Pitfalls of becoming a Personal Organizer?
September 3, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

So the significant other is ready to turn her home organizing love and passion into something more professional. She's highly skilled and enthusiastic about it in ways I cannot fathom. With her first client coming up, we're looking for some advice as to how to start out.

She's done this in the past for a lot of friends and I'd never seen her work in person but she worked on my neglected-for-far-too-long apartment and it was not just cleaner, it was better functioning, prettier, and has leveled up my entire life. She has an appointment with an acquaintance for a walkthrough to do the same miraculous transformation to hers. This is her first time doing this for someone she knows mostly professionally and what we're both wondering is….what will she later wish she knew now?

Like I said, we aren't discussing tidying or removing dirt, it's much more like a focused purge of accumulated clutter, a streamlining of living space, a catgeorization of whats there. I bring these details up because this is the part that makes her excited, makes her clients (me so far) thrilled, and is the sort of work she wants to get, (not that she minds elbow grease, but scrubbing shouldn't be the majority of the work).

Also, would doing this on TaskRabbit while she's building up word-of-mouth/clients be a good idea? How does it work on TaskRabbit?
• Do cleaners bring their own supplies or do they use what the client has?
• What if organizing things need to be purchased?
• Does the client typically expect this to be a hands off procedure?
posted by Brainy to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
There is a professional organization for organizers that has a lot of resources even for non-members. If she is serious about this she might consider joining. One of the benefits is getting listed in their registry - it can increase leads and also add to her credibility.
posted by radioamy at 9:44 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

One pitfall is that she will be (also) be dealing with mentally ill people who have irrational (to her at least) attachments to their shit. It may not be clear at all at first, she may be hired by their children etc, or it may not become clear until it comes to the crunch. That would change the feel of that job for me.
posted by Iteki at 9:51 AM on September 3, 2014 [12 favorites]

I would make sure your legal liability exposure is buttoned up before she does her first work for hire. You don't really need a lawyer to form an LLC, but talking to one might be a good idea. Also make sure you have a good handle on small business accounting - you really shouldn't commingle the consulting money and your personal account.
posted by COD at 10:32 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

She should not clean. This would set a bad precedent and reduce her standing in the client relationship.

However, it would be useful if she could do minor construction and fixit jobs, like paint touch-ups, assembling shelves and picture hanging, that are ancillary to her organizing functions.

If things need to be purchased, the client should be willing to advance the money.

In my case, the process was partly hands-off (I'm assuming you mean "hands-off" to mean that the client's hands are off), since I trusted my organizer to rearrange my stuff in a logical, workable way. However, in addition, she often gave me homework, like, "OK, I put all the 1960-70 papers in this box. Now you can decide what to do with them."
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:03 AM on September 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Consider deliverables that make it feel worth their money.

1. After walk-through, send a typed and emailed/printed proposal with a project plan and timeline. Consider different levels of service? Hourly rate for supervising the clutter-sorting? Maybe with an "Assessment" section? "Goals"?
2. A typed and emailed/printed "shopping list" within their budget. Sorted by "must buy" and "nice to have," with options in different styles and price points. Additional fee to do the shopping.
3. Prompt responses, extreme punctuality, general professionalism that she might not typically need to practice with friends.
posted by amaire at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

It might be a good idea for her to write up an estimate and a list of general rules/expectations/scope ahead of time that the client signs after the walk-through. Rules could include

- Reimbursement for agreed-upon expenses
- Client will be available to start at agreed-upon time, and if client is not ready then the clock starts ticking anyways (if someone is disorganized they may have time issues too)
- How much involvement she expects the client to have in decision making

My experience is that the client will need to be there for the majority of the time, especially in the beginning. The client needs to give the okay to throw things out, change processes, etc. Of course there are times that there is busy work (client doesn't need to watch you sort papers and label folders, for example).
posted by radioamy at 11:50 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

