Ep #51 | Be Authentic

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Molly Fienning is a Co-Founder of Babiators, one of Forbes' 100 Most Promising Companies and the leading sunglasses brand for babies & kids. Molly manages the e-commerce, marketing, p.r., social media and brand strategy for the company, which has sold over 2 million pairs of shades. Prior to Babiators, Molly has worked at IBM and Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Molly graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. She lives in Charleston, SC with her husband Ted and sons, Sawyer and Fox.



Shantel: Hi Molly, welcome to the show.

Molly: Thank you, Shantel. How are you doing?

Shantel: I'm great, we're so excited to hear more about Babiators. I know children aviator sunglasses are adorable, and I know all of our listeners are eager to hear about your journey of becoming an entrepreneur. So, can you kick things off with a little bit about you, and how you got started?


Molly: Yeah, sure. My name is Molly Fienning, I'm one of the Co-Founders of Babiators. I started it with my husband Ted Fienning, and our two college friends Carolyn and Matthew Guard. We launched Babiators about seven and a half years ago now. Our seventh birthday of sales is actually going to be later this month, May 18th, and it took us about six months to incorporate and get the branding, and packaging, and supply chain up to date. So we technically, I guess launched October, 2010. And it's been a really fun, awesome adventure. And I'm still having a blast, which I love. But over the life of the business basically, we've sold about two million pairs of sunglasses. We are now retailing in 4 countries, and have about 3000 retail partners. So it's gone from a very small startup, where I'm cold-calling stores at our breakfast table, to a pretty widespread, leading brand. Which, it has been awesome, and very unexpected.

Shantel: That is amazing, two million, that's a staggering fact. Did you ... okay, so I know a little bit about the backstory, but I'd love for you to dive in. Where did this idea come about when you were with your co-founders and friends?

Molly: Yeah, sure. So my husband Ted is an Aviator for the Marine Corps. He flies, well he used to fly fighter pilot, fighter jets, F-18 fighter jets, and now flies King Air C-130, I think the number is, transport planes. But at the time, in 2010, we were living in Beaufort, South Carolina, and he was in an active duty squadron and deploying regularly. And there's a great tradition in the Marine Corps, where after the pilots go on a long training trip, or a deployment, at their return, all the families get to line up along the flight line and literally the jets fly right in and taxi to 10 feet ahead of them. And the jets pop open, and the dads and moms get to jump out of the plane, and the kids run towards their parent, or the fiance run towards the fiance. It's always just and incredibly sweet, emotional moment. And I was there with Ted, waiting for Ted to come home. At that point we were married with no children, and I noticed it was a really sunny day, and all the planes were flying in in the sky, and the parents had sunglasses on to protect their eyes, and the kids actually were commenting how bright it, and they could see the planes, and they were squinting, and it was hurting their eyes. And I mentioned that to Ted on the drive home, isn't that interesting that the Marine Corps issues aviators for their pilots, to protect their eyes, and the kids didn't have any. And he said, we should make them and call them Babiators for baby aviators, and the name made me giggle. And a few days later, we were having dinner with our college friends the Guards, who were consultants at the time and looking to do something entrepreneurial, and they also giggled at the name. And we thought, I wonder if there's a business model here and not just a cute brand name. So we did a sort of market analysis survey to discover what was out there in the market at the time for children's sunglasses, and what parents liked about the options, and what parents didn't like about the options. And basically built our business from those survey results. In particular two or three core factors. The extreme durability, one of the biggest complaints about sunglasses that existed at the time were that the break, the cheap plastic pairs. And we actually sought long and hard to find the most durable material we could for our shades, and it ended up being a BPA free, phthalate free, lead paint free rubber, that bends and twists, and you've seen the shades in person, or you can play around and literally turn them into a pretzel and they return to their natural shape. And the other thing is that they ... the other complaint was that they get lost. So why am I spending any money $10, $20, $100 on shades if my son our daughter is gonna lose them at the playground. And so, when we launched we actually were like, what if we replace our shades, not just against breakage, but also against loss, for free? So we really wanted to start our business customer forward, and focus on our customers first and foremost. And so we launched with what we call out Lost and Found Guarantee, where we were the first brand to replace any product we have against loss and breakage.

