Amie Stepkoski | A Step Above Designs

PHL 3 | Step Above Designs

Today, I sat down with Amie Stepkoski, the owner of A Step Above Designs. Amie is a home stager and re-designer who puts a focus on helping owners sell their homes for top dollar. Amie has had a passion for design ever since she was a little kid growing up around her grandparents flooring and décor business. It wasn’t until 3 years ago that she decided to turn her passion into a business, and she began studying and learning a much as she could. Fast forward to today and she had helped many home owners sell their home for more money!

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Amie Stepkoski | A Step Above Designs

In this episode, we sit down with my good friend, Amie Stepkoski. She is a Stager and Re-designer with A Step Above Designs. Amie and I have worked together on several real estate transactions in the past. She has been a huge help to my business, helping my sellers understand the importance of redesigning their homes. I’m super excited to sit down with Amie. She and I both think about business and life in the same ways. We have that same approach to business and life. There’s a lot of value that Amie brings to the table and what she does. She’s super passionate about staging, redesigning, building relationships, and working with sellers. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

First off, tell everybody about what you do and go from there.

Thanks for having me, Donnie. I’m excited to be here. I appreciate you thinking of me. I started a stage and redesign business years ago. It’s A Step Above Designs. I decided to do that because I had previously been teaching when I was raising my kids. We homeschooled as well. We were in the schools, homeschooling, and all the things. Once I got older, I knew that I wanted to do something that was more driven by my passion, which has always been designing and real estate.

I love real estate. I’m a Realtor.com stalker, checking out all the neighborhoods, what’s going on. This was the perfect way for me to combine my passion with a lot of experience I got. We moved eight times in the first twelve years that I was married. We bought and sold seven homes in that timeframe. Every time, we achieved top dollar because I was particular about how I showcased our property for the market. At the time, I honestly didn’t know it was staging. It turns out, that’s what they call it.

Is this something you’ve always naturally gravitated towards or had a passion for from early on?

Yeah. When I was young, my grandparents had a flooring and decor business. It was Brights Home Fashions up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My grandfather did all the flooring. My grandmother bought home accessories. This was a long time ago. At the time, the custom-made draperies were super popular. She had someone in there that did the wallpaper. I would go visit them in the summer and decorate my future home. I loved it. I went to market with them when they came to Atlanta to buy for the store. It’s something I always enjoy.

You did this for your friends and family for a long time. Why not start the business earlier? If this is something that you enjoyed doing, why didn’t you do that earlier?

When I was in college, I changed my major probably ten times. My dad was like, “How many credits are you going to have? How many different colleges?” Design was my major for a little while. I honestly knew that I wanted to have children and wanted to be available for them. That was my priority. I ended up going into teaching. I got a Master’s in Special Education. That’s what I did at first and it was more focused on being able to balance life with a family and still work, be home with them in the summers, and that sort of thing.

Designing was my hobby. I enjoyed decorating my own home. I would help my friends when they needed help. They usually called me because they knew I loved it and liked my style and everything. It was a hobby at that time. Once my kids got older and we were wrapping up the homeschool thing, I thought, “I’ve been teaching a long time. I want to do something fun.” It wasn’t fun anymore. Also, I wanted to transition from the hobby to a legitimate business where I could generate an income to contribute to our family.

You finally decided, “Now is the time for me to venture out and start this business.” Is that an easy decision? Was that difficult?

It was super exciting. I knew I had a natural eye for design, but I’d never been trained in design. I jumped into everything I could get my hands on to learn about staging and design. I got several certifications in that. I wanted to understand the why behind things so that I could educate my clients and not just say, “Trust me, that looks good.” I wanted to learn my craft and I did that. That was super fun. I then realized I had to learn how to run a business.

It’s a whole other level of learning.

That scared me because I’m not a salesy person at all. I’m married to a salesman. I always thought, “I could never do what he does.” It’s funny when you think about, “What do I want to do with my life?” People say, “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.” When you do what you love, you still have to learn how to run a business, even if that’s not your thing. Honestly, that part was pretty scary. I invested in that, too, learning how to do that. I tried to find people to learn from, mentors, business coaches. I realized you have to do hard things a lot consistently and get out of your comfort zone all the time. There are rewards, so it’s worth it.

Let your every word be empowering and educational.

You hit on some good points there. Starting a business is not easy and not for everybody. Getting out of your comfort zone is the biggest thing and being okay with failing. All those things are going to make you successful and happy with your business. At first, you were like, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to start my own business.” What did you envision your business looking like at that point? Is it different from what it is now?

For sure. At first, I thought I wanted to do everything. I want to do vacant staging. I want to have a warehouse. I want to do occupied staging. I want to do all of it. I had these big dreams about that. I knew it would take me some time to build inventory and whatnot. I started out renting furniture from a national furniture rental company. I bought my own accessories and I would use that in jobs. I honestly realized that I didn’t love the vacant side of things.

