Graduate Feature: Sarah Kirkpatrick - QC Design School

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I am an entrepreneur and a business woman. I own a digital marketing boutique, which specializes in social media marketing and overall marketing strategy for small businesses. I began doing seminars in real estate brokerages, which opened up doors for me to work with businesses in the real estate and housing industry. I leaned into these and found myself falling in love with the industry as a whole!

I had always really enjoyed interior design, and would rearrange my parent’s house frequently. When I bought my first home, we tore it down to the studs. Technically, this became my first large design project! I absolutely loved it. When I bought my second house, it was already in such good shape that I used it as an opportunity to ‘style’ and refresh the home cosmetically. I loved this even more.

Outside of running my marketing business, I would help friends and family style and design their homes. I spent any free time I had seeking out thrift shops and scouring them for underpriced decor that I could flip and sell. It became pretty clear that the design industry was where I found joy.

COVID-19 really allowed me to turn this ‘hobby’ into a business. During the first few months, I took the time to complete my decorating and staging certifications (through QC Design School) and start my business. Thanks to my extensive rolodex of industry contacts, word spread fast!

Now I run both businesses and look forward to getting to work every single day!

Your business, Unshelf Design, offers home staging services for real estate agents. How popular is this service? How often do you partner with a real estate agent to sell a home?

Because my connections were mostly real estate agents through my marketing company, this was the fastest and easiest service to get going. There are quite a few ‘stagers’ in the area. But we have niched ourselves in to work with those people with smaller budgets, who want to use their own furniture whenever possible.

People have some amazing things in their homes already! We love to work with what they have and pack away what does not serve them. We also have a storage space full of our own furniture, plus some of our best thrift-finds (for clients who need a bit of a boost). Because of this, real estate agents can easily bring us in themselves, or recommend us to their clients when they’re getting their homes ready for listing.

You also provide clients with interior decorating and personal home staging services. Is there a certain area you prefer most? If so, why?

They are so drastically different! It’s not so much that I like one more than the other. It’s more that I like the different aspects that each service provides.

Being an interior decorator is really fun because it involves creating a bigger impact in people’s lives. I enjoy helping my clients create that vision. We get to play with colors and styles, and put together schemes that they love. We get to go shopping for decor, furniture, lighting and other design elements that have a huge ‘wow’ factor.

Importantly, we have a ton of fun doing it, and we get to do a big ‘install day’, which is fun for everyone involved.

Home staging is the opposite. We are designing for the general public and de-personalizing the space. We always believe in staging with an audience in mind. That often means that there needs to be ‘personality’ and design, but not personal taste. These are whirlwind projects that we are in and out in a few days, for the most part.

We only use their existing furniture and supplement with smaller decor. Because we don’t really get a chance to plan in advance, it requires a lot of thinking on our feet, and being very hands-on onsite. In most cases, you’re working right next to the client.

I need them both in my business because I like to be able to commit to long-term projects, but I also like the variation and excitement that comes with the short staging projects.

Tell us about your most popular business service, “Designer for a Day”!

Sometimes, people just want a designer to come in and help them. They don’t want to give the whole project over to someone else, or begin a large, expensive endeavor.

People love the ‘designer for a day’ service because they get a decorator on-site to brainstorm with them and support their ideas. Most importantly, we can help them bring all of their ideas together into one cohesive theme. They get someone to go shopping with, someone to help move things around, etc. It can also help them push themselves outside their comfort zone, and receive big payoffs in only one single day.

It’s also a taste of what they could get if they were hire us for more than a day. After all, people like to taste before they buy!

You also offer your clients DIY Interior Design consultations. What’s included within this service?

DIY is huge in design right now! Pinterest boards are plentiful for inspired home owners looking for ways to love their homes again and get creative. But not everyone has the budget to hire a designer, and some people just actually love to do the work themselves.

So, the DIY Interior design consult gives them access to an interior decorator, who will come over and offer a professional second opinion on their space. I give ideas, recommendations, and ask questions to get them thinking. I also follow up with a written report of some of the key takeaways we talked about, so they can get started on their project with confidence.

You’ve graduated from both QC Design School’s Interior Decorating and Staging for Designers Courses. Why did you choose to pursue your training online instead of in-person?

Because I own another full-time business, I couldn’t take the time off work to do in-person classes. It’s as simple as that!

What made you decide to enroll with QC Design School?

I liked that it was accredited by the Better Business Bureau. I looked up a few schools and found it was really important for the program to have merit. Students and grads from QC also have access to reputable design associations, such as the DDA, RESA, CARAHS, and POC.

After looking at a few online schools, I kept seeing ads for QC Design School everywhere. So, when I was ready to pull the trigger, QC was top of mind (speaking from the marketing perspective, haha).

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your QC training?

For me, I found that the value of the course was not such much in the content itself, but the feedback I received from my tutor. Do what you think is best; not what you think will get you the best grades. This way, you can get professional feedback and advice on real situations, as well as on your own style and process. This is invaluable!

What advice would you give to an aspiring designer who wants to start their very own business?

Honestly, I would not have started my own business had I not had years of experience owning a business first. It doesn’t really matter what the industry is – owning a business is a beast of its own. You can be great at something and love to do the work, but when you actually own that business, what you love to do becomes 25% of the overall workload.

My advice is if you do not have business experience, start by working in a small firm first. This way, you can be hands-on with all aspects of the business, and learn without the burden of ownership.

If you have run a business before, then know that this is no different – you just get to have more fun! Remember that you have to start at the bottom again. This means putting effort into networking eventslead-generating emails, and building up your marketing from zero. There is no piggybacking.

How has your career been impacted this year due to COVID-19? What steps have you taken to overcome the challenges you’ve been faced with?

Since we got started during COVID-19, so far I only really know a COVID-world as an interior decorator. Things like virtual consultations were an obvious service to offer right upfront. But working with realtors has helped! Because the industry is so heavily regulated, following their lead for safety within people’s homes has been straightforward.

Describe your favorite project so far! What made it exciting for you (design style, the clients themselves, the scale of the project, etc.)?

The projects that have the biggest transformation are the easiest to love.

We worked very closely with a contractor (and the client that merged my two specialties: design and staging). This client had a rental property that was very outdated and run-down. They needed to flip it and sell it quickly.

I was brought in to create the design concept for the flip. I was responsible for choosing new paint, cabinets, backsplash, countertops, light fixtures, fireplace stone, and other little, easy updates. I also managed the sprucing up of the backyard, which included new garden beds, painting the deck, adding sod, and exterior painting.

I not only came to the project with the eye of an interior decorator; I also came with the eye of a home stager. I was able to see what needed to be redesigned completely, plus what could be touched up in order to keep costs down. After the design was in place, I then staged the main rooms (the main floor, kitchen, bathrooms, master bedroom, deck, and gazebo) as well.

It was a 3-week turnaround in total, and the house wound up getting an offer after only 3 days!

You can see the full project with crazy before and after pictures here.

What’s on the horizon for Unshelf Designs in 2021?

I actually started the business off with offering professional organizing as a service, but have since decided to niche into home staging and interior decorating. A place where I want to really make a name for myself is actually in the rental market (i.e. Airbnb, Vrbo, etc).

In 2021, I’m going to really start pushing for more projects related to getting people more money for their rentals. This, too, will be a merge between staging and interior decorating – and this is really where I get the most excitement.

I also hope to bring on a design assistant near the end of next year, and grow the business that way!

Want to learn how to become an interior decorator? Enroll in QC Design School’s leading online Interior Decorator Course today!

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