Shantel: I think that's great. And just even the intentionality of all of that market research before, and truly analyzing the marketplace. And I think the rubber piece is super interesting as well. So, were there a lot of other baby sunglasses on the market at that time?

Molly: So at the time, there were a lot of kid's shades. You had your sort of Walmart, character focused, SpongeBob, Mickey Mouse, cheapie, $11, $9, $5 shades. You had the kind of more expensive $100 Ray Bans shades for kids, Gucci shades for kids, that are just, it's a different market all together. There really wasn't a space for that kind of higher quality, mid range price point. And in terms of the ... and that's even kids. In terms of baby, there were really no sunglasses for babies other than that kind of like almost racket court goggles, that kind of had a band and went around the head, like you'd where them like goggles like a sport court, you know what I mean? And they were functional in that the kid couldn't get them off their face, but they didn't look particularly comfortable, and they certainly are not stylish, were not stylish. And I think one thing that we really wanted to do, and resonated with parents right from the start, is we actually wanted to make a very cute pair of shades that the kid put on, and looked awesome, and felt cool. And we got comments from day one, wow these are literally miniature versions of what I'd want to wear. This is something that I'd put on myself if I had a bigger size. And so, they liked that it was cool and edgy, and not precious and overly twee or baby-baby with crabs or mocking, whatever. So we wanted to do a little bit of a cooler, a cooler vibe, a more urban vibe for the product.

Shantel: I love that. So, I'm picturing you guys sitting around the table talking about this, you decide you're gonna do it. I mean, the production side, and neither of ... and of you guys and the Guards didn't come from a manufacturing background, right?


Molly: No, I was ... I mean, I studied technology and worked for IBM. And then most recently I had been in commercial real estate, just investing as Ted and I moved all over with the military. Ted was a pilot, and Carolyn and Matthew were business consultants and had gone to business school. And so, so much of this journey, and especially those first couple months is just a life lesson. It was like business school by experience. All right, what am I doing today, what am I learning today? And it's a huge wave, a tidal wave of new material, new information, new skill sets to hone. And as a result, I think that's one of the things I love most about entrepreneurship, is just tackling, okay I wanna do this, I wanna take my company over there, how do I do that? Who do I have to talk to? What do I have to learn? And it's constantly, I mean and you know this I'm sure yourself as an entrepreneur, you're just ... every time you pivot, or redirect, or grow, there's more to learn, more to know about, more mentors to seek out. And you're constantly almost like mini-expert in lots of different stuff.

Shantel: Mm-hmm, yeah. There's certainly no guide book of how to do this one specific thing. Or, I have this problem, what do I do? And it's definitely learned by experience, and just kind of go with the flow. I think a lot of our listeners that are interested in starting a company we hear that, oh I don't know all the answers, or I don't know everything about this specific industry or niche, and you don't have to. You know, you kind of just figure it out, and that's the beauty of it.

Molly: You don't have to, and nobody does. No entrepreneur, not Steve Jobs, not Bill Gates, nobody knows all those answers upfront. It's just a willingness to kind of jump into the big, dark ocean, and then learn what's the next baby step I have to do. What's the next stroke I have to take to get me to the other side or my destination?

Shantel: Mm-hmm, absolutely. So how did you guys split roles? And perhaps they've evolved since then, but did you kind of just say okay, well this is my strength, this is what I'm gonna tackle today, and then naturally it evolved into these roles of where you guys are at now?