It’s fine to start with a blank slate. I was enjoying working with clients face-to-face, one-on-one. In my occupied consultations, I meet with the homeowner in their home, and we spend a couple of hours together. I use what they have as much as I possibly can and rearrange things, find the gems that they have throughout the house. That’s fun. To me, it makes that seller excited because they’re like, “I wish that you had come here when we moved in. This place looks great.” It builds them up. It makes them super proud of the property they have that they’ve invested in. That whole interaction was my favorite part.

With the vacant, it’s fun. I might go with my headphones and go to work when I get there. It’s quiet. The homeowner is not there. They moved out. It’s a beautiful finish because you’ve got all chosen items in there that create one cohesive look. I say that because I decided that I didn’t want to do the vacant. The warehouse, no thanks. I didn’t want to be a moving company. That’s what it felt like.

I wanted to focus on the occupied homes, which meant I was going to try to find realtors to partner with like you. All along, I had been part of my trade association, Real Estate Staging Association, Tampa Bay chapter. I got involved there and met other stagers that focus on vacant. We partnered together. That’s even more fun because I’d rather support them and their business than the national rental company. It’s more of a collaboration and a lot of fun.

You’re able to focus on your niche, on the things that you enjoy doing, and then find partners to do those that you don’t enjoy doing. What is it about the relationships or the occupied homes that you enjoy so much? Is it the connections with the people and their reactions?

It’s that. Also, it’s more of a challenge when you’re trying to use what they already have. You know what it’s like walking into some of those homes and it’s like, “This is going to be challenging.” I am strategic in the words that I use. I want every word to be empowering. Also, to educate them on why behind the recommendations I make because that creates buy-in.

If they understand why and it’s not a judgment, it’s not me saying, “I don’t like your taste.” It’s a marketing strategy. I enjoy sharing that. It gets homeowners excited because they want top dollar for their homes. They see the vision and understand the why behind everything we’re doing. They’re proud of their home in the end. A lot of times, they’re like, “Why am I moving?”

“I want to stay here.”

The challenge is fun. Sometimes I’ll bring in some awesome accessories to give it the wow. They’re amazed by what that will do. A few items transform the place. Sometimes they buy them. Sometimes they’ll go shopping and find something similar, but they’re like, “This is beautiful.”

The buy-in is the hardest part. We’ve had that discussion before about painting one of the big things that people are hesitant to do. That makes a huge difference, especially with someone who has a dark home and everybody’s looking for light and bright. There are a lot of grays now that people are enjoying. Creating that buy-in is a challenging part. How do you work around that? How do you create that buy-in? You touched on it there a little bit.

That’s huge. You’re right, they don’t necessarily do 100% of what I ask them or what I recommend and that’s understandable. It’s up to them. It’s educating them and explaining why. There are different choices that I would make for staging that I would for design and it’s for marketing purposes. This is the conversation I might have with them. If they have a beautiful area rug in their family room and it’s anchoring their sofa and coffee table, maybe it looks great from a design view.

For staging, if it’s a smaller room, we want to show off the square footage, especially if they have beautiful floors. Let’s say they have new hardwood floors or some new tile. We want to showcase that. The square footage is where the value lies and also those fixed finishes like granite countertops and nice flooring. We want to take things away, like the rug maybe to show off that space. The more your eye stops in a room, the more chopped-up it feels and the smaller it feels.

PHL 3 | Step Above Designs

Step Above Designs: Your mindset has to be in the right place before you make a phone call or send an email.

 

We find the areas where the most value lies, in the fixed assets, like maybe a gorgeous view. We want to make sure the eye goes straight to that view and is not distracted by the art that’s hung on either side of the window. Even if it’s a $30,000 painting, you’re not selling the painting. You’re selling the view outside and that’s where the dollars are. It’s those conversations. I do get pushback on paint. I do win sometimes. I’ve called people before. I feel like it may have been one of your clients once. I made the initial phone call to set up the appointment and before we even got past too low, he told me he was not painting.

Probably because I brought it up in the appointment before.

That’s fine. He didn’t paint. I did choose some colors for him. They said, “Give us some colors. If we decide to paint, we will.” They didn’t paint, but they did get a quick offer. I honestly think it’s because they did all the other things. It’s give-and-take. I had one for someone else in your office that had lime green walls. It looked nice with her decor, but it was modern and not everyone has modern taste. There were some things that she didn’t do, but she did paint those walls. I felt like, “That’s a win.”

It made a huge difference.

When you give them the reasoning behind things and they understand it’s not a knock on their taste, they feel like you’re partnering with them. I’m partnering with you as a realtor and we’re all in this together to get them the most that they can for their home. That makes a difference. If they do 75% of the list, that’s a win.

