For 12 years after college, Betsy Fein suits up. As a human resources executive in mainstream corporate America, she goes to work tailored, coiffed, accessorized and ready to solve the day's unexpected issues. Then one day in 2000, she learns that her company has been sold, and she needs to lay off 500 people – including herself.
For a year, she attempts to get another job. Since her field is rapidly changing, with companies outsourcing HR, she finds few companies hiring executives at her high level. One weekend, as she’s organizing her garage, her then-husband, Rick, suggests she start her own business.
With only $5,000 to invest, she wonders what she could do that would fill a real business need. As she looks at her bins labeled “recycle,” “donate” and “sell,” an idea begins to form.
While she has always been organized and developed systems in her corporate career, Betsy notices the mess all around her: the carpool mom whose minivan is so full of stuff that there’s no place for kids to sit; the newly divorced friend whose house is now so messy he refuses to have anyone over; the compulsive neighbors whose garages are so full of hoarded things that they need to park their cars on the street.
Since she worked most recently at Snyder Communications, a marketing company, Betsy knows the importance of branding. She trademarks the name, Clutterbusters, and the slogan, “We ain’t afraid of no mess!” To test the viability of an organizing business, she places an ad in her local Rockville, Maryland, newspaper. When her phone immediately starts ringing, she realizes her company would serve a huge need. Since launching in 2002, Clutterbusters has grown into a successful company, with licensees as well as franchises in Maryland, Florida and Texas.
As a fairly new industry, “organizing” attracts all sorts of people, from interior decorators to information techies. The National Association of Professional Organizers, which made January the National Get Organized Month, attempts to set industry standards. Yet each organizer seems to have a different approach. Ann Gambrell, a co-founder of NAPO, runs support groups for those overwhelmed by their clutter. She advocates “salami slicing.” “How do you eat an elephant?” she asks. “One bite at a time.”
Patty Kreamer, who works largely with businesses, strives to de-clutter people’s brains as much as spaces. This focus reflects her own life. “I was just born this way,” she says. “I used to alphabetize my Halloween candy in shoes boxes. Almond Joy, Hershey's, Mounds. I’m just glad I found a way to use it in a profession.”
Since Betsy comes from the corporate HR world, she focuses on personnel and hires people based on rigorous interviews and tests. She looks for candidates who have good instincts, enthusiasm and compassion, since new clients tend to be vulnerable and embarrassed. Seeing her role as part psychologist, part friend, she puts clients instantly at ease with her relatable story. “I’m the 45-year-old single mom that struggles with her weight and tries to run a successful company while raising her two kids,” she says. “I’m driving them all over the place while keeping the house all in one piece.”
She avoids personal clutter by going paperless and carrying around only her essentials – a phone, three cards and a lipstick. “The time where everyone threw stuff in their bag is gone, and now people want to know where things are -- and quick,” she says. “If their phone rings, they want to be able to find it before the caller hangs up. So the idea of the handbag organizer is great. I really like the Femme Fatale.”
Sometimes she helps compulsives, as she does on an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive. Sometimes she supports depressed clients, who are dealing with deaths, divorces and illnesses. For Irene Salazar, a sweet woman who suffers from MS, Betsy transforms her life as well as her space.
Irene keeps a fairly organized house when she’s healthy, but her illness makes it increasingly difficult to keep up. The clutter not only prevents her from functioning well, it affects her state of mind. After Betsy’s organizers create systems tailored for her disability, Irene’s entire family feels dramatically better.
One holiday season, to surprise Irene, Betsy creates an “X-mess” day during which her organizers can donate their time. So many people volunteer to work – including Betsy’s daughter, Natalie -- that Betsy makes an entire event out of it. She convinces businesses to donate T-shirts, balloons, gift certificates, a hauling truck and lunch. When they arrive at her door, the X-mess team completely overwhelm Irene with love and generosity. “It was a Christmas miracle,” she says. “They changed my life.”
Since “getting organized” is a top-ten new year’s resolution, Betsy expects to change many more lives as 2013 begins. She remains focused on people, not things. “It’s not about whether you have everything compulsively in order,” she says. “If you can find what you’re looking for within three minutes, you’re organized. If you can’t, you might be frustrated and unhappy. We just want people to be happy.”