Molly: Yeah, so the four ... I think it's a particularly unique situation for us, since we have four Co-Founders. Now some people are entrepreneurs, and they start the company alone and they are wearing all hats. And some people, maybe it's just you're with one other person and you divvy up responsibility that way. Being four Co-Founders allowed us to really sort of each kind of focus on a particular area of interest and hone that area of expertise. And in our situation, all four of us were very different people with different skill sets and areas of interest. So for instance, my partner Carolyn, of the four of us, is certainly kind of the most detail oriented and able to sit down with the 300 page Macy's EDI manual and read through every single line of direction, and do it correctly without fail, without exemption, without getting lots of ... and working with Macy's, I think one of the problems that companies run into with major accounts is they get all these charge back because they don't follow the manual accurately. Oh, you didn't send in this distribution center, it didn't have this number on the outside of the box. We have never got any charge backs because Carolyn is so perfectly detailed, and I am so blessed to have her as a partner, because that is not my strong suit. And my strength is sort of, I handle kind of the marketing, brand, voice, look, feel. Everything from working with you and Margot on the social media side, to a PR firm, to photograph, digital add strategy, e-commerce. So I sort of am more the ... and obviously play a little bit more of the kind of partner that speaks to the outer world about Babiators. So that's what I did, even from the beginning and still today. Matthew is certainly the numbers guy. He's always done our finances, our budget, CFO type role. And he's the one that actually kind of built the relationship with our factory. So he manages that relationship again still to this day, along with now a team member of ours. And then my husband Ted, since he was an active duty Marine, he really couldn't work on the day-to-day, since he had a full-time job and couldn't leave it. So he's wonderful at coming in and offering these short burst of creativity at board meetings. And he is certainly, among the four of us, the best charmer, people person, and has been tasked in situations where we need to charm people. And he goes out and makes friends with everybody, and comes back with a deal done and we're all like, great, that was awesome. And then he's an idea generator, too. So whenever you need someone to brainstorm things with, or come up with funny, cute names, or new quirky ideas or product extensions, Ted is your man. So all four of us have a very independent and unique value add to the larger whole. And I think as a unit, the four of us are greater than we each are as individuals, when it comes to Babiators. So it's been a fun partnership.

Shantel: I love that. And what does the team look like now? How big is your team?

Molly: So we've got now about six full-time employees, not counting the four Co-Founders who work on it probably 75% of their time. And then, maybe Ted a little less than that since he still has his full-time job. But, what we also have is a great network of vendors and partners, in addition to our full-time employees. So we have, obviously working with you guys on social media. We've got a great PR team. We've got a couple of freelancers that do digital ad strategy for us on Google Ads, Facebook, Instagram. We have a wide network of sales reps that Wes Busroe, who manages our wholesale accounts, handles. And they go door-to-door to our independent boutiques to tell them if they need to restock, or what's fresh season-to-season. And then a web design development team that's outsourced. So we, what we've learned from seven years of doing this is ... and we at one point were a bigger team, I think we were 12 or 14 at one point. But we really find that we're able to flex, and pivot, and adapt to the needs of a small business and entrepreneurial venture, and all the day-to-day changes as a lean and mean team. And then, roll up where we need help, and work, and expertise with very targeted, talented partners.

Shantel: Mm-hmm, that's great. So knowing, I mean you guys were truly the first in the market that I think was innovative and put the customer first. How has ... how have you been able to stay innovative in now probably a more competitive landscape?


Molly: Yeah, so that's I think a really good question, and something that we ask ourselves every day. It's like, okay how do we keep doing what we're doing. I think, first and foremost, from day one, like you mentioned, and something that's been very important to us, is figuring out ... making sure that we are listening to our customer, that we are putting the customer first, that the customer is really at the center of the business. And you know, one of the five full-time employees we do have, or six, is wholly customer service. Shari, her sole job is to just interact with, respond to, meet the needs of, communicate the needs to the team of our customers and how they are doing and feeling about our shades and other product extensions. And I think that shows just how much we are customer forward and facing, just because it's a very big priority for us. So today, in today's age of just lots of consumption and lots of information, and date, and things coming at you, and always coming at you, brands coming at you. What I think, personally differentiates a great, strong company for me, is one that feels authentic, and walks its talk, and puts its customers first. So that's something that I really try to make sure we do every day as a team and as a company. What are our brand values, how do we make sure we live those brand values so that people ... we are an authentic brand and people see that we're an authentic brand. And then continuing to listen to, and not just listen but heed, and put into practice the feedback we get. So, one reason we extended into our Aces brand, which is the 6 to 11 year old sizing, is we've had customers say, all right I love your shades, my kid in now five or six and can't fit in Babiators anymore, what do I do? So we launched a line for tweens, because we had these customers that were like, we want your product, and we can't wear them. So that's one smaller example.

Shantel: I mean, even going back to the Lost and Found, and from the get go you guys have ... that was a true problem, and you recognized that and ut that as a practice in the company. Do many people claim that Lost and Found Guarantee?

