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Play On! Behind the Business with Allison Klein of Rose and Rex

Can a toy store be more than just a toy store? At first blush, Rose & Rex is clearly atypical – look elsewhere for the latest superhero stuff – but the difference goes deeper than the elegance of handmade construction. The purpose behind Rose & Rex isn’t to sell plastic things to parents, but to encourage a shift in the development of their children.

We interviewed Rose & Rex owner Allison Klein and spoke about the impetus behind her starting the business, her desire to encourage imaginative play among children, and what the future might hold for this amazing toy boutique.

image of rose & rex's allison klein

Allison Klein of Rose & Rex finding time to play.

So, tell us about Rose & Rex.

Rose & Rex is an online toy boutique and play resource that promotes the importance of imaginary, open-ended play in early childhood development. We aim to change the way people perceive play. Play is not frivolous, rather it’s a valuable, essential tool that children have for developing key cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills that they will carry through school and into adulthood. We want every child to have the opportunity to play! We specialize in responsibly made, open-ended toys that spark engagement over entertainment. The toys we select have a timeless style and heirloom beauty, so parents actually take pleasure in seeing them scattered across their living room and enjoy play, too.

What inspired you to get into the world of play?

The idea for Rose & Rex emerged while I was teaching in a private school in NYC and attending graduate school. Many of my students’ parents viewed play and learning as opposites, rather than deeply connected, and questioned its importance in the classroom. Once I explained how essential it was and parents began to see the academic and emotional strides their children were making by learning through play, I knew that I needed to start a larger conversation about our culture’s approach to learning. Many people simply don’t know why play is so important for young children and that’s why we’re here.

In terms of family influence, my mom was a special education teacher who deeply believed in play-based learning, so the values of imagination, inquiry and innovation that are the heart of Rose & Rex have been ingrained in me for most of my life. In terms of the toy store and ecommerce, I am definitely on my own with that one!

They say that to be successful you have to be passionate; why do you love what you do?

As a teacher, there is nothing that I believe in more than children’s power to shape and inform our world. Play is the single most important tool young children have to develop their social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills. Yet, playtime is being cut from schools in an alarming way. I am driven to do this every day knowing that I’m creating a company that’s challenging the assumption that learning is achieved by completing worksheets at a desk.

The right toys matter. What a child plays with matters, from what it’s made of to how it engages them. Every toy selected for Rose & Rex is purposefully chosen to help children develop fundamental skills in an organic way. When I think of Rose & Rex toys in people’s home, inspiring them to play every day and open their imagination, it makes all the hard work worth it. I feel energized that we are selling toys that encourage children to develop their spontaneity, creativity and joy!

image of peg dolls

Creating spaces for the Peg Dolls.

Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?

Definitely not always smooth sailing (oh, start-up life), but I truly believe the learning curves help you grow and better understand your business’s unique value. Initially, I faced a lot of resistance to the idea that we would specialize in open-ended toys as opposed to tech or results-driven toys. Shifting people’s thinking to understand that children learn through play was an early hurdle. We’re offering toys, but we’re also encouraging people to expand their definition of how children learn and challenging some established beliefs. For example, we don’t categorize our toys in traditional ways — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Where are your girl toys?” We purposefully don’t define toys by gender, which led to some interesting challenges that I of course found fascinating.

image of huzi design mixed animals

Animal set – handmade by Huzi Design

Building our inventory was a steep learning curve. Each toy needs to meet our quality and brand standards, which makes for a highly selective process, then you throw in the seemingly simple choices like deciding on an order quantity, getting vendor approval, etc. and the process becomes more and more layered. Of course, any start-up on a limited budget faces challenges. Without advertising, it can be hard to compete next to large, traditional toy brands but we like the opportunity to think outside the box, get creative and make personal, real connections with people.

We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?

Haha, luckily we haven’t had anything “crazy-bad” happen yet, just “crazy-fun” so far. The day I received a box of 400 balloons and a pound of confetti that I’d use to hand-stuff each one was one of those, “Is this really happening?” moments, but in the best way! On launch day, we received so much positive feedback from early supporters that felt “crazy-rewarding” and I was especially overwhelmed to hear from many people I hadn’t talked to in years!

What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?

Growing a new business can make you feel like you can’t take time off, but I do strive for balance. It doesn’t matter how I recharge—a walk through Central Park, pilates, reality tv with a glass of champagne—just that I commit to some break each day. Whether I’m exploring a new restaurant with my husband or spending time with my niece and nephew, my family helps me relax and keeps me inspired.

This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?

Social media is incredibly important to us for growing our community. We value personal connections and Instagram has been a great way to connect with like-minded people. Since our store is strictly ecommerce, it’s important that people feel like they really know the vibe and personality behind the products. Right now I operate our Instagram account because I want to authentically connect with my community. I love creating content that represents the brand—plus, it’s easy when you’re so inspired by all the talent that’s out there, from creative to entrepreneurial.

image of fray dolls and friends from rose & rex

Fray Dolls and friends.

Why did you realize that you were going to embrace ecommerce?

I always knew that I wanted to begin with an ecommerce site because I want to reach a many people as possible. Plus, I couldn’t afford the overhead of a retail space. I love being able to create a brand that is both a store and resource for play, all in one place. The fact that I can have a conversation about the importance of play with someone from Australia is really exciting!

image of allison klein from rose & rex

Allison Klein of Rose & Rex nailing the work/play balance.

How did you find Shopify and why did you decide to try them out? What does this enable you to do as a small business owner?

Selecting an e-commerce framework was an incredibly important decision for us. We ultimately decided to use Shopify for these reasons: First, Shopify makes integrating with third parties a snap, which is essential. Since we do our own fulfillment, an organized back-end system was a main priority. Their system allows us to easily import inventory, track items and print shipping labels directly—super important for efficiency. On the front-end and back-end, Shopify makes managing all aspects of our store as easy as possible, from collecting payments to creating blog posts. Most importantly, since Shopify provides hosting, and we plan on growing, we don’t have to worry about scaling because we know that Shopify can handle that growth.

How are you involved in your community? What does supporting local mean to you?

Core to Rose & Rex is our social mission, both locally and globally. Through our Play It Forward initiative, we partner with Second Chance Toys, an amazing local non-profit that rescues, refurbishes and donates plastic toys to children in need, and One Percent for the Planet, which unites eco-minded businesses. For me, supporting local is all about knowing the people and passion behind the product. When selecting our toys, I researched many artists and makers with small businesses that create handmade, limited edition toys using sustainable, responsible materials. The support goes both ways because I believe in what they’re doing and they believe in our mission, so it becomes a beautiful collaboration: win-win.

What does the future look like for you and your business?

Since we just launched a few months ago, our focus is growing our community and attracting new customers to our toys and overall mission. Ultimately, we want imaginary play to be a part of every young child’s life. We want to offer an ever-changing collection of open-ended toys that’s complemented by inspiring editorial content. Because we’re selective about the toys we choose, I hope we can create a new standard of what a children’s toy can be: responsibly made, imaginative, high quality and elegantly designed.

image of a world coloring map

What a Colorful World – coloring map by Pirasta

Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?

You have to be willing to involve yourself in every aspect of building your business. This starts with building a great team around you (family, friends, and the people you hire) and being willing to collaborate. Collaboration is essential in creating the best possible product. I have the best team of people behind me and every decision is made through discussion, debate and countless hours of conversation, which ultimately challenges me and results in the best final product. Start building brand awareness early, too. Getting the word out about your mission takes time. Know exactly what your brand and business is about because you’ll have to, often quickly, define yourself to people!