Here in the headquarters of Romeo Delivers
in East Liberty, the staff on this day just before Valentine’s Day is as busy as Christmastime elves, cutting and sticking and packing the items the company sends monthly to subscribers of its do-it-yourself romance kits.
Anne Lopez, Founder and CEO, oversees the creation of BAM notes, the company’s first product. The kits change monthly, from romantic pumpkin decorating equipment to the tools for a romantic message-in-a-bottle, but the BAM notes (“Stick ‘em up and BAM she knows you’re thinking of her”) are a signature part of each offering.
They’re sticky notes with a twist: they begin with a pre-printed phrase (“Be my …,” “You make me …,” and, this month, “Valentine, you have …") offering Romeo Delivers customers – all guys – suggestions on where to put the notes (inside her book, coat pocket or briefcase) and where not to put them (near the scale, bathtub or ”her forehead while she’s sleeping”).
The company even has suggestions for how to complete the phrases:
“Be my lover … one and only … pillow fight opponent … cuddle buddy.”
“Valentine, you have my heart … a great day … the sweetest smile … a secret admirer.”
Of course, guys can always come up with their own endearing phrases – if they have a clue how to connect with their wife or girlfriend.
"The traditional romantic gifts are things as a culture that we say are romantic gifts,” says Lopez. "A lot of things people think are romantic are not hitting the right chord”– all those products of the romance-industrial complex, such as flowers and candy. “It's guys who are willing to connect who are our best customers."
Romance among the robots
Romeo Delivers has one of the coveted spots in the AlphaLab Gear startup incubator, which provides coaching and hands-on assistance mostly for hardware and robotics manufacturers. Lopez’s company is one of Gear’s more unusual picks.
Lopez, of Fox Chapel, conceived Romeo Delivers in June 2013. By August, she says, she had her first paying customers.
“Everyone I was talking to was saying, ‘I'd like to improve my relationship or do some things for my wife – somehow connect.’ We have one chance at this life, why would we not take every chance to be happy?"
An art major at Carnegie Mellon University, Lopez did freelance design and photography and had never tried to start a retail business before.
After the BAM notes came the message in a bottle and the Eazy Peazy letter-writing kit, with suggestions for everything from salutation to signoff, yet left room for guys to be creative. In October, the company sent its subscribers fancy nails and a pattern so they could nail a heart design into the pumpkin of their choice, while December’s kit included a chalkboard Christmas tree ornament for subscribers to write a custom message on.
The Valentine’s Day kit includes a 20-page survival guide – what to do and what not to do on Valentine's Day – and a card that doubles as a lantern for the enclosed battery-operated tea light. (Hurry, Feb. 12 is the last day for free Pittsburgh area kit shipping.)
"Everything we do, we try to keep it really simple, so we give examples of what you could write, designs you could make," says Lopez. December’s kit also included gift tags and a "how to wrap it” infographic. Other kits have included a calendar with monthly cards in a stand, on which guys could write each month’s romantic favor for his wife or girlfriend.
Romeo Delivers joined AlphaLab Gear in October. “That's when I started building my team and that's when I called Kylie," Lopez says. Kylie Walker of West Mifflin started as “operations queen,” in Lopez’s words, in November. The company also employs eight part-time kit assemblers and local designers.
Their office, essentially a garage space like the other Gear companies’ offices, is now highly colorful, but the AlphaLab Gear's main space itself has a lot of open areas with plywood flooring, a chainlink fence to separate levels and not much else, although it also contains a lab from which the sound of grinding can be heard.
"Because we are a startup, we are making everything by hand," she says. "We think it is something our customers like – that we are craftsmen.
"I think we also know a lot of guys who want to do fresh kinds of things and don't know what to do,” she adds. “There isn't a single, creative solution” -- not one that is affordable, anyway. “Many guys have asked me, 'Is it going to matter when she finds out that I've subscribed?' No woman we know says she cares about that. They're thrilled that they've made the commitment for a whole year by signing up."
Branching out to other couples, other situations
Down the road, says Lopez, Romeo Delivers may branch into one-time DIY gift kits to give to women having a baby – and for guys who need to say they’re sorry.
"We need those kinds of things for all kinds of occasions," she says. The company will also likely develop kits for same-sex couples and other relationships, including parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren.
"We can be the solution for showing they care, no matter who it is," she says.
“We knew it was going to be really hard," to be a startup, Lopez adds. "But AlphaGear is a great place to do something that is really hard."
Gear’s mentoring team meets with Lopez and Walker once a month but can be called and emailed at any time. "We have done that a fair amount – you can't imagine,” she says.
“Just being here in this environment with a lot of people who are encountering a lot of the same issues we are" is valuable, says Walker. Their biggest challenges, the pair says, are supply chain management and product design and delivery issues, such as packing and shipping.
From printing everything on her own printer at first, Lopez says the company has now doubled its customers since December. When AlphaLab Gear ends in May, "by then we hope to be ready to move into our own space and have enough customers to support our overhead," she says. "We'd like to be cash-flow positive by May 31st.
"We also see it growing beyond being a subscription service and online service," she adds; they are aiming to enter retail stores as well, so that "people make it more part of their lives to be thinking of each other and being kind to each other. So we see them at [the convenience store], pumping gas and getting milk, and also getting a kit to be nice to your wife."
How badly is their service needed?
“A lot of women that we know have told us they are close with their boyfriends or husbands and they are great, but they wish [the men] would do small, thoughtful things to let them know they're thinking of them.
"Of course,” concludes Lopez, glancing at Walker, “her husband and my current boyfriend are the perfect Romeos…"
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen