Clutter Busters

Big-City Expertise

It was both an interest in and a knack for organizing that inspired Lisa Zaslow to forgo the daily grind of an office job to start her professional organizing business. Officially founding Gotham Organizers in 2000, this New York City dweller had a background in HR and consulting. While on vacation at a friend's home in 1999, she went looking for a napkin in one of the cabinets. "It was just a mess, with candles, Christmas ornaments, Easter things, soup tureens . . . and I rooted around and finally found a napkin. I looked around and said, I have to organize this," recalls Zaslow, 40. "As I was [organizing a cabinet] on this beautiful, sunny day, a hundred yards from the beach, I realized maybe this was the work that I was meant to do."

The more Zaslow learned about organizing, the more she liked it. She got in touch with her local NAPO chapter to learn more about the business side of it and started organizing for friends and family free of charge just to grow her skills. "I knew I liked organizing when it was my agenda, but I really wasn't sure if I would like it when it was [for] somebody else," she notes.

This is an important distinction to make in the startup phase of any organization business. According to Izsak, "There's a big difference between organizing for yourself and your family, and organizing for everyone else. Many people are not [conscious of that]." Because professional organizing is such a customized business, it's important for entrepreneurs to really find that right solution for each customer. Though Izsak notes that the proliferation of home makeover shows has certainly raised the profile of professional organizers, "They [also] perpetuate the notion that organizers come in, clean up, and [that] everything is OK." On the contrary, he says, professional organizers must work closely with clients to help them achieve their own ways of organizing.

Though it's not as personal as a therapy session, Izsak has observed the sentimentality that people often have about their things. "We're dealing with hoarders," he says. "They have psychological issues that are impairing their ability to make a decision." That explains all the boxes in the corner--people hang onto things because they can't decide what to keep and what to let go of. A professional organizer needs a keen eye for detail and a good ear for listening to his or her client's specific needs.

Zaslow's HR skills certainly helped her tune into her clients' needs. "There's often a lot of shame [about being disorganized]," she says. "But once they let you into their home, they're really grateful to talk about it to someone who's not judgmental." A unique challenge of this business is getting people who are perpetually disorganized to keep appointments with her, so Zaslow confirms and reconfirms with clients before each meeting.

She was doing HR consulting and organizing on the side until 2002, when she decided to go full time with the organizing. Her profile grew rapidly after an appearance on HGTV's Mission: Organization. After hearing in her local NAPO meeting that producers were looking for organizers, she submitted a few proposals. She was chosen, and the half-hour show profiled how she organized the home of one of her clients--a young, single guy in the city. After that, Zaslow positioned herself as the go-to organization expert for local media and has gained massive exposure that way.

Zaslow, like many professional organizers, charges by the hour-- although the amount varies per job. Izsak agrees that fees vary widely, depending on an organizer's level of experience as well as the nature of the job, although he points out that many charge between $50 and $200 per hour.

Even with her company growing and 2004 sales projected to hit $100,000, Zaslow still finds time to teach professional organizing to other aspiring entrepreneurs at an adult-education organization, The Learning Annex, in her area. It's her passion, after all. "[There's] an immediate sense of results," she says. "It's a dramatic change both visually and in your life."

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

The organization industry is full of opportunities, according to Barry Izsak, National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) board president. But he cautions that even though organization is on everybody's lips, it takes more than just a keen interest in it to become a successful entrepreneur. You'll have to perfect both your business and your organizing prowess to become a professional organizer. He notes that one way to train for the industry and learn about its ins and outs is to work for a larger professional organizing firm.

Residential organizing continues to be a hot area, says Izsak, but organizers can specialize in myriad organization areas like collections/memorabilia, photographs, garages and moves/ relocations. You might even specialize in targeted groups like seniors or students. You can also contract out your services to be the on-call organizer for local offices.

Like any business, do your research to find out how much people are charging in your area for similar organization services, and check out your local NAPO or International Association of Professional Organizers (IAPO) chapter. And if you do decide to start part time on evenings and weekends, realize that means you won't be able to target the office market. Izsak suggests trying to phase into working weekdays (like adding Mondays and Fridays to your schedule) until you can go full time. Just don't neglect staying organized yourself-especially when your schedule gets busy. Calculate the amount of time you'll spend with clients, and factor in travel time. Set aside enough hours to accomplish your own back-office tasks, like phone calls and bookkeeping, so you can be both an instructor and an example to your clients.

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This article was originally published in the September 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Clutter Busters.

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