When 23-year-old Leo Kowal decided to attend a friend's birthday party in 2005 in Downers Grove, finding love was the last thing on his mind.
"I had been putting so much energy into the wrong people, and things hadn't worked out, so I decided to stop worrying about finding a relationship and just focus on me," said Leo, who was working for U.S. Robotics in content development and tech support at the time. "So I started working out and got really into my photography, and of course, when you're not looking for something, then it shows up."
That "something" was 24-year-old Mary Rudakas, who made an impression as she made her way through the crowd. The feeling was mutual.
"I saw him and just got this good feeling in my gut," said Mary, now 32. "I knew I liked him, and I was always trying to see where he was in the party."
They talked all night, bonding about their creative passions and mutual love of music, and quickly became inseparable.
"I'm looking at Mary and thinking, 'She can be a model!' and there's this website (istock.com) where people can purchase photography for professional purposes, so I started shooting her for these different shots, and we sold a lot of those pictures."
"When he told me he wanted me to model, I was like, 'Shut up! I'm not 6 feet tall. That's ridiculous,' " said Mary, who at the time was a project manager for a printing company. "But that was our first taste of making our own money without having a boss, and we were like, 'Wow!' "
By fall 2007, they'd moved in together in Downers Grove. Then, in 2008, they shared more than an apartment: They were both laid off.
To take her mind off the situation, Mary put her creative side to work, helped along with a Christmas gift from Leo's mom: an electric cutting machine, which produces intricate designs on paper stock and other materials. She used it to create paper designs that the pair sold on Etsy, the e-commerce website that sells handmade and artisanal items.
Mary's designs sold so well the pair decided to awaken their inner entrepreneur and work for themselves.
"One weekend we made a couple hundred dollars selling her designs, which was amazing," Leo said. "So we thought, 'We might have something here!'"
Leo created their own website, SVGCuts.com. (They're still on Etsy too). By January 2009, they had a solid customer base selling their two- and three-dimensional paper products, ranging from cards to decorative boxes and figurines.
"With no overhead, our business was pretty much profitable from the beginning," Leo said. "And we didn't want new jobs that we hated. Now we could spend time together and work for ourselves. We kept building and building, and almost five years later, we've gone from a hundred or so visitors a week to almost a million page views on our site a month."
As their business grew, so did their commitment to each other. Leo proposed in fall 2011. "He surprised Mary by putting the ring in a box of organic cookies after a trip to the store.
"I thought it was a practical joke," Mary said with a laugh.
They were married in September at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
"It was supposed to rain that day, but it didn't," Leo said. "And as Mary was coming down the aisle, the clouds parted and the sun came out. It was amazing."
More good news was en route. Before the wedding, Leo had entered their business into Martha Stewart Living's "American Made" contest, which spotlights U.S. businesses that create handmade products. A few weeks after the wedding, they learned SVGCuts.com had won the top prize. They received $10,000, as well as a trip to New York to meet Stewart and to attend workshops with other craft enthusiasts.
"The event ceremony for 'American Made' fell right smack in the middle of our honeymoon," Leo said. "But we made a road trip out of it and got to see the East Coast. I had never been to New York, so it was really awesome."
"I've been a fan of (Martha Stewart's) since I was about 8," Mary said. "To actually meet her in person, I was ready to have a panic attack. … And it was our honeymoon, which made it even more special!"
Now living in Lily Lake, outside of St. Charles, Mary and Leo work from their home and are the only two employees on the payroll, putting a combined 120 hours a week into their business. But it's a labor of love, in more ways than one.
"Nobody could do what Mary does with coming up with all these designs," Leo said. "She teaches me patience."
"He's so good at multitasking, but I need to do one thing at a time," Mary said. "And I'm almost afraid to talk on the phone, but Leo will help everyone. We're a good mix that way."
And while the road to having a successful business and relationship wasn't smooth, they both believe every misstep brought them to where they are today.
"If I had done anything different leading up to the day I met Leo, I might not have met him," Mary said. "Sometimes I think about that. Just doing one thing differently, and I might not have gone to that party. It's incredible."
"All these little pieces were put into place, and then we came together," Leo agreed. "Even with our jobs. I was doing other jobs that involved customer service and photography and all these other things that help in my business today. … So even when you don't think you're doing what you are supposed to be doing, it might come in handy later on. You just never know."
Before meeting Leo Kowal, Mary Rudakas said, she had a pattern of dating "bad boys." But right before she met him, she said, "I had this epiphany. I'd read that book 'He's Just Not That Into You,' and I realized I wasn't going to waste my time on someone who doesn't treat me the way I deserve to be treated. I had been into guys who let me down or were mean, and I just decided I wasn't going to put up with that anymore. Then I met Leo and thought, 'He's such a good guy. I really like him.' "Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun