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Matt Griffin – Hearts, Minds, and Feet

The Story Behind a Veteran’s Mission to Defeat Terrorism One Flip-Flop at a Time

Photos by Roy Lin and Courtesy Matt Griffin

Maybe you’ve heard of Combat Flip Flops (CFF), the company whose footwear is “Bad for Running, Worse for Fighting.” Turns out the flip-flops — and the scarves and sarongs CFF sells — are also surprisingly good at challenging conventional thinking about how to win wars. When a business model can be summed up by the phrase, “We make cool stuff in dangerous places,” you know you’re dealing with a different kind of company. CFF is gritty, scrappy, and socially conscious with a sly sense of humor. But its slogan also begs the question: Why choose a dangerous place when a safer one would do?

To get that answer, you need to get to know veteran, Flip-Flopreneur, and CFF CEO Matthew “Griff” Griffin. In 1997, as a plebe at the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, Griff saw the Army Rangers stage a mock hostage rescue during halftime at a football game. Black Hawk helicopters dropped hot brass from miniguns and Rangers from fast ropes, while ground elements assaulted the field in RSOV gun-trucks. It made quite an impression.

“It was coordinated, controlled violence,” says Griffin, “I thought to myself, Well, sh*t. I want to go hang out with those guys.” Griff worked his way through the USMA, became an Army artillery fire support officer, and was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, which explored the capabilities of the Army’s first 14 Stryker infantry fighting vehicles before they entered service in the Army and combat in Iraq. In 2003, Griff completed the Ranger Orientation Program. A brand-new lieutenant assigned to Alpha Company, Second Ranger Battalion, he showed up just as his privates were returning from the Iraq invasion. By late 2003, they were deploying together to Afghanistan for Operation Winter Strike.

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Over five years, Griff completed four deployments: Winter Strike, Afghanistan (spring and summer ’04), and summer ’05 to Iraq. Post-Army, he’s worked in construction, on a fishing boat, and later, for a remote medical services company.

Eventually, Griff founded CFF, a company built on the belief that its products can do more than fill a customer need. He’s turning flip-flops into economic and educational opportunities by manufacturing them in dangerous, war-town, impoverished locales.

Griff sat down to explain how four tours, an episode of Shark Tank, and thousands of flip-flops built a $1.5 million company that’s trying to win wars using “business, not bullets.”

FOUR DEPLOYMENTS, FIVE YEARS
RECOIL: What were the conditions on your first deployment (Winter Strike in Nangalam near the Korengal Valley)?
Matt Griffin: We lived up in the villages and valleys for three-and-a-half months in the middle of the worst winter they had seen in a decade. … The base elevation was anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. We had some of our patrols poke out over 10,000 feet of snow, pulling weapons out and meeting with villagers who hadn’t seen a white guy since the British. It was a pretty unique experience.

Donald Lee, left, and Matt Griffin, right, prepare for a patrol from FOB Nangalam. The base was later renamed FOB Blessing for Sgt. Jay Blessing, a U.S. Army Ranger killed on the convoy to this northwestern Afghanistan outpost.

Donald Lee, left, and Matt Griffin, right, prepare for a patrol from FOB Nangalam. The base was later renamed FOB Blessing for Sgt. Jay Blessing, a U.S. Army Ranger killed on the convoy to this northwestern Afghanistan outpost.

Anything from that deployment have a profound effect on you?
MG: I get up in the morning, and I’m watching these three little girls playing with a stick. That’s all they’ve got. Mom comes out, sits down with them, plays with them, prays with them. What I determined was they’re just like us. They’re families. They’re kids. … Those children had no choice where they were born, but because of the location we classified them as terrorists or enemies. Was that their fault? Is that fair of us? If this decision-making goes both ways, would they think the same of my daughters?

U.S. Army Rangers secure the high ground above a natural choke point between three valleys that could be used for fleeing insurgents during Operation Winter Strike in 2003.

U.S. Army Rangers secure the high ground above a natural choke point between three valleys that could be used for fleeing insurgents during Operation Winter Strike in 2003.

