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She isn't real, but that's beside the point. Her experiences are ones all homebased entrepreneurs can relate to. She agonizes over what to charge clients. She copes with a dog who barks incessantly during business calls. She struggles to ignore the siren's cry of her all-too-tempting refrigerator. The fact that she's a comic-strip character--and a beloved one at that--is purely incidental. Welcome to the world of America's newest homebased business owner: Cathy.
"It just seemed like a good time for Cathy to enter this world," says comic-strip creator Cathy Guisewite of her character's recent shift to the home front. "I had never before explored the working-at-home concept in the comic strip--and it really is rich territory. Plus, a lot more people are [working at home] than when I started the strip."
As any die-hard Cathy fan will tell you, the strip that's lasted more than two decades chronicles the life and times of the quintessential single career woman (a comic-strip updating of television's Mary Richards, if you will). With her corporate job a casualty of downsizing, however, Cathy decided this summer to take the road increasingly more traveled and start her own homebased business. Why make such a move--and, more significantly, what will result? Will Cathy's entrepreneurial foray be a lasting one? Will she enjoy being her own boss? And will she succeed in tuning out the distracting sounds of dog and refrigerator alike? To get the answers to these questions, we naturally turned to Guisewite--a former homebased entrepreneur herself. What follows is a peek into the wacky and wonderful world of Guisewite's comic-strip offspring.
First, you're probably wondering what type of business Cathy started. Well, keep wondering. "I've always left [Cathy's profession] vague in the comic strip," says Guisewite. "The company where she used to work was called Product Testing Inc. I kind of imagined it to be a marketing company. [Cathy] was in the lower rung of management at that company--which just meant a lot more work and a better business card."
Why not be more specific? Guisewite says she strives to make Cathy a character that's easy to relate to by a mass audience. "In the comic strip, we've always just seen her with big deadlines, lots of meetings, lots of memos, lots of crises, lots of emergencies--of a general sort. And I did that to keep [the strip] as universal as possible."
If you insist on filling in as many blanks as possible, put Cathy down as a consultant of some sort. "Her plan," offers Guisewite, "is to run her own business comprised of freelance clients. When she left the company where she had been working, it was with the idea that it would be a regular source of freelance work for her. We'll see how that [develops]."
Love At First Bite
So far, however, what Cathy has developed during her homebased business journey isn't something she necessarily wished for--a mad crush on her refrigerator. "The refrigerator is right there calling your name all day long," Guisewite observes, "and there are no witnesses." Consider it a case of the what-no-one-sees-can't-hurt-me, isn't-there-some-chocolate-cake-left-in-the-refrigerator blues: "There's something about being home that gives you a license to nibble and interrupt yourself to get a snack. It's that comfy, homey feeling that encourages you to eat in a way I don't think you do when you're in an office."
Not that a lack of witnesses is the only force sucking Cathy into a vortex of constant snacking. As Guisewite herself learned from 14 years of working at home, being able to wear whatever you want in your homebased office has its caloric drawbacks, too. "In my own experience, that means I'd wear sweatsuits two weeks in a row and then not be able to get into anything else because I'd lulled myself into a false sense of security," the comic-strip author jokingly divulges. "You get that [false sense of security] when you eat all day long and you're wearing clothes with stretchy waistbands."
As if that weren't enough stress for a fledgling homebased business owner, Cathy must also cope with the ever-perplexing dilemma of what to charge her clients. "It took her longer to figure out how to bill somebody than to do the actual work," says Guisewite. "When I used to do freelance advertising, I always faced that problem of not knowing how to bill somebody. Do you bill for the five hours you sat there staring at the page when you really didn't have an idea? Or do you bill for the 14 seconds you're brushing your teeth [when inspiration strikes and you suddenly think of] the big idea that the whole thing is based on?" Yikes!
As you've undoubtedly surmised by now, many of the experiences the fictional Cathy will encounter in her tenure as a homebased entrepreneur will be drawn from the experiences of the real-life Cathy Guisewite. Although she has since opted to produce her comic strip outside her home, Guisewite has plenty of firsthand working-at-home recollections to call upon. And who's to say, really, that an awful lot of truth can't be injected into the panels of a comic strip?
"The strip is a great vehicle for showing the reality vs. the fantasy of a situation," says Guisewite. In her own experience, for instance, running a homebased enterprise while raising a child wasn't all that easy. "I'm sure some [homebased entrepreneurs] are able to pull that off beautifully," she concedes. "And I definitely had the fantasy that [my daughter] would be playing at my side while I worked. But, in reality, I have to drive to a different zip code to even be able to think about work."
Although comic-strip Cathy doesn't have a child, Guisewite still made use of her experience by forcing Cathy to grapple with the presence of a hovering mother in her home. And, yes, her dog Electra has a way of clamoring for Cathy's attention as well. "People who aren't working at home have very little sympathy for [all the difficulties that arise]," says Guisewite, "because they're not living it."
What Happens Next?
Fortunately, not everything will be difficult in the homebased world of Cathy. "I want her to experience the exhilaration," says Guisewite. "It's a wonderful feeling to actually be on your own, make enough money to support yourself and keep things going. It's also isolating, though. If you're a single person working at home, your chances for human contact get smaller and smaller and smaller."
Ah, but we suspect Cathy will muddle through just fine, and certainly with great humor. What we're really wondering--and we're guessing you are, too--is exactly how long Cathy will remain a homebased entrepreneur. Will she eventually return to her former life as a corporate employee, or will the allure of running her own show keep her right where she is? "I don't know what's going to happen," says Guisewite. "Part of me thinks I've been doing this for almost 21 years so I should have figured out a way to plan ahead--but I don't seem to be made that way. I don't know what's going to happen."
What Guisewite does know, however, is the advice Cathy would give to fellow homebased business owners: "Move the office area out of the kitchen," she insists, "and get a lock for the refrigerator."