Valentine's Day used to mean chocolates, flowers and jewelry — at least until Vermont Teddy Bear changed all that around.
"Vermont Teddy Bear was called the creative alternative to flowers, because there were only a couple of things you could get overnight as a late gift, flowers certainly and then teddy bears," said John Gilbert, chief executive officer of Vermont Teddy Bear. "We positioned the teddy bear as a gift for adult males to give to adult females, primarily around Valentine's Day. That was hugely unique and different from other offerings at the time. That was a catalyst for significant growth."
Those unique gifts, combined with savvy marketing tactics, most notably the Bear Gram service, have helped Vermont Teddy Bear grow out of the mountains of Vermont into a highly recognized national company. While the ability to take advantage of Valentine's Day may have been the key to initial growth, Gilbert contributes the sustained success of Vermont Teddy Bear to the ability the company has to provide a product and service which customers need and want, a skill Gilbert considers fundamental to all successful businesses.
"We are a consumer-oriented company that is focused on satisfying and solving consumer needs," said Gilbert. "The easy formula there is to focus on consumer needs, while staying true to what your core confidences are. Doing that while also creating innovative products will help to expand the business beyond what you currently have."
The start of Vermont Teddy Bear was not unlike many other businesses that began with the ability to take advantage of an opportunity. Company founder John Sortino, who has since left the company, noticed that all of his son's teddy bears were made in other countries and was determined to change this. As a result, Sortino began making his own teddy bears in the family's home in Vermont and two years later in 1983, Sortino began selling his homemade bears in a market in Burlington, Vt.
His limited success, selling 200 bears in the first year, was the first sign that he may have something on his hands. But selling the bears in that outdoor market proved useful for another important reason, when a simple request by a customer to have Sortino mail one of his bears to her home sparked the idea for the Bear Gram service. That service turned into the biggest factor behind the growth of the nascent company as two days after the first Bear Gram advertisement ran on a New York City radio station, the company met sales goals for the year. Today, Bear Gram advertisements can be heard on over 500 radio stations in all 50 states.
"The Bear Gram in its simplest form solves the problem of needing a unique gift," said Gilbert. "That is primarily the premise of the service, but what makes the Bear Gram unique is that it can be highly personalized. With our very hands-on delivery capabilities that allow us to pack and handle and personalize every product we sell, we are able to leverage a lot of those things into something that is a systemic source of growth for us. "
The journey, however, has not come without bumps, as the company was hit particularly hard by the advent of the Internet, which was able to give customers another alternative to get unique gifts in a short period of time. To combat this, Vermont Teddy Bear was forced to reinvent themselves, but the challenge was made easier by not trying to reinvent the wheel that was pivotal to the early success of the business.
"The old proposition of being the creative alternative to flowers was strong for us, but it was no longer as compelling for consumers," said Gilbert. "The big challenge for Valentine’s now is that there is a lot more growth out there than just being a Valentine's company. I think the risk is if you stay focused on Valentine’s Day, you are at the whim of a customer who has a lot more options."
Therefore, Vermont Teddy Bear was able to learn from the lessons of offering unique and personalized teddy bears to branch out into pajamas and flowers in a move that has helped the company take advantage of every holiday and special occasion, such as birthdays and anniversaries. Today, the company occupies a 60,000 square foot factory situated on 57 acres in Shelburne, Vt., and employs 200 full-time employees.
While success is far from guaranteed, it is also far from an impossible goal, especially if businesses and entrepreneurs start by making sure they have a market to sell their products to and a passion for business. Those two qualities, according to Gilbert, will help to lay the foundation needed to start a successful business.
"You must really pay attention to what the consumer wants," said Gilbert. "You may believe it is a good idea and you are probably right, but you have to listen to the consumer. A lot of entrepreneurs tend to get caught up on an idea they have and are resistant to hearing feedback or having a conversation with consumers to ask if it is really a good idea."
However, that feedback is particularly important in helping a company determine if there is a desire for their good or service. Gilbert feels that passion combined with planning will also pay large dividends for businesses.
"You have to have passion for and believe in yourself, even when there may be criticism or inherent challenges in the market," said Gilbert. "I do think it pays to have a little bit of luck. Putting yourself in a position to have luck is important. Luck comes down to preparation, and you can never prepare too much."
Although Vermont Teddy Bear has been a very successful business operating in a very specialized field, Gilbert feels that the lessons which the company has learned over the past three decades are highly relevant to any business.
"This company has been through a lot of ups and downs and a lot of entrepreneurs can take away from us, that when things are at their best, you should probably be a bit paranoid about how to prepare for the future," said Gilbert. "Also, when things are at their worst, remain optimistic and focused on the future. As long as you have a product that the market needs or wants, I believe you will be rewarded."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily staff writer David Mielach at Dmielach@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @D_M89.