Onetime starving artist Jill McKeever basks in the sweet smell of success.
Sink into the curvaceous Victorian couch in Jill McKeever's Kansas City home and you'll detect a woodsy bouquet of jasmine, rose, and oak moss. The scent wafts out of her workshop from amber glass bottles—each filled with a different essential oil—and a mini garden of herbs in her fireplace. This fragrant sanctuary is where McKeever crafts her all-natural line of cosmetics and perfumes, For Strange Women.

But just three years ago, her living conditions were a nightmare. She was staying in an unfinished basement with rotting wood floors; once, a raccoon broke in and rummaged through her belongings. Tired of scraping by as a musician and stagehand, McKeever took a job with her local school district, maintaining its Web site and designing newsletters. With her earnings, she bought a modest two-bedroom—but while her home was comfortable at last, McKeever felt unsatisfied at work. "I was a creative type, used to doing my own thing," she says.

Browsing online one evening, McKeever discovered the arts and crafts mecca Etsy and started plotting an exit strategy. "I got a hundred dollars' worth of stuff together for lip balm, which is relatively easy to make," she says. "It was a good way to test the entrepreneurial waters." Just six months after posting her first wares on Etsy—with her forest-scented repertoire growing to include perfumes and bath salts—McKeever was able to quit her day job.

For Strange Women's treasures are packaged in recycled or biodegradable containers with ornate, Victorian-style paper labels that McKeever designs herself. Her ingredients are sustainably sourced; you won't find anything that spewed out of an oil rig in her catalog. "I think a lot of people don't know what real plants smell like," she says. "A lip balm from a big-box store is likely petroleum inside a tube made from petroleum."

Naturally, McKeever finds her ideas in the great outdoors, often on long hikes with her boyfriend. Her fragrance Winter Kitty—which has notes of vetiver, Douglas fir, and mint—was inspired by the smoky, cold-clean scent of her cat's fur when he returned from a wander in the snow; the perfume oil Moss & Ivy is the result of recent travels in rural Ireland. "Nature itself," she says, "has so much more to offer than anything you can find in a chemical lab." —Aaron Rowe

Next: How two basketball coaches became entrepreneurs


Next Story