Laura Ray, OrganizeAtlanta.com
For Episode 2 of our solopreneur success series, professional organizer Laura Ray discusses how networking shaped her business.
A former PR pro, Laura has always had a passion for organizing, even before she knew it was a career option! Laura shares how she made the transition from corporate career and created the life she wants. as both a working mom and a leader in her industry, Laura's tips can help even the most disorganized solopreneur.
Laura has been helping busy people organize their homes and offices since 2006, and currently serves as president of the Atlanta Chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). She has been featured on television and radio shows including Fox 5′s Good Day Atlanta and 11 Alive’s TrustDale TV with consumer investigative reporter Dale Cardwell. Laura has also been quoted in two books.
Solopreneur success topics we cover in this episode include:
- Why networking is critical for business growth
- How volunteering expands your reach
- Best practices to create and enjoy the life you want
Learn more about Laura and her company at:
Transcript: Solopreneur Success Stories - Episode 2
Networking to the Life You Want
-I’m so excited to have you with us, especially because I’ve known you for many years since way back before you became an organizer. I’m excited to share your story with our listeners.
-Thank you! I think it’s 1998 that we met, so it’s been a while. This is my second career and it’s been really exciting.
-I didn’t even realize that that much time had passed. That’s amazing. So tell us a little bit about your business and what you do now and then maybe we can go back and talk about where you came from and how you made that transition.
-Great. I am a professional organizer and I could add productivity consultant to my title. Order and organizing kind of covers it in terms of what people think about when they think organizing and getting their life and business in control. I help busy people organize their homes and offices. Both residential and business including email management.
-That’s a good one. I need help with that! It keeps getting worse and worse for me. Every time I look at my inbox I cringe.
-Email is just one of those things that most people didn’t receive any kind of training. There are some strategies you can use and tips to get in under control. I enjoy working with people on that if that is their overwhelm factor.
-We may come back to that later in our chat here but tell us a little bit about how you got started as an organizer because I know back in 1998 when we were children and we met you were doing PR work for a big public company. How did you decide that organization was where you wanted to be?
-I was in public relations for about sixteen years but about year two I had heard that there was a profession called professional organizing. I went to a meeting and I was in my early twenties. The women at the meeting were mostly in their forties and they were excited about being entrepreneurs and starting their own businesses. That really wasn’t where I was at in my life although I liked organizing. I always say I was born organized with a God-given gift. I bought my first filing cabinet when I was in sixth grade. I’ve always enjoyed it and the key is that I enjoy helping other people get organized to their style of personality, what their family needs, or how they work as a business person or an entrepreneur and I can tailor to other people and that’s really been a fun part of it-learning how to help others achieve what they want to accomplish. So when I got a severance package at BellSouth, I had my seed money to start my business. Now I’ve been doing it for nine years.
-I think a lot of people start that way. They decide they want to do something and go out on their own and they kind of wait if they see that there might be a lay-off coming or they stockpile a lot of money and when the timing is right they jump ship. Were you one of those people, being as organized as you are, who planned ahead that maybe six months from now I’ll be ready to take a package and go out on my own?
-Well I had been looking at the field for fourteen years and really with a new profession and kind of a homegrown profession like this that started back in the eighties and started picking up growth in the nineties, once the shows started playing on TV (like HGTV) and some other networks showing what organizers do, it gave public interest in well maybe someone can come and help me. I really wasn’t planning an exit strategy for BellSouth when I left. What I had been doing on the side was for about three years I was taking clients (mostly family and friends) on the weekends just seeing if this could be a future career for me. But I didn’t have a date in mind or anything. When the package came up, it was a sign from God: yes you can do this now. You’ve wanted to do this for so long and so it was really just a wonderful way that it worked out. I could not have planned it any better. The timing just worked.
-It really does sound like it was several things coming together because you had been testing the waters and you knew it was something you really enjoyed doing versus deciding on the day you received the package I’m going to go into a business I have no experience in. You were getting your feet wet and you knew what you were getting yourself into when you made that decision, which I think is really important.
-Yes and the other thing that came into play was I had recently gotten married and I thought insurance is probably one of the biggest hurdles in having your own business. So once I was on my husband’s insurance, it kind of provided that little bit of padding that I needed. I thought now I can do this because I have that insurance peace and my husband was very supportive of me. I began looking into this as a career seriously. It’s that timing that was wonderful. I started my business a year before we had our son and that also is a blessing.
