Wife for Hire

Kay Morrison put a price tag on women's work--the old-fashioned, domestic kind--and turned it into a thriving business helping super-busy people get organized.

by Jennifer Margulis
Photograph: Photo: Misty Keasler

Morrison gave notice the next day and left Starwood in December. She cashed in $35,000 from her 401(k) to start the company and four months later ran an ad in a local weekly, using the whimsical logo she’d conceptualized: a cartoon image of a 1950s housewife, svelte, smiling, wearing a white apron and holding up a sparkling martini glass. Morrison named her Olive, and in April 2007, The Occasional Wife opened for business.

At first, Morrison received a mere five calls a week. “I worried that the idea wasn’t taking off, that my look wasn’t right,” she says. Much as she loved the freedom to drop off and pick up her kids at school every day, Morrison knew she needed to ramp up her work efforts. Over the years she had learned that “offering free services is an excellent way to get exposure,” she says. So when her neighbor, who headed the nonprofit Alliance for Affordable Energy, contacted her, Morrison agreed to organize a press event and fund-raiser at the company’s new headquarters. Her efforts brought in $2,000, and the group’s officers were so delighted, they nominated her for City Business magazine’s Innovator of the Year award. She won (as did a handful of others). Thanks to the publicity and a few more ads, requests for “wives” increased to about five a day. By the end of 2008, she’d spruced up more than 100 homes and added two services: gardening and packing for cross-country moves.

Next on her agenda was opening a retail store to sell organizational products (there wasn’t a single Container Store in Louisiana). She needed funds, of course, about $100,000, and figured she’d get it by bringing in a partner. So Morrison recruited a lawyer—the wife of a friend of Camp’s—to help with legal issues. But the joint venture was a disaster, and the woman eventually quit. A year later, Morrison hired her best friend, Ginger Ellis, as manager. Ellis, who invested the necessary capital, stayed on, but it took the pair a while to figure out how to work together harmoniously.

Meanwhile, a community of feminist bloggers started criticizing the corporate logo. “What the . . . ?!!” wrote someone on the Gender Bender Blog. “Observe this wife’s super thinness. And her maid costume. With the high heels.” The vitriol was picked up by Jezebel.com, with writer Anna North asking, “Do we really want to keep perpetuating the idea that a wife is someone who does ‘anything you do not have time for’?” In an interview with More, North explained her objections, saying, “Couldn’t we have a non-wife term for this? It’s promulgating a June Cleaver idea that someone is going to come to your house wearing cute kitten heels and do all your laundry for you.” Still, many of Jezebel’s readers got the joke, and Morrison, who regards herself as “the consummate feminist,” justifies the name by saying it “puts a price tag on women’s work.” In the end, the controversy boosted The Occasional Wife’s visibility.

Once the business caught on, Morrison’s job was to drum up new marketing ideas. Last summer, she launched “twirling,” a service now executed by “wife” Courtney Abercrombie. “People hire us instead of an interior decorator,” Abercrombie says. “It’s redecorating, but we use what they already own: We take what people have and make it work better for them.” Twirling and the retail store, which sells file folders with labels reading BLAH, MORE BLAH and CRAP, now constitute the bedrock of the business. “We like to make fun of ourselves,” Morrison says. Her attitude came in handy the day she got a call from a man who said, “I’m in town on business, and my wife’s not with me, so I was hoping you could help me out . . . ” Morrison replied, “Did you want us to come over and help you organize your hotel room?”

As she heads into her fourth year, Morrison doubles as an efficiency expert, with paid speaking gigs for corporations, women’s clubs, real estate companies and nonprofits. She has recouped her initial $35,000 investment and funneled it, along with most of the earnings, back into the business, paying herself about $2,000 a month.

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Comments

Melissa Gans05.11.2011

I had looked forward to reading an article about a successful businesswoman, but instead this piece reads like a cautionary tale. Kay Morrison trades a lucrative job to start a business with a modest nest egg of $35,000. By the end of the article, she's recouped and reinvested the $35,000, "paying herself about $2,000 a month." Uh, wait a minute. Is this a misprint? Never mind the Jag and the Coach bag, how does she support her family or even contribute in a meaningful way on $24,000 a year? It's ironic and fitting that the name of the business happens to be the Occasional Wife. Indeed.

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