If you've been bothered by gnats this summer, someone you know may have recommended you try Bug Soother. It's an all-natural spray that comes in a dark green bottle, smells good, and works.
You can get it at Hy-Vee stores. And at Ace Hardware, Theisen's, Fareway, Casey's and Amazon. It's the official repellent of the John Deere Classic, and next year it will be sold in Walgreens stores nationwide. It's even sold in the United Kingdom, Grand Cayman and Scandinavia.
And every bit of this hot commodity is made in Columbus Junction, a small Louisa County town about 60 miles southwest of the Quad-Cities. The repellent is the brainchild of Freda Sojka, a retired Monsanto employee who developed the formula in 2008 for her 5-month-old grandson because she didn't want to expose him to harsh chemicals.
Since then, Bug Soother has become an unlikely and wildly successful product that has nearly all of Sojka's family — and many members of her extended family — scrambling this summer to supply orders that pile up faster than they can be filled.
"We're crazy busy," Sojka said on a recent day, sitting in a cluttered, catch-all room of a converted bowling alley that is one of the company's two main buildings. "I think this will be a record year."
The previous record of $2.7 million in gross sales was set in 2014 when Bug Soother first "went viral," as Sojka describes it. But sales could be double that this year because of widespread flooding that has produced bumper crops of gnats, driving up demand.
As she talks, an employee knocks on the door to say that a young man, a high school junior, has walked in asking about a job. Sure, Sojka says, hire him.
"We're 3,500 orders behind, and we can't catch it," she said.
The reason Simply Soothing is so busy is that it is a small company — just six full-time employees — that happened to develop a winning product. Thanks to hard work and expert business advice, the company has grown exponentially seemingly overnight.
"It just blew up," Sojka said.
The full-timers and about 40 part-timers are working as fast as they can, sometimes into the night. Yes, the company could make and ship more product if it expanded, but there hasn't been time.
And expansion could have pitfalls.
After several successive years of not keeping up with demand early on, Sojka learned to stock up over winter.
But then came the relatively dry years of 2016 and 2017, when there were too few gnats, and business took a dive. Sojka ended up with "way too much inventory" just sitting in the warehouse.
That lesson taught her to be cautious. "I don't want to run short, but I sure don't want that to happen again," she said. She knows the crazy busy times "won't last forever."
How Bug Soother came to be
In 2003, Sojka was nearing retirement from Monsanto, where she had worked for 22 years. She wasn't a chemist, but she had worked in a lab.
She had a creative side that she fed by developing hand creams, lotions, lip balm, soap and related products. She and her daughter, Nikki Salek, founded Simply Soothing to sell these items and opened a small shop.
Bug Soother came into being in 2008 because Sojka wanted a bug repellent for her 5-month-old grandson that did not contain DEET. She researched ingredients on the internet, mixed them together, and voila!
"It's nothing new," she said of lemongrass oil, the product's active ingredient. "There's lots of plants that repel insects. I didn't invent anything."
She gave a bottle to her sister to try. "Her home on the Cedar River had been flooded (during the devastating flood of 2008), and the gnats were terrible," Sojka said.
"Some men from the Carolinas were measuring floodwaters, and trying to work in a swarm of gnats. She gave them a quick spritz, and the gnats went away."
The next morning, a man was at her front door, saying his crew wanted more of that bug spray. When he bought all she had, she knew she was onto something.
"It wasn't something I planned," she said. "It was something that took on a life of its own. I didn't plan anything. ... Who would have ever dreamed?" she said, her voice trailing off.
Her marketing began — and in many ways continues — on the grass-roots level. She gives away bottles of Bug Soother and lets recipients advertise by word-of-mouth.
In 2010, she began selling bottles of the repellent to golf courses within a 60-mile radius, and in 2011, she got Bug Soother placed into a grocery store and then a grocery distribution company.
In 2012, the company bought a larger building and increased production. In 2013, it got accepted by two Ace Hardware distribution centers.
Learning about business
Although Sojka had developed a "really good product that solved a problem," she had a lot to learn about running and growing a business.
She learned that in order to be sold, Bug Soother first had to be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, then it had to be registered in every state in which it is sold, meeting each state's specific requirements and paying the accompanying registration fee.