How did the villagers feel about your presence?
MG: The vibe from the Afghans was like, “We are so thankful that you’re here. We would like to kick these sh*theads out of our area. We don’t want to grow drugs. We don’t want to be subject to this. We want to get our kids in schools. We want to have opportunity. Thank you for coming and getting rid of these guys.” … We lived in villages and got to witness the hardship of Afghan life. Amidst that despair, they hosted us, fed us, and kept us warm. When we left, they were still there, cold, hungry, and with less food because they hosted us. That made a huge impression on me about the kindness of the Afghan people.

Griffin photographed these little girls playing one morning on the roof of a building his team was using in Afghanistan in 2003. The view affected the way he saw the Afghan people.

Griffin photographed these little girls playing one morning on the roof of a building his team was using in Afghanistan in 2003. The view affected the way he saw the Afghan people.

STARTING COMBAT FLIP-FLOPS
You took a job with Remote Medical International and ended up back in Afghanistan. How did coordinating medical services turn into making flip-flops?
MG: Flip-flops just happened. As I was witnessing businesses make positive change throughout the Middle East and Africa, I was on the hunt for an idea that would be applicable. … The U.S. told the Afghans if you build factories for boots and uniforms, we’ll give you preference in our contracts. These Afghan families invested millions of dollars putting these facilities in Kabul. [I got talking with a former Marine captain who] got hired to build one of them. He said, “Hey man, you can tour our factory. Plus, we’ve got a really good cup of coffee. Best coffee in Kabul.” I’m from Seattle; I’ve been without good coffee for a few weeks, so the next day I got in my car and took a tour over there.

What was the factory like?
MG: It was beautiful. It was the cleanest factory I had ever been in. This guy had figured out how to build this factory out of rubble in about 18 months in a war zone. It was unbelievable. He was employing around 300 people, [each of whom supported] five to 13 family members with that job. Nothing ever happens at that factory. Not a mugging, not a shooting, not a bombing because those people protect the factory, because it supports the livelihood of so many. To me, it’s just like, wow, that’s a really smart thing. I’m sitting there in the factory talking to him. I say, “What are you gonna do when the war ends?” He goes, “Yeah we’re just gonna shut it down. Nobody’s gonna want to buy anything in Afghanistan.”

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What was your reaction?
MG: I got absolutely furious — so mad. We had spent thousands of lives, and by this point, I’m sure over a trillion dollars to get to a point where [Afghanistan] could have an opportunity like that. … I’m just furious, and I’m standing there on the factory floor. I look and there’s this combat boot sole on a flip-flop. I’m like, “Gee what’s that?” [The guy says], “Oh yeah, we designed that for the military because in garrison, they have to take their boots on and off [to pray] five times a day. They’re just losing a ton of time.” … It was a product made for the Afghan National Army. But what I thought was, “Damn, that thing looks cool. Americans would buy that.” I picked [the flip-flop] up, looked at it, and said, “Hey man, do you mind if I run with this?” He says, “Yeah, sure go ahead.” I called my Ranger buddy [Lee] and said, “Hey man, we’re gonna start a flip-flop company in Afghanistan.” It was like 2 in the morning in L.A. He said, “Yeah, sure,” and hung up the phone on me.

Griffin and a young Afghan policeman during a patrol in Konar Province, Afghanistan in December 2003.

Griffin and a young Afghan policeman during a patrol in Konar Province, Afghanistan in December 2003.

How did it grow from there?
MG: My brother-in-law, Andy Sewrey, is a non-military dude, plays in a rock band, and a professional painter. … We were on our way to a bachelor party, and I started explaining [my idea] to him. He said, “I’d like to be a part of that. “ … He comes back with a sketch, straight-up line-drawing diagram on a computer. … We released that on Soldier Systems, and people were like, “Yeah, it’s a really good idea, you should do that. “ We were like, “F*ck it, we might as well.” We didn’t have any money, so I continued to work my day job and sold my boat, mobile home, chopper, another motorcycle.

That’s when you brought the prototypes to SHOT Show?
MG: We sold 4,000 pairs in about four days. So, we had established a demand for the product, [but] Afghanistan can’t make raw materials. … [Then] Obama announced the end of the Afghan war in 2014, so all the logistics and contracting for the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police went over to the Afghans, [who] cut off all the contracts with the factory we were going to use to manufacture our stuff. … Then our materials supplier pulled a bait and switch on us. So, Andy and I got some duffle bags and hopped on a plane. We go pick up our footwear, and we start slicing the bags open. All of them were bad — 100 percent. They were beautiful, but it was just bad materials.

