The Story of Krystal Kelley of Staged by Design

Apr 18, 2024

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Krystal Kelley of Staged by Design

By Nesha Ruther

Krystal Kelley always had strong creative instincts and knew from a young age she wanted to work in media. She graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in Broadcast Communications and International Studies and immediately began working in live TV. “I got into broadcast because I thought it was a way to have freedom of speech and on a deep level I was very interested in production and production value,” she says.

Over time, however, Krystal became disillusioned with the industry. “After seven years of working in network news, I came to dislike the way information was dispersed. In my soul, I didn’t feel I was creating content that reflected my values. All the news was so fear-driven, the principal was ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ I felt myself becoming desensitized to being a human.”

One day, she simply had enough. She walked out of the newsroom and never looked back. Unemployed and a little adrift, Krystal began looking for other opportunities. “My mom’s neighbor at the time was a real estate agent and she was very busy and needed an assistant. I thought ‘I like real estate, I like design, and that goes along with production value, so I became her assistant,” Krystal says.

Over time, Krystal’s appreciation for real estate became less a marriage of convenience and more a true passion. Her creativity allowed her to identify a house’s best features and communicate it to the buyer and she enjoyed the interpersonal aspect of getting to meet people and help them find their dream home. She quickly got her license and became a real estate agent herself.

In the early 2000s, it was customary to list homes on the market exactly as they were, outdated furniture and all. “I remember walking into my first listing and thinking from a production sense ‘woah, this home is not presentable,’” she says. The practice we now know as staging, where someone designs a home with the express purpose of selling it, was practically unheard of.

“I asked the homeowner, ‘Can I take the liberty to rearrange some of your things’ And I practically redid the whole house. No one was staging homes, no one was hiring professional photographers, home listings were barely even online yet.” For those listings that were online, prospective buyers were likely to only find a handful of low-quality photos of the home. Krystal, however, after redecorating her listings to make them ready for market, would take high-quality photos of every room.

That first listing quickly sold, as did her next one, and her next one. “I was the youngest agent in my office and all the other agents were like ‘How do you keep getting lucky with all these cute listings?’ I was like, ‘It’s not luck. I’m doing this,’” Krystal says proudly. Before long, her coworkers were asking for advice as to how they could better prepare their listings for market.

Krystal enlisted a friend from the TV station where she had previously worked who had a passion for interior design, and together they began fixing up the homes of her fellow real estate agents. Before long, the demand grew to the point where they had a viable business on their hands. They called it Staged By Design.

Staged By Design quickly took off. Krystal’s time as a real estate agent had left her with valuable connections in the industry, and by the time she started the business, she had a ready-made customer base in her former coworkers.

Initially, it was challenging for Krystal to convince real estate agents that staging their listings was even necessary. It was still a novel practice, and as in any industry, some people are skeptical of anything new. “There were so many agents in the beginning who would say, ‘I can’t convince my homeowners to pay to have their home staged.’ But I realized that the agents who got it tended to be the most successful with their listings, and then the numbers spoke for themselves,” she says. The statistics made it apparent that staged homes by and large not only spend less time on the market but sell at a higher price.

In some instances, Krystal would have agents who initially rejected the idea return to her after a house had spent months on the market. “I would go in for an assessment to see what was going on and usually those homes would have personal photos on the wall, furniture that was highly stylized to their own taste, and the photos online would be dark or blurry. A house like that would sit on the market for six months unable to sell. I would come in and stage it, often the homeowners wouldn’t even lower the price, and suddenly they would have multiple offers.” In those cases, the value of staging was made explicitly clear, and Staged By Design would have gained a client for life. “We were a value-add business,” she says. “That was something I always felt good about because even though it cost the homeowner money, it was an investment in their home. People’s homes are often the biggest investment they make in their entire lives, and we were helping to maximize that.”

Krystal’s creative instinct and her time working in TV production had perfectly equipped her with the eye for detail and design needed to successfully stage a home, even when she didn’t have much to work with. “There are two different kinds of staging. One that’s vacant staging, and one where you work with people’s furniture,” she explains. “In the beginning, we didn’t have much furniture of our own, so we used the homeowners’ couches and chairs and things. Even if they were ugly, we would buy accessories like pillows to spruce it up.”

As the company grew, however, so too did their staging techniques. “As we evolved, we would have [homeowners] move out and we would bring in all our own furniture so that we had consistent sets of furniture for each house,” she says.

In the same way Krystal knew to emphasize a house’s assets when working as a real estate agent, she selected different sets of furniture to better suit the home. “We had traditional furniture for more classical homes, we had mid-century modern for those homes, but the one thing that was unique about us was our artwork. As an artist myself, I always felt that art elevated staging.”