-Those are a lot of huge life occurrences that were happening at the same time as you starting your business. Surely having that insurance is a huge safety net that a lot of people worry about. Having a spouse that can provide that is very helpful. It sounds like you had great timing being out on your own before you had a child so that you could really devote yourself to motherhood the way that you wanted to.
-Yes it was helpful to have a year to do my business full-time and create how I was going to work with clients, how I was going to invoice clients, and the accounting side-what I needed to keep up with. I had to get my fail strategy and start networking. After I had my child it felt like some of the brain cells had gone away, so kind of having some of those things on autopilot while I was not getting a lot of sleep was very helpful. In a couple of years he started sleeping well. When I was back in business having some of those things set up was a great start.
-I think that’s great advice for anyone wanting to start a family if they have the opportunity to get their business up and running beforehand. I’m sure you had some clients that even if you went into a little bit of a holding pattern you could come back to and even get some referrals and some networking going when you were ready to start working more. Did that hold for you?
-Yes. It was nice when I had my son and then I was mom and adjusting to that mom life, it was nice to have something else (my business) that was still me. A lot of moms kind of lose themselves in the first couple of years because it’s so overwhelming and it’s time consuming and it’s wonderful. It was just nice, even though I was tired, to go out and work with a client as more than just mom.
-Right, right. That’s great. You started you said nine years ago, so these days it seems like every third person you meet is a solopreneur. There are a lot of people doing it. Back then did you feel isolated or did you have trouble finding a support group or people that you could share ideas with?
-I had one friend who was doing some business in life coaching. She was very helpful to the process and I actually hired her as my coach in that journey. She was one of the first ones who said, “You can do this.” I’m out on my own and you can do this. Most people I knew were in the corporate world still. No one to do lunch with if I had a day between clients. So it was a little bit isolating. I did visit one of the business networking groups that meets weekly. There were a lot of insurance agents and there were a lot of people who worked by themselves. They may be part of a larger company but that was fantastic. I would definitely encourage people to do that if they’re starting out. You become part of a very structured networking group that gives you the discipline to create your elevator speech, to pitch your business in different ways, and to help other people and their businesses and in turn they end up helping you. That really was a huge catalyst for me. I didn’t actually become a member. I was visiting for a while. The meetings were at 7 am and it was a little tough because my child still wasn’t sleeping very well, but I absolutely loved that experience.
-So that gave you connections, a chance to practice your pitch, and some accountability as well?
-It definitely did. I got some business from it. You really honed more of the mindset of how do I do what I do? Who would be a good client for me? Who could I refer? And then how do I help them personally so I can actually get some clients from the group?
-I’m curious because you mentioned nobody to have lunch with but how did you colleagues react to what you wanted to do? Did they think you were crazy?
-That’s a funny question. Well as I mentioned, there wasn’t much time between when I accepted the package and when I had to be out the door. I quickly whipped together a business card and got some of their opinions. They were really excited for me. It was kind of a surprise because I hadn’t talked about it at all. I could have been with the company for longer. I really hit the ground running to tell everyone what I was doing, hand out business cards, say goodbye, and wish them luck. Then I built my email list of who I call influences and all the contacts that I had. That was a huge project. I didn’t want to lose touch with any of those people that I had worked with. That was the time when I felt like I was pounding the pavement. I had a window of time to get connected with all of these people. I’m so glad I did it and so many people have been very supportive over the years. I have gone back and worked with some of them in their offices and it was really fun.
-That’s wonderful because some people might think they need to make a clean break and leave all of that behind, but you really saw that as an opportunity to use the network that you had from your corporate career. It was an opportunity to push your business and kind of spread the word.
-I feel like the success of my business and what I tell other people who ask about getting into their own business: it’s all about the network. Who will be your clients? Who knows people who will be your clients? It’s about that foundation of networking. I’ve been in Atlanta since high school and I felt really confident starting my business because I had the PR industry that I had been in for a long time and my friends and family. My family members were circulating with their friends and their coworkers at the time and then church. It was a mega church so I know a lot of people there and I had kind of these three rings of networks. Starting the networking group built this whole fourth circle that I didn’t know before who were out talking to the public. It was key to my success.
-You never know who your network knows. I think your approach of telling everybody that you know in all of those circles what you were doing was probably a really smart thing for you. Like you said it was key to your business, so clearly it worked for you.
