A nitpicky business: Mother sees dollar signs in lice-ridden follicles
Sarah Casello-Rees was horrified when she discovered lice in her hair. She was even more shocked when she realized she had gotten it from her kindergartener.
Casello-Rees did research and found that her son, like 60 percent of others with lice, did not have an allergic reaction, so he didn't scratch. And like 80 percent of mothers, Casello-Rees had gotten the lice from her son. The lice stuck around for almost a full year, she said.
"I was so full of anxiety, and it was horrible," she said. "I thought at that point, 'I wish there was someone to help me.' "
That was what Casello-Rees calls her eureka moment. A year later, in 2008, the personal trainer started her in-home mobile delousing service, The Lice Brigade LLC, based in Ann Arbor. It took about $30,000 to get her business up and running.
Casello-Rees did more research about lice, and her husband also became interested and started testing products at the couple's home. Originally, Casello-Rees thought she could go to doctors' offices and schools to get the word out. She said she received a cool reception.
Despite this, it didn't take long to find customers. Casello-Rees said after she put an ad on Craigslist, people began calling begging for help. She did not disclose revenue but said she and her staff perform about 230 treatments and 600 head checks every month.
She no longer has trouble getting referrals from schools or doctors — in fact, that's become a main source of new business.
Casello-Rees also has a $300 monthly budget for Google AdWords.
In-home lice removal costs $75 per hour, and head checks cost $35.
"The stuff they sell now over the counter, and even prescriptions, the lice have built up resistance," she said. "Before people come to us, often they spend hundreds of dollars in over the counter (medications) and prescriptions, and they don't realize it doesn't work."
Casello-Rees has helped many, but one customer who traveled all the way from Missouri was a memorable one. The mother of two daughters had been struggling with lice for five years.
"That's an extreme case," Casello-Rees said. "But people have a really hard time getting rid of it."Over three days, Casello-Rees and her staff got rid of the family's lice.
"I think until you've had lice in your own family, people don't realize it can be a real hassle," said Frances Youssef, MD of Primary Pediatrics PC of Ann Arbor. "Sometimes you just need to have somebody come in and get every last little nit."
Although there are products that anyone can get over the counter or as a prescription from a physician, Youssef said parents are often embarrassed to obtain them.
"The ironic part is that the lice like clean dry hair," said Youssef, whose daughter suffered a bout with lice. "Clean, dry hair kind of sets you up for an infestation with lice."
In spring 2009, she opened Rapunzel's Lice Boutique in Ann Arbor. Casello-Rees bought the building in July of this year for $209,000.
The in-store treatment, which uses a special shampoo to remove the lice, costs $95 and consists of three sessions. The technicians who do the delousing at the boutique are trained and certified. They include former hair stylists, medical professionals and even one crime scene technician.
In December, the company acquired the rights to use Salt Lake City-based Larada Sciences' LouseBuster. The device uses controlled hot air to kill lice and eggs. Casello-Rees said the device, approved by the Federal Drug Administration, has brought in new business. The Lice Brigade is the only licensee of the device in Michigan.
With the device, lice can be treated in one visit. Casello-Rees said she performs about 150 of these treatments a month for $145 per person.
One customer, who wished to remain anonymous, got lice after her daughter caught it at school. She said having an option that avoided chemicals was important to her. She also said more people should get educated about lice to help prevent spreading.
"I never knew really anything about it, and then all of a sudden I'm like, 'Whoa, I have to deal with this,' " she said. "Really, to me, (The Lice Brigade) is a miracle."
Casello-Rees hopes to open another boutique in either the Royal Oak or Sterling Heights area early next year.
"There is a lot of demand out that way," she said. "I think that will increase our revenue by quite a lot."