Investing / Startups / Venture capital

Just 2 years after turning down Shark Tank deals, NoVa startup The Little Burro is conquering the retail scene

Father/daughter duo Bob and Mollie Thorsen turned down not one, but two deals when they appeared on "Shark Tank" in 2020. The founders just landed two huge deals with Lowe's and Walmart.

A Little Burro gardening tool. (Courtesy photo)

When The Little Burro founder Mollie Thorsen appeared on “Shark Tank” in 2020, she and her cofounder — a.k.a. her dad, Bob Thorsen — had a set plan.

“Going into ‘Shark Tank,’ our motto was: No deal is better than a bad deal,” Mollie Thorsen said. “We’d rather just step away and say no to things than to accept things that could potentially be bad for us in the long run.”

The Little Burro is an Alexandria, Virginia-based startup that created a product for gardeners — a tray that sits on top of a wheelbarrow to hold a phone, drink and gardening tools. The idea came to life after Bob’s wife, Sudie Thorsen, accidentally lost her phone by raking it into a leaf bag. The incident inspired him to build a tray out of cardboard and duct tape that would hold everything she needed.

Nearly 10 years later, it’s still a small, two-person company. But it has big plans for the fall: After turning down two deals on “Shark Tank” (we’ll get to that), the company is set to launch in 1,200 Lowe’s hardware stores (or about 75% of the retailer’s stores nationwide) in September. In addition, after attending an open call for manufacturers, the company’s product is expected to be available in 1,100 Walmart stores in the spring.

The Thorsens first applied to be on the television show back when they initially developed the product, but didn’t make the cut. In 2019, the show reached out to them to make an appearance. The pair asked for a $250,000 investment in exchange for 10% equity and received offers from Lori Greiner and Kevin O’Leary. But the father/daughter duo walked away empty-handed after turning down the deals, which both included a royalty clause.

The Thorsens had initially agreed to not accept any royalty offers before coming on the show, Mollie Thorsen said, but she felt encouraged when fellow sharks Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban also suggested turning down the deals.

“It was really nerve-wracking,” Thorsen said. “But we knew we had buyers meetings with these stores lined up and we said: You know, we’ve done the legwork here, and if we take a royalty deal, it would just totally take away from our cash flow. So we said going into this, we cannot take a royalty deal.”

With not one but two new deals, the decision appears to have paid off. The Little Burros product like the Burro Buddy and the Original Little Burro are sold at TrueValue, Ace Hardware, Sam’s Club and QVC. Going forward, the younger Thorsen said she hopes to add more team members, as well as a few more gardening products to the line.

Both products are made in the US, and Mollie Thorsen confirmed that all future products will continue being made on home soil. A portion of the company’s profit goes to nonprofit A21, which battles human trafficking, in honor of Mollie’s late sister and former CFO Becca Thorsen.

For the future, Mollie Thorsen is unsure whether or not the company will choose to accept VC or outside investment. But as they press forward, she and her father will continue on with the motto that it’s okay to say no if a deal isn’t quite right.

“Using that model throughout our entire business has really helped us get to where we are,” Thorsen said. “Just saying no to things and not feeling pressure to say yes to things, because that’s the normal way to do it, but really saying no to things that could potentially be bad.”

Companies: Walmart

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