By Kathy McCann   Published Jun 18, 2003 at 5:52 AM

The fact that you "write your own ticket" is one of the best things about being an entrepreneur, according to Ryan Wilson. His Wauwatosa-based company, Vegan Essentials, sells a variety of natural and animal-free products -- clothes, food, cleaners and personal care goods -- to clients throughout the country via the Web.

"The hours are flexible and if you need a day off you can take it." Of course, many of this entrepreneur's days are long and can last until three in the morning. Wilson says that's something he never anticipated: the level of commitment required to keep a business going.

Equally committed is Wilson's wife and company founder, Courtney Ernster, who started Vegan Essentials as a catalog-based venture five years ago, after finding it difficult to get her hands on certain vegan products locally. Although Ernster had successfully launched the company, she was bartending at Thai Joe's to keep it afloat when she met Wilson. The relationship took off and soon together they launched their e-commerce business, with Wilson drawing on his experience as a database administrator. Although they're not rolling in dough, the company has grown to a respectable $30,000 a month in sales and they employ two part-timers.

The best-selling items on the site are footwear, and Wilson is finding great success marketing non-leather shoes that are "not poorly built, cheap stuff,' but high-quality footwear: everything from sporty trainers and woodsy hikers to a trendy zip suedette (suede without the cow) boot by Ethical Wares and lace-up oxfords you'd wear with a sport coat. Of course Wilson and Ernster's home is a proving ground for the goods they sell, including a huge collection of shoes they've accumulated while testing them for durability and comfort.


Another growing area for the site is food. The rich chocolates that have no artificial flavors are attracting people who before would never have set foot in a whole foods or hemp clothing store, according to Wilson. Other foods offered are brownies and donuts, vegan jerky and a non-meat meatloaf mix. Your pet can even buy shampoo that's free of animal byproducts and leash made from that miracle fiber, hemp. For the home, the site offers basic eco-friendly cleaning supplies like a toilet bowl cleaner with cedar oil and microfiber cleaning cloths that shine mirrors, tiles and windows without any products at all. (I've tried these -- they really work!)

The Web site also is chock-full of information on the products and a phone number is listed for questions. According to Vegan Essentials, they don't just rely on label information but check out all products themselves. For example, the site discusses why some cosmetics might list non-vegan ingredients on the labels (carmine, a coloring which is derived from beetles, and lanolin, a sheep's natural oil), but actually are vegetarian. The manufacturers simply share label information with other products they make, which may not be vegan.

As for the business, "what you put into it, you get out," said Wilson, who anticipates steady growth from not only vegans and vegetarians, but also people who just want natural products, organic foods and cruelty-free products. The company plans to offer more organic and cotton clothing in the future, as well as home goods such as mattresses and air filters. And, plans are underway to move to a larger warehouse by the end of summer and add, they hope, a storefront operation.

For more information, call (414) 607-1953 or visit