“I was never a big fan of 'Sex and the City,' but lately I’ve been cheering for Sarah Jessica Parker!” says Marine Corps Capt. Ted Fienning after several photographs surfaced on CelebrityBabyScoop.com and People of Parker’s twin children, each sporting a pair of Babiators sunglasses.
That’s because Babiators is his baby — sunglasses for young children that have taken the world of children’s eyewear by storm, making Newsweek’s “Summer Shopping List,” Us Weekly’s “Mommy Must-Haves” and Star Magazine’s “Hot Sheet.”
The company, launched in May 2011 by Fienning, a fighter pilot; his wife, Molly; and their fellow Harvard classmates, Matthew and Carolyn Guard, Babiators were designed to protect kids’ eyes from UVA and UVB rays while making them look like little fighter pilots.
The inspiration for Babiators came when Fienning was standing on a flight line before a deployment. He was wearing his Marine Corps standard-issue aviator sunglasses. “It’s part of the culture, we all wear them — many of the wives wear them, too,” Fienning says. “Molly and I noticed that almost everyone was wearing aviator sunglasses except for the kids, who were squinting in the sun.”
The Fiennings knew they were on to something. They enlisted Matt and Carolyn Guard to help make Babiators a reality. Matt, a consultant at Bain & Company, and Carolyn, a consultant at McKinsey & Company, helped them put together a business plan, then decided to really join in. Both couples cashed in their personal savings to make a down payment on Babiators’ first production order.
Within a month of taking their product to market, the four founding partners made their initial capital investment back, and in the past year, more than 20,000 units have been sold in over a dozen countries, including Japan, Australia, Mexico and the Cayman Islands. Retailers, including Amazon,Nordstrom and drugstore.com, carry the sunglasses.
At $19.99 a pair, they are a little pricier than other toddler accessories. But comments from customers on the Babiators website show that for some parents, at least, the combination of fun and practicality are worth the price.
“Stood up well to some baby chewing, and we like that we can throw them in the diaper bag and not worry about them breaking,” writes Perry, father of a 15-month-old.
And from 3-year-old Owen’s dad, a fighter pilot: “Look! Just like daddy in Top Gun!”
And the future is looking even brighter for the Babiators team: They are currently in discussion with a major retailer that will distribute the sunglasses across Europe.
In fact, things are going so well that Carolyn Guard left her consulting gig at McKinsey to launch Babiators full-time and husband Matt followed, leaving Bain a few months later.
Fienning attributes much of the success of Babiators to his military training. “Making decisions with insufficient information, adapting to changing circumstances and making honest assessments on tactics and strategies are all things that you learn in the military,” he said. “There is no business school that can emulate the weight of responsibility you gain as a junior officer. It’s this experience that directly translates to starting and successfully growing a small business.”
But military training accounts for just part of the company’s success. While Fienning has been serving as a staff officer for Marine Corps Recruiting Command this past year, his wife has been doing the heavy lifting. The former project director at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center of Internet & Society, she left to join her husband when he attended flight school in Mississippi. Being able to adapt is part of being a military spouse. For her, it meant that she had “the opportunity for me to branch off and do something entrepreneurial,” she said.
Fienning is one of the lucky members of the military who has a job waiting for him when he gets out. He’ll be exchanging his flight suit for a business suit when he completes his service commitment next year, although there’s one piece of his uniform that he will keep: his military-issued aviator sunglasses.