Sharon McRill’s office is illuminated by a pair of vintage-style lamps, so pea green and oddly shaped that any vintage shop would be envious. But McRill, forty-eight, didn’t pay a dime for them–or for the slightly beat-up sixties cocktail table holding a few token booze bottles and a blue glass pitcher. The Mad Men-era accessories were reclaimed from houses that her company, the Betty Brigade, reorganized and de-cluttered for overwhelmed clients.
The whimsical accessories contrast with the office’s meticulous organization. Whiteboards hang in every room listing daily goals and achievements, crisscrossed by black tape creating rows and columns for marketing, sales, and operations data. “Everyone organizes their passion,” says McRill, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and rakishly speared by long hairpins. “Mine happens to be my business.”
In a typical week her ten employees run errands for clients like picking up dry cleaning, getting their cars serviced, or looking after their pets. During the holiday season, “We have done online shopping for executives,” McRill adds. “Someone might call and say, ‘My wife likes ornate chairs.'” But the biggest demand is “relo” jobs–helping people, most of them elderly, prepare to relocate.
The business seems like a natural fit for someone with two entrepreneurial parents, plus a U-M degree in general studies. But McRill got into it as an impromptu Plan B.
For six years, she conducted interviews and crafted content for Borders’ website–until she was let go in an early round of layoffs. Afterwards, McRill recalls, “I was watching Oprah and feeling sorry for myself, lying on the sofa in a fetal position, and then I decided to make a list of what I know how to do.
“I am a really good organizer [and] I can take care of pets. I figured I could do that until I got another job. But when I started getting busier, a good friend asked me, ‘If this were to work [as a business], what would it look like?’ Over a bottle of wine, I drafted a vision statement.”
She started the company in 2003 and hired her first employee a year later. But growth didn’t go smoothly at first. “I didn’t trust people enough to give them real responsibility,” McRill admits. “For example, I felt like I needed to work on every single job.” Now, she trains people as team leaders and gives them the freedom to solve problems–for instance, they can spend up to $250 without asking permission. “Just fix it,” McRill tells them. “Make [the client] happy and tell me about it later.”
To keep everyone focused on results, the Betty Brigade relies on open-book management–McRill learned the system from ZingTrain and the book The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack. A whiteboard in the meeting room displays cash flow, expenses, accounts payable, and accounts receivable, along with the company’s annual goals and figures from last year. “In the beginning it felt like I was getting naked in front of my staff,” McRill admits. “Some weeks they were wondering, ‘Will there be enough to pay us?’ They can see that any business goes through cycles.” But overall, she says, sharing financial information is “calming … because everyone knows what to do if we need to go find some sales.” The Betty Brigade charges $95 an hour, billed in increments of fifteen minutes; McRill says the average errand costs $20-$25.
Although she won’t share yearly sales figures for publication, McRill does say that recently she graduated from the Goldman Sachs “10,000 Small Businesses” training program, which has a $250,000 annual minimum. In early October, the whiteboard revealed a weekly cash flow goal of $7,000. McRill says sales are growing 30 to 40 percent a year, and, with a well-developed training and business development system, she plans to begin selling licenses next year to people who want to launch their own Betty Brigades.
“We are marketing this to moms returning to the workplace or people who have come out of corporate office jobs,” McRill says. “We really do change people’s lives, so the more people’s lives we can touch, the more we can help them.”
Licensees will undoubtedly experience the Betty Brigade’s most difficult assignments–“always the hoarders,” McRill says. The company is often hired by a family, or a trust officer at a bank, to clean out a hoarder’s house. McRill sometimes makes a game out of it, giving employees “Betty Bingo” cards to check off when they find, for example, foreign coins or pre-1980 technology. The winner gets to select an item from a goodies bowl–anything from paid time off to an iPod.
On one recent job, the house and garage were filled from floor to ceiling with boxes that had to be looked through. “In the rafters of the garage [the home owner] had saved newspapers, and they were a foot and a half high and mice bitten,” McRill recalls. “There was shredding from the mice, and we were wearing masks, and we emptied forty bins–the kind you roll out to the curb.” But in among the trash, they found stock options, cash, and insurance policies worth more than $10,000.
When she takes on a hoarding job, McRill says, she asks proof that her clients are currently in therapy, “so we can be sure they are clearing their mind while we clear their house.” Conveniently, though, hoarders get extra chances to find the Betty Brigade. McRill holds up a full-page photo of herself–an illustration for a slightly yellowed story about her and her business that was written about a decade ago.
“We received calls for four years after this article appeared, even though this is a daily newspaper,” she says, “because some of our clients save the papers … they are hoarders.”