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Women's Entrepreneur Series: Kelly Collier, a Realtor Turned Interior Designer

I had the incredible opportunity to sit down and talk shop with Kelly Collier, the owner of Plot Twist Design, LLC (@PlotTwistDesign). I was eager to meet her and share her story with you because she has built her own business as a realtor and interior designer - a one-stop shop! - all while holding down her full-time career. She is a real-life "Wonder Woman", and when you get a chance to speak to her, her spirit and energy are contagious! So let’s just jump into the interview, where she drops a ton of wisdom about both her business and philosophy on life.


Kelly Collier of Plot Twist Design


@MackofAllTradesNY: So tell me a little bit about your journey. I’m curious. I know you went to school for design, but how did you get into real estate?


@Plot_Twist_Design: I purchased my first home when I was 21 and I was young, married and pregnant, so I felt like I needed a house. The agent who helped me was actually the seller’s sister. I realized after the fact that I didn’t get as good of a deal as I could have because of that. For example, I didn’t really get help negotiating the price, I wasn’t told about first-time homebuyer’s grants and things that I probably would have qualified for at that age. The experience left me with the feeling that I want to help other people one day avoid a similar situation. I learned the hard way that dual agency can be tricky and ethically it probably shouldn’t even be allowed.


But long story short, I learned. And by my second home purchase, I was my own licensed Realtor for my deal! I did it part-time for a while and I have been in and out of escrow with my license. (In Pennsylvania and some other states they allow you to essentially suspend your license for awhile if you want to be inactive for an extended period of time. They call in being in “escrow”). So I did it a couple times but I’ve always had a love for design.


A couple of friends knew this about me and asked me to decorate their homes. It was to the point where one of my friends literally gave me their credit card and said, “Can you go do my bathroom?” And another asked me to help with their bedroom. I mean, it’s fun spending other people’s money for them and helping them make their homes more beautiful!


Photo Credit @ Plot Twist Design


I also realized when I purchased my current home almost four years ago, it was the first home I had purchased as a single woman on my own. That was a proud moment. I realized that I could finally do whatever I wanted. I could make it girly, if I wanted. I could have the white sofa, if I wanted. Also my daughter was in college now so it was really left up to me to make it my own. Decorating this house helped me to realize that I want to start this as an actual business. After getting my interior design business going and taking design courses at Temple University, I then realized that now was the time I want to bring my real estate license back as well. My goal is to marry the two passions that I love: Real estate and interior design. I want to offer clients a one-stop shop. And the concept proved to work that way even last year during 2020 and the pandemic.


So long story short I still have my corporate career of 20 years or more and I’m still juggling that with my interior design business.


@MackofAlltradesNY: With your business, is it something you plan to do on the side or is there an exit strategy from your corporate job?


@Plot_Twist_Design: I haven’t worked out the strategy or when it's gonna happen. For me, I didn’t start this with the idea that I’m gonna leave my job early or retire early. But after the first year, I realized that is something I’m going to want to plan to do. As far as adding real estate and making sure that was gonna work? Now I’m really going to start investing. Like you, once you build up a certain number of doors you have the cash flow cushion. When the time is right. I’m going to make that transition.


@MackofAlltradesNY: That’s reassuring because I don't have it all figured out yet. I’m trying to make that transition but it’s not that cut and dry.


@Plot_Twist_Design: No, it’s not. I have a good design friend of mine that I met when I started. She was transitioning to leave her marketing career. In the third year of her design business, she also flipped a couple of properties with her husband. Watching her flourish was really inspiring, so I think when you see other people doing something and it’s working for them, and their business keeps coming, that’s inspiring. I don’t think she had this long plan. I remember her saying it took like maybe six months to plan or do or so.


Photo Credit @ Plot Twist Design


@MackofAlltradesNY: So you are definitely balancing a lot, how do you manage it all? What systems and structures do you have in place? What tasks do you hire out?


@Plot_Twist_Design: I do have a very small team. In fact it’s four people, three are my family. My daughter and two nephews. I also brought on an assistant towards the end of the year as needed. She works full-time and wants to do this as a living so I’m mentoring her as well. It helps if you have people you trust and know. Being part-time, I’m not in a position yet where I can hire someone full-time or even have a number of consistent hours each week. So I usually bring in people for assistance loading up stuff on install days and for unloading. We also started using receivership which handles the white glove delivery and assembly for install day. And of course I hire out things like wall paper hangers, painters, and contractors. I finally have a nice list of go-to people. It takes time to come together but now it’s finally flowing.


@MackofAlltradesNY: What would you say was the biggest challenge when setting up your business?