A big stopping point for getting rid of clutter is finding out the appropriate place to dispose of things, particularly those that might be hazardous. Knowing where your client can take their old batteries, appliances, etc would be very helpful.
posted by florencetnoa at 11:51 AM on September 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Male sure all the adults who live in the home sign off on her being there.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:25 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I did home organizing for awhile. I really loved it. The one thing that I think she needs to be aware of, is that it can be a very intimate experience. People are emotionally attached to their stuff, so it is going to be a huge factor in the process, and you want to deal with it ethically and supportively. You want to be well versed in how to navigate the clients feelings in a really supportive way. It can be tricky and you can do some damage if you are not careful. Although this intimate process is what makes it so satisfying as well.
posted by Vaike at 3:55 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

My sister is a part-time decorator. She arranges furniture, paints walls, paints murals, builds furniture in her woodworking shop, sews curtains, sews slipcovers, stages homes for sale, wires sconces-chandeliers-ceiling fans, tiles floors, tiles walls, epoxies bathtubs, and she also bakes fancy cakes. If you've seen it on HGTV, she does it.

The worst thing is that she underestimates the amount of time it will take her to complete a project and she undercharges.

So charge an hourly rate, and be good about estimating the number of hours necessary to complete a job. It may make sense to break down each room into a separate job.

She also needs to have a printed contract, and she needs to sign and the client needs to sign, so that there are NO misunderstandings. Two copies. One to the client one for her.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:41 PM on September 3, 2014

I'm self-employed as a house cleaner and home organizer. I love it. I've been doing home organizing informally and earning pocket money here and there since I was a teenager, but only in the past few years have I started doing it professionally.

I bring my own supplies for house cleaning jobs. For organizing, I usually use items the client has (boxes, baskets, file trays); other times I supply a few items myself. I actually have quite a collection in my storage room of organizing supplies I've collected over the years - cookie tins with lids, brand-new-looking vinyl-coated wire shelves for cupboard organizing that I rescued from the dumpster, etc. Sometimes I will recommend that a client purchase supplies to complete a job, so I keep a list of stores that stock them in case clients ask me for recommendations. I even keep a "petty cash" fund on hand for one of my regular long-term clients, so that I can buy small items for her home whenever I happen to see them on sale. If a client wants me to shop for them, I am happy to do it; I charge an additional fee for this service.

It helps to know quite a bit about recycling centers, disposal of hazardous waste, how to deal with expired prescription drugs, etc. Time spent researching these things in advance will be very helpful, as you will be able to make informed recommendations.

I always tell my clients that they'll need to be available during the process so that I can consult with them as I go. I've done a few jobs without the clients there, but in those cases I'm just making guesses about what will work for them, and things usually end up disorganized again within a short time. Old habits die hard! I now work very closely with clients and ask lots of questions (e.g., "How frequently do you use X, Y, and Z?") to come up with a system that works with their preferences, habits, and the particulars of their living situation.

Scheduling adequate time for a big project is essential. Don't skimp on time. Organizing happens in stages, and things get worse before they get better. Generally I take almost everything out of the closet/drawer/cupboard, weed and sort (which requires decision making by the client), get rid of unused/unwanted items, dust items, clean the inside of the closet/drawer/cupboard if required, and then put everything back in such that it can be accessed with minimal hassle and fuss. It's not the sort of work that lends itself to being done in fits and starts here and there.

Here's something I didn't know when I started: In truth, I earn most of my pay during the weeding and sorting stage. It calls for a non-judgmental attitude and a great deal of patience, restraint, and understanding. Some clients get embarrassed, anxious, or overwhelmed, and have a lot of trouble making decisions. As Vaike mentioned above, people are emotionally attached to their stuff, and helping them effectively navigate the weeding and sorting process requires quite a bit of emotional skill. Prepare for this as best you can, and you'll show that you are worthy of their trust.

