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HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : Drudgery by Proxy : Can't Stand Attending to Life's Little Details? You Can Always Hire Yourself a Stand-In

August 12, 1989|ROBERT OSTMANN JR. | Robert Ostmann Jr. is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

You're busy doing what you do best--making and spending money. And you're bugged by the time you waste on the mundane chores of daily life.

You have already shed the major drudgeries: housecleaning, gardening and pool maintenance. Wouldn't life be perfect if you could have somebody else take care of the rest?

A small armada of entrepreneurs in Orange County is waiting for your call.

They've discovered that the county's booming economy and surfeit of upscale, bent-on-success professionals have created a demand for people willing--for a fee--to stand in at almost any task.

You can find someone to: iron your shirt, wait in line, feed your dog, choose your clothes, take your film to be developed, plan your wedding, buy your groceries, remind you of your spouse's birthday, organize your clutter or even wake you up.

"People in Orange County expect to be catered to. They expect the details of life to be handled by someone else," said Harvana Clark, an Irvine consultant who advises owners of personal-service businesses. "Orange County is the hub, where the action is. There's not a better market for personal service in the country."

While there are many people working as stand-ins, locating them can be tough.

Many services are one-person operations that have just started up and can't afford much advertising. Others suffer the vicissitudes of partnership and dissolve, only to reconstitute a few weeks later under another name.

Some are not listed in the various business phone directories. About half of the specialized personal-service businesses listed in various categories of the current Pacific Bell Yellow Pages, for instance, have disconnected numbers. Some have called it quits, others have new numbers available by dialing 411.

But by spending a little dialing time and by asking around, you can generally find the proxy you need. As in dealing with any contractor, customers should ask for references and inquire about bonding or insurance, depending on the service.

Here are a few of the Orange County people who have found a way to make a living doing for others what most people do for themselves.

Lisa Rogers, 26, was a commodities broker two years ago when her business crashed about the same time as the stock market. Looking for a less-stressful line of work, she seized on a friend's chance remark about the need for people to take over the chore of ironing.

In November, she started a business called Mobile Ironing, setting up shop in the garage of her Mission Viejo home. She distributed flyers in neighborhoods along the Marguerite Parkway corridor in south Orange County, placed an ad in the phone book and waited.

The calls poured in.

"I was working 15 hours a day, seven days a week at the start. I almost lost my sanity. But the business clicked," Rogers said. "Now I can catch my breath a little."

She works eight to 10 hours a day now, spending almost half her time making pick-ups and deliveries at the homes of about 100 regular customers who pay $1.25 per item for personalized ironing. Clothes picked up one day are ironed and returned the next.

"Some clients are professional working couples who have no time and drop off $80 worth of clothes at a shot. But my bread-and-butter customers are upper-middle-income families, mostly women who don't work but have husbands who can pay for it, so why should they iron?"

Rogers picks up clothes in the morning and brings them to her garage workshop, where three part-time employees help her iron.

The work is hot and messy.

"When I first started, I despised ironing, hated it. I intended never to pick up one of these things," Rogers said, wielding a starch-encrusted iron in hands scarred by several small burns.

"But I found I need to do it. I need to know exactly how it's done so I can make sure things are done right and done efficiently. I iron maybe 50 things a day myself."

Her clients are particular about how their clothes are treated.

"A lot of women's clothes can't be pressed, and dry cleaners often don't catch stains before they're set in by pressing. My people like the (hand-pressed) look and the attention to stains. We don't use steam irons. They leave little orange marks on your clothes."

Some clients have special needs. One woman sends all of her husband's boxer shorts to be ironed. "Another lady called me on a Saturday and said she was leaving the next day for the French Riviera and wanted all of her clothes ironed and folded. I don't usually fold, but I did it."

Kitty Barton of Fullerton charges $50 an hour to go into people's homes and help them get dressed.

"When we're growing up, we're never taught how to dress, only how to shop sales," Barton said. "So women end up with a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. That's where I come in."

On one recent afternoon, Barton was at work "dressing" Dolly Kaplan, an Irvine psychologist.

"Kitty had dressed someone I've been working with and she looks fabulous. I decided I want to do that for myself, so I hired Kitty," Kaplan explained.

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