Clutter Busters

From closets to cabinets to garages, Americans' clutter is piling up like never before. Find out how you can clean up in this growing industry.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the September 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The organization industry, it seems, is more relevant today than ever before. Just take a look around: Closets are bursting with stored clothes. Offices are overflowing in rivers of paper. Living rooms and kitchens everywhere have been swallowed up by clutter.

In fact, the demand for managing the piles of stuff people accumulate in their daily lives is growing--and businesses have sprouted to meet every possible need. Some entrepreneurs become professional organizers; others manufacture organizing products.

According to Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) board of directors, membership has doubled over the past two years--of both professional organizer members and associate members (like organization product manufacturers). "Public awareness is increasing," says Izsak. "We're becoming more visible."

Certainly, the glut of home-improvement and home-makeover shows has helped raise the industry's profile. Shows like Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and TLC's Clean Sweep dedicate hours each week to improving people's living spaces and eliminating clutter. Organization is all the rage, and we've found a range of entrepreneurs getting in on the action--one entrepreneur sells organization and space-saving supplies at his chain of stores; another shares her professional organizing expertise with her big-city clients. We even found one company launched by entrepreneurs who designed a whole document-organizing system. So rest your feet on that pile of magazines on your coffee table, and settle in--it's time for some serious organizing lessons.

Contain the Excitement

With a retail background under his belt, Abner Wright III decided to parlay his interest in organizing into a serious business in 1991. Says Wright, 46, "Everyone likes to get organized. Some are always organized; some get organized every few minutes, some once a week or once a year." Because he felt that organization was an ongoing struggle for people, Wright saw an opportunity to offer products that would help consumers get their things in order.

He researched the product offerings in his area and realized that, although some people sold a few basic organization and storage pieces here and there, there really wasn't any one-stop shop in his Winston-Salem, North Carolina, area that customers could go to for all their organizing needs. He opened his first Space Savers store, selling, in his words, "things that don't go out of style." Stocking everything from closet organizers to kitchen storage supplies, Wright says there's a constant demand for these types of products. If someone comes in to buy a closet organizer one month, and it serves his or her needs, Wright says that person will often come in later to shop for the garage, the home office, the living room and so on. "They're always looking for the final answer," he explains.

Still, since customers are always looking for that definitive organizing product, Wright confesses it was difficult at first to decide what products to carry. "Trying to pick out items that everyone likes was a big challenge," he says. "But that's always a challenge in retailing." To combat the hit-and-miss nature of buying, Wright listened closely to input from all sides--family, friends, customers, employees--to see what products sold well and were requested by consumers.

Once he got underway, Wright really started getting a feel for what types of organization products customers wanted, and within one year, he opened another Space Savers location in his area. The rapid growth continued, says Wright, as he opened three more locations in six years. Though it was challenging to train a new staff for each store while adapting the store to the local flavor of that particular area, Wright says it's the customer service that sets his company apart. His employees, for instance, know to give customers advice and ideas on organization projects--they don't just point to the "office storage" aisle.

With the success of his retail stores, Wright decided in 2002 to branch out into e-commerce to harness the trend toward online buying and expand his organization niche nationwide. Wright expects Space Savers to gross 2004 sales well into the seven figures.

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.

Binding It Up

Visual change is what it was all about for the founders of Russell + Hazel, an office supply manufacturer in Minneapolis. The founders envisioned organizational office and school supplies that would be both functional and fashionable. In fact, the goal of Chris Plantan, 44, and her co-founders--Barbara Giangrossi, 46; Cynthia Knox, 41; Darin Opperman, 44; and Kobe Suvongse, 44--was to get away from boring, manila-tinged organizational office supplies and move toward modern colors and styles.

Plantan, partner of Russell + Hazel, got the original idea while working as an architect. It was important in such a visually driven field to have an interesting and stylish binder, so she used to make her own. Seeing the potential, Plantan recruited her friends and acquaintances to help her build the business and secure funding. The quintet launched in 2002, bringing to the table combined backgrounds in architecture, retail merchandising and graphic design.

Plantan notes that a main difficulty Russell + Hazel faced was finding a manufacturer for their specialty products. "[Manufacturers] were so [set] on making commodity products and making [them] cheaper," she says. "We said, 'No, we want a nicely designed product--we don't care if it costs more.'" The company also focused on doing a smaller run of the items, to get them out into the marketplace faster, and did a sort of real-life focus group: They sent out 50 test kits composed of their newly designed products to young professionals in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, and asked for their feedback.

Once they got the thumbs up from testers, Russell + Hazel's founders focused on getting the products into smaller boutique stores first. And because the products are meant to be fashionable, they also marketed them in the gift category. "A lot of our first customers were gift shops and smaller stationery stores," recalls Plantan. "We [even] had museum shops calling us."

With sales poised to hit about $1 million in 2004, the Russell + Hazel brand can be found in retailers like The Container Store and Urban Outfitters, and the company plans to expand its product line even further to help people organize both their work and home offices with style. "Being a young, fresh firm, we want to stay small and nimble. That way, we can stay a little bit ahead of the trend as far as design and colors," says Plantan. "It's been a lot of fun, finding out that these products that help you organize are really personal accessories, and people are buying them like they would footwear or handbags."

Whether you choose to guide others into organizing or to design and sell the products that will help them get organized, it's a field that's poised for growth, according to Izsak. "People are going to continue to struggle with this issue [of personal organization], and this need will continue to grow," he says. "I don't see the demands on people's time becoming fewer. [Organizing professionals] are here to stay--this is not a fad."

Listing compiled by Maria Anton


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