CAROLINE SEMERJIAN DIDN’T WANT to be bugged anymore. The website developer was tired of being bitten by no-see-ums. So she came up with a natural insect repellant, No No-See-Um, to keep the pests away.
What she thought would be a side project has turned into a full-time business. Semerjian has two employees—a sales director and the other who fills the 2-and 4-ounce bottles—but still spends plenty of time herself in her Fort Myers warehouse, where the bottles are packed and shipped to stores around the country. “I can make more than I’m selling,” she says. “So I can’t wait till that turns around in the opposite direction.”
Semerjian calls herself a magnet for no-see-ums, a type of small biting fly. In 2009, she started researching natural methods to keep the insects away. She dis- cussed her ideas with one of her website clients, a naturopath, who offered to make up four formulas she could test out.
She enlisted the help of fishing guides and people who worked at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to determine which formulation, out of four tested, worked best at keeping the bugs away. Once the winner emerged, she did a test run of 100
bottles at Bailey’s General Store and Island Pharmacy on Sanibel.
“Between the two stores, I sold out in a week,” says Semerjian. “So I thought, ‘I’ve got something here.’”
Semerjian incorporated as Velmaxxx Enterprises and did a first run of 1,000 bottles in the fall of 2010. “It was slow going for two years,” she says.
No No-See-Um is now available in about 400 stores, including independent retailers, hotel gift shops, and Ace and True Value Hardware locations. A lot of that growth is due to the director of sales she hired, her neighbor on Sanibel.
“He gets on the phone and calls people and sends out packets,” she says. “I don’t want to spend money on advertising if I don’t have to.”
Working with the Florida Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University has also helped her company grow. The SBDC has served as a sounding board where Semerjian can discuss ideas and helped her get systems in place to ensure the business runs smoothly, even when she takes a day off. “Since I started working with the SBDC, my sales are up 30 percent to 40 percent in the last two years,” she says.
Semerjian opted to have her product be EPA-exempt instead of EPA-registered, which can be a lengthy, costly process. She wanted to take an all-natural approach, and the active ingredients in No No-See-Um—lemongrass, citronella, and geranium—are on the EPA’s list of ingredients approved for use in pesticide products that are exempt from the requirements of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act under the minimum risk exemption regulations.
Semerjian has been talking with a regional manager for 7-11 about getting No No-See-Um into locations of the convenience store. That would help her achieve her goal of quadrupling sales by the end of next year and hiring four full-time employees—two warehouse personnel for order fulfillment and filling, a director of operations and a customer care specialist.
By the end of next year, she would I would like to be “taking a nice paycheck”. (She describes her current one as “very small.”) “I would like the business to run without me,” she says. “If the business doesn’t run when you’re not there, you own a job, not a business.