Even though she has the added advantage of name recognition, Martin has only recently started telling friends and fans she’s now a full-fledged entrepreneur. She created a Twitter account for Romp and finally mentioned to her own Twitter followers that she had bought a business. She took her time doing this because she wanted the space to make improvements and mistakes. “We wanted the customers who had been so loyal to know that we would have similar products,” she says. “I wanted to continue what Jenn [LaBelle] had started, which is why I didn’t announce to the world that Kellie Martin was the new owner of Romp. It was more like, ‘P.S. I am the new owner.’”
In fact, the takeover was so quiet, that even some of Martin’s friends in Los Angeles didn’t know she was now a retail CEO. Jennifer Savage hadn’t seen Martin and her husband in awhile and one day happened to buy a giant, stackable wooden rainbow from Romp. She got an email and two phone calls from Martin that day, saying: “I saw you ordered something! I own the store!” Savage didn’t even realize there was a new owner from the looks of the website and she’s still wondering where Martin finds the time to run a business. “She is working already and then she has this,” says Savage. “But she’s a doer and does everything well when she puts her mind to it. She makes me think, wow, I don’t get much accomplished in a day!”
As she turned over the reins, LaBelle gave Martin tips on inventory numbers, which products sell well and the kind of photographs that work best. She also taught her the ins and outs of operating the website’s backend. LaBelle helped Martin make her first buy as well. The two attended a trade show in New York together with LaBelle introducing Martin to all the vendors. Martin bought some new products (she tries to find toys people can’t get anywhere else), retired some old ones, while making sure not to lose the style and charm of the site. “She has a slightly different voice and her own style in the language and photography,” says LaBelle, “She’s doing really well with it.”
(MORE: Measure the Money You’re Making)
But not all of it has been easy. After taking over the business in August, Martin had three quick months to learn the ropes before heading to Charleston to film Army Wives. And it couldn’t have come at a busier time: November and December holiday buying account for about 30% of Romp’s annual business. “Jenn had warned me that Christmas is crazy,” says Martin. “And I thought ‘oh, what a nice problem to have.’ But it really was crazy.” Martin hired some of her actor friends part-time to help pack boxes and send them out. Her husband chipped in too and she would come home in between shooting to work, keeping up via email when she was away. “We sent out 50 boxes a day often with five products in a box,” said Martin. “We had good friends who worked for us and helped send them out.”
Products like blank nesting dolls (Russian nesting dolls that kids can paint) and blank board books (small, paperboard books children draw in) were a huge hit. And while she didn’t make quite as large of a profit as LaBelle did last Christmas, she still made money. “This year we didn’t find that new product that everyone wanted, like the Matchbox mice that Jenn had and hit so hard,” says Martin. “I thought it would be the Garden Treasure box, but we couldn’t keep it in stock.” The vendor in France needed a long lead time to produce the intricate product, so reorders took weeks. Christian adds they are both still learning how to get the inventory numbers right and think about currency fluctuations when pricing goods from Europe. “If we make a big bet on a product that doesn’t sell it has a significant impact on the bottom line,” he says.
Martin says figuring out the day-to-day operations has been her biggest challenge so far. She’s looking to hire an office manager to help especially when she’s away on location. And just last month she hired a publicist, although Romp already had been mentioned in Daily Candy and on blogs (and now on Time.com). She has an office adjacent to her house and she loves being able to include her daughter Maggie in the business, having her test products and act as a focus group. In the future she hopes to add a line of organic cotton play clothes, more baby gifts and maybe even a brick-and-mortar store one day. “It’s not just about being profitable,” says Martin. “I love finding great toys and having people want to come back. I have a customer who ordered three times in one month. I love that!”