Interview with Ted Fienning | Co-Founder of Babiators | High Speed Low Drag Podcast

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High Speed Nation, John Lee Dumas here and I am fired up to bring you our featured guest today, Ted Fienning. Ted, are you prepared to ignite?

Ted:    You bet I am.

John:    All right. Former Marine Corps F18 fighter pilot who started a company with his wife and their two friends, also married. Babiators started as an idea on a piece of paper three years ago and now sells in over 2,500 doors in 45 countries.

Ted, I’ve given our listeners a little overview so take a minute and tell us about you personally. We want to get to know you and then let’s dive on in.

Ted:    Sure. Well, thanks for having me on, John, I really appreciate it.

I am first and foremost a husband to Molly and a father to our little three-year old son, Sawyer. We live in Charleston, South Carolina and got off active duty about 12 months ago in the fall of 2013. We actually started the business concurrently with military service in 2010 so we’ve been rolling about four years now with Babiators. And just excited to share our story in case it provides the encouragement to vets who don’t think that a sort of standard corporate track is their career path.

Click here to listen to Ted Fienning | Co-Founder of Babiators | High Speed Low Drag Podcast on Stitcher.
Click here to listen to Ted Fienning | Co-Founder of Babiators | High Speed Low Drag Podcast on iTunes.

John:    Well, I’m excited to hear your journey and your story specifically, Ted, because it’s a really interesting one and we had a little pre-interview chat about the difference between 2,500 doors and 2,500 stores which I think is a pretty cool differentiator.

So let’s kind of focus on your journey in just a minute but before we do all that we always start with a success quote. So take it away.

Ted:    Well, I’m going to borrow one from one of my favorite books. It’s a bit of a pop philosophy on money book, Rich Dad Poor Dad. And it says,

It’s not we can’t afford it; it’s how can we afford it.

And that change in mentality I think is one of the biggest hurdles that military people in particular have to face. We’re trained to be aggressive, offensive, go out and shoot, maneuver and keep moving forward, make decisions in imperfect information environments. But when it comes to our money we store it away in thrift savings and at Edward Jones and we kind of guard it very carefully and we’re not as aggressive in that arena. And so it surprises me that we don’t sort of apply the very high quality training we’ve gotten in life to that part of our lives.

John:    I love that. Armor officers always shoot, move, and communicate or death before dismount and I would kind of analogize that last part, death before dismount, to maybe death before I take a dollar out of my bank accounts like you said, we really guard that. And we just need to realize that hey, sometimes you need to leverage what you have and you really need to invest in yourself specifically when you’re an energized trained military person, there’s just a lot of experience and a lot of good things to add to this world.

Ted, what we really do hear on High Speed Low Drag is focus on your journey. I’d love to hear a quick story of what you would consider to be your most pivotal moment in the military.

79Ted:    Well, that’s a good question. First of all, nice to hear you’re an Armor officer. My father was an Armor officer as well for two years in the ’60s so long before I came along.

But in any case, I would have to say my biggest military experience many have come before I even joined the military. I was a September ’11th Marine. I graduated college in the spring of 2001 and then took a job in finance, basically in management consulting. And when September ’11th came along, I thought, “Man, I’m sitting in this desk, what am I doing here? There’s a much bigger world to be seen and to engage with and our country is under attack.” So I go out to folks, sounds like you are at that timeframe too, decided to join the military.

And so that mindset that I wanted to go join the Marines and fight was probably a huge transition in my life. Now of course the Marines they are very good at shaping the civilian that wants to go fight to someone who is actually capable of doing something.

To give you one example, I really appreciated one school that the Marine Corps had, it’s called the Basics School. It’s a six months school after you become a commissioned officer where they train you on a little bit about everything the Marines do. So whether you’re going to be an Armor officer, an Infantry officer, admin, legal, pilot — whatever you’re going to go do, you get to know a little bit about all the functions of the Marine Corps as an entire unit as opposed to just learning your particular MOS.

And how that affects you throughout your career is as you become a pilot and say you’re doing forward air control practice work. You might know the guy who’s calling in the air strikes and you can hear his voice on the radio and say, “Man, that’s the guy from my platoon back in training.” So you know your folks to your left and your right and it gives you a real sense of camaraderie and a real sense of purpose when you’re supporting them in your mission.

John:    I definitely Ted have to tip my hat to you for that. I come from almost the exact same timeframe as you. I actually graduated college on an ROTC scholarship in 2002 so just a year after you. But unlike you who saw what happened and raised your hands, I was already locked in so I can’t claim any kind of patriotic calling. I was locked in from 1998 and beyond when I was enrolled as a freshman at Providence College in ROTC.

