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When Michelle Hubbard returned to California from her post-college travels, she noticed something about Americans: We sure do love our stuff. And stuff tends to multiply, filling corners and crannies and entire rooms until there’s so much of it we run out of places to pack it away.
She has turned that revelation into a business called I’m Organized … Are You? Companies hire her to organize their offices for more efficient workflow.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you have more things to look after and things to do than [you have] time in the day,” says the 32-year-old, San Diego based entrepreneur. “I’ve combined my international business experience with my organizational skills to help people prioritize and reduce their workload to manageable size.”
Finding her way
Hubbard grew up in a middle-class family near Sacramento. Her dad worked in the lumber business and her mother was a teacher. After graduating in 2004 from San Diego State, Hubbard worked as a substitute teacher while finishing a second degree, this one in American Sign Language interpreting from San Diego Mesa College.
“I couldn’t wait to graduate and move overseas,” says Hubbard. “I wanted to live a different lifestyle and see what I could learn.”
She spent time in Rimini, Italy, helping friends run a restaurant; in Barcelona, Spain, she earned a certificate qualifying her to teach English as a foreign language; and in Thailand, she spent a year teaching at a private school. But she was beginning to feel the pull toward a new career. “I have natural leadership ability and thought I could better use it in business,” she says. “In 20 years of schooling, I never learned a thing about business.”
The master’s program in international management at the University of Phoenix offered Hubbard what she was looking for. She enrolled in 2007, beginning the work in California before taking a teaching job on Hainan Island, off the China coast, in 2008. But the Internet on Hainan was notoriously unreliable. She paid for two online services and still had to run to the neighborhood café, sometimes at 2 a.m., to send in her homework.
After taking time to travel across Southeast Asia, Hubbard moved to modern Hong Kong and became the director of a startup school there between 2009 and 2010, all while finishing up her master’s degree. Hubbard knew she wanted to get into management, and that desire led to jobs as an administrator for a shareholder’s nightclub and as a business development officer for a wine and beer wholesaler. In these jobs, Hubbard saw the high cost of disorganization to growing companies. She began to think strategically to learn both the fundamentals and the fine points of organization.
After returning to San Diego in 2011, she contemplated what to do next. During a visit, her sister Laura suggested Hubbard start a business, noting Michelle’s knack for organizing. Hubbard had helped Laura move, remade their parents’ workshop, and friends were calling asking for organization help. “I’ve always been creative and a problem solver,” says Hubbard. “And as a teacher, I practiced organization and results tracking. As an ex-patriot in Europe and Asia, I developed a talent for living minimally and efficiently. It was a natural fit.”
A new start
Hubbard started I’m Organized ... Are You? in October, 2011. She knew she had hit a nerve by the volume of calls her Craigslist ads drew in the first few months. “I think people are yearning for simplicity,” says Hubbard, noting her apartment in Hong Kong measured 15-by-15 feet. “I didn’t have a quarter of the things I had even as a college student, and I had a wonderful time there.”
With her newly perfected business model, Hubbard goes into businesses after hours with her team of employees to perform office organization and business organizing services—from cleaning, removing clutter and sorting paperwork, to helping businesses organize their business processes. That can include everything from creating standard operating procedures and job descriptions to helping the company develop a customer relations management system.
When it comes to basic office organization, Hubbard says one of the most common problems she sees is too much clutter unrelated to business. Her first recommendation is to clean the workspace and limit the personal items each employee has, with an eye toward maintaining a professional image. Another problem: With reams of paper coming in daily and no system to handle it, workers say, “I’ll just stick it on the side of the desk,” until the pile becomes overwhelming. Hubbard teaches techniques for separating paperwork into digestible categories, from ones that require immediate attention to those that can wait.
Hubbard then looks for potential bottlenecks, which might be a broken machine or a work process in which one employee has to wait on the production of another. “I team-build so employees can function to their fullest,” she says. “A poorly run office suppresses enthusiasm and costs money.”
Most importantly, Hubbard believes that being organized is a learned skill. “I teach clients how to control their environment long term, and many have epiphanies after we work at it,” she says. And by the time she leaves a job, the client has learned how to maintain a comfortable and efficient work environment.
Leo W. Banks is a writer in Tucson, Arizona.