This is my one of my favorite interviews - whether you’re interested in entrepreneurship or any career path, there is something in this interview for you. We talk about how a library card may be more valuable than college or grad school, we talk about the pros and cons of gaining experience prior to starting a company, we talk about the tactics of starting a company and how to do that on a limited budget while supporting a family, we talk about finding co-founders, we talk about how to maintain a fresh mind even amidst the grueling mental battle of running a company, we talk about daily planning and finding your game-changers, and more.
Matt is the CEO & Co-Founder of Combat Flip Flops, which creates peaceful, forward-thinking opportunities for self-determined entrepreneurs affected by conflict. He started out at West Point, after which he served in the 75th Ranger Regiment as a Rifle Company Fire Support Officer with three tours to Afghanistan and one tour to Iraq. His post military career includes work as the Director of Military Sales for Remote Medical International and the director of Special Operations for Protect the Force.
StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
TA Group Holdings - Venture Capital firm run by another Army Ranger
Steps Ascending: Rise of the Unarmed Forces - Griff’s book
Personal MBA website - www.personalMBA.com - business books available for free
Rise of the Unarmed Forces -Griff’s book detailing the Combat Flip Flops journey
Griff’s Instagram @cff.griff
Combat Flip Flops Instagram @combatflipflops
Griff’s LinkedIn Profile www.linkedin.com/in/matt-griffin-0bb2511/
Combat Flip Flops website -www.combatflipflops.com
Griff’s TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlP8Zig_ksM
Combat Flip Flops Shark Tank appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uch7aqXnn8M
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today in Issaquah, Washington is Matt Griff also known as Griff. Griff --welcome to Beyond the Uniform. For listeners, I wanted to give an abbreviated background. Matt Griff is the CEO and co-founder of combat flip-flops which creates peaceful forward-thinking opportunities for self-determined entrepreneurs affected by conflict. He started out at West Point after which he served in the 75th Ranger Regiment as a rifle company for fire support with three tours to Afghanistan and one deployment to Iraq. His post military career includes work as the director of military sales for Remote Medical International and the Director of Special Operations for Protect the Force.
Could you take us back to your transition from the Army and what that initial job search was like?
Yeah I think like most guys, I didn't really start planning for my job and life after the military until soon before I got out. I left the Ranger Regiment in early 2006, right after my deployment to Iraq and I found a desk job at Core Artillery. I explained to my boss and said ‘hey I'm going to work super hard for you here but I need some time to be able to plan for my transition and take care of my family after I get out and the Colonel was super cool and he was interested in where I was at what I was doing to prepare myself. I worked really hard for him in the mornings and in the afternoons, I would go out and I would basically hunt down all the internet job search fairs or companies that said they needed a junior military officer.
My thought was ‘Okay I'm just going to see as many of these things as possible to find out what's out there for me and I did the standard thing of going to military contracting organizations and went to all their job fairs. There was a whole bunch of other lieutenants and captains and my wife and I were both lost. She was getting out at the same time I was and we were living in the Seattle area.
Guys kept telling us ‘Oh there's no jobs here in Seattle. There's no jobs here in the Pacific Northwest - you need to move to the East Coast. That just didn't it didn't sit right with us. We love the Northwest and we wanted to stay in Washington.
So all those great opportunities were there for us but we just passed on them because we wouldn’t have been able to stay in Washington. We knew where we wanted to live but I just kept going to these job fairs and essentially ended up in one in a hotel conference room.
I was going through and I was looking at Honeywell. There was also another company that was doing methane gas recycling at landfills which I thought was pretty cool and then the other one which I would hadn't even really considered was home building. This was in 2006, right during the housing boom. There was a Marine Captain who was a senior manager there. He'd gotten out and his whole thing was hiring officers and/or NCOs to run his job sites. He was a really cool guy and had a great attitude. The positions were local and I just I just stayed in touch with them and a week later he called me as out skiing and he says, ‘Hey man you want a job? I got a job for you -- it's ten miles from where you're currently living. Would you be open to working for us?’ I agreed and said yes and that was February and I was getting out in April so I had two months feeling like ‘Ah, this is great. I’ve got a job I can step right on into.’
I wanted to take a week off to go fishing with my father-in-law after the military so I just told my future boss at the company, ‘I can start for you in April if you'd like me to you but I'd really like to go on this vacation with my dad and I can start at the end of April. He told me, ‘Yeah sure man that's great. That’s the one thing that I recall out of the civilian hiring practice -- it's different from the military in that you can now state your personal goals or spend time with your family and your employer has an understanding of that and is willing to work with you on it.
