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Making It
Nit-picking friends start a welcome new business

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Now that school is back in full swing, some children will likely be sent home because of infestations of head lice, those stubborn, sesame-seed-size parasites that lay even tinier eggs, called nits. Washington area parents who don't have the hours or patience to pick minuscule nits out of the hair of squirming children now have an option: a service called Lice Happens that will come to their house and nitpick for them.

The business is run by Nancy Fields, 47, and M.J. Eckert, 49, who live next door to each other in Annapolis. One day late last year, Nancy recalls, she got an emergency call from her twin sister, Janice, "beckoning me to come and help her immediately." Nancy's niece and nephew had been sent home from their Columbia school with a reinfestation of lice, and Janice, a single mother who had just started a full-time job, couldn't take time off to handle the situation. Nancy, who doesn't have children and hadn't encountered lice before, spent hours picking nits and came away "intrigued by these little creatures." She also was convinced that parents such as her sister would appreciate help with the problem.

Nancy starting reading up on lice and talked to M.J., who as a nurse was well acquainted with the parasites and attitudes toward them. "Lice have a definite ick factor," she says, partly because of the mistaken belief that having lice means a person is unclean. On New Year's Eve, the neighbors shook hands and decided to start their lice-treatment service.

They spent the next six weeks or so establishing their approach and practicing, cost-free, on volunteers. The business partners found an all-natural foam shampoo that they believe is superior to conventional products, and they invested in equipment -- including stainless-steel fine-toothed combs and magnifying goggles -- and a Web site. (Start-up costs, including legal fees, were about $12,000.) They picked nits on nights and weekends around their other jobs -- M.J.'s at a private school; Nancy's in quality control for a software company -- and started charging for their services in mid-February.

In May, when Nancy was laid off, she called M.J. expecting commiseration. What she heard instead was: "That's awesome! Do you know how many people we can help now?" Since then, she has been devoted to the business full time.

The partners charge $100 an hour, which they say is in line with similar services around the country and is appropriate compensation for what M.J. describes as "tedious, frankly back-breaking work." It takes 11/2 to two hours to treat most cases, and the partners train the parents so they can repeat the process as necessary. "We look at it as a one-time investment," Nancy says. "We want to demystify the treatment of head lice and de-stigmatize infestation, and basically be a voice of reason and simplicity." Their motto is "No Shame, No Blame."

News of the mobile service spread easily -- sort of like lice themselves -- and the Lice Happens founders have hired four more specialists to keep up with the demand and offer their services more widely. The partners grossed more than $20,000 in the second quarter of the year. By late last month, their sales for the third quarter had already exceeded that by 11 percent. They are not paying themselves; other than money Nancy has taken out for some personal bills, any profits are going back into the business.

"We never had any idea it would take off like this," M.J. says. Nancy, meanwhile, takes satisfaction in the fact that despite being laid off, "I didn't have to file for unemployment; I didn't have to become a statistic." The partners' goal is for the business to support both of them full time, though, M.J. says, "I never in a million years thought I'd be nit-picking for a living."

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