Organizers have turned pro: It’s a hot field where most practitioners are women

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You know who they are-the “neatniks” who always have everything so well organized. You can practically see a thought bubble hovering over them that says: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Now they’ve discovered they can capitalize on their natural tendencies by becoming professional organizers. It’s a hot field that’s growing as fast as the paper piles in you-know-who’s office.

Membership in the National Association of Professional Organizers has soared from 2,100 in February 2004 to 3,300 now. And the vast majority of those members-97 percent, according to a NAPO survey-are women.

NAPO defines a professional organizer as someone who “enhances the lives of clients by designing systems and processes using organizing principles and through transferring organizing skills.”

So why do women dominate the field? “We don’t really know why,” said Betsy Wintringer, marketing manager for Glenview, Ill.-based NAPO. But they do know more than 70 percent of NAPO members have bachelor’s or higher degrees, and that many women are going into it as a second career.

That was the case for Nicole Bickett, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an MBA from Indiana University. Bickett worked as a data analyst for Indianapolis-based Resort Condominiums International for five years and then as the human resources manager for the local office of the Florida-based Kforce Inc. staffing firm for seven years. She had two children while she was at Kforce, and that’s when she decided she wanted a more flexible career.

“I had always been teased as a child for being really organized,” said Bickett, 35, “and as organizing became more popular and more mainstream-with TV shows such as ‘Mission Organization’ [on HGTV] and ‘Clean Sweep’ [on TLC]-I realized I could make a career out of it.”

She joined NAPO and became a productivity trainer and authorized consultant for The Paper Tiger, a software product that “helps you find anything in your office in five seconds or less.” Bickett opened her business, Organize to Optimize LLC, in October 2003.

Business has been fantastic, Bickett said. “Our lives have just become so overwhelmed with paper and information. People need a way to deal with that, so our services are really highly in demand right now.”

Bickett works primarily with businesses that “realize they’re losing money because they have paper all over the place, and they don’t have a system for managing that paper,” she said. “They may get through it, but two months later, they’re back at the same paper overload again.”

She works part time-about three days a week-but she’s planning to go full time when her kids start school in the fall. She charges about $100 an hour, or sometimes less for residential jobs.

Another local organizer, Julie Mahan, said she charges $100 an hour for residential customers and $136 an hour for businesses.

Mahan, 42, has a bachelor’s degree in retail management from Purdue University. She started her career as a store manager for a chain of clothing stores. She was so wellorganized that she kept getting promoted to manage stores that were a mess.

After four years and two children, Mahan left retail management to spend more time with her kids and to work part time at a daycare center. It was there that she saw how stressed out parents were when they dropped their kids off, and they were often running late because they couldn’t find things such as keys, shoes, etc. “I got to thinking, ‘People are so stressed out, they’re not focusing on their kids,'” she said.

So she joined NAPO and took the asso- IBJ Photo/Robin Jerstad ciation’s class on how to start an organizing business. She also read numerous books on organization and how to start a business before opening her firm, Simply Organizing Inc., in 2002.

Mahan is also a consultant for The Paper Tiger software, and she’s a certified trainer for enfish, a computer program that sorts through electronic information, week and charges $40 an hour. Her annual income from the business has been only about $10,000 so far, but she wants to remain part time and enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss.

Drumming up business is easier than she thought it would be, Hochgesang said. “Through the NAPO referral system and through other networking groups I’ve joined, clients aren’t that hard to find.”

All three of the organizers interviewed rely primarily on word-of-mouth and referrals to market their businesses. Bickett is also a member of, which charges organizers a percentage of the income they get via referrals from the site. She added that there’s an informal local group of organizers who meet once a month. For more information on that group, call Bickett at 409-3607.

Both Hochgesang and Bickett said they like being organizers because they’re helping people. “Whenever I leave a client, they usually feel so much better, like a weight has been lifted off them,” Bickett said. “I feel like I’m really contributing to the betterment of society.”

Advice from the pros

Others who may be interested in getting into organizing need to enjoy people and be able to go three to five years before making a comfortable income from the business, Hochgesang said.

It’s important to realize how much time must be spent on the business aspects, Bickett said. She spends about 50 percent of her time on those. She advises starting out by organizing for friends to see what they think. “Practice before spending a lot of money developing the business, or get professional help to run the business [side].”

Mahan suggests doing a lot of research-not just into organizing, but also into starting your own business. She specifically recommends “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting Your Own Business.”

NAPO’s Wintringer offered similar advice. “Know it is a profession, a business, and you’re the CEO. It’s not as easy as some people make it look on the TV shows.”

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