Ranger takes flip flop company from Kabul to the Shark Tank

(Photo: Tyler Golden, ABC)

(Photo: Tyler Golden, ABC)

Former Army Ranger and West Point grad Matthew ‘Griff’ Griffin isn’t your average vet entrepreneur. He came up with the notion of building something of value when he was serving in Afghanistan during the early phases of the war, way before there was much of a logistics footprint in place. He saw that the Afghan people were in need of more than protection from the Taliban. They needed basic goods and services.

“I saw Afghanistan as a place to leverage the power of small business owners making a difference,” Griff said.  “The region could benefit from more micro loans and fewer armored vehicles.”

When Griff left active duty he returned to Kabul doing some clinic work, but beyond that he wanted to find a way to assist with the country’s stability by creating a manufacturing base, starting with a single factory he stumbled across on the east side of the capital. The factory had the infrastructure; it was just a matter of what to manufacture.

As he was leaving the factory he found a flip flop on the floor — it was unique and a little funky, the kind of design Griff thought might resonate with fashion-minded millennials. He held it up and asked the factory manager if he could make them, and the Afghan local said sure. Combat Flip Flops was born.

Griff and his brother procured the materials from a far eastern supplier and got everything set up, but they’d no sooner returned to the U.S. than they were informed that the factory was shutting down — a casualty of the volatile socio-economic climate of Afghanistan. But the brothers were undeterred, plus they had a lot of money wrapped up in the materials sitting in the factory in Kabul.

Without any U.S. military assistance — the most effective way to operate, according to Griff — they went back in on a private spec ops mission of sorts, one designed to salvage what they could from their investment and work that had been accomplished already.

“We rented a ‘Bongo’ truck and packed the inventory of flip flops into bags designed to hold opium,” Griff said. “We were riding around the streets of Kabul trying to look inconspicuous, two white guys sitting on a pile of opium bags.”

They stored the 2,000-some pairs of flip flops in a warehouse on the outskirts of Kabul, and as they did a closer inspection of their wares they realized that the quality was such that they couldn’t be sold. They wound up giving all of them away to needy Afghans, which was better than nothing but not up to the standards of Griff’s vision.

They found another factory, and once again secured a supplier (and paid for it using Griff’s credit card), and this time failure came even faster and the factory closed down before any materials for the order of 4,000 pairs had been shipped. It was time for a more dramatic pivot in the business plan.

“We wound up taking the guerrilla manufacturing route and assembling the sandals in my garage in Washington state,” Griff said.

The company’s potential big break came in the form of a phone call from one of the producers at ABC’s “Shark Tank” TV show. Griff and a couple of his co-workers will appear on the episode scheduled to air on February 5. (Check your local listings.)

“We’re stoked to bring the Combat Flip Flops mission to the tank,” Griff’ said. “Every Shark has the ability to expand the mission, inspire new recruits to join the Unarmed Forces, and manufacture peace through trade. Over the past few years, we’ve survived deadly encounters to create an opportunity like this. Attack Dogs. Raging Bulls. If we need to jump in the water with Sharks, then it’s time to grab the mask and fins.”

“We’ve all seen and heard Shark Tank success stories,” Donald Lee, Combat Flip Flops’ CMO and co-founder, added. “We set our minds to getting on the show and in true Ranger fashion, we accomplished the objective. We hope this is the catalyst our company needs to provide large scale, peaceful, sustainable change in areas of conflict.”

In 2015, Combat Flip Flops’ sales increased 150 percent over the previous year. In keeping with Griff’s original corporate vision, the company donated funds for schools to educate Afghan girls and cleared 1,533 square meters of land mines in Laos, which keeps the local population — especially children — safer.

Griff has leveraged his service academy pedigree and military experience in incredibly productive ways. His entrepreneurial sense and — even more importantly — his worldview defies most veteran stereotypes and associated bogus narratives. His outlook and drive are distinctly that of the Post 9-11 warfighter — “the next greatest generation.”

Combat Flip Flop’s mission statement captures it:

To create peaceful, forward-thinking opportunities for self-determined entrepreneurs affected by conflict. Our willingness to take bold risks, community connection, and distinct designs communicate, “Business, Not Bullets”– flipping the view on how wars are won. Through persistence, respect, and creativity, we empower the mindful consumer to manufacture peace through trade.

Watch Griff’s presentation at TED Talks Tacoma:

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