When her husband suffered a life-threatening infection, Shann Nix Jones sat at her farmhouse table to come up with a remedy that saw him cured within two weeks. Then word got around – and the orders kept flooding in, as she tells Natasha Poliszczuk.
As eureka moments go, Shann Nix Jones’s realisation that her business idea was The One takes some beating. It is a tale so far-fetched you’d scoff at it in fiction. But not only is it true, it was the moment she realised her business, Chuckling Goat (which manufactures probiotic kefir – fermented milk – and goats’ milk products), could be more than a small-scale dream. It now has an annual turnover of £4 million.
In her 40s, Shann had finally found the love of her life, Rich – ‘six foot one, with green eyes and woodworker’s hands’ – and moved with her two children to his smallholding in Wales. She had already started using their goats’ milk and kefir to treat skin conditions when Rich fell ill. His ulcerative colitis, which was previously in remission, had flared up. He went into hospital and came home without his large intestine and with MRSA – an antibiotic-resistant, flesh-eating superbug.
‘Rich was very ill and wasn’t healing,’ says Shann. ‘Around the ten-inch abdominal incision there were angry red holes. Every day, the nurse visited and measured them – and said they were getting deeper. She swabbed them and the test came back positive for MRSA. So she called the doctor. He took one look at it, turned to me and said, “I have no experience with anything of this magnitude” – then got in his car, locked the doors and drove off.
‘My knees went from under me.’ But Shann used it as a turning point. ‘I thought, this is not how my story ends – I did not come this far and find this man after so much pain and suffering for him to die on my sofa. That is not happening.’
Shann, now 54, employed a trick she’d used earlier in life while working in television. She learned to ‘flip’ her negative beliefs and make them assets. What if, Shann asked herself, not being a doctor means I can ask questions and find answers that doctors can’t? Or, in her words: ‘Try crazy, out-of-the-box things because I had nothing to lose and if I did nothing, my husband would die’. The question she posed was this: if I can’t kill the bacteria, can I make it an ally?
What she did next sounds extraordinary. Three times a day, she washed Rich’s skin with a combination of scented oils – based on a recipe used during the bubonic plague to ward off illness – followed by the kefir, as ‘a microbiotic ally’ in an attempt to rebalance the bad bacteria with good.
It worked. Two weeks later, Rich was out of bed and back on his tractor, clear of MRSA. ‘It’s crazy, right?’ Shann beams. ‘I saved my husband’s life with essential oils and goats’ milk. That’s when I knew I was on to something. People ask “how did you create 6,000 per cent growth in four years? How did you get a million-pound-profit?” This works. That’s how.’
Shann insists she is not a born businesswoman – no MBA, no head for figures, no ‘grey suit and briefcase’ – but says that if she can do it, anyone can. Although she might not have the more traditional trappings of business, what she does have is resilience in spades. ‘I am,’ she says emphatically, ‘the girl who falls off the horse the most, but I just keep getting back on, more than anyone.’
This is borne out by her life pre-Chuckling Goat. Shann was born in Texas and by her early 20s she was working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco. It was there she was approached to be a radio talk-show host. But Shann protested: she was too young, too inexperienced, too female in a media landscape dominated by men. But encouraged by colleagues, she adopted the ‘negative belief flip’: her relative youth, inexperience and gender brought something new. Albeit her first show was ‘a total disaster’: a call-in chat show with no callers. ‘Afterwards I went to the cemetery to think because it was the one place I would not be bothered. It actually gave me perspective: it could be worse.’ (Her show became a huge success – as if there was any doubt.)
It was Shann’s resilience that also got her through the breakdown of her marriage to her children’s father. He was British, so she moved from California to the UK with him and her two children Jolian, now 21, and Benj, 14. But neither the location nor the relationship was a happy one. ‘I was expecting England to be bone china and long dresses. I did not find that in Surbiton,’ explains Shann. They moved to Wales, but while she fell in love with the countryside, she knew she had to leave the relationship. ‘Which is how, on New Year’s Day, I found myself a single mother with two kids and one suitcase in the back of the car. I was alone in a strange country with no money, no job and nowhere to live.’