After the loss of the first run of footwear in 2012, Griffin and his partner Andy Sewrey, left, visited the home and shrine of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Lion of the Panjshir. Massoud is a national hero who fought the Soviets and was assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2001.

After the loss of the first run of footwear in 2012, Griffin and his partner Andy Sewrey, left, visited the home and shrine of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Lion of the Panjshir. Massoud is a national hero who fought the Soviets and was assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2001.

What did you do?
MG: We didn’t know what to do. My buddy goes, “Hey, you want to go up to [Ahmad Shah] Massoud’s house for the weekend?” F*ck it. We might as well get something cool out of this trip. So, we roll up to the Panjshir Valley. We’re hanging out with Mouj fighters in Massoud’s garden on his martyr day and go to his shrine. We see how hard that guy worked to save the country. We’re like, “F*ck, dude. What would he do if he had a bad run of flip-flops to deal with. That guy sold sh*t to defeat the Russians. Our problems aren’t so bad.”

So, you have delivery delays on pre-orders and then another factory fell through, right?
MG: I have a container full of raw materials, [and] at this point, we’re six months behind to customers. Andy’s a real technical guy. He was like, “Sh*t dude, I’ll make them.” We told the supplier in China, “Ship the container to my house.” My wife, Michele, sold her car, and I sold everything of value. … We got in my garage, painted the floor bright green, and put a flip-flop manufacturing facility behind my house.

Griffin atop a shipping container in Seattle in 2013.

Griffin atop a shipping container in Seattle in 2013.

But you found a Colombian manufacturer for new orders?
MG: We were like, “Colombia, that’s kind of dicey. War on drugs.” … [Then we find out we] can deliver higher quality, full-grain leather product out of Colombia, with a shorter transit time. We had our first run in 2013 from Colombia in October.

Are you still making products in Afghanistan?
MG: What we learned is that you have to be able to make a product in country. From fiber to finish, it’s got to be made there. … We asked ourselves, “What can we make in Afghanistan?” I found this woman, Hassina Sherjan … She sent us these sarongs, and they were beautiful. We were like, “Hey, can you make some more?” Then it just kind of evolved from there. … That’s when we really started supporting her educational programs. “OK, we want to educate women and employ women. What if you manufacture our product, and we’ll pay for a day of school for an Afghan girl?” And I thought, well, why don’t we just do that for everybody?

After a series of manufacturing setbacks, CFF decided to do it themselves. CFF president Andy Sewrey sanded nearly 7,500 flip-flops and got a wicked case of carpel tunnel syndrome doing it.

After a series of manufacturing setbacks, CFF decided to do it themselves. CFF president Andy Sewrey sanded nearly 7,500 flip-flops and got a wicked case of carpel tunnel syndrome doing it.

SHARK TANK
Then, in 2015, you got an unexpected phone call.
MG: It was a Tuesday night at 11:30, and I get a call from Culver City, California. I’m not picking up the phone; it’s someone who wants money, right? I listen to the voicemail: “Hey my name is Max Swedlow. I’m with ABC’s Shark Tank. I read about your company on Gizmodo. Would you like to come on the show?” I don’t watch TV. From what I had seen, it seemed like Shark Tank takes startups that could do well and crushes them on national TV. I said to Andy and Lee, “I told them I would think about it.” Lee says, “Are you high? Are you crazy? That’s America’s No. 1 rated work-related reality TV show.” So, we started training for Shark Tank. We spent hundreds of hours and watched every single episode … [and] we walked out of there pretty successful.

CFF-embroidered products are sourced from a women owned and operated factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. Each sarong takes roughly six hours in manufacturing to complete — no digital work anywhere.

CFF-embroidered products are sourced from a women owned and operated factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. Each sarong takes roughly six hours in manufacturing to complete — no digital work anywhere.

