Strange Success

Aviator sunglasses for kids are bringing in millions for this military family


The case of 37-year-old Molly Fienning is an odd one.

She graduated from Harvard with a degree in computer science and went to work for IBM. She mapped out a life for herself climbing the corporate ladder in tech.

Then she fell in love.

Following her heart, Fienning ended up becoming the wife of a Marine fighter pilot living on a military base in Mississippi.

"A lot of my girlfriends...they were like, 'You're leaving to move to Mississippi? Are you crazy?'" Fienning says.

So...was it?

Well, instead of becoming a top tech executive at a Fortune 100 company, she now makes and sells aviator sunglasses for babies.

The idea for Babiators was born on a flight line in 2010 when Fienning's husband returned from deployment in Asia.

She's sold 2 million pairs of her sunglasses so far.

Two. Million. Sunglasses.

Fienning and her husband, Ted, along with another couple, created Babiators, which are $20-$25 aviator sunglasses for children as young as newborns. The sunglasses are made of rubber so they never break, and the company has a one-year replacement program if a pair gets lost or broken. Revenues in 2017 were nearly $5 million.

Five. Million. Dollars.

"I would need to create my own business"

Fienning says this wasn't supposed to happen. She was moving to Washington, D.C., for a tech job when she reconnected with Ted Fienning, a fellow Harvard grad who had studied Portuguese but ended up joining the Marine Corps after 9/11 and becoming an F-18 pilot.

"He proposed within four or five months, and all of a sudden I'm a military wife in Mississippi without any tech opportunities," she says. "I knew that at that point, if I was going to work with that military kind of family life, I would be an entrepreneur, and I would need to create my own business."

The new Mrs. Fienning started investing in commercial real estate, managing five buildings at one point, but she wasn't thrilled. "I was missing a kind of fun, creative component."

"It's literally something out of 'Top Gun'"

The idea for Babiators was born on a flight line in 2010 when Fienning's husband returned from deployment in Asia.

"The tradition is when the pilots deploy and return home to the families, all the families get to wait on the flight line and run up to the jets and give their moms and dads big hugs," Fienning said. "It's literally something out of 'Top Gun,'" she says, referring to the 1986 Tom Cruise movie.

The day was especially sunny. While all the adults who were waiting wore sunglasses, "The kids couldn't see the planes because it was so bright. They were squinting."

That made an impression on her.

"I actually mentioned to Ted on the way home that it was funny that we all had our aviators on, and the kids didn't have any, and he said, 'We should totally make them and call them "Babiators" for baby aviators!'"

The name made Molly Fienning laugh, and then she got serious about it. She and her husband reached out to another couple they knew from school — Caroline and Matthew Guard — who were working as consultants in Atlanta for management consulting firms Bain & Company and McKinsey & Company. Together they surveyed 500 parents to learn about the current baby sunglasses market, then they scraped together $25,000 to launch Babiators in 2011.

Molly and Ted Fienning with co-founders Caroline and Matthew Guard

Go lean, except on PR

"We really bootstrapped the company and focused on, 'How can we start as lean as possible?'" Fienning says they hired a coder in South America to build their website for $2,500. They sketched out on a cocktail napkin (no kidding) what they thought Babiators should look like, and sent images of the napkin to prototype manufacturers in Taiwan.

Molly Fienning has sold 2 million pairs of Babiators sunglasses so far.

One thing they didn't skimp on was publicity.

"One of our college friends is co-founder of Warby Parker, David Gilboa," says Fienning. "He said, 'Don't spend any money on paid advertisements or paid marketing, but from Day 1, make sure you have a strong PR [firm].'"

They took his advice, and it soon paid off. Their sunglasses started getting attention. When Newsweek called Babiators "an essential product for summer," a few boutiques called Fienning to ask if they could carry the product in stores. Fienning and Caroline Guard then decided to move beyond ecommerce, and they began cold-calling more stores. "Within nine months we were in 75 stores," says Fienning. Nordstrom was their first major account.

At the same time, celebrities from Kourtney Kardashian to Sarah Jessica Parker began showing up in magazines with their children wearing Babiators. "These people could buy $200 baby sunglasses, which I assume exist," says Fienning (she's right, they do).

The "Ellen effect"

Molly Fienning says she knew they had "made it" about five months after launching the business. She was in the hospital recovering from giving birth to her eldest son. She couldn't sleep that night, so she picked up a magazine at her bedside while her husband, Ted, slept on the floor.

"I opened up to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon's nursery spread, a featured story in Us Weekly, and there's one of their twins looking back at me in Babiators," Fienning recalls excitedly. "I literally just started screaming at 2 in the morning in the hospital, and my husband is on an air mattress on the floor next to me asking, 'What's wrong? What's wrong?' I go like, 'We're in Us Weekly! We're in Us Weekly!'"

Not long after that, Cannon was on NBC's "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and the two talked about Babiators. "Cut to commercial, and instantly our site crashed," laughs Fienning. One mention from Ellen and sales soared, until Babiator's servers couldn't handle it, devastating the partners. "It wasn't even about money lost, it was the first impression and wanting to really be professional and look good, and show that we were a contender." The team has since learned to overbook server space when they think traffic may spike.

Some children try on Babiators

They've also benefited from increased awareness about protecting children's eyes from the sun as much as we protect their skin, and Babiator revenues have grown from $70,000 in 2011 to $4.7 million in 2017. Fienning expects sales to top $5 million this year.

The company now has seven full-time employees based in Atlanta, and the product line has been expanded to make sunglasses for older children. Babiators are sold online (including on Amazon) and in more than 3,000 stores in 43 countries. Fienning says the original four partners still own 100 percent of the company. They use a rolling line of credit to get through the ups and downs of seasonal inventory, but they've never taken outside money.

One-year replacement program

One of the biggest business risks they took is their promise to replace any pair of Babiators for free within one year if the sunglasses are lost or broken. "It's definitely something that people were shocked to hear about," Fienning says. The number of people who actually take the company up on the offer is "a lot lower than you think, but for us, what we actually realized is those people that do redeem their free pair are often our strongest brand ambassadors."

Her advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is to ask your network of friends and family for advice and contacts. "It's been incredibly helpful for us."

But don't be surprised if you're occasionally met with a look of disbelief.

"A lot of our friends when we were launching, they were, like, 'Wait, you're making sunglasses for babies? That sounds a little odd,'" Fienning recalls with a smile. "Then a year or two later, they were, like, 'Oh, I always knew that would be such a great success. I always had that idea, baby sunglasses, of course!'"

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