The mums who fight nits on the net

Three entrepreneurs who created their own head lice treatment were able to market it despite the absence of a distribution deal – all thanks to the power of their website (and a plug from Jonathan Ross)

There is no need to be big to have a functioning and effective website. Ask Amanda, Gill and Lillan – three mums who trade as Nitty Gritty and whose website has enabled their business to grow from nil turnover to half a million pounds in just seven years.

“I don’t think we could have done it without the website,” says Amanda Coplans, one of the founding directors. “It was absolutely crucial.”

As with many of the best business ideas, Amanda, Gill Newton and Lillan Osterberg found a solution to their own problems – and realised it would be equally in demand from the rest of the population. In their case the challenge was head lice, with Amanda’s daughter repeatedly getting them from other children at school. Amanda’s father, a doctor, warned against the constant use of the insecticide-based treatments usually dispensed for lice – but the question was, what else might work?

Lillan – a masseuse, reflexologist and aromatherapist – came up with the answer; an aromatherapy-based liquid, after the application of which the lice are removed with a specially made comb. This is followed up with another aromatherapy product to deter fresh lice infestations.

But the most significant thing is that through the internet, the three entrepreneurs could establish themselves as a successful business without signing up a distribution deal with wholesalers or retailers, instead selling direct to customers via their website, Contrary to traditional practice, a distribution deal and retailing presence in large pharmacies including Boots and Lloyds has only happened recently, following the establishment of Nitty Gritty as a mass selling product through online sales.

Initially the venture was undertaken in Amanda’s kitchen, distributing treatments made on sub-contract in Lincolnshire and a metal comb manufactured in Argentina. Once the kitchen became too small, they moved into the garage. And when that was too small, they took on a commercial unit. There are no staff other than the three directors – and Lillan is not involved on a regular basis now, concentrating on her aromatherapy practice. Yet the turnover is expected to exceed £1m for the first time next year and they have now received expressions of interest from large companies interested in buying them out.

Although the website could look better – and the redesign is the next project – it does what many much larger companies’ websites do not. It works, it’s reliable, it’s easy to understand and it sells thousands of their products every month. It even has links to radio and television feeds where Nitty Gritty products have been praised.

One of those radio feeds is to the Jonathan Ross show, on which he urged Emma Thompson to use Nitty Gritty after she told him her family could not get rid of head lice. Ross himself became sold on the product after a previous broadcast on which he complained about the problem and Nitty Gritty sent him free products by taxi.

“We have been through a few stages [with the website] and we are changing it again in the near future,” says Amanda. “Gill’s son did it because he was interested in web design. It only had pull-down functions, which meant you couldn’t buy more than one product at a time.”

As the company expanded its own product range and then began reselling products from other suppliers, the website was redesigned. With the business becoming too large to process orders manually by mail order, a Nitty Gritty customer suggested making it fully transactional. The customer then produced a new website, with orders going via a “shopping trolley” and credit and debit card payments made through WorldPay.

Nitty Gritty recognises that its website is not perfect. The colours are a bit garish and the home page is too long. The forthcoming redesign will simplify the home page, with links to the sale of endorsed products. “The website needs to be more like our leaflets,” says Amanda, “with clearer information about lice and how to overcome them.”

When the three mothers started out they had no premises, virtually no cash and no capacity to borrow. “We all rented, so no bank would have loaned us any money,” explains Amanda. Eventually they found a supplier that would produce the treatments in the batches of just 200 bottles they could afford to buy. Today, they buy in batches of 20,000 a time. It took them three years before they paid themselves anything from the business. Now, they are planning their first TV advertising campaign.

When analysts talk about the opportunities presented by the internet for “disintermediation”, with even micro-businesses challenging the major companies, they might well have been thinking about Nitty Gritty.

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