In Jen Robin's world, the secret to sparking joy sits tidily in between tri-folding your thongs and living your present truth. "It's a very vulnerable state," explains the founder of Life in Jeneral, a professional organizing company based in Los Angeles. "We're in people's underwear drawers, their divorce papers, dealing with deaths … and we just want to have the end result of happiness." The idea of happiness, she adds, looks different for everyone on her client list (which ranges in age, income, and identity) both in real life (her team will tackle seven states in the next eight weeks alone) and online (she shares advice and consults with her 180,000 followers on Instagram almost every day). Despite how effortless her team or a Netflix series may make it seem — the purge isn't always pretty.
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We're sitting in her car outside of a client's house and it's raining in L.A., which tends to put almost everyone else in the city in a funk, but not Jen Robin. "It's like we all drink the Kool-Aid now, and we want everyone to drink it," she says of the same craze taking Marie Kondo fans by social media storm. But, in reality, Life in Jeneral is less like a cult and more like a family, says its director of business development and sales, Nicole Dines. "Whether it's physical, like a bathroom drawer, or organizing your thoughts, [Jen] has taught me to slow down and truly focus on what is important in life," says Dines.
Jen is wearing a sports-jersey-like "Life in Jeneral" T-shirt, a nod to her past life as a Division I soccer player. From a young age, sports were her priority, resulting in an on-the-go travel schedule that only benefited from being better organized. She remembers being as young as five years old, not having any chores, because everything was innately in its place. "My [childhood] room was always well-designed and I would move it around to [better] function because I loved being home," she says.
In her early 20s, the death of her father left Jen with the opportunity to move away from her hometown of Sacramento and take a full-time job assisting Landon Donovan, a World Cup athlete, for whom Jen says she devoted her life to creating "systems and order" for his busy schedule. That, along with her incredible inclination to be that unicorn friend (you know, the kind who offers to help you move), turned Jen on to the idea that she could make a living — on her own — doing what she loved. She charged her first client $20 an hour and, within three months, built up enough work on a referral basis to hire an assistant. Since starting Life in Jeneral in 2014, Jen now has 21 team members and expects to hire three or four more over the next few months, despite never having formally advertised her services.
Jen is precise in the way that she speaks ("I'm 33-and-a-half years old"), conscious of her convictions ("I'm doing something right because it feels good to the core"), but not a typical Type A declutterer ("I'm a listener"), which she believes sets her apart from the competition. "Once you hear their goal, struggle, or fear, then it's navigating through that," she says. Jen never leaves a space without asking how the client feels, which sometimes results in pivoting to another solution. "We are only able to go as willing as the client will let us," she says, referencing the case when her Chicago client hoarded over 1,000 paper clips — one of the only times Jen had to walk away without a mutual resolve when the client wouldn't let go of the collection of office supplies — despite her best efforts to understand. "I'm never going to force someone to let go of something that they don't want to," she says.
With her feet casually propped up on the seat of her car, Jen describes her philosophy as "perfectly imperfect" because she adapts it for each situation. "We're really known to marry aesthetics and function," she says of go-to strategies like purchasing matching storage bins and emptying cereal boxes into glass jars. "But at the end of the day it has to function for that client — and it has to really work — because that's the only way it's going to stay."
With clients ranging from YouTube stars like Justine Ezarik (aka iJustine) to fashion experts like Jessica Rich, it's obvious that one-size-fits-all doesn't work in her industry, even though harmonious hangers (Real Simple's "black" or "dove" style), dividers, bins (Jen frequently sources from both Target and the Container Store), and stackable storage (air-tight is often advised) are almost always recommended.
Jen doesn't have much time to do physical organizing these days, save for a few VIP clients, so she's distilled her methods into a training guide for her team. Reading through the information, the "secret" lies within her easily digestible advice (like preserving memories by making a photo book instead of keeping items that no longer serve you), techniques (like taking everything one step at a time instead of trying to do an entire overhaul all at once), and asking sincere questions (like, "how often do you really use this?"). Being the comprehensive planner she is, she also includes advice on pre-purging, such as stocking the pantry, running the dishwasher, and doing laundry ahead of organizing.
More than once, Jen realized that her competition had hired her for a consultation to scope her skills, after inevitably revealing themselves by later following her social media account. "I wish they would've just told me," she says with residual confusion in her eyes. "I would have been like, hey, I can actually give you more information on who I am, you know, I'm creating this myself, I'm going to learn a lot and make a lot of mistakes, but you also need to find your way, your path."
Jen jokes about putting herself out of business some day. Her goal is to never have repeat clients because her techniques are teachable, her methods sustainable. But it's her constant innovating and "editing" (Jen evaluates her own life every three to six months, with ongoing attention to daily improvements) that keeps her competitive. I point to the loose phone cord in the center console of her car and tell her I'm surprised the charger isn't wound up tight using some fancy organizing tool. "Not until I invent it," she says with a smile, hinting at future expansion plans for the company.
It's late in the afternoon now, and Jen's stomach is growling. She's been up since 5:30 in the morning, which is the time she intentionally sets aside as her own every day. Jordan Santoro, a team leader she fondly calls "Jordy"comes over to the car before he leaves to donate items purged from the client, and they deem today as a success, based on their standards versus the budget, which varies, given the client. Jen gives him a hug before returning to her phone where she is scrolling through an email recap from team members scattered across several cities. She starts to read me a response to the survey they send out at the end of each day — before the invoice — asking the client how they feel. "The responses we get can bring you to tears," she warns. "But it's the most beautiful thing to read, [for them] to say, 'You've changed my life ... I feel like we're ready to tackle anything ... I am empowered, inspired … I want to lose weight.' I mean, whatever it is like, it's the gateway to say, 'You can do that, and here's how much better your life could be on the other side.'"
Jen wraps for the evening at a healthy 5 p.m. and gets back in the car to head home to Redondo Beach to spend time with her dog before happy hour and dinner with a friend. Next week she's off to meetings in New York, then a client move in Nashville, and another meeting in Michigan, and — with all credit due to the amount of celery juice she consumes — I still can't figure out how she keeps everything organized.
"You have to have a strong foundation with anything you do," Jen says before leaving the client's house. "You know, you can't build on like, lava."
Red liquid is on my brain as she drives away, and, I think, I'm ready to drink the Kool-Aid.