"It's a nightmare," Sojka said. So far, the product is registered in 45 of the 50 U.S. states, classified as "a minimum-risk pesticide."
Then three years ago, the federal government changed requirements, so Bug Soother had to be reformulated.
Sojka hasn't been shy about reaching out for help.
She praises the staff at the Center for Industrial Research and Services, or CIRAS, based at Iowa State University in Ames, and the nonprofit Entrepreneurial Development Center, or EDC, in Cedar Rapids for help in connecting the company with resources, providing guidance and acting as sounding boards.
With EDC, "if you're struggling with a big company, you can send them the paperwork, and they will say, 'No, don't do this,' or 'Send this to your lawyer' or 'I recommend you do this,'" she said.
CIRAS stressed to "always look where your restrictions are, your bottlenecks, and work on those problems as they come up."
Knowing when help is needed and being willing to seek it are qualities that set Simply Soothing apart from some other businesses, said Curt Nelson, EDC president.
"They are a team that's willing to take outsiders' advice," he said, unlike owners of some beginning businesses, who "think they know everything."
Another quality that sets them apart is that "they simply don't quit," Nelson said. "They've weathered storms over the years, and they just continue to push hard 12 months a year. They're an excellent example of what a successful entrepreneur looks like."
Sales on Amazon
For a time, Sojka resisted selling on Amazon because of the negative impact the e-commerce giant has had on brick-and-mortar stores. But she eventually relented, hiring a Cedar Rapids company to navigate the complicated ins and outs.
"They're expensive, and I complained a lot in the beginning, but oh my gosh, it's paid off. They're sharp, sharp guys," she said. They understand algorithms, search engine optimization, and how to place ads.
"I don't know what we're doing now, but the last time I looked, we were doing $30,000 a day in sales on Amazon," she said in mid-June. "Before I hired them, we had maybe $20,000 or $30,000 a month. And it would be more if we had the product.
"It's exposure on a huge level that you can't get traditionally."
Even with all the demand, she tries to mete out the supply so that every customer gets at least a portion of what is ordered.
"People say, 'Go after the big ones.' I say, 'No, we go to the little ones, too.'"
At present, demand is mercurial, swinging wildly depending on the weather and number of bugs. "I hate to say it, but we need flooding," Sojka said.
Consequently, Sojka finds herself in a pattern of hiring people, then laying them off.
A major goal is to figure out a way to make demand less seasonal so the company can offer steady, year-round jobs with good benefits and wages.
Another goal is to consolidate into one building.
Meanwhile, growth continues.
New this year is the Bug Soother Candle. Although Sojka knows how to make candles, there was no way she could add candles to the company's production, so she contracted with Milkhouse Candles to make them at its New Hampton, Iowa, location.
She also signed a deal with another company that is making Bug Soother under the name Medella Naturals and selling it in Kroger stores.
Getting into Walgreens next year "is just huge for us," she said. The Cracker Barrel chain also has expressed interest.
And for several years now, Bug Soother has been sold internationally. That came about when a British entrepreneur read about the product online, contacted the company, and eventually set up a deal in which Simply Soothing ships the core ingredients to Scotland, where water is added and the product is bottled and sold throughout the U.K. and Europe.
In winter, when demand slows down, Sojka and her husband, Jim, will drive in their new camper to a spot on the Alabama Gulf Coast and regroup. There she will make calls, send emails, plan and strategize.
Meanwhile, Simply Soothing maintains a store, a former diner on Iowa 92, that's not open now. There aren't enough people to staff it, and retail in Columbus Junction, population 2,000 by the 2010 Census, is mostly nonexistent.
But Sojka holds onto the store because her heart is there, and it will attract shoppers around the holidays.
The store is stocked with products of her own making, as well as items from about 20 vendors, including "quillows" (quilts that fold up into pillows), jewelry, metal yard sculptures, wine, and knitted caps.
"That's my favorite part, developing new products," Sojka said, eyeing jars of shea butter and air fresheners. "But that's the way it is when you have a business. You end up doing stuff you don't like instead of stuff you like. That's the way it is. You have to pay the bills."