How I Grew an E-commerce Company
To Support Security In Conflict & Post Conflict Areas
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Matt Griffin and I go by “Griff.” I’m the co-founder and CEO of Combat Flip Flops (CFF). CFF is a mission-driven business that manufactures fashion and lifestyle products in conflict or post-conflict areas to support security through entrepreneurship. With our profits, we support women’s education in Afghanistan and Veteran Charities in the U.S. We believe the mission statement says it best:
“Create forward-thinking opportunities for entrepreneurs affected by conflict and enable the mindful consumer to manufacture peace through trade.”
What is your personal story 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.
In the years after services, I did work for a medical company operating in “difficult” environments. It was then that I realized that the areas flourishing with businesses didn’t have security issues. The thought kept occurring, “Why doesn’t the U.S. include more entrepreneurial efforts into the areas in which we fight to promote prosperity and security?”
Through an odd series of meetings, I ended up in a combat boot factory in Kabul, Afghanistan and learned that the 300 workers would be out of jobs when the war ended. It didn’t seem right, so we figured out a way to transform their war production line into a peace production line…with flip flops. That moment happened in 2009 and it’s been a wild ride ever since.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
All we faced were challenges. Everybody thought it was a good idea, but everybody also thought it was going to fail. We had no business background, no footwear manufacturing experience, and very limited e-commerce experience. It was an uphill battle from the very first step.
Finance was straight up bootstrapping. Nobody was going to give us money to start a fashion brand in a war zone. I sold a few guns, a hot rod, boat, and as much as I could on Craigslist to get enough money to make samples. After that, it was presales on the website to generate revenue to make the production run.
Competition really wasn’t an issue as there weren’t any competitors in the space. The other flip flop companies didn’t pay us any attention and why would they? We’re a small company and we had a super low likelihood of being successful.
Our social network was our biggest asset. From years in the military and government contracting, we had a decent network to get information out through blogs, influencers, and boutique dealers selling to the military and military-ish clients that understood what we were doing. Thanks to them, we were able to make enough presales to fund the first production run.
This was a ready, fire, aim operation from the start based on the desire to do good, positive feedback from potential customers, and series of miraculous events that kept us from failing miserably every couple of months.
Who is your target market?
There are very few people that understand what we’re doing based on a couple of paragraphs or a short social media post. The people that understand are those that have traveled to developing countries, understand the challenges, and feel compelled to help.
In this situation, we targeted service members that served post-2001. They understand how bad the situation is, the futility of government efforts, and the lack of opportunity to keep our kids from fighting in the same war. So, we came up with a logical course of action that made sense, made products to fit their style, and targeted them with digital advertising.
Our typical customer is a 22-55 year-old male that lives in and around major military installations. They are active, travel, have a service or government-related background, and most importantly-buy products online.
It’s been super fun to watch our community of customers, “The Unarmed Forces,” grow beyond the initial target demographic mentioned above. This growth creates more jobs, funds more education, and contributes to veteran charities at home.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
Over the years, we’ve tried everything from memes to running with Bulls in Pamplona, but the basics move the needle. Good product, good photography, good targeting, good interaction, and THE BEST customer service has been our recipe for success.
Retail and Amazon haven’t been profitable. Both want to take hefty chunks of margin out of your business, have you pay for advertising, and force you to take on additional overhead and systems to work with their system. Consumers like the convenience of trying on a product in a store or free shipping, but now they’re moving toward buying direct from companies and interacting with employees through email, text, or social media.
There are a lot of shiny ball services out there that promise you 10,000X on advertising, but we have yet to see any of them play out. Don’t follow the shiny ball. Be religious with the basics of advertising on Facebook, Instagram, and email. Watch your numbers, fail fast, and learn cheap. Out of 100 attempts with advertising, 99 of them will fail. Make sure you have enough assets leftover after testing to support the one that works. There’s no secret sauce here other than hard work.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Customer retention simply means taking care of customers. When we were getting ready to scale as a result of being on Shark Tank, we called a footwear legend and asked him what we should do when it came to scaling. He stated simply, “Invest in your customer service. You’re going to make mistakes while growing. People are willing to forgive mistakes as long as you’re willing to make it right. “ We’ve held that mindset since and our first hire, Jill, took her Customer Service job seriously. We have THE BEST Customer service in the flip flop industry. If you don’t believe us, check out Google reviews. Half of them have her name on them.
For a while, we didn’t have enough time, money, etc to evolve the product line significantly. We had some windfall changes in late 2018 that made it possible for us to revamp the product line, give us a reason to communicate through email/social, and add more fuel to the fire.
After attracting customers to CFF with advertising and social media wit, we work to deliver a reasonable amount of information through email. You typically don’t get an email from us unless there’s a new product or a deal. Seems to keep customers engaged and happy without giving them the feeling of a crowded inbox.
Social media is fun. As founders, we directly respond to all of our social media comments. In every way possible, we try to respond with a .gif. People seem to enjoy those more these days.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
The CFF Culture is straight-up gritty. Everyone has a lot on their plate and we all work to get responsibilities done while keeping all the plates spinning. Only two of us have college degrees and neither of them are business related. If a task has to get done and it falls in the specific lane, we’re all the type of people to Google and Youtube it until we have the skills required to complete the task. It’s a Get’r done vibe.
CFF uses Google Sheets to keep everybody on the same page. It’s free, simple, and collaborative. Everybody has access to all of the information and we cross-train to know where to look if we need to find an answer to a question. We don’t have that many SKUs, only a few sales channels, and one warehouse. If the team knows what’s coming in, then we know the priorities for marketing, fulfilment, and customer service.