Molly: So, I mean the irony is, not a lot of people do. A lot less people do than you would think. And the ones who do seek out their free pair, and receive their free pair, are actually are strongest brand ambassadors, and the ones that are most vocal about how great our brand is. So we wish a lot more people would actually take us up on that offer and spread the word about Babiators and this crazy brand that sends a free pair of shades if you lose yours. Which again, is an example of for us, we got that idea from our customers. And it's been something that really has been a differentiator for us from the rest of our competitors, and other children's retail brands outside of the sunglasses landscape. It's an element of the brand that press like to talk about, so it's been a wonderful buzz, PR moment, which was unexpected. A lot of ... inc.com did a story on us about how we have greater ... L.L.Bean is known for this great brand customer service, but Babiators takes it one step forward and actually replaces everything for free. And L.L.Bean is sort of one of our gold standard customer service examples. So it's been ... a buy product of that has been a sort of unexpected surge in press and companies talking about Babiators and this unique guarantee, which is fun.

Shantel: That's great. So I know from working together that the team, for the most part, is in separate places. And I'd love to dive a little bit into, has that been challenging, or actually great because when you're actually working on the business you're much more intentional about time and where the time's going? Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

Molly: Yeah, sure. So I work remotely from home. Ted and I are based in Charleston, South Carolina. And our team and my partners, Matthew and Carolyn, are based in Atlanta in the Highlands. Initially, a lot of that started out of just Marine Corps military life necessity. When we launched the company we were in Beaufort and moving to New York, and knew that we couldn't build the team where we lived because we weren't staying rooted in one place. So we built the team where the Guards live, who are rooted in Atlanta, Matthew was born and raised in Atlanta. And then, when we settled in Charleston after our active duty service, Ted's a Reservist Marine out of Beaufort one day a week, but we're still based in Charleston. For the past seven years I've been a remote leader of the team, or one of the leaders. And that has certainly ... it's a double-edged sword. It has certainly been one of the hardest things for me, in terms of personal growth as an employer, and as a coworker. I think that it's kept me very efficient. So when I'm working I'm focused on working, I'm in front of my computer, I'm not getting up, I'm on the phone. I'm also an extrovert, so I get my energy from being around other people. And not being able to build that water cooler talk bond with my employees was sort of, in the beginning, very frustrating for me. I wanted to have that rapport, and I think a couple years into the company I just realized you know what, I need to build that locally where I am in Charleston and just be the best partner, collaborator, coworker, employer I can be from Charleston. And it's ... I think the moment I gave up that pressure on myself, it became a lot more enjoyable, and I think for both sides, for all sides. But there are definitely times where I'm just the voice on the phone in a team meeting. And everyone else is together, and I'm the one on the conference call saying hey, excuse me, what are we talking about? And I definitely try to be mindful of complement sandwiches, because it's not fun to have a voice on the phone that's they're solely critical. So let me talk about all the good things everyone is doing first, before we kind of improve, and work on, and edit what needs to be fixed. Because it's very easy when you just get on the phone, you have an hour, you wanna get right down to it. But that doesn't feel good. So it's being mindful of trying to gage people's feeling without witnessing them in person, which is also kind of another by product. Basically, being a remote leader is not ideal, but you can make it work, is what I've learned. And, I think having the Guards on sight, I mean, the Guards really have taken the lead on sort of being the office team leaders, and they're wonderful with that, and built a great rapport, and everybody kind of loves having them there too. So, I don't know if this would have worked if I had not had them able to kind of pop into the Atlanta office in-person.

Shantel: You also touched on a quality, and it certainly resonated with me because I think I am similar in the sense that it sounds like we move pretty fast, and you wanna get right down to business, and it's hard to kind of fill the space with the fluff when you have a really long to do list and things that you have to execute on.

Molly: Totally.

Shantel: And I heard something recently about just how you kind of have to switch gears, and you realize what gear other people are in, in that moment. Like when they're talking about their weekend, you can't just jump in and say, did this happen?

Molly: Yes, totally.

Shantel: But I'm glad you mentioned that, because it certainly resonated with me.

Molly: Oh, it's so true. And you know, I think for me, as a result, and I think it's different for you since you I know are onsite with your team, but I don't have that ... I have a great rapport with them when I visit, and I try to visit at least once a month for a night or two. So I do get that onsite and I think especially for long meetings, or important meetings, I make effort to get over there. But we've sort of gotten into this groove now with the team that's there, who's been there now a couple years. And we're all ... everyone kind of is really just comfortable where they are and in a good place. And I think it's ... there's no expectation anymore that it's gonna be different, which is great.