-It really does help with LinkedIn and Facebook, which were starting. I had to force myself to learn that new medium which was new to all of us at that time. I’ve had people who I went to college with, which I guess is another network because a lot of graduates are in Atlanta, found me after years on LinkedIn and Facebook. Using all of those platforms helps bring it together and let people know here’s what I’m doing and the nine years I’ve been doing it. Then my goal became still doing this. I’m still in business, I’m still thriving, and I’m still here to help you.
- You were staying in touch along the way so they know you haven’t gone away or changed your mind about what you were doing?
-Exactly. You had asked me before about when you knew the business was going to work. Most small businesses out there don’t survive past three years. When I hit the three-year-mark and started getting some repeat business, which was nice. I’m constantly looking for new clients because most of the time it’s project-based. Then I started getting repeat business. I even worked with a single man back in 2006 and just last week he called me because he got married, so he and his wife needed some organizing. They needed some help with their house. It was really fun to see past clients in different seasons of their lives.
-I think a lot of people have a moment in their business where it’s just like the angels are singing. It’s like “Ah! It’s going to work. I know it.” Starting to get that repeat business, was that kind of your moment when the trumpets started sounding?
-I think so. It was just really exciting that I did put forth effort to make sure they knew I was still in business. One of the things I do is a newsletter. I have been very consistent about that so they know I’m still here and still around. Having someone keep your name and number and email address and call you back after three years or five years or eight years is just really exciting.
-Keeping in touch is so important. You talk about building the network and building it takes a lot of effort. Making sure you’re not letting it go to waste and making sure you’re cultivating those relationships and staying in touch with people is really strategic for your business. It works very well for you.
-Yes it has. A coach also helped me through that with the networking because when you start getting so busy with work and life, you can have these moments where you feel like you kind of are coasting and that you don’t have to work on yourself or look ahead. You’re just really comfortable where you are and so a coach is the one who always told me about keeping up that networking even on an evening that I might not feel like going. One of the groups was actually a BellSouth networking group and they were meeting in midtown one night. I was really tired and my son had been sick at the time. She told me I had to go and my husband could watch my child. She said, “You’ve got to go. This is part of what you do. You need to keep making those connections.” It’s effort. It is definitely effort and discipline in order to do that. It’s been rewarding. When I go to the events I have fun. You have to have fun.
-Some days it is very hard to get out the door but when you get there you are happy you did. You never know who you might meet or reconnect with. You talked about the circles of networking but there’s one area that you haven’t mentioned that I know has been really key for you. That is having your professional network with other organizers. Can you talk a little about that? How you found your people and how that has helped?
-You’re right. That’s a whole group. Before I left my corporate job, I joined an association and it’s called the National Association of Professional Organizers. It is mostly educational in nature but of course there is networking and we also have association members who provide industry services like closet design and trash overhaul. There are digital photo gurus as I call them. All of these things that my clients need to get rid of or need to organize, this association has been amazing at building my network for my clients. The associate members have been key to my business and really making me feel confident that if someone needs a closet built out or a garage built out with storage or their photo digitized, that I have some really great people for that. I know them and I see them every month. The other side of that is with the organizers. Right now I am President of our Georgia chapter and it has been a fantastic experience. We have seventy-five organizers and it’s the Georgia chapter so most of us are in Atlanta. We do have some throughout the state. The main thing I’ve gotten from that is subcontractors. Averaging about twice a week, I take an assistant, a subcontractor, with me to do these big jobs. Especially when you’re doing a residential storage space like a garage or basement or something like that. My clients don’t want me living with them. I need to get the project done and get out. I enjoy a team approach. Sometimes I’ll bring two or three assistants and we’ll just go in and be able to glimpse the project. Having the association has allowed me to meet those people who I feel confident with and are fit for me-someone who works well with me on my team. It has been invaluable to my business in order to grow it. I’m not interested in employees. There are definitely rules around having subcontractors but I am comfortable with that and they are happy with the extra work. Some have their own organizing business and subcontractors work for me on their off-days and some don’t. I don’t go everywhere in Atlanta. I have kind of my sweet spots of what’s close to me and where my ideal clients are. I’ve got some areas that are just a little too far but I’ve got great referral organizers in those areas that I have now known for nine years. Sorry I can’t help you but I am really confident that I can find the perfect person for you.
