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When the worldwide economies tanked last September, Kerry Derwent-Robb felt the repercussions more than many people. The Halifax, Nova Scotia mother of two quickly lost her assets in a company she’d worked hard to build, along with the financial independence it had given her.
But had she not faced that adversity, she probably wouldn’t be where she is today, with a freshly minted home staging business and the exciting opportunity to introduce a revolutionary new product to real estate, building, and home staging industries.
Derwent-Robb grew up in Ayr, Scotland, a large town on the southwest coast near Glasgow, and a mere 20 minutes from the world famous Turnberry Golf Course, which has hosted the British Open a number of times.
When she was in her teens, her father began 3D Golf plc, a company that offered golf vacations around the world, and soon after she’d finished school, Derwent-Robb decided to join him and her brother in the company. For the next 22 years, she helped build 3D Golf into one of the UK’s largest golf holiday specialists.
Six years previous to starting a businessof her own, her husband, Alasdair, retired from the Royal Air Force, where he’d worked as an air traffic controller, and started looking for work as a civilian. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport needed air traffic controllers, and the family decided to move, landing in Oakville, Ontario.
“We flew like Mary Poppins across the Pond,” says Derwent-Robb with a laugh. Three years later, Alasdair found work in Halifax, and the family settled there.
With her stake in the family business helping to support her, Derwent-Robb devoted her time to raising the couple’s twin boys, Bradley and Cameron, and doing volunteer work. Then the economic turmoil began, which hit the travel industry hard. That, combined with a drastic decline in the Euro, meant 3D Golf faced some tough challenges, and while the company survived, the financial independence Derwent-Robb had enjoyed for so long was shattered.
For the first time since her youth, she needed to look for work.
“I thought 'oh my god,'” she says. “I thought, 'what can I do?'” Working out of her home would be a drastic change, after years of being there for her growing boys. “I was trying to figure out a way to recoup what I’d lost in a way that I could still look after my boys -- still always be here for them.”
One day, Alasdair suggested she consider becoming a home stager. She’d always had a flair for interior design, and had made her own home a showpiece. Home staging has become a big industry in the last decade. While real estate professionals have long prepared homes for sale by “staging” it -- that is transforming a home to make it more appealing to potential buyers -- staging came into its own as a separate profession in the 90s.
Stagers reduce a home’s flaws and accentuate its positives in any number of ways, both inside and out, and research suggests that home staging can reduce a listing’s time on the market by one-third to one-half. It can also help fetch as much as 15 percent more than an empty home or an improperly staged home.
Derwent-Robb seized on the idea. It would put her talents to work and allow her some freedom and flexibility in her workday. She began by enrolling in an online program in order to become qualified, so she launched Chips and Kerry Home Staging. (The name’s a whimsical play-on-words of a favourite snack of her Scottish youth -- chips and curry.) Qualification in hand and website in place, she was ready to begin looking for clients.
With her sales and marketing background, Derwent-Robb knew the importance of market research. What did her customers -- the real estate agents in her area -- want from a home stager?
She held an open house at her home, inviting a number of Halifax agents, and opened up the floor to their ideas. One desire came across strongly. Many agents wanted to be able to furnish a home at a moment’s notice. In major markets, such as Toronto, staging small businessesoften have warehouses full of furniture they truck to homes to show them off for faster sales, but not in Halifax.
“This is the Maritimes,” says Derwent-Robb. “It’s very different from Ontario. It’s like chalk and cheese. That isn’t here yet.”
And delivering on that need seemed daunting, if not impossible. “Maybe in the high end specialized markets, but for the average Joe, it’s not accessible,” she says. “I thought it just being me, and I have a young family -- I couldn’t afford all the overhead, and a place to store all the furniture and a big truck.”
Then inspiration struck. “I thought cardboard!” She Googled “cardboard furniture”, and to her delight, she found a U.S. company that was manufacturing and selling furniture made out of cardboard for this exact purpose.
NextStage Furniture was only about a year old. Kevin Neilsen, the founder, often found himself called on to help his wife, a home stager, move heavy furniture here and there after he’d already put in a full day of work. He thought there had to be a better way, and he came up with a rough prototype. He showed it to a friend of his, who designed a more finished prototype, and the two men realized they were on to something. NextStage had begun.
“I thought holy smokes,” says Derwent-Robb. “This is exactly what I need.”
Cardboard furniture suggests something flimsy and cheap looking. But NextStage Furniture is remarkably sturdy (supporting more than 1,000 pounds), shaped like real furniture and, once covered, indistinguishable from the real thing. To the stager, the benefits are obvious: A loveseat weighs only 25 pounds, you can fit an entire home’s worth of furniture in a van, or carry around a few rooms in a Honda Civic. And it’s a huge savings -- you can own four NextStage sofas for the price of a single real one.
“It’s like the Staples advert,” says Derwent-Robb, referring to the office supply chain. “You press a button, and everything seems to work. That’s how I wanted my company to work. Whatever a client wants in regards to furniture, they give me one phone call, and it’s taken care of. It’s not a case of, 'oh my god, I’ve got to organize and get stuff in the warehouse and organize trucks.'”
But beyond her own use, she could see a lot of potential for the product. “I thought, well if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” she says. Kerry called up Neilsen, and learned that the Eastern Canadian market was open. And before long, she’d negotiated to become the exclusive agent for Ontario eastward, with a website at www.homestaginghints.com.
While she was already getting staging work, both getting Chips and Kerry going and working on selling NextStage required funding. And that required a business plan. She contacted the Centre for Small Business Financing (CFSBF) and began working on a business plan with the help of a senior consultant. With the plan in place, she began making the rounds, but was initially frustrated.
Her consultant suggested that, rather than refer to the NextStage furniture as cardboard furniture -- which might seem cheap and flimsy -- she call it “Magic Furniture.” She established a relationship with RBC, and was able to secure a $20,000 business loan. Even better, the manager she was dealing with also serves on the Board of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Education and Development (CEED), a Halifax agency that distributes federal government funding in the region, including the Seed Capital loan. That government loan provides business financing for starting a business or expansion and business development.
She was quickly approved for $10,000 in start up business financing from the federal Canadian government; she received $8,000 in government money initially, and after providing receipts for the expenses it has gone toward, received the remaining $2,000.
With $30,000 of business financing in hand, she was ready to purchase enough NextStage furniture to do a couple of rooms in two different houses, outfit herself with marketing equipment, such as a Mac Notebook to aid her in sales presentations, and work on marketing both Chips and Kerry and NextStage. She also booked to share the CEED booth at the CEED Fresh Ideas 2009 Conference, an entrepreneurship conference directed at youth.
She’s later attended an intensive three-day workshop offered by Canadian Staging Professionals. In addition to building her staging skills, the workshop was a perfect NextStage marketing opportunity -- she was able to network with a number of fellow home stagers. And CEED, which contributes a government grant of up to $2,000 to business loan recipients for the purpose of improving business management skills training and counselling, has agreed to fund half of the $2,000 course, as well as contributing $1,000 to a basic bookkeeping course.
Before, Derwent-Robb hadn’t even considered home staging as a career; now she’s on her way to the next stage and beyond.
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