Facing lice head-on

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2011 - 9:19 PM

After their children were infested with head parasites, two nurses teamed up to offer the latest in hair care: delousing.

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Ladibugs Inc. is the creation of two Twin Cities nurses out to tackle the undercover world of head lice. They have been open less than two years, did 600 treatments in their first year and have just signed a potentially lucrative national distribution contract for a line of their all-natural prevention products.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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In a little more than a year, Lisa Rudquist and Rachel Knutson have gone from grade school moms with active nursing careers to fledgling entrepreneurs about to become players on the potentially lucrative national hair care stage.

It's all because of head lice, nature's icky little curveball that knows no demographic bounds and considers everyone a potential victim.

After their own daughters were infested with the parasite early last year, they commiserated in the school parking lot about the lack of effective treatments. "Rachel, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Rudquist asked Knutson.

The two Twin Cities nurses drew on their health care experience to start a business to help others recover from and avoid the dreaded nit.

They called their business Ladibugs.

Working with a chemist and a manufacturer of hair care supplies in Alabama, the two came up with a line of all-natural products that act as lice repellents.

They contracted with a Utah firm to use its proprietary "LouseBuster" treatment system that resembles a hair dryer and uses warm air to delouse the head and hair.

They hired their first employee in January (there now are four) and opened a small, two-room, appointment-only clinic in a commercial office center in St. Louis Park in July. They did 600 head treatments in their first year.

"It's been like going from 0 to 100," said Knutson, 39, of Prior Lake.

'Painful to watch'

To day care provider Rebekah Clark, who watches up to 10 kids at a time, Ladibugs was a godsend since preventing head lice is a must in her business.

"It is such a nuisance and such a pain in the rear to deal with," said Clark, of Prior Lake.

Clark found Ladibugs on a Google search last year after her daughter developed a second lice attack in less than six months.

"I treated her myself the first time. I wasn't going to do it again. It was painful to do and painful to watch," Clark said. "Now I won't use anything but Ladibugs products."

Ladibugs began with $2,000 in seed money -- $1,000 apiece from the two founders. Today, they expect sales this year to reach the low six figures.

"There's a lot of sweat equity here. We didn't know what kind of marketing to do and we had a limited budget," said Rudquist, noting that many of Ladibugs' early appointments were at night in clients' homes. "It's been very challenging but fun."

But Rudquist and Knutson nearly made a fatal decision as they decided where to open up their own office for treating clients.

"Our first choice was an office at 50th and Xerxes," Rudquist said of the location just east of the popular 50th and France shopping area in Edina. "Our clients said no. They didn't want to be seen going for head lice treatments by friends. They wanted something more discreet."

The current office location is definitely discreet, located on the second floor of a business park atop a steep rise of stairs. The rooms are sparsely furnished by design for easy cleaning. Chairs can be easily washed down. There is no carpeting or cloth material that would give hiding places to lice, even though the parasite dies shortly after it leaves human contact.

Health insurance does not cover Ladibugs' services but the LouseBuster treatment is reimbursable through Health Spending Accounts and Flexible Spending Accounts.

The niche Rudquist and Knutson found appears to be real and grounded in considerable consumer need. The market for lice products is $300 million a year.

Avoiding chemicals

Many existing over-the-counter lice treatments contain pesticides or other chemicals designed to kill the lice.

Ladibugs hopes to capitalize on the fact that its products have all-natural ingredients.

"We have not met a mother yet who is happy when they open a bottle [of lice shampoo] and get that toxic smell," Rudquist said.

Earlier this summer Knutson and Rudquist entered into a marketing agreement with Minneapolis-based Kids' Hair with 11 salons in the Twin Cities and one each in St. Cloud and the Chicago area. Ladibugs products now account for 25 percent of sales at the Kids' Hair stores.

"It's a great relationship. It's one of our better-selling products," said Kids' Hair chief operating officer Scott Burtness. "We've been in the hair business for 20 years, and we pride ourselves as being experts in kids' hair. Our stylists are experts at detecting lice. What Ladibugs does for us is gives stylists all kinds of options to recommend. That puts parents at ease."

Burtness said the all-natural content is a plus for Ladibugs products. "Parents don't like using chemicals on their children's hair," he said.

Ladibugs' next big challenge is a national rollout. That got a lot easier last week when Ladibugs signed on with the Kirschner Group, a sales organization that caters to the professional beauty industry. The affiliation instantly gives Ladibugs a national sales force of 35 to sell Ladibugs products.

"We think this is a very important niche," said Jane Caris, the Minneapolis-based vice president of sales and marketing for Kirschner. "Lisa and Rachel are very passionate about this area and very qualified. It's a great story."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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    LouseBuster: $189 in office; $239 in home (plus $30 travel fee); includes head check for all family members, 30-minute comb out and heated hair treatment with the LouseBuster device.

  • Lisa Rudquist, left, and Rachel Knutson

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