How to Work Remotely Without Missing a Beat
Molly Fienning, co-founder and co-CEO of Babiators, shares what she’s learned.
The idea for Babiators came to Molly Fienning when she was waiting for her husband, a Marine Corps jet pilot, to fly back from a deployment. “After missing your loved ones for however many months they’ve been gone, you line up where the jets park and watch them fly in formation to land in front of you,” she says. “It's an awesome time.” On this particularly sunny day, all the adults had sunglasses on, but the kids, who were trying to see their moms or dads in the planes, couldn’t because it was so bright. The Marine Corps issues aviators for the pilots to protect their eyes from the sun when they fly. Molly’s husband, Ted, said, "We should make sunglasses for kids and call them Babiators." They linked up with two friends from Harvard, Carolyn and Matthew Guard—another entrepreneurial, married couple—and the four of them started the company. Not only are the sunglasses (and the name) ridiculously cute, but there’s also a very real purpose behind them. “Children's retina don't fully form until they’re 18, so UV does even more damage to kids' eyes than to adults' eyes.” Molly explains, “An average child gets about three times as much sun exposure as an adult.”
Since launching five years ago, Babiators has sold a million pairs of sunglasses, which are available in 3,000 stores including Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Bloomingdale’s and Buy Buy Baby. In addition to the original collection, made for zero-to-seven-year-olds, Molly and her partners launched Aces, aimed at the tween set. This year, they’re on target to earn five and a half million dollars. But the thing she’s most proud of? “Our warranty program is what sets us apart,” she says of their unparalleled policy: if your child breaks or loses their sunglasses (which—let’s be honest—is inevitable), Babiators will replace them for free. It’s a win-win for the customers and the business. “We find that the customers who get free replacements are often the brand’s most vocal fans,” she says.
With their co-founders, Molly and Ted have built Babiators’ success from afar. “When we left the Marine Corps two years ago, we settled in Charleston,” Molly recalls. “We had always wanted to live here. This is the life that we wanted to create for ourselves.” At the same time, Carolyn and Matthew had put down roots in Atlanta. As a military family, relocations are part of the deal so, with that in mind, they opened the Babiators office in Atlanta. “While, ideally, I would be at the office every day, this is our reality and I love it,” says Molly. Working remotely affords her the flexibility to be fully present in her kids’ lives while committing to her entrepreneurial efforts. “Balance is unattainable; sometimes my life is more ‘work,’ and sometimes it’s more ‘mother,’ and I’m grateful for that. I love that I have the ability to craft the life that I’d like to lead.” With 17 employees on the ground in Atlanta (and counting!), Molly shares her advice on leading effectively from 300 miles away.
1. Establish leaders on the ground
When we started the company, my husband and I were based in Beaufort, South Carolina. We were about to relocate with the military—and probably not for the last time. Our partners were rooted in Atlanta, and we knew they weren't moving anywhere. We built the team there knowing that, if we moved again, we wouldn't be leaving them without in-person leadership. Until a year and a half ago, Matthew and Carolyn handled the day-to-day management of the team, before we promoted our head of sales, Shelby Senzer, to serve as the president of the team.
2. Schedule regular check-ins
I have designated check-ins with the heads of the departments I'm most involved in. Every week, I get up to speed with our head of marketing; I have weekly calls with our director of e-commerce to get updates on how babiators.com is doing or what the strategic direction is for the next couple weeks. They use that weekly hour with me to ask specific questions. Having those scheduled every week—and being diligent about making sure they happen—is important.
3. Establish daily hours of availability
As productive and efficient as my regular team check-ins are, last-minute issues, of course, come up. I’m available for a designated time block every workday for that very reason. My team knows that I'm by my phone, sitting at the computer between 8:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every day. After that, I’m reachable by text or email. They never have to wonder when I’ll get back to them. They can move forward with their work, and I try not to be a bottleneck, which is one of the most difficult challenges of working remotely. If you're sitting in a room with somebody, you can ask quick questions across the table, like “What do you think of this picture?” or “What words should we use to describe this?” If they send something to me and it's sitting out there in the ether, they can't finish their work until I get back to them. It’s key to have certain times during which you can be counted on to respond promptly.
4. Forgo the nine-to-five
I’m a morning worker; it’s my most productive time. My husband takes our oldest son, Sawyer, who’s four-and-a-half, to preschool at 8:00. From then until 2:30, when I pick him up, is my time to sit at the computer with a cup of coffee and get things done. After I pick Sawyer up from school, it’s less about churning out lots of work and more about conference calls, coffee dates and meetings with peers. At that point, my brain is more interested in the social aspects of my job.
5. Clarify where you want to offer input
To prevent yourself from becoming a bottleneck, empower your team to move forward without your approval whenever possible. Clarify where you want to offer input and where your employee can forge ahead independently. We've created a decision matrix, which outlines the things I need to sign off on or offer input on, as well as the roles or outputs that our heads of digital and marketing can move forward on without me.
6. Meet your team in person regularly
I travel to the office as much as possible for in-person interactions and to build rapport, because that's what a team is about. Visiting the office to build social bonds with the team makes us stronger and helps us get to know each other so that I'm not just a voice on the phone. The business and career aspects of your life are just a part of your life as a whole, and you want it to be enjoyable and social and interactive. I try to make it to Atlanta anywhere between two and five days a month. (I had a baby about six months ago, so at this point it's only four days a month.) When I'm there, it's intensive—we have lots of productive meetings, and I take some of the team members out for one-on-one coffees or drinks to build relationships. I get energy from those short bursts of in-office time; we get so much done, we make a personal connection, it spurs everything forward and it reinvigorates the work I do online or over the phone.
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