It was very important to Krystal that every piece of artwork Staged By Design used was an original. This allowed the staging to feel distinct and personal, not like the prospective buyers were looking at a catalog or a hotel room. “A lot of the work was from artists that we knew and to this day I believe that’s what set us apart and brought some soul into our staging,” she says. “You couldn’t walk into Target and see the same piece we had hanging on the wall. Particularly for upscale homes, it made a huge difference.”

The value placed on creativity was essential to Staged By Design’s business philosophy. Every artwork, piece of furniture, and listing was a creative opportunity. “We would have days in the warehouse where we would take all our broken furniture and accessories and turn them into something else. We always felt that each house needed a special piece of art or furniture that allowed the buyer to feel at home.”

Making someone feel at home is not as simple as it sounds, however. The spaces and objects that evoke feelings of comfort are highly specific to the individual and their tastes. For me, home could mean an oriental rug and exposed brick, while yours might be shag carpeting and wall-to-wall bookshelves. In staging homes, Krystal had to tap into a highly individual feeling, while also making it apply to as many people as possible. Essentially convincing as many people as possible that this home was made specifically for them.

“Staging is very challenging,” she admits. “But I think having the real estate background helped because I knew when I walked into a house who the most likely buyer was going to be.” If Krystal had a home on a quiet suburban street, in an excellent school district, she knew it would be wise to stage one of the bedrooms as a nursery or kids’ room. A condo, on the other hand, is more likely to be staged for a couple or a single young professional. “Whenever we were staging a home, we would be thinking about who the ideal buyer was, and we would try to embrace that essence and stage to what that person might like. Sometimes that meant taking a risk and being way off base, but most of the time we weren’t.”

As any creative will tell you, instincts are everything, and Krystal’s instincts were accurate more often than not. “There are always personal preferences that come into play, but a lot of times I would just sit in the house and try to become the buyer for a brief moment. I would think ‘If I had this house where would I be sitting, where would I put this furniture, and I could just feel when it was right.”

Another major part of Krystal’s responsibilities included curating a wide variety of furniture they could keep at their warehouse and have on hand for stagings. “For big furniture, it was really important to have basics. Our couches were always straight lines, simple colors, we never got anything crazy when it came to the large items like dining tables, chairs, couches, it was very simple,” she says. “But through accessories, we were able to establish personality. We learned quickly that small accessories look cluttered, so we always chose big vases and platters. If we were going to put something on a kitchen counter, it had to be oversized.”

Part of the magic of staging is that it is meticulously designed to look real and comfortable, but in an aspirational way in which very few people actually live. “If [sellers] were living in the house while it was staged, I would tell them to live like they are camping. If there is a towel in the bathroom, you can’t use it, you have to put the towel you’re using under the sink,” she says. “Often, we would put seating arrangements closer together than you would naturally arrange them in a home so they would look and feel cozy. Even though staged homes feel homey, they’re not practical. It looks great in pictures and when touring the house, but it’s not how you would actually live. It’s not functional design.”

Another example of form over function can be seen in the beds. Often, instead of using actual mattresses, Krystal and her team would use inflatable mattresses. Not only were these easier to transport from house to house, but when covered in sheets and blankets, they have the visual effect of an extra voluminous, fluffy bed, that real mattresses simply don’t provide. “We had bed stands too, but in a pinch, we would put the plastic bins we kept our accessories in underneath the air mattress and headboard. It would look like a comfy bed, but if anyone sat on it, it would sink.”

In the same way that the most important aspects of the house were often not what they appeared, the most critical tools for staging were not what one would expect. “In staging, linens are what really matters, you need high-end linens and crisp sheets. Of everything in our truck, the most important item was our hand steamer, because when you’re moving stuff back and forth, things get wrinkled. The first thing we always did when we got to a house was unpack the linens and start steaming them,” Krystal says.

As Staged By Design grew in popularity, Krystal had to find a way to turn a process that was both meticulous and instinctual, that required deep creativity and rigorous detail, into something she and her team could perform multiple times a day. “If we had multiple stagings in a single day, we would load the truck up the night before with everything we needed for the first house. I would usually drive separately in case we got there and realized there was something else we needed so I could go back to the warehouse. We would get there first thing in the morning, like 7 AM, bring in and arrange all the furniture, and be out by noon. Then we would go back to the warehouse, reload the truck, go to the next house, and do it all over again,” she says.

“The ideal situation would be when we had to de-stage a house and stage one on the same day. In theory, you could use all the furniture from the de-staged house and move it to the other staging, but there is no guarantee it would work because the styles might be different.”