So I want to work for Centex Homes for two years until the housing boom broke in spring of 2008 and then I quickly found myself out of a job and looking for a new job.
What was the what was the point at which you knew you wanted to become an entrepreneur and start your own company?
I'd say my drive to be an entrepreneur probably started in Afghanistan. You're hanging around all these units and they have mandatory reading lists. The majority of them were business books, leadership, and entrepreneurship books - how you make it through struggles, how you do difficult things with small teams, things like that. That always appealed to me and I always seem to gravitate toward those books.
I always thought it'd be a cool thing to run my own company but I never really felt like I had the skills to do it. I understood it in practice but I didn't feel like I had the skills or experience to really step out of my own and do it without failing miserably. So I went from Centex to Remote Medical International. Our job there was to provide Western level medical care in difficult or austere environments and this is right at the height of the contracting boom when Obama got in office and so all of these contractors were deploying all over the world where communities needed medical supplies and equipment.
My job was to go and sell these products to all of these contractors and companies. That meant traveling to place like Afghanistan, Kenya or wherever else. What I saw in these places was that the entrepreneurs were the true positive difference makers in the community. It was a side of these communities that I never saw when I was in uniform and it inspired me as a person who wanted to do the right thing for these places. It was like, ‘Hey, we should be putting more entrepreneurs in these communities if we really want to make a difference.’
In December 2009 I ended up in a combat boot factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. I saw hundreds people at work in the factory and I found out that they were going to close the factory after their contract ended. This really made me angry and in that state of anger I looked at the table and there was a combat boot sole with a flip flop thong punched in it. I just thought it was ugly and cool and then I went back to my hotel room and sat and thought on it for a little bit. I checked the domain name and it was open and nobody had taken the name on Facebook. Nobody had put combat and flip flops together.
So I called my Ranger buddy Donald Lee and we registered the domain in December 2009. But we really didn't launch until January 2012 just because it took us that long we figure out how to actually form the company and what we needed to do to really launch the business.
Do you recommend people that that are interested in entrepreneurship go directly into it after they leave the military or go to school or find another job first?
I'm not a big fan of going to college. I think that you can get the same education out of a library card and on-the-job training.
For me, I wanted to go to work for a big business and figure out what big business looks like and how their cycles work. Then I went from working for a big business to working for a small business and seeing what that was like.
I think the main thing going to work in industry did for me was it rounded off my rough edges. Coming out of West Point and Special Operations combat, I was a lot more direct of a person than I probably needed to be and in the civilian market, I needed to round off my rough edges before I felt like I could go into any situation and engage positively.
The military teaches you a great lesson in every two years you're going to move up and take on more responsibilities. There are so many different jobs in the military and you’re always forced you to learn something quickly and then as soon as you get comfortable in that job, they move you up and increase your responsibilities again and make you learn something new which is what business is.
In my civilian rose as a site manager for a construction company, I learned how to manage subcontractors and then I went to work for Remote Medical International and learned sales and government contracting. Then I went to work for Protective Force and I learned consulting and business leadership. Then I went to work for another company called 10-20 Services which is an offshoot of Protective Force as the Vice President of Operations and you learn how to actually start and build a business with shareholders and investors and how to hire a team and how to grow a team and how to make initial sales goals which is just the cumulative skills that I've learned throughout my industry experience.
In January 2012, Combat Flip-Flops was a part-time job for me and then in the summer of 2013, it became a full-time job as the company gained more notoriety. People saw me as the Vice President of Operations for a defense firm but then they also saw me running Combat Flip-Flops. I think people didn’t take it seriously because I hadn’t fully committed to it so the lesson was that people don't commit to your company until you fully commit to it and in the summer of 2013 Ieft my job as the Vice President of Operations for 10-20 Services and stepped into the role full-time of CEO of Combat Flip-Flops.
Do you have any advice for someone thinking of starting their own company regarding how they can financially do this?
I think if you're going to be an entrepreneur, you're going to learn the lesson of burning the candle at both ends especially if you have a family, you can't live on rice and beans. If you can't shrink up your living expenses, if you like all that fancy stuff, then you're probably going to have to work a job while your company is getting off the ground.
We invested a lot personally in combat flip-flops and what I would recommend that to everybody is that when you think about starting a business, you need to have six months in savings. That’s sitting liquid in a cash bank account.
