These UC design grads always wanted to open a cute little shop. Now they've got one -- and more

Handzy joins Covington renaissance
These UC design grads always wanted to open a cute little shop. Now they've got one -- and more
Posted at 12:00 PM, Apr 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-30 16:13:43-04

COVINGTON, Ky. -- A few years ago, when she was considering a name for her new branding/design business, Brittney Braemer read a news story which described the singer Justin Beiber "getting handsy with" another celebrity, Kendall Jenner.

"I was just, like, 'What an interesting word,' " she said.

Since her business involved lots of hands-on work, she thought the name would be perfect. So, in the grand tradition of naming startups using common words spelled incorrectly, she called it Handzy.

Handzy's now operates out of a small storefront on West Pike Street, just east of Madison Avenue in Covington, in a neighborhood that's having something of a renaissance.

How did it get there?

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning in 2014, Braemer worked for a year for a local design firm, creating packaging for Procter & Gamble feminine-care products. It was long enough for her to realize it was not her future.

She began doing freelance design work, as well as designing stationery and selling it at local flea markets. In May 2015, she leased a small studio space in Brighton and started Handzy.

In October 2015, she was joined by fellow DAAP graduate Suzy Strachan, who had been teaching canoeing to at-risk youth. That was fun, Strachan said, but not sustainable.

"I was living in the woods most of the time," she said, "only interacting with 14-year-old boys."

While walking in Covington in the summer of 2016, Braemer came across a "cute little storefront," available for rent at an affordable price. In school, she and Strachan had often talked about opening a cute little shop one day, and this seemed perfect.

"So, we were like, 'Oh (expletive). OK, I guess we're going to do it,' " Braemer said.

It was a neighborhood that looked on the rise, with new businesses like Braxton Brewing Co. opening nearby.

"There is a big creative community here," Braemer said.

Dan Nagel is a retired accountant, and he is Handzy's mentor through the local chapter of SCORE.

"I think they caught the wave at the right time," Nagel said. "The city is putting a lot of money into developing the area between MainStrasse and Madison."

What do they sell?

In the retail store, primarily paper products, such as stationery, greeting cards and journals. Some are Braemer's and Strachan's own designs, but others are from local artists or other artists they've met on Etsy.

"When we shop for new stuff, we always ask if we can find it anywhere else," Braemer said. "We want people to feel like they're finding hidden gems here."

Store sales cover the store's operating expenses, but about 70 percent of the company's revenue -- between $5,000 and $10,000 a month -- comes from branding and design work. That's primarily creating branding packages for businesses and customized wedding stationery for brides.

Handzy could make more money doing just design work, Braemer said, but the owners love running the shop. It also gives them an outlet to connect with people and tell them about their design services.

What's next?

This is the year of steady growth, Braemer said, and also the year to see how Handzy's experiment with workshops works out.

As a way to get more people into the store, Handzy began hosting workshops on Sunday afternoons, when the store is normally closed to retail customers. The topics have included calligraphy, flower arranging and meditation/self-care.

The workshops help boost retail sales, because participants get a 10 percent discount.

In March, the business hired a part-timer to help with design work. They hope that giving her some of their workload, and eventually making her full time, will give them time to work on some new products.

What's been the greatest challenge?

Cash flow. Handzy had a paid intern from DAAP last year, whom the owners had difficulty paying because a large client stiffed them on a bill, Braemer said. She and Strachan had to skip a couple of paychecks, she said, so they could continue to pay the intern.

"That's the scary thing about having employees," she said. "They come first."

A willingness to try different ways of making money has really helped the business, Nagel said. The owners' magnetic personalities are also an asset.

"People want to be with them," he said.

For all startups, he said, the greatest challenge is establishing a reputation and attracting customers.

"They have done a great job with that," Nagel said.