Shantel: I'd love to dive a little bit into balance, as a woman entrepreneur with two adorable little kids. Has it been difficult, or what are some practices you've put in place to really be able to be present at home as well?

Molly: I think one of the positives of working remotely has been my ability to be flexible throughout the day. And I love it, and I don't know if I would trade it for the world, because I'm able to ... Ted is, my husband's great at getting the kids off to school in the morning after we get them breakfast and dressed. So he drops them off, and I sit down with a cup of coffee at my breakfast table and really my productive time is morning. So I don't get up from 8:00 til, call it noon, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 depending on the day. And what I do love, and important to me as being a mother, is pickup from school. So I try to make sure I do pickup in person, unless I have a schedule meeting, and spend that time with them in the afternoon. And then by like 5:00, 6:00, I'm kind of itching for a little adult interaction, grownup time. So have an early dinner with a girlfriend, or meet Ted for a movie or a glass of wine, and then try to be back by bedtime. So I don't think ... obviously there's no such thing as balance, or perfect balance. There are days, and weeks, and months, when it's very work heavy. And then there are days, and weeks, and months, when it's very kid heavy. And I adapt and just make sure that I have really quality time with my boys, with Ted, and at work, on work every day, however that shows up. And it's different every day.

Shantel: I love that. And I love also hearing that there's not that perfect balance. And I think part of some of the conversation about it is just the pressure that everyone can put on themselves of, how am I gonna manage it all. And just this underlying pressure that there is such thing. And it's refreshing to hear there's not.

Molly: Yeah, totally. And I actually find I'm somebody ... and I actually might hypothesize most people are this, I'm more productive when I'm busy. And if I don't have anything to do, if I was not a working mother, and instead personally, if I was a stay at home mom, I would feel like I would be less productive, or get less done, or less time, or less quality time with them, because I wouldn't be actively passionate and pursuing something I love, and energized by that. So I personally think I'm a better mom because I am focused, and with them, and excited, and happy, and fulfilled from being able to work the other part of the day.

Shantel: Definitely. I love that, thanks for sharing. Just a couple more questions before we wrap things up, Molly. How do you stay inspired?


Molly: How do I stay inspired. So, I think ... I don't know. There's social media, I think I get a lot of inspiration from what I see lots of brand I admire doing in other industries, not in children's industry even. In fashion, in tech, in adult accessories, Warby Parker comes to mind with ... it was started by a college friend of Ted's and mine. I ... in order ... I think one of the things that we've done, now seven years in, is to have a successful business it's all about perseverance and what that next step is. It's not one decision we've made, it's lots of little decisions. And so, everything from what's the next photo shoot we're doing, what's the next collection of colors or patterns? Or, if we do something outside of sunglasses, what's our next product extension? What are companies we wanna partner with? Every single one of those decisions is an opportunity to sort of look to the outer world for inspiration. And I get really jazzed about that. So staying agile, staying lean, and flexing, and adapting, and pivoting based on what we see works. And entrepreneurship for me has been a lot of, especially in the beginning, let's just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall. Let's try and ... here's 10 grand, let's send it across these 10 things, see which has the greatest ROI, and then double, triple, quadruple down on the products, projects, that have worked. And we do that again and again, and then just continue to do the things, and the roots, and the products that generate that greater ROI for us, for Return on Investment.

Shantel: Great. Well so I am following all of the Babiators social media accounts, and if I didn't say that I don't think I'd be doing a good job at what we do. But how can people get in touch with you Molly, and learn more about Babiators and your journey?

Molly: I mean, there's certainly ... I've got my own personal account if people want to reach out to me, and I'm happy to answer questions, or if they want to send them to you we can do a Q and A. How they can reach out to me. Babiators.com has all of our emails too, you can reach out to me via Babiators. And I love ... one of the things I'm personally most excited about outside Babiators is connecting with, and mentoring, and brainstorming with other female entrepreneurs. So it's genuinely something that I spend a lot of time doing. Charleston has a great community here of active female creatives and entrepreneurs. So that's another source of inspiration for me, speaking of inspiration. There's a lot of smart, badass women like yourself that get me kind of excited to keep doing what I'm doing.

Shantel: Great. Well thank you so much Molly, I really appreciate you being on the show.

Molly: Oh course, it was so much fun.