Matt Paxton, Clutter Cleaner: A Hero To The Hoarders

09/03/2010 11:36 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2011
  • Geoff Williams The Huffington Post/AOL Small Business

However unlikely, hoarding has become part of the pop culture landscape. There are books like "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things," and you can't channel surf these days without finding a reality series about hoarding. Animal Planet has "Confessions: Animal Hoarding." TLC has "Hoarding: Buried Alive." And A&E's series is simply called "Hoarders."

In the midst of all this is Matt Paxton, president of Clutter Cleaner, whose Richmond, Va.-based business is routinely featured on "Hoarders," which returns on Sept. 6. But Paxton, 35, isn't just a reality TV creation. He started Clutter Cleaner in 2006, three years before "Hoarders" started airing. He brings in about half a million in revenue and employs six full-time employees and two part-timers.

We recently caught up with Paxton to get his take on why hoarding -- the compulsive act of collecting everyday possessions and then failing to use or discard them -- doesn't just make for compelling television, but is the basis for a solid business model. And it's a business that requires a lot of employee training, since the Clutter Cleaner team is working with homeowners who, rightly or wrongly, have a lot of emotions invested in their stuff. Without that training, Paxton says, "really, we're just moving boxes."

You had to put off our first interview because of an emergency. You said you had to clean up "dead cats."

We get them more than you would expect. We'll walk into a place and say, "How many dead cats do you think we'll find?"

Wow? Why are cats the preferred pets of hoarders?

We call it easy love. It's much easier to love a cat than yourself or friends or family. Spending time with a cat might be one of the few moments of happiness in these hoarders' world, and they lose their boundaries and decide, "I want more cats." These hoarders have so many cats that they're not aware they're reproducing in the back room. They believe they have six cats, but they have 35. Denial is a major part of hoarding. They can justify anything. I understand that. I used to have a gambling problem, and I'd think, "It's OK to gamble my paycheck because I'm going to win it back." They'll say, "These six are my cats, and I love them. Those other cats aren't my cats."

OK, well, this interview has started off a little more morbid than I planned. So who pays you? I'm guessing not the hoarder.

It's usually a family member or social services. Rarely does a hoarder contact us. Maybe one of out of 50. And one way they're able to pay for our services is to sell a lot of what they've hoarded. Many of our customers are compulsive shoppers, and they'll have $50,000 worth of crap in the house. One of our clients had 200 grand in jewelry from QVC. We don't do any of the selling, incidentally. We work deals so the people can sell their stuff, and they have to pay us upfront.

What are your fees?

They can range from $1,000 for one day to $20,000 or $25,000. It all depends how much feces is there, or simply how much stuff. And about half of our business is senior relocation, but you end up using the exact same skill set.

I read that you started your business with the idea of relocating senior citizens. You're still doing that?

Yeah, in this case, seniors haven't been hoarding, just saving -- saving everything -- but they're just doing what their parents taught them during the Depression. So you end up using the same skills, but they have a different mindset. And we're very mindful of the personal mental statement, because really it's all about the same thing: control. A hoarder keeps everything as a way of keeping control, and senior citizens are often afraid of losing control of their life.

I'll bet you find some pretty amazing things with the senior relocation jobs.

It's fascinating. We had one client, a 90-year-old woman who was living in her mother's house, which she had lived in her whole life. Her mother ran a brothel during the Civil War, and we were finding bags of Civil War material, including diaries. We submitted all of it to a local museum. With every family, you find something amazing or extremely personal. We found trolley tokens at one house, even though there hadn't been a trolley in the city for 60 years. And another house, we found 45s, and this 18-year-old kid said, "Wow, they look like records." He had never seen any. We're moving people from, say, a 5,000-square foot home to a 300-foot square apartment and trying to help them focus on the future and realize that their life isn't over.

Presumably, people were hoarding a century ago. Why is hoarding so popular now?

It's always been there. I mean, everyone has a crazy aunt who did it. It's really like alcoholism, only it's a new alcoholism. It's now OK to say, "My aunt is a hoarder." Before all this publicity, people just thought it was weird, but now we're understanding that it's a disease. In 10 years, people will be very nonchalant and accepting of it, but right now, there's still a negative association. We're seeing the last of the kids of the Depression hitting old age and dying, so we're just now getting into these houses that people haven't been in for years. Then you have that next generation of baby boomers, who have money to buy things and are receiving everything from their parents. And a lot of the baby boomers don't want this stuff, but they feel guilty, so they take it. We're seeing the effects of the last 50 years of consumerism.

And as the rest of the world becomes more Americanized, we'll have more consumerism, so the hoarding won't go away. The shows will go away, of course, because something else will come along, but the problem will still be there. That's the challenge with mental disorders being entertainment. There's quick awareness, which is great, but the problem is making sure that the family members get help. And if you don't do therapy along with the clean-up, almost 100 percent of the time, the hoarder will just fill up their house again. That's why we won't even agree to clean out somebody's home unless they agree to therapy, and sometimes we make them start therapy before we clean their house. It's a waste of their money otherwise.

Seriously? Because I'm sure many hoarders don't agree to therapy.

Oh, we end up walking away from a lot of jobs. But if you have a buddy who is an alcoholic, and all you do is throw his beer away, he's going to go out to the store and buy more. If they won't go to therapy, we say, 'OK, thanks for your time -- good luck.' Because the house will fill back up, the family will be angry that they've invested $15,000 or $20,000, and they'll be calling us in two years to come back. And I tell people, we only clean the house once. I'd rather come only after a person feels he or she has hit rock bottom.

I have to say, that sounds like a very ethical way to run your business. I mean, you're losing out on some money, by structuring it so you don't have repeat customers.

We could make a lot more in the short term if we didn't make them sign a paper that they'll go into therapy, but doing business unethically never works out. I think we're going to an old school market where people realize the easy way out no longer works. I mean look what happened with everything on Wall Street.

So back to the dead cats and feces. Did you ever imagine you'd be doing this sort of thing, back when you were a kid?

I always knew I'd be an entrepreneur. I was selling candy on the school bus. I'd take my allowance and buy candy and sell it to the kids, like three packs of gum for a dollar. Since the gum only cost me 30 cents, I made 70 percent on my candy. I've never had profit margins like that since and probably never will. That was a great experience until the Blow Pop kid came aboard the bus and took away all of my customers. But I've always enjoyed making money. I did try real jobs. I was an analyst for the Federal Reserve right out of college. I had an economist's background and thought I wanted to be a banker, but I realized that wasn't for me. Later, I invented an all-natural cleaning product for flip-flops that I sold for four years. I had a wetsuit company before that, and I tried to sell pre-cut limes to Budweiser. I thought that was a moneymaker, but I couldn't even get in the door.

So I wound up $100,000 in debt from all of my business ventures, but that was OK. I viewed the 10 years I spent on my businesses after college as grad school. A good MBA probably would have cost me that much, and I'm sure I learned more with my businesses. That's how you really learn cash flow, not by looking at a spreadsheet. And then Clutter Cleaners just came out of me trying to find a way to pay my rent. I know this is going to sound cheesy, but when I stopped trying to get rich and just started trying to help people, that's when I started getting rich.

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 9/3/10.

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