John Sortino first got the idea for making teddy bears in 1980, not long after the birth of his first son. "He had 38 stuffed animals, not one of which was made in the U.S.," Sortino recalls. "So, I made him one -- named 'Bearcho'. I made others and soon fell in love with the idea of making them."
'Bearcho' became the ancestor of millions of other cuddly, customized teddy bears created by the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, the Shelburne-based business that Sortino founded a few years later. Made famous through its memorable radio ads and wide range of gift options, the company has capitalized on America's long-standing love affair with the toy by creating customized teddy bears and shipping them to lucky recipients via specially designed "BearGrams."
But while the Vermont Teddy Bear Company has indeed become one of the nation's true business success stories, Sortino recalls that he was no different from other entrepreneurs who sometimes need help to turn their vision into reality.
"Having a business sounds like a wonderful dream, but it's really very tough," Sortino says. "You're by yourself, your plans may not be working out, and you're trying to figure out how to solve problems or keep things growing."
By the early 1990s, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company had become a national phenomenon. Soon after transitioning from a privately held business to a public corporation, the company ranked 21st on Inc. magazine's list of fastest-growing public companies in 1994. The company has since added Internet shopping and broadened its product offering to include other gift items.
Sortino left the Vermont Teddy Bear Company in 1995 to pursue other interests, and he is now a highly sought-after business consultant. He also authored the Complete Idiot's Guide to Successful Entrepreneuring, now in its fifth printing, and he is currently negotiating to write a series of business books for high school students.
Among the many lessons, Sortino shares with his clients are the value of SCORE mentoring. "When possible, people should talk to SCORE mentors and get different perspectives, because they have so much information and experience to share," he says. "It's like the gods of business coming in to help you be successful."
Sortino initially worked with his SCORE mentor to get their perspective on his plan. When Sortino planned a new factory to meet the increasing demand, he again called his SCORE mentor, Al Huber. Al, an expert in factory operations, helped to engineer the ear-making process, including setting up the various manufacturing states.