Childs Play

Who says online toy sales are a bust? Not eBeanstalk

Brian Gordon and Patrick Moore admit to being challenged in the gift-giving department. A few years ago, the two friends and colleagues got to talking about how bewildered they were by the truckloads of items at toysrus.com. "We asked ourselves: 'Wouldn't it be great if someone would tell us what to buy?'" says Gordon. Thus sprouted the seed for eBeanstalk.com, the Norwalk (Conn.) online seller of age-appropriate toys they started in September.

The odds weren't in their favor. A slew of online toy sellers went bust in the 1990s, including Toytime.com, Disney-backed Toysmart.com, and Nickelodeon-backed Red Rocket. And although the U.S. toy industry had sales of $22.3 billion in 2006, only $1.3 billion, or 6%, were online.

Gordon, now 38, and Moore, 39, knew they needed an edge. They enlisted six child development specialists to find and vet toys for educational value. Toys that pass muster then go before the real experts: a panel of 700 moms called the MotherBoard who receive four free toys a year to test-drive with their kids. The result: an inventory of about 500 toys picked from more than 10,000 entries. And 90% of them can't be found at mass-market retailers.

The pair also tried to take the confusion out of shopping. The site matches toys to a child's age in three-month increments from birth to age five and identifies the skills a toy fosters, such as imagination, dexterity, or socializing. "There is no question they are doing a decent job giving parents the information they need to choose a toy," says Marlene Zepeda, chair of child and family studies at California State University in Los Angeles. Prices range from $20 for nest-and-stack buckets to $59 for a tabletop deluxe easel.

Gordon says the nine-employee company is on track to generate $2 million in revenues in its first full year, and that site traffic tripled between January and May. Jennifer Forman, a teacher who lives in Delray Beach, Fla., and tests products with her 18-month-old daughter, Lilli, says: "If the company didn't exist, I'd be up all night searching online and in catalogs for all the things I can easily find at this one site."

OLD PALS

The co-founders, who met in high school, stumbled into the business. Gordon previously worked as a product manager at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati and later at Markitecture, a marketing consultant company in Norwalk. Moore wound up at the same firm after stints as a marketing consultant for ESPN, HBO, and Polo Ralph Lauren. They launched eBeanstalk with $1 million of their own money. "Neither of us had kids, and that was probably an advantage," says Gordon. (He and his wife now have a daughter.) "Six experts and 700 moms are going to figure out what is best better than we or any toy designer could."

To reach affluent customers, the pair got HR departments to put links to eBeanstalk on the employee intranet sites of companies such as American Express and Goldman Sachs. They court doting grandparents by contributing 15% of every sale to a senior citizen to Play for P.I.N.K., a breast cancer charity. In July, the company will open its first brick-and-mortar store, across the street from its headquarters. Gordon and Moore are now determining whether to take on strategic or financial investors for an expansion that includes more stores and an eBeanstalk toy line. Brooke Redmond, a Hanover (N.H.) member of the MotherBoard, will be buying. "He loves them!" she says of her 15-month-old son, Ben. "These are his go-to toys."

By Della De Lafuente

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