At 41, she met farmer Rich – a single dad with two daughters, Ceris, now 29, and Elen, 28, from his previous marriage – after he ‘winked’ at her on an online dating website. Months later, she and her kids moved to his 25-acre farm and they married in 2010.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: the goat soap and kefir business was a slow starter. They got a goat called Buddug when Rich suggested raw goat’s milk might help Benj who was suffering from a host of health conditions – asthma, eczema and repeated chest infections that were so serious he was sometimes hospitalised. When Benj switched to the milk, miraculously his chest infections vanished. It inspired Shann to learn to make soap with the milk – and it cleared up Benj’s eczema in three weeks. The school mums started asking about it, so she sold it to them, then to local health-food and farm shops and local fairs.
In 2014 came Rich’s devastating MRSA diagnosis. The business wasn’t immediately stratospheric but word spread and Shann was smart. Working from her kitchen table, she decided not to sell through retailers, but stayed in contact with customers herself. ‘When they asked for something, I provided it. I didn’t launch a product until they demanded it. Why would I pay a retailer 25 per cent of my profits to contact customers?’
Chuckling Goat now has 300,000 customers in 61 countries. Everything, from making the products to bottling, labelling and despatch, is carried out on the farm, where they have 40 goats tended to by 22 employees.
Is Shann’s capacity to turn extreme adversity into opportunity something she was born with? There’s a long pause. ‘I’m going to tell you the truth. I lost my father recently and what I realised is that I’m grateful to him for making me self-reliant and independent. I’ve had some tough crucible experiences and you come of out those tougher, stronger and smarter.’
‘Crucible experiences’ (periods of extreme stress) feature in her book How to Start a Business on the Kitchen Table, which is in part exactly what the title indicates, but more unexpectedly, a manual for living a better life. Take her theory on ‘stackable functions’ – which sounds terribly formal but is actually simple and incredibly useful for the busy among us: every element in your day needs to serve more than one function to fulfil your values. This can be as simple as taking a daily walk (value: health/being outdoors) with a friend or partner (social connection/relationship building). Shann’s entire family works for Chuckling Goat: ergo, two of her values are perpetually stacked.
Business, Shann insists, should be heart-led. ‘You have one wild and precious life – what are you going to do with it? We don’t know how long we have left. Rich’s illness taught me that; coronavirus has hammered it home. When I’m 110, on my deathbed, will I wish I’d played it safe more? Ask yourself, what is the risk I could take today to make the most change? Never compromise, never cut corners, do it with passion and heart, and people will beat a path to your door.’
You’re never too old to start a business
Whatever your age or gender, any time in your life is a great one to start your own business. I am proof that life really does begin at 40: I didn’t meet my partner till I was 41, and I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life until my late 40s.
- Clear your table. That’s where you’re going to launch your business. And it’s not going to happen from a dirty, cluttered table.
- Get up an hour earlier in the morning and go to sleep an hour earlier. Time spent staying up late at night isn’t productive, even if you think it is. So you need to trim the night time bit back and apply that extra hour to your morning, when you’re fresh and clear.
- Passion is in the details. Everything matters. You need to be excited about this project in order for that momentum to last. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You must get familiar with the sensation of going, ‘Ooh, I love that!’ That’s the feeling that’s going to make you get up early. Passion doesn’t come from generic things; it comes from exact details. Start feeling your way into the details that get you excited. That is what fires your imagination.
- How do you know if you’re succeeding? Success comes when you’re living a life according to your values. Not my values, or society’s values – but your very own values. The ones that matter to you.
Got a great idea? Here’s what to do next
Don’t wait for ‘the right time’
Creating a business probably won’t be like your fantasy. You don’t have to have it all together before you begin; take one step, then another. See what happens.
Put a price on your work
People won’t value your business unless they pay. It may sound silly but write out: ‘I do wonderful work for wonderful pay’. Put it by your bed. Read it every day.
Don’t be afraid to aim high
Work out how much your product costs to make.Tthis is important – if you’re charging less than it costs you, it’s a hobby, not a business. Set your price point high. If it’s too high you can reduce it by having a sale – but you can’t substantially increase once it’s out there.
Scope out the marketplace
Look at your competition; think about where you want to sit in that market – high, middle or low price point? Whichever you choose, stick to it and communicate it to your customer with your packaging and branding.
Put your face on your business
People buy from other people, and your story is what makes you unique – whether it’s at a table at a craft fair or in a picture on your website.
How to Start a Business on Your Kitchen Table by Shann Nix Jones will be published on 15 September by Hay House, price £14.99. To order a copy for £9.99 until 20 September go to whsmith.co.uk. Enter the code YOUBUSINESS at checkout. Book number: 9781783253425. Terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk/terms.