The Thorsen family, the Little Burro, and healing through giving back
It all started in the garden. Sudie Thorsen had always been an avid gardener, and when the young family moved to 5 acres outside of Warrenton in 1999, she really got the chance to spread out and expand her garden. “As a family,” her daughter Mollie said, “we’ve always loved the outside, and we’ve always had an inherent love for flowers, and the gardening has been something that’s always been super significant to us.”
Sudie was the driving force and did the design and landscaping and chose the flowers and plants, and her husband Bob became her “Little Burro,” he laughed, digging the holes and planting whatever she told him to plant wherever she told him to plant it. “My wife has always loved to work in the garden, and I love to hang out with my wife. I like being where she is, and she likes being in the yard.”
But working in the gardens, as all gardeners know, requires a lot of equipment. “She always wanted her iced tea, her bottled water, her cell phone, the house phone, her gardening gloves, and all the little and big tools she needed. She’d always leave them all over the yard, and I’d be sent to go get them. I was always running around to get all her stuff. If we put everything in a wheelbarrow, it would all fall over and fall out,” Bob recalled. Then, a lightbulb went off in his head. The back portion of the wheelbarrow is often underused. What if there were some sort of holder or caddy there to contain the many necessary implements?
Bob built a prototype out of cardboard and duct tape, and took it into the office of the family business, Thorsen Construction. The whole family — Bob, his daughter Becca, and his three sons, Robert, John, and James — worked there, and Mollie, the youngest, had just graduated from college and was starting to feel her way out into the world.
They all loved the idea, and decided to move forward with producing it. Mollie, Robert, and Bob took charge of the idea, with Becca acting as CFO, as she did for Thorsen Construction.
They named the product the Little Burro because burros are known to be humble, hard working, and strong.
One thing they all felt very strongly about, even though it did affect the price point of the product, was having everything — from the product itself down to the boxes and printing — manufactured in this country. One reason, as Bob put it, was the complicate
d logistics of doing business overseas. But the main reason had to do with Becca. A dedicated philanthropist, Becca had always felt strongly about human trafficking. By manufacturing in another country, they couldn’t be sure of the labor laws and therefore couldn’t be sure whether labor trafficking occurred in the factories overseas.
What followed was a long process of bringing the idea to market: architectural renderings, many revisions, sourcing materials, finding a company to make a mold and build a prototype, applying for patents, designing a brand, deciding on colors, fabricating the boxes, attending trade shows with the prototype — truly a time consuming and expensive process.
Was it worth it? Bob said, “I’ll put it this way: I consulted a very knowledgeable businessman I know, and he said, ‘Bob, it’s going to take longer than you would think, and it’s going to cost more than you would think.’ If I’d known how long it was going to take and how much it was going to cost, I probably would have given it a second thought. But now I’m glad we did it, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because Mollie has just grown into such an incredible businesswoman. It’s been an invaluable experience for her. Even if we never sold another piece, it’s been worth it for our family.”
Becca, as well, loved the product and thrived in the fast-paced business world they found themselves in as they navigated trade shows and marketed their invention to bring it to retail.
Before it even hit the market, the Little Burro made a big splash and received a lot of press, even winning the best new product distinction — ahead of 11,000 other products — at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas in 2014.
A highlight and breakthrough came during the summer of 2016 when Mollie and Becca attended Walmart’s “Made in America” buying day. They sold the Little Burro to a vice president of Walmart, who was very impressed with both Mollie and Becca as well as the product. “Becca was just over the moon that day,” Bob recalled. “She saw all these women in positions of authority, and it really gave her ideas for possibilities for her own future. That day opened her eyes so much. It was the best day she ever had as a businesswoman.”
But then, tragedy struck out of nowhere. In October 2016, Becca passed away after a short illness.
The family was paralyzed with grief, and both businesses suffered. Mollie said, “It was heartbreaking, it still is heartbreaking. She was really the glue that held us together, both as a family and as a business. It was especially difficult because both Thorsen Construction and Little Burro were both family run, and just the idea of going to work and going past an empty office was just not something any of us could face.”
The paperwork for the new opportunity at Walmart faltered in the aftermath of Becca’s loss.
“It took a long time to recover as a family and a business. We just had to take a break. We could hardly put one step in front of the other. We weren’t even sure we wanted to go on.” Bob recalled.
Mollie said, “We definitely dragged our feet, but after a year or so we arrived at a point that we realized we needed to make a decision. We either needed to end it now, or decide that we were 100 percent committed and move on with it. At that point, we decided that we were going to continue to move fully forward with the company because Becca loved it so much. We decided to take Becca’s 10 percent share in the company and donate it to her favorite charity, and turn Becca’s legacy into something positive and use this to build something in her honor. We’ve been able to do that. For me that was the driving force.”
Becca was most active in A21, a global anti human trafficking organization that raises awareness and provides rescue, after care, medical, and legal services to victims. Its acronym refers to their goal of abolishing human trafficking in the 21st century. “It’s just an amazing organization,” Mollie said.
The family has taken up Becca’s mission, and actively participates in the organization, both by volunteering and by financial contributions from both Thorsen Construction and Little Burros.
“Being involved in the A21 organization has been really therapeutic for us,” said Mollie. “It’s been such a blessing in all our lives, helping us heal. We’re doing this for Becca, but we are also helping others to possibly avoid a traumatic situation. It’s really a full circle.”
Little Burros today.
Resisting continuing pressure from retailers to move operations overseas to decrease the manufacturing costs for the product, the Thorsens developed a new, smaller version of the Little Burro, called the Burro Buddy, with a lower price point. Both products are still on the market, with portions of sales going to A21. Their retailers include Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Amazon, Duluth Trading, and yes, Walmart.
Little Burros: www.littleburros.com
A21 Organization: www.a21.org