Molly Fienning was on the flight line waiting for her husband Ted, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, to fly home from a deployment in early 2010 when she had the “Aha!” moment for what was to become the start of her entrepreneurial life.
Molly describes the day:
“All the families were anxiously waiting for their fathers and mothers to return from this long trip. It was an incredibly sunny day and the pilots’ children were running all around, trying to protect their eyes by squinting or looking away from the sun. Like all children, these boys and girls wanted so much to be just like their dads and moms that day, the noble fighter pilots serving our country. If the pilots have stylish sun-protecting aviator sunglasses issued by the Marine Corps to protect their eyes, their kids should too!”
Molly told her husband about her idea for safe, durable and stylish sunglasses and he came up with the brand name Babiators for baby aviators. These cool mini versions of shades aren’t just for style. They actually offer 100% protection from both UVA & UVB rays. Today, Babiators can found in more than 250 stores and 15 countries worldwide.
Once Molly and Ted had fallen in love with their new product idea, they told their friends, Carolyn and Matthew Guard, about it; everyone thought it had real potential. They moved at full-throttle speed. The group started discussing the idea for Babiators in mid-2010, incorporated Babiators LLC in the fall of 2010 and officially launched the product in May 2011.
Molly explains that during their initial conversations, everyone agreed on the strength of the brand name. “However, it took a little more time and market research for all of us to realize that promoting safe, durable and awesome sunglasses for children was a compelling business model too. With a series of market surveys, we soon discovered the key elements that parents care about when it comes to purchasing sunglasses for their kids and protecting them from the sun. We evaluated what was currently on the market for sale, and it was clear we had a real opportunity to serve our customers well and differentiate the Babiators brand from its competitors.”
Three of the four partners are now working full time on Babiators — everyone except Ted, who is still serving as an active duty officer in the Marine Corps. He still enjoys offering creative feedback, although he is not actively involved in the day to day operations. Ted and Molly had their first son, Sawyer, five months ago. “It sometimes feels like I’m toggling back and forth between two fast-growing children — Sawyer (pictured above) and Babiators,” Molly says.
Both Carolyn and Matthew Guard left very successful careers at McKinsey and Bain Consulting, which is a real testament to the strong growth of the company. It’s not always easy when three people involved in a partnership have to decide who does what in a new start up.
But with this group, Molly says that “natural roles formed fluidly as we worked together. Carolyn has amazing tenacity for our logistics, supply chain and general operations, so she became Babiators’ Operating Partner. From years at Bain consulting, Matthew is an amazing financial analyst and risk assessor.” Molly thrives on sharing products with a wide range of people, so she handles PR and international distribution.
When discussing the partnership, Molly stresses the importance of knowing their partners very well before deciding to go into business together. They had all become very good friends while undergrads at Harvard University.
“We took regular vacations together, visited each other often, despite always living in different cities, and even got to know each others’ families. Over many dinners and a few cocktails, the topic frequently turned to business ideas and the dream of one day being entrepreneurs, though we didn’t necessarily envision being partners in the same company. In fact, our friendship was (and is) so important, that we drafted our partnership agreement with language that ensured that we had major incentives to work through any differences that might come up as Babiators took flight.”
The journey of a start-up can still be difficult even though surrounded by close friends.
“We initially had some challenges as entrepreneurs, especially in an industry which none of us had experience with. The learning curve was steep, but that was also one of the most exciting things about starting this business. Our team had a lot to learn about starting up an international business (including logistics, product sourcing, regulations, sales techniques, financing, IP protection laws, trade show strategies, and that’s just the start!), but we are passionate people who love the thrill of trying something new.”
In today’s marketplace, customer service is critical and the Babiators team listens carefully to customer feedback. Co-founder Carolyn had heard that a common complaint among parents about purchasing sunglasses for kids is how quickly they would lose them — this led to Babiators’ Lost & Found Guarantee, where any customer can register for a free replacement pair of Babiators if their pair is broken or lost, no questions asked!
The Babiator Team’s Advice:
Mentors: The best thing you can do when you have a great idea or are considering starting a business is to identify someone who has been successful at something similar and reach out to them. Learn as much as you can about how it all works. We received terrific advice from David Gilboa, one of the founders of Warby Parker (a fabulously successful eyeglasses start-up) as well as from Ted’s college roommate, among many others. Entrepreneurs are surprisingly willing to talk about their business to newcomers, because they understand the daunting feeling of starting a business from scratch. We suggest that you locate mentors, listen to smart people who will share their stories and tips, and seek recommended contacts for manufacturing, PR, sales and more.
Another notion that we value at Babiators, which Carolyn and Matthew have always emphasized, is the importance of paying it forward and sharing what you learned with other budding new businesses.
Marketing: The best marketing advice is to design a product that customers will rave about. Babiators families post pictures of their kids on our website and on Facebook because their kids love our product (and parents love their kids looking adorable!). It is important to design/build a product that is both useful and exciting.
The best marketing tip we can offer is to find the right PR firm that will spread the word about your brand. Multiple entrepreneurs we sought advice from said that PR was the best money you can spend, and it’s true. Just like any business needs a professional manufacturer, accountant or lawyer, public relations is an area best left to experts, so we recommend that you locate the best one you can afford right from the start (especially because the launch of a company is an exciting event that’s worth media attention). We also recommend selecting a PR firm based in either LA or New York City. From our experience, we found these firms in particular have the best connections in the industry.
Keep Your Day Job: Don’t quit your day job just yet! Having at least one income in our family has made it possible to develop our Babiators product, start selling them and pay for our family until the day that our start-up venture will eventually pay the bills. We would encourage anyone with a great idea and a sense of adventure to push forward a few steps at a time, three small steps a day, because those seemingly insignificant actions can add up to significant momentum in time. For instance, within a few weeks, a large department store chain expressed interest in purchasing Babiators. It took months of commitment, messages, samples, and questions before there was an initial purchase order, but it was well worth the wait! The store’s sell-through rates of Babiators were two to five times its goals, the department store sold out of its Babiators stock in a couple of weeks and then placed a big re-order! Perseverance is a major key to success in any entrepreneurial business.
Balance: We would also advise trying to keep some balance in your life, especially when it comes to your physical well-being and family life. Getting a little exercise can help clear your head and prevent you from burning out – taking a walk a day can be a life-saver! It’s easy to want to work on your own business all of the time, but we also recommend reserving a night to go on a date with a friend or loved one at least once a week. This will help you deal with the inevitable stress of being an entrepreneur.
As people bond through shared experience, the Babiator team feels they have solidified their friendship. Molly says, “We speak by phone multiple times a day, can read each other well (understanding one another’s strengths and challenges), and ultimately share the goal of making Babiators a great success. We know that we are going to look back on this time years from now and exchange stories from Babiators’ busy (and fun!) days as a growing company, content that each partner played an integral role in its exciting expansion.”
Now baby Sawyer Fienning can look and feel like his fighter pilot dad. No squinting for this kid, although the sun shines brightly on the future of his family’s business.