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.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of More magazine
The mansion on an oak-lined street in New Orleans is one of those drop-dead gorgeous homes that give visitors serious real estate envy. It’s not just the furnishings that impress, or the original artwork. Rather, it’s the serenity. The owners, an empty-nest couple, entertain every weekend, host fund-raising parties and welcome houseguests monthly, yet there’s zero clutter: no stray bills, keys or to-do lists lying around. Just an aura of spaciousness, order and potted orchids blooming in sunny rooms. It’s as if a witch had cast a declutter spell.
This picture-perfect tidiness is the work of Kay Morrison, who three years ago decided to create a business out of the fact that too many people have too little time to manage their domestic lives. Through her company, The Occasional Wife (theoccasionalwife.com), New Orleans residents can hire a helper who, for $40 an hour, will shop for groceries, plan a birthday party, organize closets, hold an estate sale, prepare a house for the market, manage a move, help set up a dorm room, buy presents or research housing options. Pretty much anything except clean house (“That’s the one service we don’t offer,” Morrison says).
The mansion’s owners are regular clients who pay for a spectrum of services, including sorting their mail and paying bills when they’re out of town. Today Morrison has brought over a team to install shelving in the couple’s home office. Wearing a retro-style sundress—wide belt, full skirt—Morrison looks every bit the classic 1950s housewife as she directs a “wife” (a recent college grad who majored in chemistry and is good with a hammer) and her handyman helper.
Morrison came up with the wife idea one particularly harried morning in 2004 when she was working about 70 hours a week as an executive at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. She was frantically packing for a business trip while trying to help her husband, Camp Morrison, manage breakfast with their kids (Flynn, then four, and Annabel, two). Exhausted, she suddenly stopped and sighed.
“What this family needs is a wife,” Camp said. A private detective, he already knew the difficulty of juggling half the child-care load.
“Hey,” Morrison shot back, “give me a little credit here. For a woman who’s traveling all the time, I think I’m doing a good job.”
“You’re right,” Camp said. “We need an occasional wife.” He explained that this was the title of a 1960s sitcom about a single “gal” who lived in an apartment complex and sometimes pretended to be married to her executive neighbor. What the family could use, he went on, was “someone to fill in now and then when too many balls are dropping.”
Morrison began fantasizing about the possibilities. For 21 years, she’d worked her way up in the hospitality industry to become a global accounts director with Starwood. She drove a Jaguar and earned a healthy salary, plus fabulous bonuses. But she hated the travel: She was on the road at least two weeks a month, often overseas. Why don’t I start a wife business myself? she thought. Soon she was doodling logo designs on airplane napkins and brainstorming possible services to offer.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In August 2005, the Morrisons fled to Alabama, continued on to New Hampshire and finally settled into a colleague’s vacation home in Massachusetts. Back in Louisiana, four feet of water flooded the family’s 1920s bungalow. But throughout the chaos, Morrison never stopped working, fielding phone calls from Starwood clients on her cell. To cope with the anxiety, “I baked a cake every night and washed it down with a six-pack of beer,” she says.
When the family returned home in February 2006, Morrison threw all her energy into her kids, her house and her job—Starwood named her its Outstanding Salesperson that year—but inside she resented the time away from home that her work required. Her lowest point came in August, when a business trip caused her to miss Flynn’s first day of kindergarten. “I thought, why? So I can drive a Jag and carry my laptop in a $500 Coach case? That’s crazy.”
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.
Her own house in the Fontainebleau neighborhood is as organized and well twirled as any client’s. Baskets of ferns hang from the porch ceiling, and a vase of long-stemmed pink roses in the living room complements the retro decor. It does get cluttered, she says, but everything has a place, and these days she has time to put it all back together. In the entrance hall, a black-and-white portrait of her mother shows an attractive woman of the 1950s who could have passed for June Cleaver. “She taught me to manage my time,” Morrison says. “She would have been a powerhouse today.”