Best of luck!
posted by velvet winter at 7:52 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a Certified Professional Organizer, and have had my own professional organizing business for 13 years. I could fill all of the green with the responses your friend needs to know, and it would not nearly be enough. Please feel free to MeMail me, and we can arrange for me to speak with her on the phone. That said…

1) By and large, a "personal organizer" is what used to be called a Filofax. A person providing these services is a "professional organizer" and yes, radioamy had it right, the first step should absolutely be the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) , the association for our profession which provides education regarding the ethics of our field, the technical, physical and intellectual skills of the practice of organizing, and guidance regarding the various administrative elements (marketing, bookkeeping, management, etc.) of running such a business.

Also, joining NAPO isn't like joining the Chamber of Commerce. People get out of it what they put in, and hearty participation in meetings and getting to know her colleagues will give your friend not only information but connections which will benefit her, long-term.

2) Organizing and cleaning may seem related (including to some of her prospective clients), but they are more different than similar. Here's a good way she might want to think about explaining it to people. Cleaning is about the stuff. Organizing is about the person who owns the stuff. The vast majority of people who work with professional organizers are struggling with issues related to the intellectual, psychological and motivational aspects related to getting and staying organized as much, if not more so, than those dealing with environmental struggles. Professional organizers do not merely organize a space in a client's absence and then walk away. If we did, almost all of our clients would find themselves in the same situation, months (or weeks) later. We identify their obstacles (whether internal or external) and provide step-by-step guidance based on our expertise (from study and actual experience).

3) Professional organizing involves the transfer of skills (behavioral--physical and cognitive) as much as the creation of new systems. Because of this, we get as much training as possible in issues related to psychology, learning styles, neurology (e.g., ADHD, dyslexia). Because of this, in addition to NAPO, which your friend should join (and attend chapter meetings to gain the essential educational guidance and professional camaraderie), she should look into the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (formerly the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization), which has as its sole mission to provide education for serving constituencies with ADHD, chronic disorganization, hoarding and other related concerns.

4) There are three types of disorganization: situational, chronic and hoarding. The former two are quality-of-life concerns; the latter is a medical condition. Situational disorganization means that something has happened to a person's situation to cause a mismatch between skills and systems used and the demands placed on the client. (New job, recent loss, post-move, etc.) Chronic disorganization is a lifelong inability to get and stay organized on one's own and may be marked by a number of characteristics, including a deep over personalization with one's possessions, attention deficits, and/or psychological issues. Hoarding is a medical condition as is listed as such in the DSM-V.

Your friend, no matter how organized she may be personally, is not qualified to work with hoarders, and is almost assuredly not yet qualified to work with chronically disorganized clients. Trying to do so can cause severe psychological damage…so please encourage her to get the education necessary to be able to ask the right questions of clients during an intake/assessment (whether in person or on the phone) to ascertain whether she can help.

5) Being organized doesn't necessarily mean that one can organize well for all others. Your friend's innate skills are going to help her immensely, but she's still going to need guidance for learning how to organize for people whose learning styles are visual, auditory or kinesthetic, as well as those who are neurotypical vs. not. In other words -- she needs to be able to organize for people who do not think -- or live -- as she does, and there are many ways for her to get help for this. In addition to NAPO and ICD, I encourage her to familiarize herself with as many of the books listed on the Board of Certification of Professional Organizers' list of suggested resources.

6) Professional organizers generally do not clean. Sure, we lift and carry and schlep. If we're clearing books off of bookshelves or the contents of kitchen cabinets, either we or our clients will grab a cloth and wipe something clean, but we are not cleaners. Again, this is not to demean what cleaners do, but organizing is profoundly related to discussion, understanding and thinking in order to plan out the best strategic solutions. I don't know many professional organizers who bring cleaning tools to a client location. Label makers, measuring tape, small hand tools -- sure. But we don't wash windows or mirrors or floors; we rarely vacuum (unless we're working with a client with a physical disability and then it's usually our own passion for excellence rather than it being a part of the job).

