Hi! Tell me about you and your business.
My name is Matt Griffin, and I'm the CEO of Combat Flip Flops--a team of people that believe we can bring sustainable, peaceful solution to armed conflict with education and economics.
Combat Flip Flops is an e-commerce company employing artisans and entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, Colombia, Laos, and the United States.
With a team of five, Combat Flip Flops distributes products direct-to-consumer through our website, Amazon, and a handful of boutique dealers. Collectively, we refer to our customers, dealers, and supporters as “The Unarmed Forces.” In 2017, The Unarmed Forces (UAF) funded 217 years of school for Afghan girls and cleared 2814 square meters of landmines in Laos.
As the CEO, I manage the corporate team to help drive messaging, social media, and sales. Alongside me is Andy Sewrey, President, and Donald Lee, CMO.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’m an army brat and a single child of divorced parents. I bounced around a lot as a child, but I claim Iowa as home. When I was 18 years old, I left Iowa for West Point and started my career in the Army. As a member of the class of 2001, life quickly transformed after September 11th, 2001.
The attacks drove me to become a part of the Special Operations community with the 75th Ranger Regiment. In the Regiment, I learned what is possible with a team guided by values and driven by purpose. After four deployments to Iraq (1) and Afghanistan (3), I saw the futility of Armed conflict to defeat radicalism and left the military--with a desire to take the teamwork and leadership lessons learned in the Army to help those in need.
Before Combat Flip Flops, I held a variety of jobs. I built homes for a national homebuilder. After the market crash in 2008, I worked for Remote Medical International, coordinating clinics and medical care in “difficult” regions of the world.
From there, I began designing medical and rescue systems for Special Operations Command. When those contracts ended, I was the Vice President of Operations for 10-20 services, an equipment cleaning and restoration company focused on saving money and resources for the military by cleaning and restoring personal protective equipment.
Until you know how to do something yourself, don’t contract it out. Do a task until you know the full details involved.
Throughout these jobs, I was focused on learning the different aspects of business with the hopes of eventually beginning my own business.
On a trip to Kabul, I was invited to visit a Combat Boot Factory supporting the Afghan National Army. What I witnessed there changed my view on our impact for that nation.
A single factory employed 300 people and supported nearly 2000. That factory built a community--the first positive outcome I witnessed from the war after eight years of fighting. When I asked the factory manager what would happen to the factory after the war ended, he quickly responded, “We’ll shut the factory down. Nobody wants to buy anything made in Afghanistan.” My elation turned to fury. How could we abandon this nation in the same way we did in the 1980s?
In that moment of extreme anger, I looked to the table on my left. There was a combat boot sole with a flip flop thong punched through it. It was ugly, cool, and something Americans would buy. Combat Flip Flops was born.
The idea was to convert a Combat Boot Factory in Afghanistan to provide sustainable commercial production to keep the workers employed after the boot contracts ended. After launching our company in January, the factories lost their boot contracts in February and shut the doors after making one run of footwear. We quickly learned the logistics behind building footwear in Afghanistan created a product priced at a level the market would not support.
We moved footwear production to another country fighting a narco-financed insurgency--Colombia. Since footwear didn’t work in Afghanistan, we moved to a product line with more simple logistics--textiles.
The product line continued to grow in accordance with our mission statement: Create forward-thinking opportunities for entrepreneurs affected by conflict and enable the mindful consumer to manufacture peace through trade.
We found our niche by finding like-minded people. Veterans with multiple combat deployments that also felt the futility of the war--knowing that jobs and education were the true answers to the conflict(s). We positioned our messaging to show a path to jobs and education, learned to distribute that message through social media, and figured out how to deliver high-quality products to keep the cycle going.
It feels like my entire life led to Combat Flip Flops. The company has been the application of the lessons learned from high school to the keystrokes in this interview. But if I were to tag one specific incident, it would be September 11th. Without that world-changing event, this company would have never happened.
Describe the process of building the initial version of Combat Flip Flops.
The process took three years from idea to launch. It was a team effort from a large number of people to make it work. Specifically Donald Lee, Fellow Ranger and CMO and Andy Sewrey, Brother and President, as well as friends, family, and mentors.
The idea first happened in 2009 and my fellow Ranger, Donald Lee, registered our website name. We sat on it over a year until my sister-in-law married Andy Sewrey.
Andy learned about the mission, started working on designs, and helped us bring the idea into a digital rendering form. From there we started floating images and messaging on Facebook. Followers gave us feedback and input until we had a design good enough to prototype.
