You'd think a spray that repels no-see-ums in Florida would easily turn into a hot seller. After all, everyone knows the tiny bugs can quickly ruin a sunset at the beach or a Little League game with their oversized bites.
But when Caroline Semerjian recounts how she started making and selling her all-natural insect repellent, No No-See-Um, you realize she faced the same obstacles as most entrepreneurs. These included deciphering government rules, customer preferences for sprays instead of gels, and packaging and distribution challenges. Even the weather conspired against her.
To raise money to launch the product in July 2010, Semerjian sold her Stingray boat and Corvette sports car. “I don't need all those material possessions,” says the Sanibel entrepreneur.
But the subsequent months proved to be exceptionally cold and the bugs disappeared after Thanksgiving. They didn't reappear until after the spring of 2011. On top of that, the Gulf oil spill in 2010 had driven down tourism on the Gulf Coast.
Semerjian, who also owns a marketing firm called Effective Marketing & Creative Concepts that specializes in website design, knew no-see-ums were the bane of resorts and eco-tourism outfits on Sanibel.
With a biochemist friend, she spent six months developing formulas for insect repellents that were made with natural products, were effective and smelled good. When she approached state regulators with her idea, “their attitude was: Good luck with that.”
But Semerjian was undeterred. She discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of ingredients approved for insect repellents that don't require testing. Using natural oils from lemongrass, citronella and geraniums, Semerjian developed a chemical-free repellent that had a pleasant citrus smell.
Initially, Semerjian sold the repellent as a gel. But she quickly discovered that people preferred sprays because the gel was messy, so she contracted with a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer to make a small batch of 2,500 bottles. She had to go far to have the product made because few companies were willing to make small batches.
While Semerjian had pre-sold 500 bottles to retailers she knew on Sanibel, it was harder to persuade retailers she didn't know personally to stock the repellent. That's because they were leery of potential liability with insect repellent. “More people get sick from chemicals than the West Nile Virus,” she argues.
Semerjian isn't one to shy away from a challenge, however. She was the type of kid who would buy bulk candy and sell it to her schoolyard friends at a markup. Today, she belongs to several roller-derby teams in the Tampa Bay area where she's a part-time resident and proudly shows off her scars.
To drum up sales, Semerjian started handing out sample bottles to resorts and outdoor-adventure operators. But the chilly weather stalled sales, so she hired Kip Buntrock as the company's director of sales in December 2010 on a part-time basis. Buntrock sold advertising on Sanibel and within six months landed 70 new accounts in the region. He's now on the company's payroll full-time.
Today, Semerjian says you can find No No-See-Um spray in 150 locations, mostly independently owned pharmacies, grocery stores and resorts. Since January 2011, Semerjian says she's sold about 20,000 bottles. The bottles cost $9.95 at retail.
It's not always easy to collect payment from individual stores and resorts. Distribution companies take a cut of sales, but volume and billing makes up for it, she says. “I would love to sell 50,000 units this year,” she says. “We have to go through distribution companies.”
Most of the marketing Semerjian has done now is through word-of-mouth and on the Internet. “I haven't paid for traditional advertising,” she says. Her website (nonoseum.com) comes up No. 1 on Google when you search for no-see-um repellent.
If she can sign up a significant number of new stores through distributors or on her own, Semerjian says she might have to borrow money to build up the inventory. She's planning to hire a CEO, whom she says won't be paid a salary but will earn 10% of sales.
Semerjian is now working on a new “extreme” formula, a more potent version of the original spray. It'll still smell nice, but bugs will really hate it.