ZZZ Bears: Lessons in Failing Fast

ZZZ Bear owner with daughter and product

Meet ZZZ Bears: Delivering Sweet Dreams to Those Who Need Them Most

Retailer, e-commerce and wholesale company offering teddy bears geared for children of military families

2018 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Bronze Prize Winner
ZZZ Bears
Winston-Salem, NC

ZZZ Bear


Justin Baum was happy in his job writing commercials for U.S. Marine Corps recruitment. “I was inspired by the sacrifices made by our troops for their families,” he said.

One night his own young daughter was having trouble sleeping and he was looking for something to help her calm down. “So, I found this bear and I came up with a story,” he said. “Even children know the military means protection, so I created a story for her about a military bear that was on duty all night to protect her while she slept.”

The scenario didn’t immediately bring to mind a business idea, but later he began to think about his experiences with the military and the sacrifices military families make while their loved ones are deployed, often in harm’s way. That’s when the idea behind ZZZ Bears came together. “The teddy bears are dressed in different military uniforms,” explained Justin. “They are designed to ease nighttime anxiety for children whose parents are deployed.”

His initial product was a teddy bear with generic camouflage called Sgt. Sleeptight. He sent a message to the Marine Corps Exchange about his product and had a first order within 72 hours. The order came with a special request – they asked if the bears could have a Marine uniform. That order was followed by other requests for Navy- and Coast Guard-uniformed teddy bears.

“I’m motivated every day by the amazing feedback I hear from military families, just to know they’re receiving some comfort,” he said. “It’s just heartbreaking knowing what they are going through and if our bears can provide just an inch of comfort to those kids, then it’s really worth it and that really motivates and inspires me.

After receiving that initial interest, Justin plowed ahead with his idea. He admits there have been some speed bumps along the way. “I didn’t talk to other entrepreneurs as I was getting started; I think that was a mistake. Since then, I’ve tried to pass on what I’ve learned to other entrepreneurs and make myself available, because I know what it’s like to know nothing and how much talking to someone that’s been there can make a difference.”

One of those moments came when he had an opportunity to meet with a large national retailer. “I had the opportunity to meet with the buyers and do a limited store test. It was a complicated process, exciting, but I was nervous about sales.”

After a limited run, the store decided not to continue to carry his product. “It didn’t sell enough to get picked up and I’m not positive why, but I’m okay with that because we tried it and we’ve been able to pivot to something else. I’m happy I had the experience and I’d do it again. That’s learning.”

What advice does he offer to other small business owners with the same shot at a big box store? “Definitely explore the opportunity if it presents itself, but understand this is only step one in a long process,” he said. “Selling is key and packaging is very important. You need to create a strong visual representation of your product. You also need capital since it will require a big investment up front. Make sure your manufacturer can handle that volume.”

As the big box store opportunity fell through, Justin came across another remarkable opportunity. Through a Facebook group, Justin made a connection to promote ZZZ Bears on the national television talk show “The View.” The appearance provided huge exposure for his brand, and Justin received a deluge of orders over a 48-hour period.

“It all happened so quickly, we weren’t sure how we were going to fill orders, and we panicked,” he said. “It was a crazy few weeks.”

It’s a problem most small businesses would love to have. “It was a good gut check, to just be more prepared in general,” he said. “Every time you think you have something figured out as a business owner, some curveball gets thrown your way.”

Find out more about our yearly contest and our past winners here.

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