@Plot_Twist_Design: Oh my gosh! Starting my LLC itself. Once I decide to do something, I'm doing it. Right?! So I was literally on my daughter’s 21st cruise setting up my LLC. I was so determined that by the time I got home I had to call Penn File like two or three times, because I made a couple of mistakes. They were really good walking me through it. I just felt like I wasn’t going to pay someone to do something I could sit and figure out for myself. That was the biggest challenge. Starting up. Other than that making sure you check the boxes that it takes to start a business legitimately like getting your tax id number and all that stuff.


@MackofAlltradesNY: When you reach out to someone, whether it’s a financial adviser or contractor, how do you screen whether or not they are trustworthy?


@Plot_Twist_Design: The first time I needed to have contractors bid on a project for me I reached out to people I knew for referrals first. Three people were referred by a combination of my realtor and a few friends. When they came to the job site, which was my client’s house they all bid on a job and gave their pricing. I let my client weigh in on the selection process too, because also you had to consider their budget and that they are the ones paying for it.


Initially it was a risk. She went with the cheapest one and there were some challenges with him. But one of the contractors that I thought she should have used (after the experience with the one who gave the lowest price), was the guy with the middle price.I ended up needing something done in my house, so I reached out to him and hired him myself. He did amazing work. From that point on he’s one of the guys I use regularly.


You have to take risks in the beginning unless you have stellar reviews to go on. It doesn’t hurt to DM designers in your area to see if they have recommendations. Task Rabbit is always a risk. Season Two of my podcast series is actually all about design and construction. We are five episodes in but one of the biggest red flags that we talk about is: don’t ever pay anybody before they’re done. You should be leery of those contractors who want money up front. Some will want a small retainer, which makes sense, but they definitely shouldn’t be hounding you during the process. Most contractors who are good are so busy that they don’t need the money immediately. Those nine times out of ten, the ones that are harassing you, just want to hurry you up so they can be finished and then you end up getting a rush job in the end. So be careful.


@MackofAlltradesNY: Do you mind talking me through your design process and how you tackle it?


@Plot_Twist_Design: Sure! From the beginning, it starts with a discovery call. People either DM me or some will take the time to go on the website and fill out the questionnaire, which is preferred. Then when it comes through I’ll respond and set up a discovery call. Once we decide to move forward there’s an official consultation. After the consultation I'll send a proposal and the summary of what we discussed. Then it’s time for them to approve the proposal. After that happens we collect the retainer and then we start the project.


Next we start sourcing items, making all the purchases, receiving the smaller items and then inspecting all items. Large furniture is sent to our Receivership where they receive, inspect, and store everything until install day. Once everything is in we schedule the install. Install ends up being a lot of work because I typically get photos done at the end of that install day as well. That’s pretty much how it works from soup to nuts!


Photo Credit @ Plot Twist Design


@MackofAlltradesNY: How did you get your next clients after your friends and family? What was your marketing strategy?


@Plot_Twist_Design: When I first started the business it really was friends, coworkers and people I knew. They were super happy to support, which was nice. After that it was really word of mouth. For example, one of my coworkers, which was one of my first projects, had a neighbor who was literally waiting for me to finish the bedroom so they could see it. Once it was done the neighbor was scheduling her consultation that night. It’s pretty nice because that’s the best way to find an ideal client. It ‘s usually those in your sphere of influence who are more willing to support you in the beginning.


Photo Credit @ Plot Twist Design


@MackofAlltradesNY: Some designers like to cater to their client’s style. Other clients seek specific designers out for their unique design style. Where do you fall on that spectrum? Do you have a signature look?


@Plot_Twist_Design: I do but I also don’t. Of course I have my own aesthetic that has even evolved and changed over the last 2 years. There was one project that really stretched me. It was a farmhouse glam dining room. How to mix those two styles was a challenge but I did it and my client loved it, which felt great!


My goal is to make the client happy with whatever they want. I’m not here to persuade somebody to go with a modern look if they want traditional. They have to live there so I think it’s best to take the ego out of it. So then the issue becomes that you get full creativity and to bring that to life.


There are some clients that want to micromanage everything. I think that is something we have to be careful to figure out during the consultation. Consultation should be an interview both ways. A client should be interviewing me to make sure they like me and that they trust me. Beyond what they see on IG, I'm a real person and they should be able to pick me because they trust me to get it done. My job is to interview them to figure out can I work with them? Am I a good fit for them as well?


Photo Credit @ Plot Twist Design


@MackofAlltradesNY: Sometimes people feel like people look at design as a luxury. How do you deal with smaller budgets?


@Plot_Twist_Design: In the beginning I didn’t really have a minimum budget requirement but now I do. And it’s not because I want clients to spend a lot of money. It’s because realistically it costs a certain amount to finish a room. Also for me to be able to be efficient and for me to pay my team it’s going to cost a certain amount. It’s not just the cost of the items, it’s also the cost of time and labor (aka the design fee).


