It was about two years ago that Mary Catherine Kunze reached the critical moment faced by every small business owner. “I kind of came to that fork in the road where it was like either I’ve got to put my all into this or I’ve got to get a big girl job,” she said with a laugh. “After a lot of praying and soul searching I decided to take the plunge.”
The plunge has been a successful one for Columbia native Kunze, founder and owner of Uniquely MC. The company creates purses, handbags, backpacks, clutches, messenger bags and pillows, each one made by hand and no two alike.
The road to being a business owner and artist was not a direct one for Kunze, who currently makes all the products. “I went to school [at Winthrop] for interior design, and up until that point I didn’t really know that I was skilled in artistic things,” she said. “Going to college really opened my eyes. I was like ‘Oh, this is a God-given gift.'”
Kunze returned to Columbia after college, working at a since-closed antique store and at Fabric 101. It was at the latter job that a woman came in to buy fabric to make a handbag, and an idea was sparked.
“The next day I went out and bought a pattern and made my first bag,” Kunze said. She posted pictures of the bag on Facebook to positive reception from friends, and requests to make things for others followed. Kunze found that working for two local small businesses was a positive thing. “They were very encouraging of me, wanting me to like take a step forward since I was thinking about it.”
She moved forward with getting business and retail licenses, and sold her first bags at the antique store. Her bosses helped her with the business side, which was unfamiliar ground, as did her father, himself a small business owner. “It takes a whole village to make something like this happen,” Kunze said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned, I need help.”
The business which had started as a hobby grew from there. “It’s definitely had its ups and downs, but I’m able to still hang in there, which is saying something, I think,” Kunze said. She has sold hundreds of bags, and her products are now for sale locally at Silver Spoon Bake Shop, Good for the Sole Shoes, Tapp’s Art Center (where Kunze does most of her work), and Soda City Market.
The growth has come through positive word of mouth and social media buzz. Kunze sees many repeat customers, buying multiple items for themselves or as gifts for others. She also finds many people coming to her after seeing others carrying her creations. “The word of mouth thing is huge,” she said.
Kunze can work with a customer to provide just the right bag. She does not copy designs from other manufacturers, but offers a wide variety of styles of her own creation, and is ready to tweak those patterns to suit each order. “I name each of my bags after someone I care about in my life,” she explained. Her newly launched website shows some examples, from the Alicia Backpack to the Kaitlyn Clutch to the Sherrie Bag.
Asked about the hardest part of starting and running a small business, Kunze said “I think just the endurance not to give up, and to push past the fear factor.” She also said the struggles have been worthwhile.
“Just a genuine connection with people and getting to share my story and hopefully encourage them, that makes it all worth it,” she said. “Also getting to be creative and it be appreciated… getting to do what I love.”
More information on Uniquely MC products is available here.
Featured Image: Mary Catherine Kunze at her Soda City booth as Independence Day approached (photo provided)