We contacted some friends in the footwear industry and they helped us design our first footwear and tooling in Asia. In mid-2011, we had nine pairs of flip-flops sitting on my kitchen island. Once we picked out our favorite features and whittled it down to three pairs, we sold everything of value in our house to purchase 200 pairs of sample footwear to take to trade shows. This was in January 2012.
In the beginning, the product looked very similar to what it does today. Our first product, the AK-47, is still our number one seller. Over time, our materials, process, and fit improved based on feedback from customers and friends.
Building Combat Flip Flops definitely had it’s fair share of obstacles. We wondered: Will people actually buy our products and be in support of the mission? Given the crazy media state of the world, we had doubts if we could gain enough volume/momentum/following to make it work.
Seriously, there are problems and obstacles in any business. Our most highlighted failure was the 100% rejection of our first run of footwear in Kabul, shutdown of three factories to make footwear and the subsequent production of our first footwear in a garage behind my house.
We leveraged everything of value to get it going, got hustled by companies trying to take advantage of our media, and dealt with the family stress as a result of doing something so difficult.
As far as pricing the flip-flops, we started with keystone pricing to support retailers thinking that they would want to buy our product (Nordstroms, Army Exchange, Navy Exchange, etc). Using Keystone pricing actually priced us above our competitors. Retailers weren’t buying our product and neither were consumers because of the price.
When we dropped pricing to reflect healthy margins direct-to-consumer, we came in line with the competition, and volume skyrocketed.
There’s no secret sauce when it comes to promotion, advertising, and social media. You simply have to put in the work.
When we launched, we simply targeted bloggers and media sites that were willing to talk about our product. If you get enough of those bloggers, the clickthrough and conversion math equates to a functioning business.
Our first customer was the Special Operations. We targeted servicemembers working in Special Operations units. Army Rangers, Navy Seals, Special Forces, etc.. These customers understand what we're working to accomplish, support the mission, have the funds to buy the product. They also hold an "influencer" status in the market. If they buy, wear, and support our product, the rest of the market will follow.
Because of our background, messaging, and media access within that community, they were our first big customer. It was extremely validating to have their support because they believe the Combat Flip Flops mission is the right solution to armed conflict.
We sold nearly 4,000 pairs in the first few weeks. At that time, it felt like a mountain of orders.
How have you grown the business to where it is today?
We’re still an unfundable business because we don’t get retailer POs and we manufacture in war zones. Diligent cash management enabled us to make the right products, at the right time, to reinvest back into growth.
We promote our products through all social media channels, public relations, and media where we can get it.
When it comes to social media, you have to pay attention to the traffic and revenue attribution. Why would you spend 25% of your time on a social media platform that generates less than 1% of your revenue?
It's a constant ebb and flow between content for entertainment and advertising. Our primary platforms are Facebook and Instagram because that's where our target demographic interacts with media.
Content and PR:
What works for us is a mixture of ads, podcasts, media, and anything with "how-to" type headlines. For PR, we've been covered by a significant amount of major media, but the two that drove the most sales and revenue were Gizmodo and Shark Tank.
As far as SEO, I’ve found that in consumer products, unless you have six-figure budgets to get on Page 1 of Google, SEO will be a struggle. Through free tactics, we hover on Page 2 for “flip flops.” SEO has not yet warranted the full weight of our marketing team.
Customer Service and Transparency:
We grew our audience by being nice to them, standing up to haters in a comical way, and showing the impact they make with their dollars. It’s taken five solid years of proof to get people to believe it.
We believe that our stellar customer service, social media interaction, and constant product development are the biggest factors of growth for us.
I also believe that being transparent is the best thing in any relationship. We’ve failed, let our customers know, and followed through on our promises to correct the issue.
When Mark Cuban, Daymond John, and Lori Grenier agreed to invest in Combat Flip Flops, the mission was legitimized as a solid business.
The Shark Tank experience was life-changing on a variety of levels. First, it made us really focus on the mechanics of the business. Second, it took everything we thought we knew about our business and wrecked it. We saw 450% growth tied to media, and it imploded every process in the business. From the beginning, any time we saw a problem, we wrote it down, prioritized it, and then attacked it in order of priority in it's importance to sales and revenue.
Mark Cuban is our most proactive investor. He's provided a great deal of advice and assistance. Mainly, he got us a gangster bookkeeper (highly recommended). Our main interaction revolves around weekly and monthly updates. We haven't sold enough flip flops yet to get Mavericks season tickets.
