What started as a conversation over a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter’s night has turned into a full-time business for Mary Phipps. She remembers well that chat on a 2004 evening with friends.

“You’ve got a degree in biology,” they prodded her. “Why don’t you try to make some soap?”

Phipps began tinkering in the basement of her Windham home in hopes of creating an all-natural, vegan product. Before long, Phipps launched Pleasant River Soap Co., selling her soaps and lip balms at seasonal craft fairs.

Three years later, Phipps became a divorced single mother of two. “I had to decide what to do to support my children, and be around them as much as possible, so I decided to go big time.”

Pleasant River Soap Co. was accepted into Maine Made America’s Best program, and sales began to increase. By 2009, she decided to take her business even higher. “I was intrigued about the idea of being on the shelves of Whole Foods,” she said.

But there were some hurdles. “I wasn’t bar-coded. My price points weren’t competitive. I didn’t know anything about retailing. I knew I needed to learn a whole lot about business and how to officially run one.”

Phipps took two of Women, Work and Community’s classes: Basics of Starting a Business and the New Ventures Entrepreneurship Training program. During that time, Phipps knew she needed to redo her packaging to give her product a more professional look. She secured a small business loan and hired Pulp+Wire, a Portland-based graphic design, web and advertising firm.

“They redesigned packaging, redesigned my brochure, and they redesigned my website radically to what it looks like today. They did what it took to get noticed by a lot of retailers.”

The money Phipps borrowed turned out to be “more than worth it,” she said. Pulp+Wire was recognized internationally for the work they produced for Pleasant River Soap Co. The firm received awards for the packaging, logos, identity and branding.

Now it was time to get the products on the shelves of Whole Foods. She lowered her wholesale pricing, showed her new design to the Whole Foods buyer and began the process.

“They have a pretty extensive application,” Phipps said. “It’s really all just paperwork. Crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s.” She found that Whole Foods and other large retailers require a lot of insurance. “They all require about $1 million product liability coverage, and an additional umbrella.”

Whole Foods was the definite goal, but her business just wasn’t quite ramped up enough. “I wanted to become a regional wholesale presence in the Northeast and spread across America,” she said. She began looking at ways to better promote herself and her products.

“That’s when I realized that I can’t do everything and I needed a salesperson,” she said. Phipps took a part-time job for about a year to build some extra capital. Once she had more money in place, she made two bold moves. She hired Custom Sales Team in Portland to help her find Todd Delaney, her new national sales manager. She then hired Ann Ewing of Ewing Communications to help her with public relations.

This ramp-up has been the biggest accomplishment so far. “There’s been a big increase in promoting brand awareness using their contacts to spread the word, and they’re getting a buzz started on the West Coast about Pleasant River Soap Co.,” she said. “My online orders have definitely tripled since bringing on Todd and Ann.”

Phipps, now 37, says the leaps of faith keep coming. “When my business was getting busy enough that I couldn’t keep up with everything, I knew I was ready to take the plunge and quit my other job and become a full-time soapstress.”

What’s the next goal? “This time next year, I’m looking to have at least quadrupled sales across the board,” she said.

Gigi Guyton is microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community covering Cumberland and York counties. Her office is in South Portland, and she can be reached at 799-5025 or by email at gigi.guyton@maine.edu.