5 Business Lessons From a Goat Milk Soap Entrepreneur

PJ Jonas has probably told the story a few hundred times: One day, she was bathing her six kids in one bathtub when she looked at the ingredients on the soap she was using, and realized it was full of chemicals. At that point, most women would have resolved to buy a better soap. Not Jonas.

“That’s not me,” she says. “I’m always investigating new things.”

That was in 2006. Jonas spent the next six months researching soap-making on the web. “There’s a lot of information on the Internet,” she says. “A lot is good, and a lot is bad.” After experimenting, she came upon a winning formula that featured goat milk. Happily, there was a robust supply of goat milk nearby since the Jonases lived on a 3-acre goat-laden farm.

Flash forward eight years. Jonas’ business, Goat Milk Stuff, is now bringing in seven-figure revenues, and is profitable enough to support her family and their now 37-acre farm, plus a few employees. Goat Milk Stuff has also allowed Jonas to achieve her dream of living a bucolic life in rural Indiana, and teaching her now eight kids the value of hard work.

Getting to that point required not only toil, but sacrifice and stress. Here are a few lessons Jonas learned along the way:

1. Get out and talk to your customers

Goat Milk Stuff has always had a web component, but especially early on, Jonas’ primary marketing was at craft shows and fairs. By working such venues, Jonas and her family got to hear what customers really thought about GMS’ products and why. “The biggest thing is to figure out who your customer is and what they want,” she says. “We had hundreds of thousands of touchpoints with our customers, so we could see which they picked up. We’d ask them questions about it.” The company asked the same questions on its website and social media, and continued the conversation.

The Jonas’ family van.

2. Expect copycats

Goat milk soap is fairly replicable. Jonas expected some knockoffs, but she was taken aback at times by the outright appropriation from competitors. “My website is plagiarized all the time” she says. “We have people copy our look, our packaging, our design.” One person even stole her bathtub-epiphany origin story. Jonas has sent out a few cease-and-desist letters over the years, she says, but finds that the rip-off artists tend to go away quickly. “They’re usually gone in six months,” she says. GMS also addresses copycats on a section of its website entitled “All goat milk soap is not created equal.

3. Good enough is good enough

When GMS first started, Jonas wasn’t hugely versed in web creation. So she taught herself HTML, and was able to create a passable site. In 2010, when the business started to pick up steam, she hired a web designer and programmer to create a much better site. She doesn’t recommend skipping the first step. “I think we learned a lot doing it ourselves,” she says. “We had a lot of information, and knew which questions to ask … It’s okay to experiment if you start out slowly.”

Jim Jonas
Jim Jonas with a few of the Jonas kids.

4. Sell your story as much as your product

One of the main reasons for GMS’ success and the reason you’re reading about it here now is that the story of the Jonas family became as integral to the experience as the goat milk. When you buy GMS products, you’re financing a lifestyle and mindset, and to a certain degree, you’re buying the story. A mother of eight who home-schools her kids, makes her own soap from goats on her farm and puts her kids to work, has natural appeal to the media. In Jonas’ case, during one of the family’s numerous craft-show appearances, they attracted the attention of a local TV reporter, who was impressed with the way Jonas’ kids comported themselves. That led to a Today show appearance in 2011 that obviated the need for an advertising budget.

“I never did AdWords or any of that stuff,” she says. “It was all just people talking about the product.” By the way, if you’re thinking that the Jonas family would be a good premise for a reality show — sort of like 19 Kids and Counting meets Duck Dynasty — you’re not alone: They’ve received some interest in that area, Jonas says.

Making Soap
Hewitt Jonas makes soap.

5. Accept sacrifice and risk

When the Jonases moved to Indiana from New Jersey, Jonas’ husband Jim worked as a garbageman even though he was a University of Virginia graduate who had previously been a schoolteacher. He eventually got a job as a teacher in Indiana, but gave it up in 2009 when GMS was expanding. It was a risky move, especially since that meant the family went without any insurance for a year. (Their current insurance plan is to sign up with an insurer for about a year, and then switch when that insurer raises its rates. Jonas says Obamacare hasn’t helped at all. “It’s hurt,” she says. “Our insurance went up $300 [a month].”)

Along the way, Jonas had to deal with well-meaning (and maybe not-so-well-meaning) advice from friends and acquaintances that her idea was too moony to succeed. “People at the beginning told me I was crazy,” Jonas says. “I just ignored them, and pushed on.”