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Smell of success

By Kelsie Dove

Customers of Marina Cottage Soap Co. in Ocean Springs might never guess that the
shop’s quaint little storefront packed with skin-care products serves as headquarters for a
company with more than 100 products sold in 600 stores across the nation and Canada. Instead
of a huge factory-meets-department store vibe one might expect from a company with such a
large distribution, Marina Cottage invites customers into a cozy, inviting space decorated in cool
colors and featuring several displays to appeal to varied interests. And it smells heavenly.
Vanessa Mueller, founder and chief operator, attributes her success to a great product that
meets real-world needs. Mueller explains that her company started with a desire to help her
daughter, Kelsey, find some relief from the symptoms of eczema. As a registered nurse, Mueller
encountered many people with painful skin conditions who were unable to find anyone or
anything to help them. In December 2012, Mueller gave her homemade products — soaps,
scrubs, etc. — to friends and family as Christmas gifts. “The feedback was overwhelming,”
Mueller says. Through word-of-mouth alone, Mueller’s creations attracted the attention of two
stores that contacted her about selling her products. By February 2012, seven stores were
involved. At the time, Mueller was working as a director of nursing while trying to manage her
growing business. She told her husband, who was on a business trip, that things had reached the
point where she could no longer do both jobs. He told her that if she had 10 stores buying her
products by the time he returned from his trip, they would talk about her taking on the business
full time; by the time he returned, she had 14 stores. Two years later, she has retired from
nursing and works full time researching, creating, packaging and distributing more than 100
The key ingredient in Mueller’s products may be a little unexpected: goat’s milk. Mueller
claims that goat’s milk is really a very logical choice for skincare products. “It’s all about the
size of the molecule. Coconut oil is great for cooking, but its molecules are too big to be
absorbed by our skin.” As such, products made with coconut oil stay on the skin rather than
absorb into it. Molecules in goat’s milk are small enough to be easily absorbed into human skin.
Goat’s milk also has the same PH level as human skin, and that contributes to its compatibility
with skincare products. Mueller explains that people with sensitive skin often experience trouble
with artificial ingredients such as dyes and perfumes. To avoid these problems, Mueller uses
blended essential oils to create scents and mica to create different colors.
Looking around her store at her many products, Mueller can recite the origin story of
every product. “Everything here was made out of necessity,” Mueller says. For example,
Mueller’s daughter encouraged her mother to develop bath products for children that would
enable kids with skin conditions to enjoy rather than dread bath time. From that request, Mueller
developed an entire line of children’s products including such things bubble bath and diaper
butter. She even customized products to complement the Maggie McNair children’s books
written by Sheila Booth-Alberstadt. Mueller also developed an aluminum-free deodorant for chemotherapy patients. She used citrus smells for the deodorant because her research suggested it as one fairly tolerable for chemo patients. Mueller says that natural insect repellent was
developed in her own back yard because mosquitos were so bad she and her family couldn’t
enjoy time at the pool. She even has a chemical-free dog shampoo for her customers’ furry
friends with sensitive skin. “With over 100 products in 43 scents, there’s bound to be something
for everyone,” Mueller said.
Mueller and her three coworkers (two part-time) manage to meet the massive demand
from their 600 locations while still enjoying their work and providing great customer service.
They make roughly 1,500 bars of soap and 24,000 ounces of lotion weekly, and they do all
production, packaging, and distributing from their location in Ocean Springs. Mueller says the
key is prioritizing and managing time effectively. “When we work, we work. And we do it all,
so we don’t rely on a third party to get things done.”
Although Mueller refers to her shop as her “happy place” and confesses that she pinches
herself daily because it is just unbelievable to her, she also notes that her favorite part is the
service she provides for her customers. “As a nurse, you help folks — and I’m still nursing.”
Mueller says it is rewarding and humbling to hear the positive responses from customers and
witness the physical changes they undergo by using her product. She says that skin conditions
often come with body image issues, and she enjoys seeing customers empowered to overcome
those issues with the help of her products. Mueller easily sums up her mission: “God gave you
two hands — one to help yourself and one to help others … . It’s important to give back.”

Visit Marina Cottage Soap Co.
3420 Bienville Blvd.
Ocean Springs, MS
(228) 215-1250

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