steve duross - craftsman. artisan. entrepreneur. musings on running and growing a small business

creating duross & langel

the short story of how a seemingly implausible idea has become a philadelphia institution

As we are about to celebrate fifteen years of duross & langel, I was reminded that not everyone is familiar with how the whole thing came-to-be. Made me think that perhaps it’s time to write the basic framework of who we were, are and strive to be. To the best of my recollection, here we go.

2004 was one of those years where I found myself in the hallway. Do you know the saying ‘when one door closes, another door opens?’ Well if this axiom were to be believed then perhaps sometimes we get trapped between the doors in the hallway. No way in or out and we have to patiently wait for another door to open. In the changing fortunes of small business, the Atlas Hair Company was back to being a one chair salon while my 3 year adventure as The Philadelphia Soap Company just closed it’s doors. My gig with American Crew had ended a few years before and nothing was happening in my life, professionally speaking that is. I had fallen in love with James Langel and we were living together. It was financially a lean time, struggling to make ends meet. I had a steady income from my salon business and a little extra coming in from my gig at Joe Grooming. James left a job he hated for something else, though whatever that would be had yet to manifest. One of his goals was to return to school for his MBA. I wanted another go at what I had created with the soap company but differently. I wanted to recreate my idea as a venture that reflected my personal style and esthetic while attempting to be more than cute and soap. I wanted to build amazing formulas that would focus on actual skin care, where the formulations would be a reflection of healthy, natural living. The only way I could see accomplishing this goal while having to pay the bills was to partner with someone. So I pitched the idea to James. A partnership. Something he could do while he got his degree that would help us grow and pay bills. He would work the front desk making appointments and selling stuff while I cut hair during the day and made product at night. The bargain was struck. 50% of the business and the name duross & langel.

The business grew quickly. I worked a million hours. James went to work for IKEA but kept the books for D&L. By this time we were married and building a life together. Though he offered ideas and feedback, James pretty much kept to his lane. It was my job to build the business and it’s profile as these two married gays who created a concept. Anything that would get people to notice the shop. However, since I was the creator and the face of the company, I got the lion’s share of the press. Much as I tried to shift the me into we, life has it’s own rhythms and what people want to write about is out of my control. To be quite honest, my ego never minded. With a highly competitive husband who liked to “win” I would happily acquiesce to his requirements in order to maintain a happy marriage, but where duross & langel was concerned, I wasn’t budging. Skip to the end of the end of that story, I loved my work. I loved my husband. But the marriage had run it’s course. At the close I just wanted three things: a divorce, sole custody of the dogs, and the majority share of the company I had built.

If you understand the nature of our business today, it is focused around Sarah and myself. Sarah is now the one who runs the show while I pretty much stay in my lane and spew ideas. As my business partner and the one who interfaces with all aspects of our clients, Sarah now filters my ideas into something that will possibly work or be left on the mat. By diminishing James’ role and shares, I’ve been able to carve out an equal partnership with the person I am truly married to through this venture.

duross & langel is a small, local company. We are equally (and proudly) an LGBTQ+ owned and women owned business. This October we will be celebrating 15 years in operation. We formulate and produce quality natural, hand made bath, spa and skin care products. Everything begins in the second floor workshop where recipes and formulas take shape. This working skin care kitchen produces many of the 100% natural handmade items you’ll find in our store. We also employ an FDA approved family run lab to produce larger quantities of our formulas, especially things like sulfate-free body wash and shampoos. Our creams and moisturizers are renown for their qualities, and for their rational prices. When you compare our labels to any of the bigger fancy name brands and you might be very surprised at how well we not only measure up, but exceed expectations. Though some products are processed and while we are allowed by law to call them all-natural, we think that’s cheating. You’ll find that we make things as naturally as can be produced by law for this level of efficacy. Our bags and boxes are made from recycled paper. We have also begun to use compostable plastic-like materials for soap wrap and smaller bags.

When you shop our store, you begin to understand who we are and what it is we are attempting to accomplish. You are welcomed but not sold. We strive to be helpful but most often you’ll find we hang back so that you can experience the shop at your own pace. Always within arms reach, you can ask us to step up or answer any question.Since we make it ourselves, we are happy to share whatever information you require. Though we can be a bit cheeky when faced with the occasional rudeness. We assume most people don’t mean to be rude. Personally, I am a horrible shopper so I strive to be less judgmental of others under these circumstances. No one who is passionate about what they create ever wants to hear “does this stuff really work?”

The most difficult moments for us come when someone asks about our business plan. “Well don’t you want more stores? I should think you’d want to grow. Don’t you want to be successful? You know what you should do?” I don’t think people realize how much judgement they throw in a query or statement like that. What we don’t say is that sometimes we are offered massive sums of money to do things that would drastically change the nature of our lives. But you know what? Sarah and I like our lives. We like our vibe. We enjoy the simplicities and complexities of our daily life as is. We make enough money to pay the bills, take care of our staff, travel and put some away. We are focused on improving the daily life of ourselves, our staff and of our communities. We are intentional about the way we move our lives and the way we run our business. What we value may not be considered to be the traditional model of success, but the whole point of working for ourselves is to create an environment where the business can be a refection of our lives and our values. Or so we believe. One of the more sobering things about being an entrepreneur for this long is having seen how many seemingly successful  businesses have simply gone under. The bottom line is this: we don’t believe that on our dying day we will be wishing we worked more hours and screwed over more people so that we could have more notoriety and make a bit more coin.

We couldn't be more proud of the world we've created. Though the original idea was mine, whatever success we’ve enjoyed has been a group effort. We are profoundly grateful to everyone who has shopped, supported and worked with us.

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