Podcast: Matthew Griffin On Walking the Walk
Matthew "Griff" Griffin is the co-founder and CEO of Combat Flip Flops. A former Army Ranger, Griff felt lost and angry after returning home from four tours of duty. In this episode, Griff talks about how he rediscovered his life's mission and motivation by launching a purpose-driven business--and why he's come to believe that "the older you get, the more you are obligated to help the world."
During our talk, the former "Shark Tank" contestant answers questions like:
- Where did the idea to launch Combat Flip Flops come from?
- What was it like being on "Shark Tank"?
- What are you most excited about now?
- What would you tell someone who's feeling lost or unsure of their next move?
- How do you stay motivated?
Here is the full transcription of this podcast episode:
Matthew Griffin: If you have a problem, if you ask why six times you can typically get to the root cause of a problem. And the problem that I was having, the problem that I wanted to solve was my friends were still deploying to these countries, and they were still coming home in fly-covered boxes. I was really getting tired of it.
Leading Authorities: That's former army ranger, Matt Griffin or Griff as he likes to be called. He's talking about the near constant gut punches he was taking every time he got word another friend had been killed overseas. Griff was back in the States working in the private sector and doing military sales, but he felt that there had to be more that he could do. So, he set out on a mission to find a way to help.
Griff: So how are these young teenage boys getting training, getting weapons, getting arms, getting smuggled across borders, and then given instructions and plans to attack uniform, service members? Well, they got radicalized. How'd they get radicalized? Well, they were out on the street, they were susceptible to influence and due to an unstable home. Well, why is their home unstable? Well, dad's dead. Well, can't mom and take care of that? Well, mom is a lot younger than dad because the women there are typically married at 12 or 13 years old, to much older men. And once they're at home, they have kids, they don't go to school. And then the husband passes and the burden falls onto the wife, and she has no employable skills. So, the kids have to go out on the street. Well, why doesn't mom have employable skills? Well, she wasn't allowed to go to school. She wasn't allowed to go to school. So, when our chain of thought, when we asked this root cause, if we just empowered and educated women, we could have the long-term effect of solving this problem. So, we said every product that we sell, we're going to put a girl in school for a day in Afghanistan and over the course of two or three decades of this work, we are going to resolve this issue.
Leading Authorities: In 2006, Griff founded Combat Flip Flops out of his garage. Now more than ten years later, he's at the home of a million-dollar business that's been featured on Shark Tank and operates in Afghanistan, Laos and Cambodia. Today, we heard Griff's story in his own words. You're listening to, Speaking of, where we sit down with innovators and thought leaders to talk about ideas that are changing the world now. I'm your host, Maddie Glading. We're here with Matt. Griff, can I call you Griff?
Leading Authorities: Matt Griffin who goes by Griff, he's the founder and CEO of Combat Flip Flops. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Griff: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Leading Authorities: Awesome. So, tell us a little bit about who you are, who was, in your background I guess, who was Matt Griffin before he was the CEO of Combat Flip Flops?
Griff: Well, I'm a Gemini. No, I'm just messing with you. I'm from Iowa, a military brat. I ended up going to West Point in 1997, graduated in 2001 into the Artillery, did a bunch of time in the Army, four deployments with Special Operations in the 75th Ranger Regiment. I got out in 2006, and then from there, I got into the commercial world and really found an appetite for entrepreneurship and business and started my own company called Combat Flip Flops with my fellow ranger, Donald Lee, and my brother, Andy Sewrey.
Leading Authorities: Where did the idea to launch Combat Flip Flops come from? Did it just strike you one day? I'm guessing not. I'm guessing it was developed over time maybe?
Griff: It did. I left the military pretty frustrated after doing four deployments over there and seeing how the war was going and what we were doing was not really taking care of the root cause of the issue. We were treating the symptom, not the cause. We got out in 2006. In 2009, I got hired by a company called Remote Medical International, and they were putting clinics and doctors and physicians all over the world in support of the energy sector, but the contractor boom in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all through Africa started happening and I started going over in support of those contracts, but I was just wearing a suit, and a backpack and had cash. I didn't have body armor and guns, and I had to figure out how to get my job done, and get home to my family. And what I found was that everywhere that was secure was area that was flourishing with small business. It was the small business owners who watched after their customers, they watched after their street corners. They made sure that I was safe because I represented opportunity and no matter wherever I went in these developing nations, the same held true.
