Five years ago, Kellie Martin, the actress famous for playing Becca Thacher on the early ‘90s TV series “Life Goes On” and later for her roles on “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” was doing a photo shoot for PEOPLE Magazine about being a new mom to daughter Maggie. “At the time I was searching for safe toys to surround Maggie with,” she says. “We weren’t doing any plastic or battery toys, but I was having trouble finding stuff.”
She started chatting with the photographer about her plight, when, in between camera clicks, the woman mentioned this cool wooden camera she had recently purchased for her own daughter from a store called Romp, which sells old-fashioned, creative toys. A budding photographer herself, Martin loved the idea of a beautiful play camera for her daughter. “I fell in love with it because it forces kids to use their imagination,” says Martin, who bought the same camera shortly after the shoot. “Maggie played with it when she was eight months old and she still picks it up all the time now. It’s what a toy should be—something that she keeps coming back to.”
It didn’t take long for Martin to become a regular at Romp’s online store. The brick-and-mortar operation in Brooklyn closed in 2008 when its owner, Jenn LaBelle, moved upstate, but the store remained a popular online destination. This past June, however, LaBelle sent all her customers an email saying she was closing the store to focus on running her other business, Twine, an online gift store. Martin’s first thought: “I can’t let it close!” She called her husband, distraught. “I said right away I think we should buy it,” says Martin. “I didn’t even know if she wanted to sell, but I said to my husband ‘You’ve got to call her!’”
Kellie’s husband, Keith Christian, is the entrepreneur in the family. (The two met as college students at Yale University.) A lawyer turned cattle rancher—he owns a ranch in Colorado, which he runs from Los Angeles—Christian called up LaBelle shortly after Martin received the email and talked to her for an hour and a half about the store. The two hit it off. Two months later, he and his wife became the proud new owners of Romp. “This is definitely Kellie’s business,” says her husband. “I am just the support staff.”
Taking over as the owner of an online children’s toy store isn’t exactly easy, especially when your other job takes you away on location. The mom to five-year-old Maggie continues to act fulltime: She’s a recurring guest star on Lifetime’s hit show Army Wives and has a Hallmark Channel movie, “Always a Bride,” coming out in July. But Martin has learned how to run the business via email and cell phone when she’s away and her husband chips in too, manning the books.
While the move to become a retail owner was impulsive, it was also savvy. Martin took over a company that already had a loyal customer base and had a departing owner who was willing to guide her through the transition. “We skipped the pure startup phase by purchasing a company that was operating profitably and had strong brand identification,” says Christian. “We are way ahead of where we would have been if we had just started a business in August.” And the store has remained profitable under their watch. “Being my own boss isn’t something I thought I could do,” says Martin. “If Keith and Jenn [LaBelle] hadn’t been encouraging me, I don’t think I could have done it.”
Martin’s enthusiasm for the products and her thrill at sharing her finds with customers is what won over LaBelle in the first place. “In the beginning when I heard a Hollywood actress wanted to do this, I thought it would be a vanity project, she would put her name on it and hire people to do it,” says LaBelle. “But as soon as I met her it was clear she wanted to be very hands on, down to packing the boxes. I was really impressed.”
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.”
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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!”