If you're going to jump into this, you need to be able to have the lack of stress that comes from knowing that you can feed your family and pay your rent for six months. You also need to be very careful with your spreadsheets and your initial projections. Many potential business
have these ideas from these incubators and they’ve set all this stuff down and they've outlined their budgets and their sales numbers. But they have no market experience, no name, no branding, and their calculations show them being a millionaire in six months. I can tell you it doesn't work like that.
There's a law that comes out of the computing world or the software world called Rummells Law – it states that a project will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you had initially anticipated. Things take two to three to four times what you think they're going to take. The process of starting a business is more expensive than you think.
You’ve got to be comfortable without the fancy stuff. If you're coming from the military, you're used to living out of a backpack. When you start a business you might not have the 3,000 square-foot house and all the other things that you're used to. You might have to go into a tiny little apartment with you and your family and cinch down the budget.
How would you explain what you do for a living?
We make fun lifestyle and fashion products. We use our profits to put little girls to school in Afghanistan. We’re providing education and empowerment to these communities.
Your company uses the phrase ‘Business Not Bullets’. Could you explain what you mean by that?
Areas frequented by merchants seldom need soldiers. There is so much more positivity and sustainability that comes from business in a fair value exchange of ideas in services than there is from a bullet or a bomb.
As a nation we have the biggest bombs and the biggest bullets. We’re essentially a bully an nobody likes a bully. I mean I know it's tough to hear but if we really want to create positive
sustainable change in these areas, we might have to change what we're doing. We’ve been at this for 17 years now, almost 18, and we're nowhere closer to the finish line than when we started. I think that as a nation, we need to stop and peel ourselves back and take an honest look at what we're doing and say ‘Hey how we're working isn't working. We might need to change our course of action here.
If we empower the entire American population to make this change, we can make a significant impact in these areas and we can do it without ever firing a bullet and we can look good to the international community.
For listeners - if this is energizing you, I'd encourage you to check out Episode 216 with Kimberly Young of Rumi Spice who shares a similar for-profit for good mission that Combat Flip-Flops does.
Kim's a badass. I'm in complete admiration and have a full-on human crush on that woman. She's amazing. I remember when she first started her business, she'd called me and we talked
about it. She's now the single largest employer of Afghan women in Afghanistan.
How did you find your co-founders?
Donald Lee was 25 years old when September 11th and was motivated to join the Army. He only had a three year contract so they were never going to put him in a leadership position and they were never going to send him to Ranger School. He was there to carry weight and do his job. But that also provided him a little bit of flexibility because he would actually speak up and speak his mind. As a Private, he was actually older than me as a Lieutenant. So I would say something stupid in a mission briefing and then he'd say ‘No we should do it this way’. And it was always smarter faster and more efficient. So having somebody who could speak their mind against a position of authority but do it in a way that was in the best interest of the team. He's always been that way – he come out of a rough Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles and we'd call him our perpetual naysayer. Now with the business, If we come across something questionable, we pass it off to him to see what he thought.
Our other co-founder- Andy- he's my brother-in-law. Our video guy has been working for us since he was 17. His mom runs our customer service department and we all live within four or five blocks of one another except for Lee who lives in LA.
The thing I would say about co-founders is hat you have to have diverse backgrounds. You need to find somebody that is completely different than you. Lee is very good at analyzing data and cutting things up. Andy is a production bugler – he loves details.
Jill is super compassionate and she always wants to do right by everybody. The top person you would ever want in a customer service position.
Zack is creative. And then I'm a big idea guy. I like coming up with ideas and then I like planning. If you find me in the details, you know something's really wrong but.
So find people that are different from you but whose values you align with.
From the time you bought the domain name in 2009, how long did it take to sell your first shoe?
From idea to first sale was 26 months. As far as paying ourselves – it took four years to take a paycheck.
Just to make sure you have that financial game plan in place. Maybe it's a spouse's income, maybe it's some sort of side income, maybe it's the Reserves.
It might take longer than you expect to be able to pull money out of the business without it being detrimental to the company.
What were those first years like for you? What was your life like?
I was still working for Protect the Force. I’m an early morning person so I wake up at four or five in the morning. I do my morning routines and get my workout in. Then I like to make breakfast for my girls get them off to school. I worked from home so I would just literally go over to the office and I'd work from 8:00 a.m. to noon walk back at lunch and then work again from 12:30 to 6:30.