One thing that was really kind of an interesting story with my perspective though is we were the first class to be commissioned post-9/11. So when 9/11 happens I was a senior in college and we knew from that point forward like, “Wow, we’re going to be the first class commissioned post-9/11. This is going to be serious stuff.” And sure enough, just a couple years later, I was spending a 13-month tour of duty in Iraq myself with Big Red One actually deployed under First MarDiv which is really interesting. So that was cool and very fortunate for us, to say the least.

But what’s really interesting about that time as kind of a side note is it was a crazy time. People like Ted who’s just like “I’m seeing what’s happening. I want to step up and do my duty” and people like my class who we worked hard for four years to get a specific rank in our ROTC structure and when 9/11 happens and that plane actually hit the Pentagon. And many people don’t even know this, Ted, but the place that that plane hit was the ROTC departments within the Pentagon obliterating all the records there. So no matter where you ranked in your class and what branch you were going to be — I was heading to MI — they said, “You know what, we have no records. Everything’s been destroyed, we don’t have time to mess around. There are other important things.” Random assignments in 2001 for all ROTC cadets and Armor was what I got.

Ted:    Unbelievable. That is unreal.

John:    Ah, crazy stories but wow.

Ted, let’s kind of talk now about your transition out of the military because actually what the focus here is to have our listeners who are currently in the military or who are currently transitioning out or maybe who are out right now and are struggling a little bit. What was your transition like and what were some obstacles that you faced and some lessons you might have learned?

13271613623_02136ae0c6_zTed:    Well, it’s great. So I had a ten-year commitment because I took a role as a fighter pilot so they give you a lot of training and it takes a lot of time out of the other backend. I had an extremely challenging departure from the military. And it’s funny.

It’s funny for me to think about it because I already had a successful business going. Essentially, my wife and my business partners were running it full time while I was an active duty Marine Corps officer. All I had to do was transition out of the military. In some ways, it sounds golden but psychologically, leaving all that responsibility, leaving that rank at the door, leaving the responsibility, leaving time spent with Marines at the door was very, very difficult for me mentally and adjusting to civilian life. It didn’t have to do with some of the typical stories of “I took a civilian job and no one acts like they do when they were in the military.” It wasn’t anything like that. It was just abdicating all of that camaraderie and responsibility at the same time. It’s quite a break.

And so I would just encourage those families of military members and the members themselves to be patient because it’s almost like a mourning process. It takes six months to a year to settle down and feel like life goes on after a time in uniform. And as you know, at least when I went through it, and hopefully I’m preparing people for this sort of transition.

John:    Right. So on that note, is there like one thing that you did or looking back, one thing you wished you did that could really help people that are maybe in the process of about to be transitioning or currently transitioning out?

Ted:    Sure. Well, everyone’s got a different path and different story from both the military and post-military life. For me personally, I joined the reserves as a great kind of halfway house. I really enjoyed being in the reserves. In fact, they’re training me to fly again which is pretty fantastic. But I would say having a plan before you get to that six months out mark, you don’t want to wait till your eligible to go to taps to start thinking about what you’re going to do afterwards.

This is sort of cliché but there is a huge network of people in whatever geography you and your family want to live in that are going to be prior-Army, prior-Navy, prior-Coasties, whatever they are, and you should start tapping into that and sort of talking to folks what were their experiences.

One helpful technique that I had tried to implement myself is to think about where I want to be in five years and think about people who are there — people who actually have a job that I think I would like who are already a few years ahead of me and have had some success. I would track them down and get them on the phone and say what is it like having this job, what are your responsibilities, what are your aggravations and just getting educated. Getting a real sense of what your life could be like if you were successful in a particular career track helps you understand where to aim.

John:    Ted, I love that philosophy. Having a mentor is so incredibly powerful, having somebody that is at where you eventually want to be and reaching out and just contacting that person. A lot of people are so scared to reach out and contact that specific person. And the reality is they might say like “No, I don’t have the ability, the bandwidth, the time to mentor you” but I’m telling you especially when it comes from the military background, they will have 2, 3, 4 great recommendations and introductions for you where that might be a possibility. Then it kind of comes to that mastermind as well, like who are you surrounding yourself with.

As Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” And if you want to get to a certain place, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right people who are moving in that same direction as well.

So Ted, let’s kind of break it down now and talk about your first civilian gig. So we’re talking like not reserves, nothing along those lines. What was the first thing you did post-military in the civilian world?