7) What if organizing things need to be purchased? Great question, and one that is hotly discussed among professional organizers. Some of us bring absolutely nothing to a session and do not ever purchase anything, either for keeping inventory or purchasing on behalf of clients. Others do one or the other but not both, and some do everything. Personally, when I work with clients, I make recommendations, provide links to and descriptions of the products (tangible as well as digital) that I believe would be helpful, and I provide warnings and guidelines.

(For example, 1/3 cut file folders work well, but 1/5 cut label tabs aren't large enough for reasonably descriptive labels. Fancier bins and bookshelves for children's rooms aren't necessary; colorful dishpans, with books arrayed facing the child (like record stores used to display records) work better for toddlers, who can't read book spines. And so on.)

Depending on the state in which your friend lives, buying items and then reselling them may have tax implications. Find out.

8) Speaking of taxes, your friend will be self-employed. She'll need to get a business license, possibly two (county and city) and depending on your state, possibly a DBA document to run her business under a name other than her own. She will also need to pay quarterly estimated taxes to the federal government (though she's probably safe skipping this year if she's starting this late in 2014).

Be assured that if she's working without a license, the chances are good that someone will report her, and that's a disorganized mess she doesn't want!

9) Insurance. She needs it, and NAPO members have access to specific insurance designed for professional organizers. Depending on whether she works with technology and papers (and would need an "errors and omission" policy) or household possessions, she'll need policies specific to the kind of work she does.

10) There's some uncertainty as to what you mean by Does the client typically expect this to be a hands off procedure? For clients, they may keep their hands off, but not their minds. They should almost always be present during the entire organizing process. Again, this is less like cleaning and more like personal training or therapy (though we are clear to note that we are not mental health professionals--unless, like some of my colleagues, one is also a mental health professional as well as a PO).

As to whether your friend is "hands off" -- that depends on the kind of organizing she intends to do. Coach/organizers are far more verbal than physical and are likely to work more with the time management and information management aspects of our profession. There are over 40 sub-specialities in professional organizing, from those who work just with specific client types (attorneys, physicians, students, senior citizens, people with traumatic brain injury, new mothers/fathers, home-based business owners, etc.) to those who work in specific organizing areas (kitchens, playrooms, basements/attics, warehouses, retail stores, computers, paper management, etc.). In the beginning, she'll likely be a generalist, but most professional organizers find their niches within the first few years.

Some clients expect more physical interaction, some more intellectual/verbal, depending on what needs to be organized, what analysis needs to be done, what decisions need to be made, what strategies designed, what follow-up to be implemented, etc.

11) I don't have any first-person knowledge of Task Rabbit, though I'm familiar enough with it. I would not ever consider marketing using Task Rabbit. My understanding of that service is that it's designed for physical tasks which require relatively little input from the client beyond "here's what I want" and maybe "please do it this way." With rare exceptions (such as professional organizers who specialize in project management related to relocations/moves), what we do is not about performing tasks, per se. We're creating behavioral and physical systems with our clients, for our clients, and again, I'm not saying anything pejorative about those who provide primarily physical services, but that's not generally what a professional organizer does.

[What do we do? Ask questions. Provide expertise. Hold hands. Provide motivation/inspiration. Offer tissues when someone cries. Practice our nonjudgmental faces -- which works well at family gatherings as well as in professional settings. Sort objects to guide the decision-making process. Provide advice on everything from hazardous waste disposal to how to fold fitted sheets. Spot not only what the client has too much of, but what the client lacks, like a fire extinguisher or an up-to-date will. Offer follow-up and accountability. Act as a role model for good organizational skills and systems.]

Similarly, we would never advise anyone to market themselves on Craigslist or generally in classified ads. We market in a variety of ways: public speaking (for pay and gratis), blogging, article writing, our web sites, joining networking groups, whether formal, like BNI (Business Networking International) or more informal, paid advertising (though I strongly advise against it, particularly for novices, except in niche areas like a religious community newspaper or HOA bulletin) and via social media and many, many public relations methods.

