The neatly lettered message on the back window of the station wagon read like a plea for help: "Hiremyhusband.com." The woman behind the wheel must have been so desperate to find her spouse work that she was trolling the streets.
"When you saw my car," Dawson Urban said, "if I wasn't on my way to Home Depot or Lowe's, I was probably on my way to a job site. When you're driving around, it makes sense to have your advertising on your vehicle."
Dawson and her husband, Andrew, have been running a handyman operation out of their Benicia home since 2002, or since Andrew was downsized out of his corporate accounting job just as he was about to turn 50.
He wasn't sure he still wanted to be an accountant, and employers weren't lining up at his door. So in a move that says as much about human resourcefulness as it does a fickle job market, Andrew turned to something else he knew -- fixing things -- and began a new career.
"My husband is from New Zealand," Dawson said, "and when we were brainstorming a name for this business, he said, 'How about Hire a Hubby'? I told him that sounded like a New Zealand thing an American audience might not get."
Hiremyhusband was born.
The company's first job was painting a neighbor's bedroom. With modest advertising, new jobs followed -- replacing doors, repairing wallboards, fixing fences, hanging curtains -- until Benicia's newest entrepreneur could barely keep up.
"After the first six or eight months, I saw how busy my husband was, so I jumped in and did a lot of the interior painting while he did fix-it jobs," said Dawson, who learned wallpapering and painting at her mother's side.
How good is business? The Urbans have added three employees and crossed the bridge to take on work in Contra Costa County. Dawson, a project manager during her 15 years working for Hyatt Hotels, oversees the operation and bids jobs.
"It's usually the wives who call," she said, "and many times they are apologetic that their husbands don't know how to do the things they want done. I tell them, 'That's why we're here.'"
Many calls are for simple fixes such as leaky faucets and squeaky doors. ("I refer to those as the honey-do list -- the things you don't want to do on your day off when you could play golf," Dawson said.)
Some of the jobs, however, have been more complex. There was the art lover who wanted to hang a 6-by-8-foot crewel-stitched tapestry but had run out of wall display space. The Urbans stretched it across a frame like an art canvas and mounted it on the client's vaulted ceiling.
The operators of California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda wanted to hide the outdoor portable toilets brought in for their seasonal shows. Hiremyhusband designed a framed lattice structure, in camouflage colors, that could be disassembled and stored at the end of the season.
Dawson said most of her business comes from repeat customers, which she takes as a compliment, but when a job requires skills beyond her team's expertise, she recommends specialists.
"Everybody we've worked with has been really fun," she said. "If you're not having fun at your job, you shouldn't do it."
The message on the station wagon wasn't a cry for help. It was a reminder that it's never too late to reinvent yourself.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.