DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Sue Flynn's husband, Mike, is the best salesperson for her Lakeside Soaps & Oils-brand Don't Bug Me repellent.
Yet he doesn't have to use any hard-sell tactics or fancy pitches to drive up sales. All he has to do is stand there.
Mike works for Northern Pacific Santa Fe railroad, which means lots of wading through mosquito and tick hot spots like fields of deep grasses. But when he does so, Mike's coworkers soon notice that he is the only one in the group who isn't slapping skeeters or plucking off ticks.
Mike avoids joining the bloodsucker buffet by using his wife’s all-natural repellent of witch hazel and eight different essential oils.
"As he used it, he started sharing it with other coworkers and crews and stuff. Now, at the beginning of the season, I have so many of these guys who order a lot of it. Of course, they pass it on to family and friends, so it just keeps spreading by word of mouth," she says.
As of now, Sue estimates she sells "two to three dozen" bottles of bug spray per week, which isn't bad when considering that she sells only through two channels: the Manna Food Co-op in downtown Detroit Lakes and a modest website.
Even so, Sue doesn't sound like she plans to throw over the manufacturers of Off! anytime soon. In some ways, she is like an anti-entrepreneur. She doesn't have much of a social media presence, relies largely on word-of-mouth to sell products and doesn't want her company to grow too quickly, lest it compromise her hands-on oversight and quality control.
These qualities probably won't land her on the cover of Forbes anytime soon, but they have landed her a fleet of faithful customers. They crave the gentle, largely organic ingredients in her zealously researched Lakeside Soaps & Oils products and her determination to release products only after she's 100-percent certain of their quality, safety and efficacy.
In fact, Sue has become so busy that she's had to stop going to craft shows and farmers' markets. She now devotes several days a week to keeping her product shelves stocked at Manna.
"I don't know where our future will take us, because I'm totally hands-on," says the retired educator and school librarian. "I don't know if I could ever say, 'Oh yeah, we'll hire five people and they can make it. I don't want a product to be anything other than what I think it should be. I don't want to accept less."
Made in small batches for quality control
So for now, Lakeside Soaps & Oils is literally a mom-and-pop business, which operates out of a 30- by 40-foot shop/warehouse on the Flynns' Audubon farmstead. Sue relies on her librarian's flair for research to unearth the best formulas for her eclectic inventory, which ranges from a buttermilk balm for babies' bottoms (derived from her grandmother's home remedy) to bath salts, caffeine-infused undereye serums, goat-milk soap, charcoal-based dog soap and even an all-natural yoga mat cleaner.
Some of the products contain herbs, flowers and plants grown on the Flynn farm, like the soothing calendula in her baby balm formula.
When Mike isn't working on the railroad, he's taking care of business: making labels, ordering supplies, keeping the books, paying taxes and ensuring they are fully licensed, insured and up to code. "He's my biggest champion," she says. "He's a poker guy so after we started doing this, he said, 'I'm all in.'"
For a product line that depends largely on organic, easily perishable ingredients, this amount of ongoing research and oversight is necessary, Sue says. it’s a tricky balancing act to concoct high-quality formulas that aren’t loaded with preservatives while still meeting government regulations. Some products containing edible ingredients, like oats or honey, must go directly into the freezer once they are poured.
Sue makes just 10 bars of soap at a time and insists on using sustainable palm oil instead of cheaper tallow or Crisco. As she doesn't want to affect the ingredients and how they react with each other, she lets the soaps cure naturally over a series of weeks instead of adding hardening shortcuts like sodium lactate.
"I'm not going to compromise and lose all the good properties of the original ingredients," she says.
Mosquito tastes change
This same scrupulous attention to detail goes into Lakeside's popular insect repellent.
The Don't Bug Me spray contains witch hazel infused with eight pure essential oils, including cedarwood, geranium, eucalyptus, lemongrass, rosemary and citronella. The pungent concoction retails for $8 for a 4-ounce bottle, Sue says, but a little goes a long way.
It's one alternative to avoid the diseases brought on by pesky insects while also being able to beat the DEET. DEET is the common name for N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide, first developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 as a highly effective insect repellent.
But some people have concerns about overusing the strong chemical, especially on babies, pets, pregnant women and nursing mothers. Although it's been tested extensively, DEET has been linked to rashes, allergic reactions, eye irritation and -- in rare cases where some of the chemical is accidentally ingested -- vomiting, nausea and seizures.
Other non-DEET products are out there, but they often received mixed reviews. Many brands claim to use citronella oil as a natural bug deterrent, but actually use a cheaper, man-made derivative of the oil, Sue says. Others contain picaridin, a synthetic repellent modeled after a compound found in the black pepper plant.
Sue uses pure essential oils in her repellent -- ordering the oils in bulk to get a high-quality ingredient at an affordable rate. After studying the science behind essential oils for years., she knows they’re highly beneficial. At the same time, she’s careful not to promote them as a cure-all. For instance, she would never recommend that people drink certain essential oils, as some formulations can be poisonous. She also uses the minimum amount of oil needed to achieve desired results when formulating products for pets and children.
Sue keeps precise records of the ingredients in her formulations, but has found that the repellent occasionally needs a slight tweaking. Last year, the repellent worked best when citronella and rosemary were the predominant scents, but Mike reported that it didn't seem to work as well this year. Sue changed the formulation so that geranium and cedarwood dominated the formulation, and that did the trick, she says.
Dr. D. Bryan Bishop, an entomologist and biology chair at Concordia College, says there are 52 species of mosquito in Minnesota alone, so it's possible that different species of skeeters would be averse to different smells.
But he adds that it's more likely that the mosquitoes were reacting to physiological changes in the individual. For instance, mosquitoes are more likely to zoom in for the snack if the wearer has switched from light to dark clothes or if they've just finished exercising so are producing more lactic acid and carbon dioxide - both powerful skeeter-attractants.
Either way, Sue jumps at the chance to keep making repellents and other products that make people's lives a little easier.. And so she'll keep doing what she does best: researching and combining ingredients carefully, then turning out one quality batch at a time. "If you don't like constantly learning, this is probably not the work for you," she says.