Selling a home is often an emotionally charged process, and staging that home is the most visual indicator to the seller that the home is no longer theirs. This was one of the biggest challenges Krystal faced in running her business. “Sometimes we would get calls from homeowners and agents who saw something they didn’t like, but that often had less to do with the design and more with the emotions that are wrapped up in homes. We got very good at being accommodating, and not trying to argue if something in the design triggered someone,” she says. “This is someone’s home where they raised their kids, and all of a sudden, we would turn that kid’s bedroom into an office or something. We always tried to be understanding of people’s emotions and make adjustments where we could.”

In her time running Staged By Design, Krystal saw the industry grow up around her. She was so much a pioneer of the field that the woman who coined the term “staging” did so the same year Krystal opened her business. Over the years she watched the industry change tremendously, with one of the largest shifts coming in the form of the internet. “Today people look online first, their first impression of the home is not when they walk in. When we first started Staged By Design most people hadn’t seen pictures of the home first, our main focus was creating a strong first impression when they walked through the door,” she says. “Nowadays, people see the house online so their first impression comes from the photos. Staging is much more geared towards photos because that is the information people use to make decisions.”

Another significant change has been in the seller’s familiarity and willingness to stage their homes. When Krystal first opened the business, she communicated largely with real estate agents who were responsible for convincing their sellers that this was a worthwhile investment. In this day and age, however, home makeovers and real estate shows have made staging an established part of the selling process, whether the listing is a cozy cottage or a beachside mansion.

Krystal had always loved that Staged By Design helped people in moments of transition. “Instead of waiting for their house to sell for months and months, we were able to help people move on to the next stage of their lives, whether it was their next dream home or a move across the country, they were able to move ahead faster,” she says.

After seven years in business, Krystal began to realize that perhaps it was time to move onto the next stage in her own life. She had gone into staging because of her passion for design and production value, but as the business grew in size, her days became consumed by logistics. Her energy was no longer dedicated to creative expression and meticulous detail, but tracking which furniture was in the truck and where it was going. “It eventually became maddening,” Krystal says candidly.

While Krystal had started the business with her friend from the TV station, they parted ways after five years, leaving Krystal the sole owner of an enormous and complex enterprise. Shouldering that much responsibility entirely on her own quickly became overwhelming. “I had two young kids, and I was staging for 18 hours a day. I reached burnout and I actually got really sick.”

After contracting a severe brain and spinal cord infection, Krystal knew something had to change. “I thought it would be cool to sell the business, but I didn’t know if I had anything sellable. Mostly I was looking for someone who could help me get out of the situation,” she says. A friend referred her to Gregory Kovsky and IBA.

“Gregory is very good at what he does because he can balance the numbers with the emotional aspect of the business and reach an objective conclusion. Gregory helped me sell the business for more money than I would have been able to get alone because I would have been acting purely off my emotions,” she says.

In 2009, they finalized the sale. Krystal finally received what she had done for so many others, help in a moment of important transition. She was free to move on to the next stage of her life.

After selling Staged By Design, Krystal took time to recover her health, taking a yearlong sabbatical with her family in the tiny seaside town of Westport, Washington. “We leased a house right on the ocean, the kids went to school there, and I completely removed myself from the life that had run me ragged. It was a very spiritual time for me,” she says.

This time signaled a major change in Krystal’s priorities. “Instead of trying to make money all the time, I focused on being happy and taking care of my family. I completely changed my path.”

After a year, Krystal moved back to Seattle. During her Sabbatical, she had written and illustrated a children’s book that she now took the opportunity to take on tour. “I went to cities where I had friends and knew I could read my book. I would go to a different city and read my book at their local libraries.”

It was while in Chicago on her book tour that Krystal met a man named Peter who was working on a docuseries. With Krystal’s background in production, they teamed up to complete the project. The week that I spoke to Krystal, they had just premiered an episode at the London Lift-off Film Festival.

“Working with Peter got me back into my original passion for video production, but this time I was able to work outside of network TV. Now, I get to do independent projects. My husband and I started a production company, and we make documentaries,” she says proudly.

Krystal has finally reconnected with the creative spirit that drove Staged By Design, but this time without working herself into the ground. “For me, the American Dream has shifted. When I first started Staged By Design, I wanted to make a lot of money. I thought if I made a lot of money, I would have everything I wanted,” she says. “But over time, I realized the pursuit of making money and having a beautiful home and cars and vacations was coming at the expense of myself.”

“When I sold my business, for the first time I had time to myself and time to realize what was important to me. I realized I wasn’t seeking money I was seeking freedom. So now, I believe the American Dream is having freedom. Having the freedom to manage your own time and choose how to spend your day. I’m not opposed to making money,” she says with a laugh. “I just value my time more now.”

After a career of helping people through moments of major transition, Staged By Design taught Krystal how to go through one herself. It may not have been the perfect job for her, but it gave her something invaluable: the knowledge of how much her own time is worth, and the freedom to spend it on what is truly important to her.

Nesha Ruther

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.