Leading Authorities: Interesting.
Griff: The small business owners are the leaders that promote security in their area, and the universe kept shoving this in my face over and over and over again until one day I ended up in a combat boot factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. I saw 300 people working. It was the first positive thing I've seen come from the war. And it was really cool. People supporting, each one of those workers supported 5 to 13 family members. So, the social impact is massive. They supported an entire community of people, and I wanted to keep the factory going after the war ended because the factory manager told me it was going to close. In this moment of frustration, I look down on a table and there was this flip flop on a table. It was brown and tan and cool. And I picked it up and I said, and I looked at it, and it was a combat boot sole with a flip flop thong punched through it, kind of funny looking and I was like "Man, combat flip flop", and the juxtaposition of the words combat and fighting, and then flip flop and politics, if you think about it, it's arguing different points. But while arguing, both are still needed. And so, I believe that at this point in my life business is better for these conflict areas, than armed soldiers. But we need armed soldiers too. Tt was all just floating around, and I said, combat flip flops and that's how we formed CombatFlipFlops.com was the idea to keep a combat boot factory in Afghanistan going after the war ended and it's taken many forms since then, but it's grown and it's been fun. And that's how we started.
Leading Authorities: So how does it work, tell us... I know you're a very purpose driven organization. How does creating flip flops equal economic opportunity and stability across your different markets?
Griff: So flip flops are the most purchased piece of footwear on the planet. They are worn more than any other piece of footwear, anywhere.
Leading Authorities: Did not know that.
Griff: Yeah, so more flip flops are sold every year in classes of footwear period. So, we thought we need to create a viable, sustainable product that people can buy affordably that can be manufactured with easy skills and we could make them anywhere on the planet. So, what we did is we started in Afghanistan, had some troubles there. It's really tough to make footwear in Afghanistan. So, we started our footwear production in Bogota, Columbia. We went back to Afghanistan with textiles, and we went to Laos for jewelry and on the late of land mines. And our whole premise is, is we go to conflict zones or post conflict zones, we find local entrepreneurs that are making stuff. We teach them how to make stuff at a western level, so something that a U.S. consumer would want, and then we teach them how to manufacture it in a manner that we can actually deliver it to the U.S. market and be globally competitive. So, we're giving these small entrepreneurs that never would have had a shot at the U.S. market, the ability to grow in scale and secure their communities. And then for every product that we sell we put a girl in school for a day in Afghanistan because we believe that women are most likely the answer to these solutions that we're seeing in these conflict zones. You have to empower women to be able to take care of their families if anything happens to their husbands.
Leading Authorities: Why women specifically?
Griff: I'm going to talk about this in my talk later today, but I'll lead to it here is that you're finding that in all these conflict areas, our uniform service members are fighting angry, young, uneducated a teenage boys. And the reason this happens is culturally, the women are married at 12 to 13 years old, and they're typically married to a guy who's 10 to 15 years their senior. So, they have the equivalent of a second or a third-grade education before they're now at home, having children taken care of the family and then when the husband passes the burden, of responsibility falls on to the wife. She has no employable skills, can't go to work, can't support the family. So, the kids are pulled out of school and they go out on the street to work or to beg, which is where they're susceptible to influence and radicalism, because they don't want to work so hard, they can get paid more to go fight. And so, our thought of it is if you go into the root cause analysis, if you just educate and employ women, no matter what happens, they're going to have a resilient culture and resilient is the big word these days and really going to be able to keep their kids in school, which is going to break the cycle, and we need to choke off the recruitment based for radicals. And that's done through women's education.
Leading Authorities: Wow, that's amazing. So just going back for a second, you have said that the time in between leaving the military and when you had the idea for this innovative company was a bit of a trying one, trying to figure out your next move.
Griff: Six years.
Leading Authorities: Yeah, I think that that's something a lot of people can identify with maybe trying to figure out what they want to pursue next, what their skill set is and how they can use that to make an impact. What would your advice be to people who might be in that, how you were feeling in that time right now?