Right away in the discovery call I’m going to look to see if they can afford my design fee plus a good budget. And if they can’t once we go over the scope of work, then I try to figure out a way where maybe we can break the project up in phases. Maybe you don’t do your whole first floor right now. Can you furnish an empty living room for $2500? Yeah, but where is the furniture going to come from? Is it wise to buy furniture that you are going to replace in 2 years or less if the price is right now? So certain things like that are part of the conversation.


Also, what you’ll see is that when you have an unrealistic or tight budget it will make you work harder. It’s almost impossible to find decent artwork of a certain size for less than a few hundred dollars or so (aside from HomeGoods, etc). Things like that are just a conversation that clients need to be walked through. Some people don’t remember what it costs to furnish a living room because they did it over time. I explain to people that for example, the mirror you see in my living room is from Z Gallerie. It’s almost 7 feet tall. I think it was around $700 and it’s a leaner mirror, but when I first moved in here it wasn’t a priority so instead there was a $99 HomeGoods mirror there as a placeholder. When you have a lot to do you have to decide what is most important to do first, so maybe we won't do the grand piano right now and instead we will circle back to that later.


Photo Credit @ Plot Twist Design


To say the service is a luxury is a true statement but the second half of that truth, which I actually added to my website, is that interior design is essential to everyday life. It’s not just about expensive things or pretty things, it’s about how your space functions. Is your space set up the best way it can be? And after last year we all figured out it’s essential to actually love your space that you have to be in.


@MackofAlltradesNY: Oftentimes it’s hard as a female putting your goals out there. It also can be difficult asking for your value. How did you navigate that in your own business?


@Plot_Twist_Design: Every project taught me something different and taught me about my worth a little bit more. What I had to quickly learn is it doesn’t matter how long you have been doing something. If people like your work and you do a good job and you know you can provide the same level of service to help a person get their goal accomplished, you need to be confident and comfortable asking for what your service is worth (to you). For me, I did a lot of benchmarking with designers in my area who are two to three years ahead of me. I was much lower than them in terms of pricing in the beginning. I think my consultation fee was like $50. That’s like just enough money to cover the gas. Over time I found myself raising my prices almost every other project. You get more confident the more work you get. I’m still not where I want to be but I’m comfortable with the progress.


@MackofAlltradesNY: What advice would you give to young people who are starting out in the design world or in real estate?


@Plot_Twist_Design: Allow yourself to be a beginner because you are not going to know everything overnight. I don’t care if you get a degree or just a certificate or a real estate license, you’re gonna learn from experience the best. So it’s really a good idea to get a mentor. Choose someone who is doing what you want to do. And get a person who is successful at it. Successful doesn't mean 100k followers on Instagram either. Younger people shouldn’t get caught up on having a huge social media following and all of that. That will come over time and it should happen organically. Please don’t pay for followers. It’s not going to make you a better real estate agent or designer.


Some other advice, don’t get into either for the money. Do it because you love it. If you’re only doing something for the money, you are not going to be happy. There are times that you aren’t going to make much. What’s going to drive you when you aren’t looking at this big old commission check? Be creative about the services you offer too. For a designer if you don't have a bunch of family and friends nearby that will patronage you, do something at your own house! That takes a lot of courage, but start with that and go from there.


@MackofAlltradesNY: And lastly, many people say, “Well, I want to start a new business but I don’t have the money to do that.” What are your thoughts on this?


@Plot_Twist_Design: Well, you do need money. You need some money. Honestly, it probably takes a little more to become a realtor than a designer because with design you don’t have to take classes whereas with real estate you do. With real estate there are the classes, the exam, and wherever you hang your license they will charge a split of the commission. And then there are all these fees that are due bi-annually/ annually/quarterly ongoing.


For the design side I feel like if you have the talent, you can build an Instagram page for free, build your own website for free to start your business. If you want to do it where you are going to have an official LLC from the beginning, that will cost you some money, but there are many people who wait a year or two to do that. If you are going to start something from the beginning, then, yes, it does cost a little bit, but you can’t let that deter you.



Well, there you have it, folks. Kelly Collier is such an inspiring entrepreneur and I am super grateful she shared her time and wisdom with me. If you have any questions, you can always follow her blog at or check out her podcast at PlotTwistDesignLLC.com. She’s a huge proponent of helping others, so don’t be afraid to reach out to her. And if you are in the Philadelphia area and are looking to buy or decorate a home, she is definitely your gal! She will be able to walk you through the process from start to finish and ensure you end up with a home you love and deserve. Thanks, Kelly!


Forever Grateful,

Mack

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