Adie Horowitz wasn't supposed to be a successful entrepreneur.
"I'm an Orthodox Jewish woman from Brooklyn," the 60-year-old says. "In my community, it was expected that I would be a teacher or a secretary, or work for somebody else. It was not expected that I would grow a multimillion-dollar business."
She defied expectations and created a multimillion-dollar business.
Not just any business. A business that's weird, embarrassing and, well, kinda gross.
Horowitz owns Licenders, operating six lice removal locations in New York and Connecticut. She employs about 40 people and says she has more than a hundred contracts with schools.
As CNBC Make It visited a location on Manhattan's Upper East Side, there was a steady stream of customers with appointments or just dropping in, scratching their heads. This store alone does $1 million in annual sales, but Horowitz also makes house calls or visits schools. "We spend about $3,000 a month on Uber," she says.
October is peak lice season as kids return to class, but the end of summer camp is also big for business. "The buses stop here before they let the kids go home."
Still, Horowitz never expected to be her own boss. "I was always running other people's businesses."
That changed in 1996 when her daughter, Eve, came home from school one day. "My sister said to me, 'Why is Eve scratching her head?'" she recalls. "I went over and took a look at her, and there were these little bugs crawling all over her head."
Horowitz was horrified. She called her pediatrician, who prescribed a shampoo. "It was full of poisonous pesticides," she says. Horowitz decided not to put it on her child's head. "I told my husband, 'There's gotta be another way.'"
Head lice affect an estimated 6 million to 12 million U.S. children a year. They only like human hair, Horowitz says, who adds they don't fly or jump, they crawl, so you need to have head-to-head, hair-to-hair contact (one reason more moms than dads end up catching lice from their kids). "It wraps its legs around the hair, then takes a little bite, and that's what's itchy, and lays an egg," says Horowitz. "If you miss one egg, the whole thing starts all over again."
Horowitz spent months in 1996 trying to rid Eve of lice, combing through her hair, searching for eggs. She ended up going to the library (yes, that's what you did 22 years ago) to research natural ways to kill lice. Eventually, Horowitz found a woman in Germany who sold a special comb. The comb arrived with a small white packet. "I said, 'What is this?'" she remembers. It was baking soda.
Soon Horowitz concocted a conditioner with baking soda, and that, combined with the right comb, solved Eve's lice problem. "There's such a big stigma to lice, but my friends eventually figured it out," she remembers, laughing. "Every time they came to my house, they saw me bent over my daughter, and then they ran out and slammed the door."
However, with a solution in hand, she started offering to help others, and suddenly some of them started to pay her. "I kept saying, 'Why isn't there a business to take care of this? There's a business for everything else.' Finally, by the end of the summer, I realized, 'Oh, girl, you're it.'"
That's how Horowitz became a professional nitpicker.
First year revenues in 1997 were $25,000, and she reaped a profit of $4,000. "I ran out and bought myself a ring," she laughs. "It just enforced to me, you know what? I have to be able to hold my head up, I want to make money. This has nothing to do with lice, this is about business."
Horowitz originally called her business Lice Advice, but in 2004 she bought out a competitor and kept its name — Licenders. Last year revenues hit $1.7 million. She estimates that over the years she's put about $1 million into the company. Treatments cost between $125 and $215, with the more expensive treatment including an FDA-approved machine called an AirAlle which dehydrates and kills lice eggs. "Did you know that nits are actually 80 percent water?" Horowitz asks. No, I did not.
This unexpected entrepreneur says her "aha!" moment was when she realized she could afford to move the business out of her basement in Brooklyn, New York to a storefront in Manhattan. "If you can be successful in Manhattan, you can be successful anywhere," she says with a smile (start spreading the news...).
But the path to riches didn't happen without breaking a few lousy eggs. "The biggest mistake I made was hiring the wrong people."
Horowitz says she also wasted money opening stores in bad locations, cutting her losses and starting over. It was sometimes difficult at first to convince renters to lease her space when her business was head lice. "In my first salon, the landlord thought we were selling headlights."
At the same time, friends in her traditional Orthodox neighborhood couldn't understand what she was doing. "The men were very condescending about it, didn't take me seriously," she says. "And when it came to my lady friends, they kept saying to me, 'What are you so busy with?'"
However, the business continued to thrive. Three years ago she brought on partners with expertise in expansion and marketing, and they invested $600,000. "That was probably the best thing that I ever did," Horowitz says. The plan is to get to 11 locations by the end of 2021, bringing in $4 million a year, with $1 million in profit.
Through it all, this nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn kept her marriage together, and her husband even agreed to take out a second mortgage for her business. All of their children have grown up to be entrepreneurs who work for themselves. "I think that when you're driven, and you're so independent, you just end up working for yourself, because it's very hard to take orders from other people."
Horowitz couldn't be prouder of what she's accomplished. "It wasn't sexy, and people were saying to me, 'Oh, so you're a lice lady. Oh, you're a nit lady.' I said, 'No, I'm the lice diva.'"
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