It still makes a difference even if they don’t do the whole list. It’s creating that team environment. It’s like, “We’re all in this for the same goal. We want to get you the most amount of money that you can if you trust us. We’re the experts in this particular field.” That helps create that buy-in as well. One thing that you touched on was the sales part of it and this is something that I have thought a lot about in my business. It’s not being that “salesy” person. How have you adapted or bought into accepting that role of like, “I am in sales. This is what I have to do, I have to sell myself,” also doing it in your own way.

That was my biggest challenge. I have to work on it every day. First of all, I hired a business coach that was in real estate for a long time and understood my industry. The biggest thing I learned from her is that my mindset has to be in the right place before I make a phone call or send an email. 75% of it is my mindset.

Number one, I know that I have something that will help people. I know that I have something that will make them happy and feel good about this investment that’s probably the largest single investment they have. I’m passionate about homes. What does a home mean? Everyone deserves to have a safe, comfortable home that functions well for them and their family and is a place that they look forward to going to at the end of a long day.

If I look at this as sharing my passion and my expertise with people and they’re going to benefit greatly from this and feel good, happy, and rewarded even in their bank account, why would I not tell them about it? Along with that, I’m not selling every time I call them. I’m building a relationship with them and letting them know that I care about what’s going on in their lives and not even always talking about real estate, design, or staging.

It’s about the whole know, like, and trust. Let them see that they can trust you and that your intentions are to help them in any way that you can, regardless of what that involves. That mindset helps me get excited to talk to someone instead of being afraid. I’m not saying I’m never afraid. It’s constantly talking to myself, “You’re building relationships.” If you look at it that way, it doesn’t feel like sales.

That’s a good point. It’s about relationships. If you have relationships with those people, you don’t have to sell yourself. The person who you are is going to be enough to get the business or whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish.

Another thing that’s helped me too is I joined a networking group, being around other entrepreneurs, other professionals, and learning from them. Also, to have them in my back pocket when I can help somebody else if somebody needs a painter, a home inspector, a chiropractor, a babysitter, or anything. I like to be a resource for people. That’s an act of giving.

Who doesn’t like to hear from someone that they can refer you to someone who has experience with them and knows them? It’s not just, “I’m going to Google and see if I can find a roofer.” I can talk to somebody that knows the company and what company they’ve built. Do they have integrity? How do they treat their clients? How do they follow up when there are problems because there are always problems? You can refer them with confidence because you know them.

Starting or growing a business happens naturally when you think about serving somebody else.

That reminds me of a book. Have you read The Go-Giver?

Yes. I love that book.

It’s being the connector. You’re the middleman connecting all of your people with other contacts you have in your database. It feels good to do that.

When you start a business or when you’re trying to grow a business, you think, “I need to get clients.” It happens naturally if you’re thinking about how you can serve somebody else. It does feel good. You feel like you’ve contributed in some way to helping someone else’s business and also helping a person that needs some help.

We’ve been working for over a year. You’re extremely passionate about staging and doing what you do. Where does that come from? Why are you passionate about it?

It’s what I touched on the whole idea of having a home that people are excited to go back to, spend time with their family, relax at the end of the day, or enjoy the weekend. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I would be. I’m thankful for my family and my husband. We’ve always had a nice roof over our heads since we got married. I grew up with that, too. I grew up in a house that my parents had for over 40 years. I grew up there. I went back there for Christmas with my kids and visited. Everybody deserves that.

Also, there’s so much that you can do that’s not expensive. You can spend a fortune on an interior designer and all the designer furniture, art, accessories, and whatnot but not everybody has that. It’s not always the best investment either. I’m not sure a $10,000 sofa is going to do much for your financial picture overall. It’s great that some people have that. I like to help the people that can’t spend $10,000 on a couch but want to have a beautiful place that functions well for their family and makes them happy when they’re sitting there. I like to help them find ways to achieve that without breaking the bank.

That’s huge because most people don’t have a ton of money to spend on their homes. It makes a difference when you have a home that you enjoy living in and enjoy the memories you’re making there, the spaces you have. With some of your past clients, you’ve helped them stage their homes to sell them. They see the potential that there was and it’s not costing them. It’s not breaking the bank to have that space.

I’ll then go back and help them in their new home and redesign. With my redesign, I approach it the same way. Let’s work with what you have that you love and then we can build a design around that. Whatever your budget is, whatever your timeframe is, if you want to do it in phases, we can do that.

That leads me to the next question I have about going back to the business and the day-to-day aspect of running a business. Something we’ve touched on before is time blocking and having that balance. As realtors, there is no off time. You’re always working. There’s always something to do in the business. How has time blocking been for you? Have you found ways to balance that or ways to help improve your time blocking?