That was a big gamble, right? You lost time preparing for the show, and then it took a while for the episode to air.
MG: [It was the fall, and] who’s selling flip-flops in fall? … Then, we aired. We did more business in 15 hours than we did in all of 2014. In 36 hours, more business than in our entire company history. We grew from a $300,000 company to a $1.5 million company.

From left, Matt Griffin, Andy Sewrey, and Jill Doherty prepare product for shipment in CFF’s backyard factory in Issaquah, Washington.

From left, Matt Griffin, Andy Sewrey, and Jill Doherty prepare product for shipment in CFF’s backyard factory in Issaquah, Washington.

MOVING FORWARD
What are your plans now?
MG: We’ve got all the retail partners we want right now. We closed a deal with the Naval Exchange, so we’re on the Navy bases. We should have the Army Exchanges closed up here by March [and] the Marine Corps closed up as well. We just got into Cabela’s.

When Griffin isn’t trying to save the world with footwear, he’s enjoying the mountains of the Pacific Northwest on skis, in hiking boots, or on his mountain bike.

When Griffin isn’t trying to save the world with footwear, he’s enjoying the mountains of the Pacific Northwest on skis, in hiking boots, or on his mountain bike.

How would you describe your role as CEO?
MG: The conductor for the orchestra.

What kind of a leader are you?
MG: I really liked [being an officer]. I liked being an enabling leader, giving my guys the ability to go out and execute and perform a mission. What else could you ask for? To be surrounded by a bunch of hyper-motivated, intelligent guys who could bring the fight to the enemy, develop a plan, train for it, and then go out and execute it within plus-or-minus three seconds? It’s great. I really want to see my people do well and realize their full potential. I know if they work hard, how far they can take themselves, even though they probably don’t.

Does your family think you’re nuts?
MG: Yes. Everybody does. But I deliver. So, they tolerate it and have stories to tell afterward.

Griffin and his daughters in May 2015. His girls put together a birthday hiking trip for him in Stehekin, Washington, one of most secluded spots in the lower 48.

Griffin and his daughters in May 2015. His girls put together a birthday hiking trip for him in Stehekin, Washington, one of most secluded spots in the lower 48.

Ever thought about giving up?
MG: What day is it? Yes. All the time.

Is it worth it?
MG: Oh, totally. When people send you photos of little girls holding our sarongs or they’re trying the flip-flops, that makes it all go away. Like hell yeah, right? Totally worth it.

Any lessons worth sharing with others contemplating a startup?
MG: Sure. One, fail fast. Fail cheap. Plan for it. Two, have contingencies for everything. Three, cash is king. Four, don’t outsource it until you can hand it off to somebody to generate equal or greater returns than you. Lastly, keep swinging. Eventually, you’ll knock one out of the park.

How did you know to keep swinging?
MG: It just seemed like whenever we were about ready to go under as a company, something miraculous would happen. I knew it was God’s way of saying that, “OK, you’ve learned your lesson. I’m going to give you a bump, so you can go make your next couple of lessons right.”

everyday-carry

GRIFF’S EDC
> Nemo Ditto Wallet
> Ranger Coin
> Passion Planner, Undated, Monday, Compact, Timeless Black
> Smith Optics Turntables
> BIC Lighter wrapped with 1-inch 90-mph tape
> LED Senser P3 RFS P Flashlight
> Power Practical Lithium 4400 USB Battery/Light
> iPhone 6 128GB White
> RokForm iPhone Case
> Pentel Energize Mechanical Pencil.
> Sharpie Fine Point
> Sharpie Extra Fine Point
> SOG Knife (Model Unknown) Gift from Ranger BN Commander and CSM
> Glock 19 (no modifications)
> Syndicate Concealment Guardsman Holster

MATTHEW GRIFFIN
Title:
CEO Combat Flip-Flops
Age:
37
Education:
U.S. Military Academy, West Point
Favorite firearm:
Harrington & Richardson/AAC Handi-Rifle in 300 Blackout
Married:
13 years
Children:
2 girls
Favorite TV Show:
I don’t watch TV
Last Book Read:
Fearful Odds by Charles Newhall
Last Film Watched:
Die Hard (it was Christmas)
Favorite Ski:
H20 Gear Kodiak 191cm. I call them mountain chainsaws.
URL:
www.combatflipflops.com

matt-griffin

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