Ted:    So I had created Babiators which is a company that sells flexible indestructible children’s sunglasses. They are made out of a medical grade rubber, kids can chew on them, they’re very safe and we replace them if moms or kids break or lose them.


So we’d come up with this sort of innovative idea so I dropped right into the company. I had already served a big part in that company by creating some of the branding and creating the product set with my partners while I was still active duty. So I just started taking on more responsibility with brand strategy and what direction the company was going.

Professionally, I had a paycheck from day 1 when I left the Marines and I had built a business for myself and my wife. We knew we didn’t want to have another boss when we got out of the Marine Corps if we could help it. We could always go back and get a job if we needed to. But we were young — I guess we still are young — but we felt like this was the time to swing for the fences one good time and fortunately that risk is panning out.

John:    Nice. And let’s not go calling ourselves an old man just yet. I’m only one year younger than you here.

So Ted, let’s talk a little bit about this. I want to kind of talk about an aha moment you’ve had. Maybe it was the idea of Babiators itself, maybe it was while you were actually in production of Babiators, maybe it was some customer feedback you had. Talk about this light bulb that went off at some point during your entrepreneurial journey with Babiators that just really has inspired you.

Ted:    I’ll give you two. The first is my wife was waiting with a lot of other families on the flight line for the jets to come back from. We’ve been away for about a month and we came back from the West Coast. Jets coming in, all the families are looking up into the sun and my wife notices that all the wives are wearing the cool guy aviator sunglasses and the kids are all squinting in the sun. And so we land and the pilots are wearing them too. They issue really horrible ones but everyone goes out and buys nice sunglasses.

And so we came out of flight and my wife, she tells me this and I said, “Oh, wow, we could call them babiators, little baby aviators.” And she says, “That’s it, that’s it. We’re going to build a company.” That’s aha moment #1.

Aha moment #2 was we’ve been selling for about a year, maybe eight months. And we had gotten some advice from a business school of my partners at Emory Business School. He said your customers are giving you some feedback here. You need to offer them something that it sounds almost absurdly good and it will create a buzz around your product and it will benefit you in terms of scaling up. And that was the lost and found guarantee. So we started offering parents, if their children or if they broke or lost their products, we would guarantee them against loss or damage.

So even if you lose your sunglasses, you drop them in the pond or you throw them over the stroller at the fair, you can call us up and we’ll give you a free pair and that has been huge. It’s just to serve our customers in a way that most folks do not. I don’t know of any company that does that.

John:    I love that. It kind of reminds me of the Tony Hsieh and Zappos philosophy where no matter what, it’s always about the customer first. You take care of the customer… I mean, just that social credibility, just that social buzz, just the love that they’re going to be having when they talk about your product, your business, your service far outweighs whatever cost is going to take the replace the few sunglasses that you’re going to have to do. So awesome, awesome stuff.

Let’s bring things to current times and talk about today here in the late 2014. What is the one thing that has you most fired up about your business right now?

Ted:    I got to tell you. In our wildest dreams, we couldn’t have imagined the growth and expansion of this company. We’ve been picked up by tons of celebrities, the revenue year over year has incredible growth. And the thing that’s really exciting is we’ve had customers say. “Hey, you make sunglasses for ages 0 to 3 and 3 to 7, now my kid’s 8, 9 and they still want to wear your products but they don’t want to be called babies.”

And now we’ve managed the logistics and manufacturing processes, we’ve got a lot of stores that love working with us, we’re trying to make it a very smooth process. We were struggling to come up with a name for an older age of sunglasses that wouldn’t be called babies but still fit within the Babiators brand, and we’ve been really wringing our minds over this. And I went home and talked to my mom and dad about it. My mom says, “Why don’t you call them aces?” And sure enough, we are launching Aces next spring and they’ll be for ages 7 to 11 and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

John:    That is exciting stuff, congratulations! It’s really cool to see the growth of your business and what’s kind of cool is that it’s going along with the growth of your customer base as well which is a really neat experience.

And Ted, if you had to kind of maybe share the one thing where you feel like your military experience helps you in your current role, what would that be?

Ted:    So the Marines train you to think about your own key strengths and your opponent’s critical vulnerabilities. And so it has really helped me think about our business in terms of what are we really good at and how can we focus on those things.

Typically, when the business starts spitting its wheels it’s because we lost sight of the key strengths of our business. We start doing something that doesn’t make as much sense or doesn’t have quite as much traction based on our customer set. It just helps you constantly scout the horizon and think about… to borrow a phrase, asymmetric warfare. You don’t necessarily go, “Hey, diddle diddle, right up the middle, trying to do like everyone else does, peddling your products. We do trade shows and we do talk to buyers but we definitely try and make it as high level connection with the company as possible.