12) Pricing is complicated, and due to FTC regulations, is discussed only in the abstract. (If your friend goes to a NAPO chapter meeting, she can ask about pricing models, but not about what rate she should charge, or what others charge. Big no-no.)

Some professional organizers charge by the hour, and most have a block time, like three hours (I do four) for most sessions. Some charge for in-person assessments, while others (particularly novices) do them at no charge in person, and most of us do them (at no charge) by phone. Many organizers price by the project, but you have to be very experienced (we're talking a few years, not a few jobs) to figure out how to price a job. Scope creep, where once the client gets to know and trust you, he or she starts opening doors to spaces previously hidden, is common.

Wow. I realize this sounds like I'm shouting from a rooftop, but these are all the things I wish I had known before I started, and her enthusiasm for the work and for figuring out all that she needs to know is going to be a hallmark for her success. (And, funnily enough, after years of lurking, I joined Metafilter three years ago this month to answer a professional organizing AskMe. Full circle.) Again, MeMail me if she wants to talk and I haven't scared you both off with this long lecture. She's going to love it!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:25 PM on September 3, 2014 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, these are amazing responses! We're going over them slowly but thank you everybody!
posted by Brainy at 9:53 AM on September 4, 2014

I can speak as a client. A year ago in the spring, I purchased a new home and had to organize and move out of my family home so we (my brother and I) could sell it. I'd been living in the home with my mother who had dementia and we'd moved her into a care facility the previous October.

I have never been a super organized person and I was going through a very busy and stressful time at work So I hired a professional organizing company on the recommendation of my Realtor. They helped me go through all my and Mom's things to get ready to move to my new home (went from 2400 sq ft to 1100). They did not pack for me or clean the house (other than wiping some dust off things). I used movers and a cleaning crew after.

The things I really appreciated:

1) The team was very professional--1 "lead" + younger folks who were assigned tasks. I dealt with the lead, never had any feeling from any of the staff that they were judging my stuff or my clutter or decor, or any of the things I was nervous about.

2) They let me make decisions on stuff, but it was very quick, not a lot of time to think and that was good--if I'd thought about it, I might have chosen to keep more and I don't miss anything. Things were either tossed, donated, set aside for my bro/sister-in-law or, if I'd wanted, they would have consigned items. The main thing is that the schlepping to the dump, Goodwill, etc. was done by them so by the end of the day, it was gone, and what was left were things I really wanted.

3)At the new house, they brought in a guy who put organizing systems in all the closets and the garage--they recommended high-end, but were fine with the lower-end solutions I picked. They also recommended a few types of storage containers and bought those for me. I was so swamped for time, I was happy for them to do it.

4) Also at the new house, they unpacked and set up my kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and office. I have left everything as they set it up--it works really well and makes sense. My house is a clutter-free and restful retreat--anyone can open any closet, drawer or cabinet and I'm not worried that they will see a mess or stuff will come tumbling out. I can find anything I need and it has been easy to keep it clean and uncluttered.

5) At the end in the new house I had some plastic bins of papers that I needed to decide to keep or shred and some bins of keepsakes and photos to go through at my leisure. I've been slowly going through them over the last year.

There was team of 5 and they spent 3 days at the old house and two days at the new. They gave me an estimate at the beginning and stuck close to it--the overages were about things we agreed on during the work. It was expensive but worth every penny.

Again, a really important part was their total professionalism. No chatter, no comments on anything they handled (and they handled everything!) Really excellent communication--at one point, we set up an assembly line because I had boxes I hadn't unpacked since I moved in and they would bring me a box--I'd do a quick sort, they'd whisk everything away to the appropriate container and on to the next one. They were very aware that the process was emotionally difficult and draining and cheered me on and kept me going when I would have quit.
posted by agatha_magatha at 11:46 AM on September 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

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