Business leaders need to keep in mind WHY they are running their business, and not get stuck in a rut of chasing a buck or doing things the corporate way. When you feel like your business is running you, you need to remember that YOU created the business, and the option to make changes always lies with you.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darla DeMorrow a Certified Professional Organizer® and owner of HeartWork Organizing, LLC since 2004.
Based near Philadelphia, PA, she is mom of 2, international speaker, and author of the best-selling book series SORT and Succeed, which outlines five simple steps to help you organize stuff, time, paperwork, money, and photos. The Upbeat, Organized Home Office is the third book in the series.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like any superhero origin story, I came into my power a little surprised by developments. I was a very happy manager at a blue-chip company for 12 years. Only after being swept into a massive layoff did business school collide with my love of weekend warrior DIY home improvements to turn into a whole new career. I started HeartWork Organizing over 15 years ago, and have grown it to a service firm with a few energetic employees who love organizing and design as much as I do.
Yes, we get paid to help people organize their closets and other spaces. And we get paid to teach people how to be more productive on their smartphones and computers. We also get paid to organize their photos and precious mementos. We create order in a chaotic world.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
From the very start, I designed a company where I wanted to work. Early on, a trusted advisor told me that my company name and logo were too girly, and that no one would pay to have someone come into their home and do what they could do for themselves. But I believed that there were people who craved organized spaces as much as I loved creating them. More importantly, even though the organizing industry was still very small and relatively unknown at the time, the demand was absolutely solid and growing. From that experience, I learned that the business experts sometimes don’t understand what the market wants. I really had fun doing what they said couldn’t be done.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Inquisitiveness and delusion. I’m the kind of person who likes to figure things out. If there’s a mess, a question, or a puzzle, I like to get to the bottom of it. I enjoy the learning process as much as the answer itself. I think any good businessperson has to ask questions all the time about themselves, the market, and their clients. I joke that delusion is useful because you have to be the kind of person who thinks you can make a difference, who thinks this next deal will pan out, and who thinks there’s enough time in the day to get everything done. If you are the kind of person who gets stuck when things don’t go as planned, then owning a business will be no fun at all. There is no shortage of negative voices in the world, and it’s hard to always stay positive, but it takes no energy at all to be deluded. You can have a crazy idea, and it either works or it doesn’t. Then the sun comes up tomorrow and you get to go be brilliant again. Springboard from your last success, and go find another puzzle to solve.
Probably one of the most powerful thoughts that I allow to get stuck in my head is, “Why not me?” Someone will solve this problem; why not me? Someone will serve this market; why not me? Someone will become CEO; why not me? Someone will be on that flight to Paris in the fall; why not me? When you frame all the exciting possibilities in front of you like this, it seems positively silly not to try for your dreams.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
I wish I had hired my first employee sooner. I love running a small business, but it’s a plain old fact that you can do more with more resources. A great assistant or administrator can not only help you get more done, but they can be exactly the right person to listen to some of your business ideas when your spouse and friends have no idea what you are going through. Hiring and retaining employees is one of the hardest jobs I have as CEO. But I take pride in knowing that I’ve created economic opportunity out of nothing. My current assistant is a treasure, and I love that she’s found a place here where she can work just a few hours a week while keeping her professional data analytics skills sharp. My business has offered recent college graduates the perfect job to build skills to bridge to a corporate opportunity. And recently I’ve had the joy of giving a new mom, one of my most valuable employees, a stress-free way to enjoy her pregnancy and the birth of her first child, knowing that her job was waiting for her. I loved having her bring the baby to the office when she bridged back to work on her own schedule. I can’t necessarily compete with larger companies on benefits packages, but flexibility is the most important benefit to some people, and I can offer that.
I wish I had built travel into my business earlier. I love to travel, and my business has taken me to Australia, New Zealand, France, and England so far. Just this week I had a video call with a colleague from Russia and her colleague from Hong Kong. I can’t wait to meet both of them in person. We joked about how much we love what we do, and sometimes we don’t sleep because we are so excited about putting together a class or a book for our clients. Being a CEO of your own business literally opens doors all over the world.