There’s one basic spreadsheet that every person in the company has open on a tab on one of their monitors. And if there’s a question that can’t get solved with the information available, we use Google Hangouts to seek clarity quickly.
We’re a remote company and most people work from home. Team building typically happens on the morning Google Hangout with silly songs, funny memes, or internal jokes. It’s very rare the entire team is in the same place at the same time.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Again, there is no shiny ball when it comes to software to make a business work. Don’t fall for the business pitches of expensive software that you could resolve through the online services you pay for.
We’re on Shopify (not Shopify plus). We invoice and report numbers through Quickbooks, email through Klaviyo, and do all of the forecasting and planning with G-Suite products (Google Docs, Google Slides, and Sheets).
Thankfully, the majority of these products already have built-in applications that will get your business singing if you’re willing to read through the how-to manuals and put in the work. Everything we’re doing is with the same cheap/free tools available to any entrepreneur.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
If we were to do it all over again, we would have taken a much more simple approach. Starting with the numbers, we would have put a SUPER HEAVY emphasis on cash instead of topline revenue. Cash is king.
Secondly (and probably the 4th or 5th time I’ve stated in this interview), we wouldn’t follow the shiny ball! There are so many companies out there trying to solve problems that you don’t have, so don’t pay for them. You don’t need fancy integrations or analysis tools. You need a good product, at a good price, that is appealing to your customer. Don’t try to be fancy, be effective.
Third, read contracts. When you do forget the paragraph mentioned above and you sign a contract with a company that doesn’t make you money, you’re likely going to be tied to them for an unreasonable amount of time paying for a service that doesn’t meet your business needs. Read the contract. Understand the contract. Be the contract. Don’t back yourself into a paincave that only puts money in somebody else’s pocket for substandard service. We’ve made this mistake so many times and thankfully broke ourselves of the habit after years of failures. Read. The. Contract.
In spite of the failures mentioned above, we have done a lot of things right. We learned from our mistakes. When you finally start to understand the flow of your Profit and Loss Statement and Cashflow Statement, your priorities are going to become quickly apparent. Anything that affects those priorities need to be measured daily or hourly. When the numbers start to look funky, we run down the root cause and make the priority of the executive team to fix and institute checks to make sure we don’t repeat the mistake again.
Rewinding all the way back to the beginning, I would have taken two things more seriously and both of them are very inexpensive to master: Product photography and Facebook advertising.
No matter what kind of product you’re selling, you can take great product photography with the iPhone in your pocket. Buy a light setup on Amazon, build a makeshift studio and keep taking pictures until you find something that works and your customers respond to.
Facebook doesn’t care if you spend yourself into bankruptcy spending money on ad dollars. They just want you to spend. If you’ve ever been to their campus, you’ll see where all the money goes into cool architecture, free king salmon for lunch, and coolers full of the boutique kombucha. Spend time on Youtube, learn how to use the system, target the right customers, and serve them good product images with good copy. If an ad isn’t working, no matter that your Facebook rep says, spending more money on it won’t make you more money.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur is weird. It’s constant stress, problem solving, and the rewards are few and far between. You tend to work more, work longer, and solve problems you never thought you’d have to solve. Yet, somehow, we stay after it day after day.
I’d say the best part of being and entrepreneur is not working for somebody else. I’ve worked in the military, at big tech firms, construction companies, etc.. My biggest pet peeve is sitting in useless meetings. I can’t stand being stuck in a room, listening to people say the same things over and over, not take responsibility, and having little to no change after the meeting. If you’re running the show, you can run effective meetings and or limit them to a manner that is meaningful to those involved.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The least favourite part of being and entrepreneur is the solitude. More often than not, you feel like you’re on an island. And that island is littered with the problems that either you created or somebody else can’t figure out. During the day, you’re getting sunburned trying to take care of the basics of food, water, shelter for the business and then you work on the problems at night.
Most of your friends and family are employees and they can’t understand it. Unless they’ve done it, there’s no real way they can. So they watch you do what you do, help at times, and constantly ask when you’re going to be done so that you can take a shower, eat, or go on a vacation.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
People spend more time reading books on how to run a business than running a business. The one book I would recommend is Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. The basic premise: What are your priorities? How do you measure those priorities? And how often do you review the metrics that measure your priorities? Over the years, I’ve read a decent amount of business books, but this has been the most impactful.
Google is the best resource for any entrepreneur. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a problems solver. In small businesses, problems roll uphill and they always end up on your desk. Nobody cares about your business’s problem like you care about them. When a problem comes up, have faith that you’re not the first person to have this issue and the answer is typically floating around somewhere on Al Gore’s internet. It’s 2020, so there’s usually a video to help. As long as you’re willing to read from left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and follow instructions, you’re going to be alright.
Maybe I’m missing out because I don’t listen to business podcasts, but there’s something to be said about having quiet to work, drive in the car, or eat a meal in peace. In those quiet moments, the ah-ha thoughts occur. As with all things, it’s a business. Books are a business. Podcasts are a business. They are in the business of selling books and getting listens. Neither of those help your business. Create the space you need to be creative, not listen to somebody repeat their creativity.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
In 2 to 3 years, we’d like to be a healthy company of 10 to 15 people, employing over 500 workers, and funding the education of 500 Afghan girls per year. We have investors that put a lot of faith in us for a long time, so it will be great to issue dividends that made it worth the risk to invest in a company likely doomed for failure.