That was a big deal for me to learn. When I first started keeping a calendar, I would block out a few hours and say, “I’m going to work on social media and emails.” I found that it was easy to get distracted off-track if I put broad topics or scheduled broad things on my calendar. Two hours are up and what did I accomplish? Maybe I was going to post something on social media and then I got sucked in and I didn’t post. Instead, I read a bunch of things.

I realized that with time blocking, the key for me has been to be specific, task-oriented, and not broad ideas. I have to time block everything. I time block my quiet time in the morning when I first get up. I exercise. I time block when I’m going to take a shower so I can get out the door and every meeting. Also, emails regarding follow-up with so and so or create five posts for this week. I schedule a time to post them, which I still do myself. I could probably use Buffer or something. I want to see what I feel like posting at that time.

It’s being specific. Also, time with my family and time to do every responsibility I have. As parents, you’ve got to do things at home, do things for your spouse, for your kids, block time for all of them, and then your job. You could work constantly. There’s never a time when it’s like, “I have nothing I could do right now.”

PHL 3 | Step Above Designs

Step Above Designs: The key for time-blocking is to be specific and task-oriented.

 

That doesn’t exist.

Also accepting that and knowing, “If I’m consistent and every day or every week I hit these goals for prospecting, marketing, or face-to-face, it’s going to happen.” You don’t want to burn yourself out either.

That goes along with being patient. If you say, “Here are my goals and here’s how I’m going to achieve that.” You break it down to the daily tasks you have to do every day. You stay consistent with that. It’s hard. Something I struggle with as well is time blocking and being patient. You want to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time, but it doesn’t work like that.

You have to be patient. You have to stick with the process and let it take care of itself. Time blocking allows you to be like, “I accomplished what I set out to accomplish that day.” You can enjoy the time with your family and enjoy the downtime that you’ve scheduled instead of thinking, “I didn’t get things done.”

It’s freeing. I try to sit down on Saturday or Sunday. I time block my whole week. I don’t have to stress about, “I have to remember to do this and this.” I have it on the calendar. There’s nothing to stress about. It’s a learning process all over and over again about how long something’s going to take. There are always things that take longer than you expect and whatnot. Usually, when I sit down to time block for the next week, I look back the week before and I’m like, “I didn’t get to this and this. Let me make sure I put that in this week’s schedule,” and being okay with that. Also, looking back and saying, “Look at all I accomplished.” Give yourself credit for that.

That’s a hard thing to do. Sometimes when you catch yourself looking back, you’re like, “I had a good week,” or, “I had a good day.” We get caught up in what we did and didn’t do or what we wish we had done. It’s that gap concept or whatever it is that you’re like, “I’m short on my goals, so I didn’t have a good day.”

We’re good at beating ourselves up. If we could say, “Let me stop and look and see what I accomplished. I talked to ten people today and I sent out seven emails that needed to go out.” You’re going to see on that calendar what you accomplished, so you can’t deny it. We love to deny our successes for some reason or forget about them.

Look back at what you’ve accomplished and give yourself credit for that.

Why the heck do we do that?

I don’t know. That’s not the way to live, but we’re all guilty of it at some point.

It’s always a work in progress. Amie, I appreciate you joining us. I hope everyone reading got some value out of it. I’m sure they did. If you’re thinking about starting your own business, go for it. It’s something that everyone should do to achieve their dreams and their goals. I appreciate you sharing your insight and struggles with us, too.

Thank you. It was fun to be here. I appreciate you having me.

Lastly, if anybody is looking to find you or follow you on social media, how can they get ahold of you?

I have a Facebook page, A Step Above Designs. I post a lot on my personal page too, which they could check out, Amie Stepkoski. I’m on Instagram, @A.Step.Above.Designs. I have a website, AStepAboveDesigns.com.

Go check her out.

I hope you found some value in that conversation with Amie. There’s one thing that stood out to me that I wanted to point out. She is constantly pushing herself out of her comfort zone. She talked about building those relationships or not being comfortable with sales, but she knew for her business that it was something important that she needed to accomplish and overcome. It’s a constant battle. It’s not something that you push through once and then you’re good to go. It’s going to be smooth sailing from there. That’s not the case. It’s something that is constantly a work in progress, day in and day out.

With every conversation, sometimes you have to pep yourself up and realize or talk to yourself that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Amie hit on that perfectly. It’s something that has brought her success in her business and allowed her to do what she’s been able to do. If you’re having trouble with a space, whether you’re selling your home or maybe you’re living in your home and you need some help, give Amie a shout. You can find her on Instagram or Facebook. Thank you all for reading. I hope you have a great day. We’ll see you next time on Palm Harbor Local.
 

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