Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Value Added: It’s a bug’s life — until the lice nitpickers arrive

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post - M.J. Eckert, left, and neighbor Nancy Fields co-founded Lice Happens in Annapolis.

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Maybe it’s not the very worst call that you can get from your kid’s school, but it is a plenty bad one.

Flunked out? No.

Punched a student? Not that, either.

Brought a pocket knife to school? Not quite.

How about, “Your kid has lice.”

Eww.

But Lice Happens, which also happens to be the name of an Annapolis lice-removal company operated by two intrepid nitpickers.

Next-door neighbors M.J. Eckert, 53, and Nancy Fields, 51, run the sprawling business — they have specialists from Connecticut to North Carolina — from their small condo in an office park near the Chesapeake.

Last year, the co-founders earned a $125,000 profit on nearly $700,000 in revenue. That’s a lot of bug removal. They pay themselves about $50,000 each, and roll the $125,000 in profit back into the business.

Not bad for picking bugs off children’s heads. And that’s just the beginning. Eckert and Fields have ambitions to go national. They have four franchises throughout the East Coast.

The barrier to entry?

“There is a huge ‘ick’ factor,” Eckert said. “You would not believe some of the stuff we find in kids’ heads.”

The business started over some champagne on New Year’s Eve in 2009, when Fields was telling Eckert, a school nurse at the time, about her sister’s two children, who had lice.

“Nancy was trying to help her sister, and she was picking the lice out with her fingernails and putting them in the sink and pouring hydrogen peroxide on them to kill them. She had no idea what she was doing. I said, ‘I know how to take care of this. I’m a school nurse.’ ”

Fields, a computer geek, suggested there was a business in lice removal.

At 10 a.m. the next day, New Year’s Day, the two were in Eckert’s living room, pounding on their laptops, researching lice removal, looking up products. They wrote a basic business plan. Eckert knew dozens of nurses, so she could find the children with lice.

They tracked down a chemist in Alabama who made lice combs. They threw around names for their company —Lice-a-Roni, Lice Maids and Nitpickers Are Us. They decided on Lice Happens.

Eckert knew that the most effective way to get rid of the buggers is to comb them out.

“I combed it out of kids at school. I nitpicked. The term nitpick means pulling the nits, which are the eggs, off of the hair shaft. They are glued on. The mother secretes a quick-hardening glue. The eggs stick on the shaft like superglue. They take a week to break out of the shaft.”

One solution is to shave a lice-ridden head, but most parents and kids don’t go for that look.

So the Lice Happens specialists first apply treatment foam to the child’s hair. This loosens nits. Then they meticulously comb eggs off and wipe the comb on a paper towel, which is then folded up and placed in a sealed plastic bag and removed from the home.

“We combed 2-by-2-inch sections until we had done the whole head. We clear a section, clip it and go on to the next section.”

Once they had their combs and their foam, they needed to test their skills. So they put an ad on Craigslist offering free lice treatment.

“We needed guinea pigs,” Eckert said.

In a few months, with some help from Google AdWords and a local newspaper article, the business started picking up. They both kept full-time jobs while they made their lice appointments after work. They even nitpicked clients during lunch hour at Fields’ kitchen table. On some days, Fields would start the client session, then Eckert would take the second half of the nitpicking.

They raked in $100,000 in revenue in their first year. That amount tripled the next year and kept rising until it reached nearly $700,000 in 2012.

The nitpicking business is in no danger of disappearing. Every lice-ridden head has male and female lice, Eckert said.

“They mate, and once the female is pregnant, she is pregnant for life. She lays about six to 10 eggs a day. One girl we treated had it for seven years.”

Eckert said the vast majority of her clients are between the ages of 3 and 13. The average age is around 7.

Lice Happens has 13 specialists who visit the homes, which is the company’s biggest cost. The next biggest cost is product, which includes the lice combs and the foam they get from the secret Alabamian. The average Lice Happens appointment brings in about $320. They even have a 24-hour hotline, although they don’t make middle-of-the-night calls.

“We work our butts off,” Eckert said.

It hasn’t been all smooth going.

One specialist stole $12,000.

Then there are the unusual house calls, such as the elderly man who had a lice infestation — under his hairpiece.

There was the girl who had to be treated in the garage because her mother would not let her back in the house until she was lice-free.

One woman started unzipping her pants in front of Eckert, who fled the residence while suggesting the woman see a gynecologist. Head lice, Eckert said, never travel lower than the scalp.

The most famous case involved a 17-year-old girl who had lice for eight years. As they combed her hair, mountains of the little critters tumbled off the comb.

“Her mother kept calling to thank us for changing her child’s life,” Eckert said.

Lice have changed the lives of Eckert and Fields, too, for the better. They are getting rich.

 
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