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

Engines of Change

This time of year always has it’s pros and cons in retail. If you are like most retailers, you meet with reps, look through catalogues and online, and you order what it is you wish to sell for the season. Duross & Langel however is not like other retailers. We make our products rather than sell someone else’s brand, so it’s a ballet of man power, materials and packaging that begins mid year. The trucks arrive every week with new loads of materials, and after a bit, it spills over and takes up space everywhere. When we had the third floor, we had the space to store it. Now that I am back to my old beloved workshop, I am fairly squeezed. If you come by the shop you will find the staircase stacked with materials. We do not mind though. This time of year celebrates everything we do, everything we make, and offers us exuberant levels of creativity that will build the world we will inhabit for the year ahead.

This season began earlier than most. While we try to avoid making “Christmas” too early, we also are beholden to the requests of our customers. A balance is struck in that while we won’t really decorate until Thanksgiving, we begin offering everything we are making by the 1st of November. Personally, I have begun a mad love affair with glitter. And mica. My soaps fairly sparkle this year and it’s incredibly fun. Same goes with the bath bombs. Our fizzy maker is using vast amounts of confetti and sparkle in certain bath bombs to make your holiday pop! Seeing the delight when customers are shopping lets us know we are on track.
The generous outpouring of love and support I have received these past couple weeks has been overwhelming, and most appreciated. I know we all love our animal companions and find the idea of loss incomprehensible. Yet it is a simple fact of life. Having nowhere to go with my grief, I’ve created a line of candles specifically for grieving pet lovers. Growing up in a devoutly Roman Catholic culture, I was taught to light a candle, remember the love of the departed soul, and to celebrate the passing as a part of life’s journey. While I’ve left many of the religious aspects of my upbringing along the roadside, this tradition is still deeply resonant for me. The act of lighting candles for the dogs offers me a few minutes every day to sit and remember. To think of the happy memories. To thank them again and again for the love and companionship they gave me. Sarah and I have decided to sell these candle for you and your friends who are grieving the loss of a pet. We will be donating the profits from each candle to Segar Dog Park.

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. I pitched this idea to James. We could form a business partnership. Something he could do while getting his degree that would also 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. Turns out we made better copy as two married gays who created a concept venture. We were delighted for anything that would get people to notice the shop. Eventually however, as the creator and the face of the company, I got the lion’s share of the press. To be quite honest, my ego never minded. James was 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, not so much. Skip to the end of the end of that story.. I loved my work. I loved my husband. 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.

If you understand the nature of our business today, it is focused around the product. Sarah and I definitely are a story, but it’s the story of the last thirteen years together working, sacrificing and growing our little enterprise. 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. It has been an amazing experience to carve out an equal partnership with Sarah, the person I find myself married to in 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 a local, family run FDA approved 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, 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 which, truth be told, is a highly inappropriate subject to broach, especially when standing in the middle of our store. “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?” It’s the business world equivalent to asking for dick pics. I don’t think people realize how screwed up it is to invade, question and judge the private plans of a small business owner. 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 thus far, VETO. 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 our daily lives, a commitment to our staff and to our communities. We are intentional about the way we move our lives and the way we run our business. It’s not that we are opposed to expansion, just that we have yet to find the right fit. And 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 and do daily what makes us happy. Or so we believe. One of the more sobering things about having been an entrepreneur for the last twenty-five years is seeing how many seemingly successful businesses, some encumbered with anachronistic eighties values and millennial MBAs, while others simply not viable in today’s economy, have gone out of business. Sarah and I do not believe that on our dying day we will be wishing we worked more hours or screwed over anyone so that we could have 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. It’s a fun little store that makes people smile. An improbable concept that is now a local favorite. Let’s enjoy that for a while.

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giving thanks

this day, thanksgiving day, is our last day away from the store until christmas. the small price we pay for living in a world of our own creation. not bad considering.

this has been an exceptional year for us. the first year in quite a few that i am truly thankful for everyone who works in the house. this year we pulled together as a team and worked for the common good. everyone keenly aware that for our business to thrive, for the good of one another, we work for the common good.

i give everything i have to this business because i love my daily work. it is not nor has ever been about legacy, press or notoriety. money is a wonderful energy to receive and spend, but it offers no real joy. only opportunity. for me, at the end of each day, there are only the people who inhabit my life and the daily work itself. i live to work. duross & langel has given me the life i dreamed about as a child.

as you can see from this year’s pictures, the addition of our shop dog angus (#angustheshopdog) has been a blessing for us all. even on the most frustrating or stress filled days, a little love from this guy and everything feels a bit better. if you come by the store or salon, you’ll become acquainted with angus very soon.

and so on this day, this national day of thanksgiving, i share my daily dose of gratitude for all that i have and all i have to share. for the people who love me and for the people who love what i do. for the opportunity to work at what brings me joy, and for that work to sustain and support so many, not the least of which is me.

i wish you joy in the coming days and weeks, a hope for a brighter future, and for the demise of the hateful things that continue to grow in our culture. i believe that love and hope and sharing life’s opportunities will change the world for the better. that it begins with the power of intention and is fueled by kindness and gratitude. #makeamericakindagain is our motto for the next year. we hope you will interface with our social media and connect with this ideal.

warmest regards for the season.

steve duross