What didn’t work for us?
Trade show booths and fairs. When you do the math and get down to the net profit after all expenses associated with trade shows, using your time to develop more effective online advertising is a better use of your time and money.
There’s no secret sauce when it comes to promotion, advertising, and social media. Every instruction manual to be successful in social media advertising is online. You simply have to put in the work. Learn how to create messaging that resonates with your target demographic and serve them the message through the most cost-effective means possible.
If you could go back, would you do anything differently?
I would have spent less time going after retailers. Trade shows, dinners, expenses for integrations, and low margin sales. Waste. Of. Time. And. Money.
I would have spent more time understanding the relationship between CPM, CPA, and margin.
I would have worried less about making everybody happy, especially on social media. There are people that exist to try and piss other people off. Trying to make them happy is a poor use of time. I have learned to focus on making my current and future customers happy.
How have you dealt with competition?
As far as Amazon and big online retailers, we don’t compete.
We simply do our best to improve daily. Focusing on being better than somebody else takes your focus away from where it should be--in your business.
What differentiates us from the competition? We make our products in conflict or post-conflict areas and put girls in school with the profits.
Where you are at now and what are your plans for the future?
I’m currently focused on ensuring our message is more reachable to the mass market coupled with effective advertising.
Our team is now five people. We are not currently looking to raise money. We’re looking to hire as the positions are required. Our current North American market is big enough for now. We’re focusing there.
Nowadays, I’m constantly thinking about how can we break the “fear” mindset pushed upon us by the media. Nothing gets accomplished with a focus on fear. Less fear, more action.
We are actively working to improve our inventory management. We’ve invested in software over the last quarter that’s enabled Combat Flip Flops to take more proactive inventory management approach to maximize profitability from available cash.
I still find the biggest struggle is finding time to relax. When it’s your business, there’s always something to do. Focused recovery time is critical to success.
Our short-term goals include optimizing ad spend, a website update, and exceeding our philanthropic numbers set in 2017. We are going to accomplish the goals through review, planning, and execution.
As far as long-term goals, we’d like to be operating at $500MM annually, funding the education of over 57,000 women and clearance of 250,000 square meters of landmines. We plan to accomplish this through diligent asset management, heavy focus on marketing, and seeking out exceptional humans to be a part of the team.
What tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify. It does everything we need it to do (and then some) at an affordable rate.
I’m a huge fan of the Google Suite. Simply put, Google provides the most cost-effective platform for small businesses to work and collaborate globally.
We use Google Sheets more than anything. It's a free, collaborative tool used for forecasting, finances, marketing, scheduling, and schedule deconfliction. The key word is "collaborative." By working in a document, it keeps you out of email, dealing with distractions and errors due to version issues. Time and money saver.
We recently started using the Shopify Inventory Planner app. It’s enabled us to visualize overstock inventory for clearance and highlight the top products to procure as it relates to cash and profitability.
What books, podcasts, or online resources do you recommend?
- Personal MBA - A world-class business education in a single volume.
- Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Just Begin. You’re going to fail. Be Gritty. Learn your numbers. Improve. Fail more. Repeat.
Get a mentor. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in your own world that you can’t see the mistakes your making. Sincere mentors invested in your success are priceless.
Until you know how to do something yourself, don’t contract it out. Do a task until you know the full details involved, look for a partner or employee to manage that task, and hold them to the standard of, “You need to be better/faster/more effective at the task than me.”
Be extremely conservative with your sales forecast. Know the intricacies of your Profit and Loss Statement. Cash is king.
I fail regularly. We’ve almost run Combat Flip Flops out of business several times, but learn from failures, adjust and repeat. In the Army, I was gifted a parable, “People learn through one of four methods: Fear, Pain, Humiliation, and Repetition.”
As a business leader, you need to constantly push the limits of your skills and ability to reach new limits. There’s a lot of fear, pain, and humiliation involved. Once you learn from those teachers, you’re typically smarter, faster, and able to lead more effectively.
Everyone makes mistakes! Fail forward.
Where can we go to learn more?
Check us out on our website combatflipflops.com. And find us on social media at:
- Facebook: Combat Flip Flops
- Instagram: @combatflipflops
- Twitter: @combatflipflops
- SoundCloud: Combat Flip Flops
- Matt Griffin, Founder of Combat Flip Flops
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!
- Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story