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As an Army Ranger, Capt. Matthew Griffin never really believed military action in Afghanistan was a solution — a necessary heavy boot in the door, sure, but not something that would build lasting peace.
After multiple deployments to that war-ravaged country, he saw plenty of death and destruction. But it was when he returned as a civilian contractor that he was blown away at how growth could come out of that mayhem.
"I was amazed at how businesses were thriving in areas that I never thought could be recovered. I came to this realization that if you can give them something worth protecting on their own, they're going to do that."
He found himself asking: Why aren't we doing more to promote small businesses in conflict areas?
'Dude, we're starting a business'
That's when he meet a former Marine captain who was helping run a combat-boot factory in Kabul. Workers there had made flip-flops using the soles of combat boots. Griffin was inspired.
"Do you mind if I run with this?" he remembers asking the Marine. Within hours Griffin had registered the domain name combatflipflops.com and called his old radioman from the Ranger Regiment.
"Hey, dude — we're starting a business," he told Donald Lee, who had left the military around the same time and was working in Los Angeles as a freelance e-commerce and marketing guru. Living on the outskirts of Seattle, Griffin was buds with Andy Sewrey, a bass player-turned-designer in the area who was also eager to jump into the effort.
By 2011, the trio had turned their sketches into three designs, and with a bag of samples slung over his shoulder, Griffin headed to Las Vegas for the annual Shooting, Hunting & Outdoor Trade expo, better known as SHOT Show.
While flip-flops may be better suited to the surfer set, Griffin says he knew the vendors at SHOT would get what was trying to do.
"A service member who has seen [Afghans] begging in the streets with little kids in their arms — they understand they need jobs."
But it was an Australian who actually helped get things moving.
"I had two beers with the guy, showed him the shoes, and two days later we had $25,000 in our account." It was a down payment on an order of flip-flops and sole distribution rights in Australia.
"We had cash. We were funded. It was game on," Griffin says.
Less than a year later, he and Lee were back in Afghanistan, this time as businessmen, picking up their first order of 2,000 pairs of flip-flops stuffed inside canvas bags typically used to smuggle opium.
Unfortunately, the quality wasn't good enough.
"If we had shipped that product, it would have destroyed our brand value." And it would have sent exactly the wrong message.
"Our whole thing is about changing expectations. People don't expect people in war zones to make quality products. People in war zones don't expect people in comfortable places to come to war zones to make a badass product."
They tried another factory in Afghanistan, but it closed down before things got moving.
So with a container stuffed with $40,000 worth of raw materials, cut and ready for assembly, standing by in China, "Lee was like, 'f-ing ship those materials here.' "
Griffin Googled "how to make flip-flops" and spent the next 40 days in a self-taught crash course in shoe building while the container made its way across the Pacific to his garage.
"We spent a month from 5 a.m. to midnight just slaying flip-flops," he says, standing inside the 600-square-foot space he transformed into a makeshift factory. "We made 4,000 pairs of flip-flops right here."
Now production of Combat Flip Flops has shifted to another combat zone, this time Colombia, where the people "have had to deal with narco-trafficking, a counter-insurgency, years of war — in other words a lot like Afghanistan. It was the perfect fit for what we were trying to do."
But he hasn't given up on Afghanistan.
Fighting the long fight
The company has expanded its line to include jewelry and sarongs now made there.
"We linked up with an Afghan woman running a curtain factory in Kabul who's making our sarongs," Griffin says, adding that the woman, the executive director of an aid group, ran underground schools for girls while the Taliban was in power.
"For every sarong we sell, we contribute back to the program so kids can go to school. It's a matter of fighting the long fight."
It's also about being part of a bigger story.
"If you don't like little kids getting blown up by landmines, buy our jewelry that is made out of old landmines. And we'll show you the local artists making the jewelry, and we'll show you the education program that's helping save kids' lives," he says.
"You can find better flip-flops out there. You can buy better jewelry. But will you feel rad about it? Will you feel part of a community? Will you feel like your purchase has made a difference?"
Of course, as a business owner, you've also got to pay the bills.
Get a job, Build the business
"If someone wants to start a small business, the first thing they need to do is get a day job," Griffin says. "You have to. It's hard. It takes a lot of time and effort. One line that's kept me going is that you have to be willing to spend a few years of your life living in a way most people won't, so that you can then live the rest of your life in the way most people can't."
But another inspirational message proved true as well: People won't commit to you until you commit to the business. Indeed, Griffin couldn't help but notice that a lot of vendors and other business contacts didn't take him seriously because he wasn't working the business full time.
He was finally able to go full time in June 2013. Working from home, these days he says his work day couldn't be better. "I get up in the morning and do a couple hours of emails. Get my girls ready for school ... run my business for five, six hours a day from my home office. And then pick up my girls and hang out for the rest of the day."
Griffin has two pieces of advice for anyone ready to start their own business.
First, start reading. His top three recommendations: "Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us" by Daniel Pink, "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene and "What Got You Here, Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith.
His other piece of advice: Find a mentor.
"If you're willing to pony up and start a business, you can find someone who is willing to help you. There are guys who have been there and done that and started a successful business who had someone who mentored them. And they want to pay it forward."