’t supportive, but it seemed like there was this “thing” I was supposed to do and I wasn’t doing it. I’ve learned you don’t necessarily have to follow the way of the world.
There’s also something to be said for the world being a different place now. Last generation, you couldn’t be an Instagram celebrity. Now, you can! I look at people who work “9-to-5s” and I don’t believe that work style is dead, but it certainly isn’t the only way. Starting your own business is about being open to what work can be. We’re building something we think is really authentic and it’s paying off. We know that success is whatever you decide it is.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
Suzy: Definitely my mom. She’s my number one, influential woman, lady boss. My mom was a special education teacher and did that for years and years. Then she got cancer, which threw a wrench in her life and our family life. We ended up moving to be closer to my grandparents and I had to switch schools. The doctors told her she had a thirty percent chance of living. It was a crazy time. I still feel like I didn’t fully understand what was going on when it happened – I did and I didn’t. And yet, she was awesome through it all. That’s just my mom. She couldn’t be a more positive person. It’s been a ten-year remission and she’s fine now.
From that experience, it’s as if she’s been freed. She was positive before, but now it’s like the world is endless to her – she’s almost on an entirely different planet of positivity.
She also always pursues what she wants. Right now, she’s babysitting kids because she likes hanging out with them. In the past, she even worked at a smoothie place up the street from me simply because she loves smoothies so much. I don’t know how she does everything she does. Sometimes, she’ll call me in the morning to say, “I’m just walking the dog. It’s gorgeous out here,” and it’ll definitely be raining outside. Truly, if I could be like anyone, I would want to be like her. Let it be known that Brittney is also my inspiration.
Brittney: So is Suzy. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, is my person. She’s been married for sixty-some years to my grandpa. They own a drywall business, where he does the drywall and she basically runs the rest of it. She’s a total fashionista with incredible outfits for days. They have a boat. Every anniversary they go on an international trip, even though they’re in their seventies. While we’ve butted heads in the past, she continues to inspire me because she’s so in charge of her life and how she lives it. I love that. How we want to live is something Suzy and I think about when it comes to our business and that has a lot to do with her role in my life.