I wish someone had told me what the heck a “platform” was. We used to talk about getting “eyeballs” on your website. Then we talked about getting followers. Then there was a lot of talk about being “authentic.” It’s humbling that people who want to hear from me, who want to learn from me. I started collecting those people into my own email list the moment I opened my doors. To build a platform, you don’t need millions of people who may or may not be paying attention to you on social media. You just need a few dedicated followers who look forward to what you have to share. Those are the people you talk to. Be yourself. Talk about what’s interesting for you. Bring out products and services that are important to you, and you’ll attract the followers on your platform.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I just read that you don’t burn out because you are busy; you burn out because you forget your “why,” and I think that’s true. Too many people still go into their business because they like the craft, whatever their specialty is, but they quickly learn that they don’t actually like the details of running a business. I love the challenge of running a business just as much as I love organizing things or building a beautiful room, but you don’t have to run a business to be successful. Passionate business owners like me are energized by having people around them who love just focusing on their craft. We all bring our talents to the industry we are in, so there’s just no reason to feel stuck, which is what leads to burnout. Business leaders need to keep in mind WHY they are running their business, and not get stuck in a rut of chasing a buck or doing things the corporate way. When you feel like your business is running you, you need to remember that YOU created the business, and the option to make changes always lies with you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been so many ripples in the pond that left a lasting impact on me. Many of the people who changed the course of my success probably don’t even know what an impact they had. One of my very first clients was a neighbor, Marie, who insisted that I was in business and should be paid, even before I knew it myself. Then there is Ellen Faye, a professional organizing colleague, who has always been so encouraging and was an early friend in this industry. It was inevitable that she rose to lead the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO.net) as president. Debbie Lillard shared how she wrote her book before I ever had an inkling that I might someday write a book, let alone four published books (with more on the way). These are regular people who crossed my path. I’ve never had one mentor throughout my career, but I’ve looked for these everyday moments with smart, encouraging people who crossed my path.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
After 15 years in business, I think a lot about the next 15 years. It’s possible my children will want to work in my business, or one of my employees might buy it. I am nowhere near that decision point, but developing a service business into a salable package takes time. Although we have well-documented processes and a stable client base, there’s so much more we can do to secure the company’s future. I want to really start working with advisors who can help me design a satisfying exit plan, even though I can’t actually see myself exiting the business. That day will come, probably sooner than I imagine. In the meantime, strengthening our repeatable, documented processes will only be good for us. It’s like making improvements to your house. No one wants to make expensive upgrades and then immediately move. You want to make improvements that you can enjoy while living there.
I’ve reached many of my own goals for the business, and I’m more focused these days on developing my employees and providing opportunities for them. It’s been fun to offer more flexibility and growth opportunities than they would normally see in a corporation. When one of my employees wanted to take several weeks off, she thought that she was going to have to quit. But after talking about it, she learned to just ask for what she needed, which was a short leave of absence. I was thrilled to keep a valued employee, and she has gotten to keep doing what she enjoys.
Travel is still a high priority for me. I’ll continue to make professional connections around the world, and travel with my family. We’ve become accustomed to vacationing more like Europeans, enjoying trips abroad for weeks at a time. That’s a unique benefit for my family that I would have never been able to entertain if I were still someone else’s employee.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I do have a sense of satisfaction about having four books in print and cataloged at the US Library of Congress. Those books might be in print for decades, helping people I’ll never meet. The copyrights can pass to my children. In fact, my children are now working on writing and publishing their own books! That my children are growing up in a house where publishing a book is just what we do — well, I’d like to think that will make it easier for them to go on and accomplish great things on their own.
In fact, I think a lot about leaving a legacy. That’s why I wrote developed the SORT and Succeed system for organizing. Wouldn’t it be great if you never had to wonder how to get a particular space or topic in your life organized? Using the same five simple steps over and over, you can learn to organize any space in your home or office. Even better, you can apply the same five steps to your calendar, your paper, your digital files, even your money! That means you don’t have to wonder what to look at a mess and wonder where to start. You can simply follow the SORT and Succeed steps wherever you need to organize:
Step 1: Start with a written plan. (The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll finish!)
Step 2: Organize into groups. (Gather like things together so you can see how much you have.)
Step 3: Reduce, Release, Reset. (By comparing the merits of similar things, it’s easier to make decisions about what to keep. Then reset only by keeping things you love.)
Step 4: Tweak. (Upgrade your style. Make small changes to stay organized longer, like labeling.)
Step 5: Succeed and celebrate. (Reward yourself for each success. Train your brain to love the process of getting organized.)
Absolutely everyone can be more organized.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I want people to STOP DECLUTTERING. I’d like to move us from the struggle of “how do we get the clutter out of our homes and lives?” to “how do we avoid clutter in the first place?” This is going to take ongoing efforts across so many disciplines, including green manufacturing, responsible retailing, mindfulness practices, fitness and health, financial education, recycling and community sharing in places like the Freecycle and BuyNothing groups online, and even political advocacy. We’re at a point in history when climate change and global manufacturing are causing us to question how we are using our natural and human resources. I live in the richest nation in the world with some of the smartest minds in history. What if, instead of figuring out how to make cheap consumer goods faster, we could create consumer goods that were longer-lasting, easier to repair, and easier to recycle? Today we commute to jobs we don’t like and then distract ourselves spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t have room to store and we don’t even want. What if we could teach our children to buy only what we truly want, share what we no longer use before it becomes useless, and create more value through experiences rather than through things that are on a fast track to the landfill?
These are big dreams, and I don’t mind being in on the ground level, working one-on-one with people who are changing the rules inside their own homes and offices.
I might only be helping people organize their home office, using technology to get more done, avoiding extra purchases, and recycling rather than trashing their waste, but it has to start somewhere.
You readers have probably heard the story of the young boy on the beach throwing starfish back into the sea. An old man comes along and tells the boy, “Why are you wasting your time? You can’t really make a difference, after all.” The boy reaches down, throws another starfish back into the water and tells the man, “It made a difference to that one!”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
https://www.facebook.com/groups/heartworkorganizing/ Clutter-free support group