You just have to be super disciplined. There's a lot of nights and weekends.
Do you have any advice for all people regarding the pressure that an entrepreneur feels?
I just understand that you have ebbs and flows . There are going to be months where you're severely depressed and you can't figure it out and they're going to be months where you feel like you're Rocky.
The military is very focused on planning. A lot of people that are entrepreneurs overreact to what is before them. You have to know what your goals and objectives are so you know exactly what you need to react to and what you don’t.
All you can really affect is the next 90 days. So you need to focus on what is going to get you to your goals in the next 90 days. Your to-do list never ends. When you get good at this, you will see the productivity that comes from this extreme focus on these goals.
Where did the experience with Shark Tank come about and where was the company at at that point?
I got the call in April 2015. We had just taken a bit of an investment from a local VC firm - another veteran owned company TA Group Holdings. They saw what we were doing believed in us and gave us a small amount of money. So we were using that to grow our business.
We were still figuring things out and then Shark Tank called us in April. We realized the size of the opportunity so we dropped everything we were doing from a sales and marketing standpoint and focused solely on Shark Tank. We filmed in June and at the end of filming, we knew we had gotten it but there was seven months between your filming and your air date. In the meantime, we had missed all of our spring sales. We were struggling on cash – this was in November 2015.
We were having discussions about shutting down the business. I was looking at months and months of lost profits. We looked at our business model, trying to go after dealers and retailers. But then decide to sell online directly to consumers. Overnight, our sales went up. We sold through everything throughout the holiday season in December 2015.
We still hadn’t gotten the call from Shark Tank. We thought we were going to air of Veteran’s Day so we stocked up on our merchandise. But it didn’t air so we were stuck with tons of excess inventory.
It was a big struggle and we were getting ready to shut down so we changed our pricing and sold through all of our inventory. And then we got the call that our episode was going to air in two weeks.
Your article in Gizmodo kind of started all this. Was that something you guys sought out or did they just catch wind of what was going on?
We had a story that's what people really are buying into. They’re buying your product as they're buying your story. Everybody makes good flip flops and there are other that are cheaper than ours. But the value-added is we have the story that we’re making products at women own factories and putting little girls in school.
We hired a hired a carrier agent named Kate Tetrick. She gave us a few hours every week
and sent emails to different media people and she got us introduced to a guy named Wes Siler. He wrote for Gizmodo. We were in LA and he was in LA and so Kate set us up.
We met up in a bar and he recorded a conversation and then got on his motorcycle and left. Five days later, he crashed our website. We were down for like 24 hours. A couple hundred thousand people read had read the Gizmodo article.
If you want to get noticed, you got to be in front of eyeballs. You got to be on people's phones, you got to be in the media.
Do you have any resources you would recommend to listeners?
So many people spend so much time reaching books and listening to podcasts but actually doing it is the hard part.
What I say is, ‘Just do it’. I like personal mba.com. You can go there and they're going to have
99 books you can read. If you read all of those books and understand the concepts, you have an Ivy League MBA and you get it for the price of a library card.
Because of those mandatory reading lists I was reading when I was in the military, I'd already read like 30 or 40 of those suggested books from MBA.com.
You gave a TEDx talk. How did that come about?
I got invited by a friend of mine that ran the veterans program at Nike. We’re just a couple hours north of Nike headquarters and they were hosting an event on how Nike could help veterans.
The invited a couple nonprofits who they thought would be good and one nonprofit that we supported - The Station Foundation - run by Kevin and Shannon Stacy. Kevin couldn’t make it but Shannon was there soI said I'd go down with her. I ended up sitting next to a guy named Brian Nicholson who is a former you know Army officer and was just getting out. He had gotten involved in TEDx. I introduced myself to him and we ended up taking and he invited me to give a TEDx talk.
Where is Combat Flip Flops now?
We’ve figured out where our correct channels are to really drive the mission forward and then it's just direct-to-consumer online and through Amazon.
We also just dropped a book – Rise of the Unarmed Forces - and if you guys want to read about this adventure and the challenges that we went through, you can do that. It’s number one in our category on Amazon and Mark Cuban endorsed it. Please check that out and leave us a review.
You can find us on Instagram @combatflipflops. I’m also on Instagram @cff.griff.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
I started journaling every day and it significantly changed my life. As an entrepreneur, you need to be focused on the idea that good things happen in your life and you should be grateful for that. It’s so easy to get stuck in the pain cave but you really have so much to be thankful for.