Griff: You got to put it in the time. If you don't work for it, you're not going to get it. And I worked a day job. I worked a day job until about six months ago. I ran Combat Flip Flops, when you're growing a business, you can't take any money out of your company. So, you have to figure out other ways to support your family and that means you worked early mornings on the weekends, you work late nights on the week, days after your family goes to bed, you got to put in the time, and eventually you'll have enough gravity and momentum and forward movement to where you can finally make that leap. And that leap, for me, happened in 2013 is when we finally said, okay, we're going to go full on into Combat Flip Flops, we're going to launch the company, we're really going to amplify it and get it going. But we had to figure out the day job, the hustle as they refer to it, in order to keep it going.
Leading Authorities: But was there any, I guess, like personal soul searching that you did in that time? I guess what I'm getting at is, how would you say somebody should... what would your advice be to somebody who is looking to find their passion?
Griff: A lot of people say passion, I really think it's purpose.
Leading Authorities: Purpose there you go that's better.
Griff: The meaning of life is to find your gift, the work of life is to improve it, and the purpose of life is to give it away. And so, I didn't know what I was good at when I got out of the military. I was, grew up out of my parents’ house, and I listened to what the military did until I was about 26, 27 years old, and I hadn't really been my own man, my own person, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And I had no purpose like many other veterans, I struggled with that and through transition and just everything was going down. And then as soon as I started helping other people, and I found that the way to help them through business is when I found my purpose and I started feeling better and I said, well, I just want to feel better again. So, I started helping more people and that was it. And that's how it got going is you just have to find your purpose.
Leading Authorities: Love that. So, shifting gears a little bit, I have watched your Shark Tank episode. I think most of our listeners have watched Shark Tank and can imagine that that's a very intimidating room to walk into. What was that experience like and how has it helped your business and helped like you as an individual?
Griff: So, Shark Tank was probably the most fun we've had in our company. It was super fun. We didn't even apply.
Leading Authorities: They went after you?
Griff: They called us, it was a Tuesday night like 11pm. I was doing the standard entrepreneur thing, put the wife and kids to bed, waited till I could hear her breathing change until she was sleeping and then I snuck out of bed and went downstairs to open the laptop, and all of a sudden, my phone rings from California. I'm not picking this up now. I don't know the number and then it goes to voicemail and at this point in time, the business is really struggling. I thought maybe I got some rich Nigerian uncle who left me a few million. I should answer this. And it was, it was Max Swedlow, and he was a producer from ABC Shark Tank and I thought this has got to be a prank. One of my friends is calling me. I quickly IMDBd him, and yeah, he is a producer for Shark Tank. And so, I called him back and he answered, and he said, hey, I read your article in Gizmodo. Wes Tyler, from Outside Maker, he was at Gizmodo at the time and now he's with Outside, he wrote a stellar article on us and he read it and said, these guys should come on Shark Tank. We dropped everything we were doing in our prime selling season, and we trained up for Shark Tank, just like we were going on a ranger mission. We'd been in that room hundreds of times before we got there and we were ready to go.
Leading Authorities: Like you were just running through every possible thing they would hit you with.
Griff: We knew their personalities how they like to respond, how short our answers needed to be. We knew all the numbers to pull on our levers for a cost of goods sold and logistic cost and shipping costs...
Leading Authorities: Which speaks to putting in the work.
Griff: But you got to put in the work. And we walked out of there, so they film in June and September, and then they air you sometime in the following season. And so, you're betting on this huge landslide event, and we thought we were going to be on the Veterans' Day episode. And so, we had purchased all of our inventory in late summer for a fall release. And so, if you can imagine as a flip flop company, your prime selling season isn't... November. It is typically March through June. And so, we had all of this awesome inventory ready to go in November. And then the dates came and went with no showing. Yeah, and so we freaked out, we had to discount everything. We had to blow everything out to turn it back into cash, pay off all of our vendors.
Leading Authorities: Why did they do that?
Griff: The they had to film a couple of other veterans. They filmed them in September and they couldn't get the video edited correctly enough for Veterans' Day. And we were at the point, we're going to have to shut the company down. We're going to close. In January 15t, 16th I got an email says, "Hey, your air date is going to be February 6" and so all of the inventory I would have had, would have sat on this table. We had nothing.
Leading Authorities: This is a very small table for people to think.
Griff: We had no cash, we just paid off our vendors, we're getting ready to shut the doors, and then now we're about to have the most landslide event probably we're ever going to have in our company history. And we've got nothing.
Leading Authorities: Oh my god.