-That is so important I think is having a network is great for whatever reason. Whether you’re too busy or if you get sick, those same people will turn around and refer back to you. Like you said-they’re people that you know and trust so you’re not just picking someone out of your database and saying here’s somebody that lives in that area. You actually know them and have a relationship. That protects your brand when you’re making that referral if you want somebody who’s just as good as you are. So I think that’s important to have that network. You mentioned that you’re President and I assume that having volunteered and being in a leadership position also helps you be very visible and build your reputation.
-It really does and it’s just been great leadership experience. Managing an organization through volunteers is a challenge so I’m learning so much and have met so many other organizers by working on them with projects. It’s a lot of fun. I have gotten some media interviews because I am the President and I’ve also had some national opportunities through NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers. We are an organization that is 4,000 strong and growing. There are thirty-two chapters so thirty-two presidents. We have a national conference coming up in May. I was just asked to be on one of the panels, which I am thrilled and honored to be on. But it’s because of serving on board and having some visibility at the regional level that now at the national level I can have this really fun opportunity. Who knows where it will go. Sometimes when the doors are open, you just walk through. You don’t know what kind of opportunities it can create for you for your business. This is one of those things where I’m willing to do the work and take the time and see where it takes me.
-You also talked about having subcontractors in addition to being able to refer people. I think some solopreneurs think that being a solopreneur means they have to do everything themselves, which isn’t always the smartest and most effective thing. For you to know it was time to bring people in like I said with the project is essential to being able to run a successful business. Was that something you hesitated to do? Or did you start doing that right from the beginning?
-I would say it was maybe year three when I started really seeing that these bigger projects would be much better served if I could do them faster for my clients and it also helped with their budget. So I tried it a few times using a couple of different subcontractors and it worked well but I think what the most interesting thing for me was being an extrovert. Having more people at the job site with me means it’s not just my client and sometimes the client doesn’t work with me. We do the project without them. But I found with help it just was more fun. It really kind of enhanced the whole working experience for me. Right now my main subcontractor actually lives near me. She comes and rides with me to the job site. So she’s a friend of mine now too and so we can chat on the way to the job and plan the next steps of the job on the way home. I know that’s kind of different that she rides with me, but it’s finding the things that make your work-life fun. This has been about two years that she’s been riding with me and my job has really increased the whole joy-factor of it all. I enjoy my job and I enjoy what I do and helping people. Now I’m having even more fun.
-It can be lonely sometimes when you’re working on your own and so figuring out, especially for an extrovert like you, how to get those affiliation and social needs. It’s important and it sounds like you’ve done that. Kudos to you. We’re getting close to the end of our time but I just had two more questions I wanted to ask you: What advice do you have for someone starting out? What are the best tips you would want to share with them?
-Well we were talking before about the network. It’s really growing a network and working on the network. A real-estate person had told me when I first started that you need a hundred people in your circle of influence and you can contact all of them and put them on your email list. You can explain your business to them and really start that foundation. There are the people that you already know and then there are the people that you need to meet for the networking like you and I had talked about before. The second part of it would be as a solopreneur you’re wearing all of the hats. One thing I wish I did sooner was getting someone to help me with my QuickBooks. I did take accounting in college and I didn’t like it that much but I thought I really need to save the money and it’s not that hard to enter my income and expenses. It seems really basic. But it is not always that basic. If someone pays in cash, if someone prepays, or if someone doesn’t pay right away. All of these things would have been so helpful right away to have an expert helping me and relieve that burden. It would have been so worth the money to have someone like that from the start. Look for things that are not your strengths and that you don’t enjoy. If it’s going to suck the life out of you, hire someone to help you.
-That’s great advice. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. In closing, what do you love best about being a solopreneur?
-For me I love that I get to organize and help people. Having my own business means to me that I can create the life that I want. I’m usually able to work with a client and be home at the bus stop in the afternoons for my son. I do a lot of work at night because I am a working mom. When my son goes to bed is when I do some of the admin for the business. Not always can you pick all of your hours. I have some weeks when I do not have balance. But mostly I can pick and choose. It’s been a great blessing and great opportunity.
-I think our listeners are really going to benefit from some of what you shared about networking and how you got to where you are so thank you so much! Before we go I want to make sure they know how to reach you if they’d like you get in touch so what is the best way for listeners to contact you?
-My website is OrganizeAtlanta.com and my email address is on there but it’s Laura@OrganizeAtlanta.com and my phone number is on there as well: 404-630-7212.