Necessity is the mother of invention, and Shann Jones is a perfect example. She used goats’ milk and kefir to develop her healing probiotic drinks, soaps and lotions when her family suffered from medical problems – and has developed them into a successful small business, the aptly named Chuckling Goat, which achieved 383% growth in 2013. Jones moved to Wales from California, where she was a radio talkshow host with over a million listeners. “I was the city girl who couldn’t boil an egg,” she recalls with a laugh. “My husband Rich is a harp-maker; he brews his own beer, butchers his own lamb – think Crocodile Dundee with a Welsh accent. Our 25-acre farm looks out over the ocean and it’s very beautiful. It’s not quite the Laura Ashley fantasy with the floppy hat and the copper milk pail that I had when I started out: it was tough, I’d never worked so hard. But Wales entrances me.”
Chuckling Goat’s products are entirely made from natural, sustainable ingredients; no dyes, no perfumes, no parabens, no petrochemicals, no pthalates. The brand’s Pro-Biotic Skin Care For Troubled Skin scooped a Bronze Award in the FreeFrom Skincare Awards earlier this month.
So: what makes Chuckling Goat’s combination of innovative thinking and unusual ingredients a winner?
I discovered my niche by accident
“My small son was getting terrible bronchial infections and was on antibiotics all the time; one time he got bronchiolitis and the doctor quite literally said: ‘Run, there’s an ambulance waiting at the door!’ Rich suggested getting a goat. In Welsh farming traditions, they know goats’ milk is good for bronchial conditions. It sounded crazy to me but I was desperate. I picked a little black kid who was still on her mother, and she had a twin so we had to have them both. And I learned to milk. It’s not easy to milk a goat! I cried every night – but I managed to learn. I gave the milk to my son and it cleared his asthma. The inhalers went away into the back of the closet and we stopped going to the doctor. I went online and did some research, and found that there is indeed a body of scientific evidence showing that goats’ milk is effective – the Gabriela Study, for example, found that unboiled farm milk is preventative for childhood hay fever and asthma.
“We had too much milk to drink, so back to my computer I went. I discovered goats’ milk soap and thought ‘hmm! That’s different.’ I went to a place called the Soap School in Yorkshire and learned how to make soap and skin cream. The woman who runs the school helped me to work out the chemistry, I started using the products on my son – and they cleared my eczema too. I thought ‘Now we’re really onto something.’ Goats’ milk carries wonderful anti-inflammatories, minerals, and enzymes. We started selling on a small scale – the other mums on the school run began showing an interest. That was the point where I said ‘Rich, you need to quit your job and I need to quit mine.’ It was very scary, but I could see if we didn’t both throw in our full-time energy, Chuckling Goat wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
The power of probiotics
“Then Rich got colitis and had a major operation. The second time he came out of hospital, he had an abdominal incision infected with MRSA, the ‘superbug’ that resists antibiotics. I went back to my computer and read about essential oils and medical honey; I was desperate and I had nothing to lose. I infused his surgical dressings with medical honey and wiped him down with essential oils in warm water.
“We were making something called kefir: a fermented product that’s a bit like yogurt, only much stronger, from Eastern Europe. It’s big in Russia and California, but not in the UK. Our kefir is pure and strong, with no sweeteners, no flavourings: we are the only people in the UK making kefir from raw goats’ milk and raw kefir grains. I already knew how kefir works in the gut: kefir contains non-transient bacteria and it permanently repopulates your gut with ‘good’ bacteria. Using antibiotics is like pouring bleach into a river: it kills everything alongside the infection you’re trying to treat, and in Germany and Poland, doctors routinely offer probiotics after surgery. The problem with MRSA is that it colonises all over the skin, so I tried using the same theory: I wanted to knock the bad bugs back enough to let the good bugs get a foothold. We had been trying to make a coconut water kefir – I had tried with coconut milk and skimmed off the oil. The drink was awful, but the oil was beautiful. So I used this probiotic coconut oil on Rich’s skin. Two weeks later, it swabbed clear of MRSA. I had our CG Oil tested by a professional laboratory and it kills MRSA, E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella. We are now working with the Welsh Assembly Government’s innovation sector, which has set us up with Swansea University to do further testing – we need to do clinical trials and sensitivity tests.
“Once I had figured out that the kefir was good on skin, I thought: ‘I’m already putting the milk into the soap and skin cream, what would happen if I put the kefir into the soap and the skin cream?’ It turned out it works great. Kefir contains lactic acid, a gentle exfoliant that’s good for conditions like acne. There are a lot of goats’ milk products out there but none with probiotics and kefir – that makes us unique.”
My learning curve was seriously steep
“Rich is very practical, very common sense, very bottom-line. I’m very creative, very blue sky, very big ideas: jump off the cliff and figure it out on the way down. I’m the kite, he’s holding the string. Both are really necessary: if you’re too grounded, you’ll never get off the ground, but if you’re too much ‘jump off the cliff!’, it can be impractical. We balance each other out. The steepness of the learning curve was to weep over: if there’s a mistake to make, I’ve made it! The goats were easy and wonderful: I love them. Maths is hard. Innovating the product is fun. Business plans are cruel. Learning the hygiene regulations jargon was incredibly difficult. Downloading Business Plans for Dummies to my Kindle was where I was at, so I hired coaches. The social media thing: I’m OK on the computer but Twitter, Facebook – what? I found a wonderful woman who trains big companies and said “I’ll pay you double what you normally charge per hour to sit with me for two hours on the phone.” I hired a PR coach. I have a great accountant who’s also legally trained.
“We’re now in an arena where the rate of change is so rapid that what will determine who will stand and fall is resilience and being able to adapt. Life has bashed me about, so you could put me on the moon and I’d adapt. What you need to know is how to learn. That’s it, in a nutshell. There’s always someone you can hire, a book you can read, something you can download, a class you can take.”
Building our product range
“I work with Janey Lee Grace for our PR – she’s an expert on natural products and we’ve won her Platinum Award twice, in 2012 and 2013. She has helped us so much, mentored me, tutored me. She has helped us work our products into the Tesco Tesco NutriCentre, which is where a lot of practitioners of complementary and alternative medicines shop. Our soap was rated nine out of 10 in a national newspaper review and we started to get media attention. So I sent a copy of the article and some sample boxes to Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnum Mason. It was just a cheeky shot in the dark, but I got a call from the buyer at Fortnum Mason. When I went up to London, I said: ‘I now have something even better: probiotic soap’ and they said ‘Great: let’s do it.’ I made an exclusive line for them, with black walnut wood tops which Rich makes here. But a lot of mums who need these products for their kids can’t afford expensive prices so I created another line, our Natural Magic range, which is very reasonably priced. Our brand is very specific – it’s aimed at mothers who want products for children with conditions that medical science finds hard to tackle: eczema, asthma, colitis, IBS. I’m looking to solutions that are natural but backed by science; I’m not into airy-fairy or hippy-dippy.”