Griff: So, I had to go to my friends who had some money and I was like, "Look man, I need 50 grand right now, like immediately like, here's the email, check it out. You're the first person who gets paid back". And my fellow veteran, he's been out for a few years, did really well in business. And he's like, "I got you".
Leading Authorities: Wow.
Griff: His name is, John. He's an awesome person.
Leading Authorities: Thank you, John. That's a nice friend.
Griff: Yeah, so we got cash, we got everything fired up, we tuned up our website, got everything going, and then we ran Shark Tank night, just like an operation center. We had our operations team, had our marketing team, had our social media team. We're all sitting at a big long table, all of our laptops open, and then our Chief Marketing Officer Lee, who was supposed to be running the whole show because once they got going, I couldn't do anything. I was just going to drink a beer and watch the numbers rock up and right as it was about to air on the East coast, somebody spilled a nice Northwest Micro Brew right into his laptop.
Leading Authorities: Oh no!
Griff: Yeah. Everything shut down for him. And so, we were hustling, drying out of computer, got a new computer, but then we started watching the numbers on these computers. Our team had given them to us, but they just weren't fast enough and we had 44,000 hits a second on our website. We did more business in 17 hours, than we did in 2014 or we did more business in 36 hours than we did in our entire company history and because of that, we grew 500 percent that year and we put over 200 girls in school for a year, and it was this amazing event. It really put us up on the forefront and it legitimized our mission and our business. So that was a great time.
Leading Authorities: And what is Mark Cuban like?
Griff: Mark Cuban, he's an aggressive business owner, he's got 150, 200 companies in his portfolio. Everything you have to get to him. You have to get it where he can read it with one or two thumb swipes. You have to answer your questions very quickly. Nobody talks to Mark Cuban and that's just it and he does everything via email. He is just taking in information all the time and he's putting it back out and he's just managing hundreds of entrepreneurs all over the world, which is pretty cool.
Leading Authorities: Yeah, it's really cool.
Griff: Yeah, and his team is awesome. When we signed on with Mark Cuban, the best thing that he did for us is he gave us a gangster bookkeeper. So, for years, we were making the best decisions possible off of bad information and numbers. Our books weren't as good as they should have been. And then they came in, they gave us a clean slate, they retroactive, we looked at everything and because they got our numbers looking good, we could make better decisions on our business. And our business has just grown ever since. So, it's been spectacular. He's been a great supporter of the mission.
Leading Authorities: And so how is the business today? What are you most excited about right now?
Griff: What I'm most excited about right now, is we spent all of last year restructuring our business. We're seeing the way that consumers are not purchasing in major retail stores anymore. They're looking online, they hear about your company, the first thing they do is they go to your social media sites and they check it out. Are you fun? Are you positive? Are you legitimate? What do the reviews look like on your products on social media? What's the commentary look like? How are you responding? And then they go to your website. Does your website mirror what's happening on social media? They want to see the continuity and when it really comes down to it, is your price reasonable? Can I get the same product at a lower price elsewhere? Same quality. And for us, we've only figured out the way to do that is to either sell it ourselves or sell through Amazon. So last year, we called back our wholesalers other than a bunch of little boutique small businesses and direct to consumer and Amazon. And so, what we're most excited about this year is for now we're in a position to scale, we could turn the levers up to 11 snap'em off and get going, which is really cool. We finally moved out of my garage, which is the best thing.
Leading Authorities: Congratulations.
Griff: Yeah, we were shipping out of my garage until mid-last summer. So, the Shark Tank days were awesome. Trucks are pulling up in the morning and you would deliver all the product, and we had 8 or 10 people in there, and then by the afternoon, the USPS trucks would pull up and take it all back away. And we'd stand there and we look at this huge pile of boxes and go, "That's five years of school for little girls". The whole team would crack a beer and cry, and then we'd get back at it the next day and we did that for months. It was awesome.
Leading Authorities: Alright Griff. We are so happy for you. Congratulations on all of these awesome successes that you're having. And thank you so much for being here. This was a lot of fun.
Griff: It's great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Leading Authorities: Thanks so much for listening. If you want to learn more about Griff or Combat Flip Flops, visit CombatFlipFlops.com and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Podbean or wherever else you get it. And if you're interested, we're going to put the video of where Griff appears on Shark Tank on our blog. So, check it out there, it's pretty fun to watch.
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