Newport News, VA — When Ebony Stephenson’s parents refused to buy their young daughter a Barbie Dream House, they probably did not realize they were sowing the seeds for what would eventually become a passion for design. Far from being deterred, the budding designer took matters into her own hands and fashioned her own dream house out of cardboard boxes. From there, Stephenson went on to attend a vocational high school for drafting and architecture, followed by the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Virginia Tech.
Since her graduation from Virginia Tech 11 years ago, Stephenson’s career has flourished. After putting in time to learn the ropes as a designer at other kitchen and bath companies, she set out to found her own company – Designs By Ebony – which she launched in 2015. Stephenson was also a member of the 2014 NKBA Thirty Under 30 class, and included in Professional Remodeler’s 40 Under 40.
A unique perspective
As a CAPS-certified designer, one of Stephenson’s particular design specialties is for older clients. “Some of my clients may be dealing with current medical issues, while others are just preparing for the future,” she explains. “To help ease their concerns and gain their trust with these sensitive conversations, I tell them about my background, my extensive training and experience with aging-in-place, and I also tell them about my own medical limitations with Fibromyalgia and CFS [Chronic Fatigue Syndrome]. I explain to them how my own health needs have actually helped me be a better designer.”
Stephenson’s empathetic approach to understanding her clients’ needs extends beyond mobility issues, as well. “Being 33 also helps me cater to my younger clients. As millennials, they know that they can come to me as their designer and I will not judge them because of their age or budget,” she notes. “We can see eye to eye on where they are coming from and how much money they have to work with.”
Her business has benefited in surprising ways from her willingness to work with clients many other designers would shy away from. “Working with my younger clients is so much fun because they are so tech savvy… These younger clients use social media to their advantage and share the progress of their jobs using the hashtag #designsbyebony,” she notes. For Stephenson, whose marketing is primarily done through social media, clients’ promotion of her brand provides a much-needed organic awareness boost.
Stephenson believes that getting to know potential clients is crucial – not only to create an appropriate design, but to see if she and the potential client are a good fit. “I get to know my clients by first having a long initial phone conversation with them,” she explains. “I ask questions like where they live, how long they have lived there, how long they plan to stay, what they do for a living, what their expectations are of the project. I talk to them about the scope of work they want, timelines and if they have set aside a certain budget.” Only after she has developed an initial understanding of the clients’ needs and made sure they are familiar with her work does Stephenson schedule an in-home appointment.
The first in-home appointment is all about observation and is a good deal more granular than the initial conversation, Stephenson says. “I ask questions about their family, like who lives in the home, their ages, how many children, does anyone have any special needs? I ask what their typical schedules are like, who does most of the cooking. I open cabinets, closets and pantries to look inside. I also look inside the refrigerator to see what types of foods they eat. I ask how tall each family member is and whether they are right or left handed. I ask detailed questions about their morning routines, how they like to apply their makeup, and if the couples shower together.” With the parents’ permission, Stephenson will even interview children about their wants and needs for the space.
Stephenson’s work with younger clients in particular has enabled her to utilize innovative new technology in order to enhance her customers’ experience. “It is easy for me to share technology with [younger clients], such as 360 panoramas to show off their designs,” she says. Another favorite technological advancement is the walk-thru feature in Chief Architect’s design software.
“I provide my clients and even my contractors with a VR headset so that they are able to see the designs in virtual reality,” says Stephenson. “I can send all parties involved a link so that they can view this technology on their phones, tablets or computers.” She adds, “Clients have told me that they will pay extra to get the true ‘Designs by Ebony Experience.’”
Additionally, Stephenson’s willingness to embrace new technology has helped her streamline her growing business. According to Stephenson, she utilizes “convenient online invoicing and cloud-based storage so that my clients and contractors have on-the-go access to all their files and floor plans.” ▪