Admit it: Is there anything cuter than a baby wearing sunglasses? That's the concept behind Babiators, a company started by a group of Harvard alums that wants babies to channel their inner "Top Gun."
Launched in 2010 by Ted and Molly Fienning and Matthew and Carolyn Guard, the quirky company makes 100 percent UVA and UVB blocking, BPA-free aviator sunglasses for little ones, which have built a celebrity fan base and an awesome gallery of cute kid customers. But it's not all about adorable -- they also donate a portion of their proceeds to the Children's Eye Foundation, give away college scholarships and are on track to bring in more than $1 million in sales of their stylish and functional designs.
Baby sunglasses are pretty common. Why did you choose to focus on an aviator style?
Molly Fienning: My husband, Ted, is an active duty Marine fighter pilot. In 2010, we were living in South Carolina when he returned from deployment. The tradition is that all the families go to the flight line to watch all the pilots return. It was a beautiful day and I noticed that all of the kids were squinting and looking away while their parents all wore sunglasses. The military issues aviators for this purpose, so we thought why not create aviator-themed sunglasses for kids who want to be just like their moms and dads. Ted thought of the name Babiators, and shortly after we had dinner with our close friends Carolyn and Matthew, and they said 'Let's do it!'
All four of you are Harvard alumni and were working in the corporate world prior to Babiators. Did you always have the entrepreneurial bug?
Carolyn Guard: Prior to starting Babiators, I was a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where I was trained in dealing with multiple industries and functions and being versatile, which is what being an entrepreneur is all about. My husband Matt was previously a strategy and finance manager for Bain & Company. He would constantly be asking questions and digging deeper, learning how to react to different situations. As it was, I was looking to move on from McKinsey around the time that Molly and Ted came to us with the Babiators idea, and now my husband Matt has joined us full-time as well.
Fienning: My husband Ted previously worked for a consulting company, but after September 11, he decided to leave and pursue service in the Marine Corps. I had been working in commercial real estate, but needed a job with flexibility due to all of the moving around with the military. Both Ted and I come from entrepreneurial families, both in the woodworking business. Ted's grandfather started a paper plant and my great grandfather started a carpentry business and eventually expanded into healthcare. My father started his own boutique investment bank. Doing something entrepreneurial always felt right for both of us.
Was it a difficult transition to go from working in corporate America to running a startup?
Guard: It's certainly very different from a consulting firm where you are always working with a team of people. When I left McKinsey to start Babiators, I was basically everyone. The role you have to play is a lot broader than in a corporate environment. The support that you get at a corporate level in terms of benefits, HR and administration -- you're all of those people now. Learning to do everything on a shoestring is difficult knowing that anything you spend has to contribute to the bottom line. Matt and I also now work from home together and that's a whole other thing to get used to.
Fienning: We launched the company in a recession, so we were really mindful about starting the company in a way that really extends the initial investment. We were able to recoup our equity in 30 days of sales, which was amazing. I work from home as well and unlike a corporate environment, it requires a lot of initiative. You need to make your own milestones and timeline. It also requires more balance. You really have to make a time to say OK, this is my time to close the computer and give myself a break. I also recently became a mother and that role has inspired me as well, making this business into a passion of mine.
Are you planning on expanding the brand?
Fienning: This feels like the summer of the Babiators, so all four of us are just maximizing that while we can and then we'll see what happens in the fall and winter and come together and discuss it. We're definitely considering adding to the brand, with both sunglasses and across children's products, sticking to our commitment of durability and safety.
Names: Ted and Molly Fienning, Matthew and Carolyn Guard
Ages: 33, 32, 30 and 32 respectively
2012 Projected Gross Sales: $1 million