We’d much rather have Terry Lundgren who is the CEO of Macy’s call down to his buyers department and say “Hey, you guys should stock Babiators.” That process goes a lot faster than us going to Macy’s 15 times asking them to sell our product.

John:    So I’m going to kind of challenge you here a little bit and ask you how do you feel like your military experience may have hurt you in some ways with your current role?

Ted:    That’s a very good question. The first thing that comes to mind is you’re almost a little bit spoiled in the military because you’re told, “Here are your lanes, here’s what you do” and you know what excellence and success looks like. So it doesn’t really prepare you for thinking outside of the box as much as it gets credit for I think.

It’s hard for me to say that it really hurt me in any way. And I don’t mean to dodge the question here but I really don’t have anything disparaging to say about the training or experience I got in the Marines in terms of how it applies to business.

John:    So Ted, we are about to answer the lightning rounds. This is where you’re going to share some really pretty cool resources and just some mind-blowing answers. Are you prepared?

Ted:    I am. I’m ready.

John:    What is the most difficult adjustment that you’ve had to make to the civilian world?

Ted:    It felt like getting off of a quickly moving sidewalk. So just the sheer change in momentum from being around Marines every day and high energy to just me in a business, kind of slogging out day by day.

John:    What is one piece of advice that you would give to those that are transitioning out right now?

Rich Dad Poor Dad BookTed:    I would read three books. Rich Dad Poor Dad, The 4-Hour Workweek, and I have a favorite book called Commercial Real Estate Investing by Dolf de Roos. I’d recommend those three books to anyone that is thinking about getting an MBA. It’s much cheaper and faster.

John:    Share one of your personal habits, Ted, that you believe contributes to your success.

Ted:    I have heard it said and I try to strive to do three things that advance my business every day. So that’s my advice I can pass along.

John:    What is one of the biggest generalizations of being a vet if any that you’ve had to overcome in the civilian world?

Ted:    Gosh, that’s a good question. The biggest generalization that I have had to face is we’re all the same, we all do the same, we all have the same mentality when actually there’s a lot of personality to be found within each branch of the military and within each individual in the military. So you can’t let people box you in. Just let them know who you are.

John:    Love it. So, Ted, imagine if you woke up tomorrow morning and it was the day after you had transitioned to the civilian world. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have, what would you physically and literally do in the next seven days?

Ted:    The first thing I would do is probably get down to my knees and thank God for all that experience upfront because it’s hard-earned.

But I’m not sure I’d do anything different. Just trucking along, trying to be a good father and husband. I would probably start faster encouraging other vets because I think that there’s a huge economic power house right under the surface. All these guys, they know how to struggle through a bunch of headaches. They know how to make decisions in imperfect information environments, they’re highly motivated, they’re young Americans who want to be part of the new economy. And we’re getting better but the private sector is not doing quite as good a job of bridging the gap and firing up that engine, which I guess part of your process here, as we could.

And I think some of the things you’ve touched on here, connecting vets with mentors, having them sort out, “I think I want to be a doctor but I’m not sure.” Well, let’s talk to some doctors, get them connected, get them connected with folks who’ve been there done that and that really helps bridge the gap between the experience you’ve had in the military and what they could be doing to benefit society in the future.

John:    So, Ted, lets end today literally on fire with you sharing just one parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, then we’ll say goodbye.

Ted:    Sure, yeah. I’m happy to talk really to any vet so I’ll just give you my personal email address. It’s Feel free to reach out to me directly. I know there’s a danger of like putting your phone number on the internet but there you go. I’m always happy to help vets out.

The one piece of advice I’d say is the Marine Corps motto is “Semper Fi” and I think that good business starts with doing the right thing. It starts with being a good father, husband, mother, daughter, being a good family member. If you can get your personal life squared away first, then your cup will start to run over. You’ll have extra energy, you’ll have extra capabilities to succeed in business and get your head out of the ground and start looking around what’s available for you in the civilian world.

John:    I love that, “My cup brimmeth over.”

And High Speed Nation, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You’ve been hanging out with Ted and myself today so keep up the heat. And, Ted, thank you for being so incredibly generous with your time. High Speed Nation salutes you and we’ll catch you on the flipside.

Ted:    Thanks very much, John.

Click here to listen to Ted Fienning | Co-Founder of Babiators | High Speed Low Drag Podcast on Stitcher.
Click here to listen to Ted Fienning | Co-Founder of Babiators | High Speed Low Drag Podcast on iTunes.

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