‘Business not bullets’
July 23, 2013
By Christina Corrales-Toy
Entrepreneurs seek to transform Afghan economy with flip-flops
Many have heard the adage, “Take the bull by the horns,” but very few, if any, have ever attempted to slip a pair of flip-flops on the horn.
That is until Issaquah resident Matthew “Griff” Griffin attended Spain’s Running of the Bulls in mid-July, and in a feat of daring recklessness, tried to place a pair of sandals on the horn of a charging bull.
They were not just any old pair of flip-flops, though, they were Combat Flip Flops, manufactured in Griffin’s inconspicuous Issaquah garage with the lofty goal of transforming an economy a world away.
Griffin emerged from the bold attempt unscathed, though unsuccessful, but it was a perfect example of the persistence and creativity of a man who, through his company Combat Flip Flops, has a vision of using sandals as the ultimate weapon of change in Afghanistan.
“Good ideas usually tend to happen to us at the spur of a moment,” Griffin said of his bull encounter, but he could have just as easily been referring to the birth of Combat Flip Flops.
On the Web
The idea came to Griffin in 2010, while the former Army Ranger toured a combat boot factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. He noticed one of the workers used a boot sole to craft a flip-flop, and that same day, Griffin registered the domain name Combat Flip Flops.
From there, he enlisted Donald Lee, another former Army Ranger, and his brother-in-law and fellow Issaquah resident Andy Sewrey to help him launch a company with the mission of manufacturing the sandals in Afghanistan to support the country’s growing economy.
The men saw Combat Flip Flops as a way to fill the void that would eventually befall Afghan factories, which depended heavily on military contracts, as the country continued to stabilize and international forces began to withdraw, Sewrey said.
“We wanted to replace a combat boot with kind of the ultimate casual apparel,” he said. “We think there’s a really cool metaphor there, and we knew the people were capable of doing it.”
Setback after setback
In early 2012, they took a few prototype sandals to various tradeshows to see how buyers would react to the vision and design. The response was overwhelmingly favorable, Sewrey said, and people and businesses were eager to place orders.
At that point, Combat Flip Flops was ready to place an order for its first run of shoes from an Afghan factory, but they quickly found that doing business in the war-torn country was easier said than done.
“Working in Afghanistan is really difficult logistically,” Sewrey said. “We didn’t really have any issues with corruption. There was nothing like that going on. It’s just a difficult area to work. It’s a different culture.”
The first order of about 2,000 shoes was ready in September 2012, so Griffin and Sewrey traveled to Afghanistan to see their vision come to fruition. When they arrived, however, they found that the shoes were not made to specification.
The setback would be the first of many to come.
“There were just a lot of material issues with that first run,” Sewrey said. “Construction wise, everything that the Afghans did, they did it right, but they had to source some material out of country, like we had planned to do, and there was a quality assurance breakdown.”
Griffin and Sewrey could not accept the order, and to the Afghans’ credit, they took ownership of their work, and completely reimbursed the company.
The emotions of that day were intense, Sewrey said. He recalled sitting in a foreign country grieving with a sense of loss.
“I cried in Afghanistan,” he said. “I lost it. I got on the phone with my wife and she thought somebody had died.”
Luckily, Combat Flip Flops had a loyal customer base that believed in the concept. Of the more than 200 preorders, only about four people asked for a refund, Sewrey said.
“You click buy online and don’t get your stuff, you’re usually coming out of your shoes,” he said.
Making flip-flops in Issaquah
While they were in Afghanistan, Griffin and Sewrey had already planned to visit a few other factories. The first factory told them that in order to manufacture the flip-flops, they would need to order upwards of 20,000 pairs, something that the company was not able to do yet.
The next factory was already making combat boots, and had the capability to insert the Combat Flip Flops into their regular production, so the company put in an order of 3,400 sandals before returning to Issaquah.
Just a few months later, right before Christmas 2012, the factory announced that they lost their combat boot contract, and could no longer fulfill the Combat Flip Flops order.
Similar to the previous workshop, the factory was so large that it did not make wise business sense for them to open the doors to manufacture what is considered a relatively small order for them.
This was just days before a container filled with the flip-flops’ raw materials was supposed to depart from China, and at that point, it became evident that the first run of shoes would have to be produced in the United States.
“We called the freight forwarders and said, ‘You can just point this container at the Port of Seattle, right?’ and we would figure it out when it got here,” Sewrey said.
During the trip to Afghanistan, Griffin and Sewrey brought along some raw material and actually watched some workers make the flip-flops.
It would prove to be a valuable experience, because whether they liked it or not, they were about to manufacture flip-flops, and they were going to do it in Griffin’s 500-square-foot Issaquah garage.
It took Griffin and Sewrey about a month to put together their micro-manufacturing facility. Once it was done, the duo, along with family and friends, spent countless hours making sandals to fulfill orders.
Since February, the facility has produced about 3,000 pairs of shoes.
Sewrey said they were happy to finally get the orders to their waiting customers, but they were not yet satisfied. They still fell short of their goal to manufacture the shoes in Afghanistan.
“We didn’t fail because we were wrong, or we did it and nobody cared, we failed because humans are involved and sometimes things get jacked up,” he said. “Everybody still wants this to happen.”
Getting back to Afghanistan
Combat Flip Flops is effectively sold out of the men’s sandals. They are currently selling their women’s models as well as what they call “blamo’s,” which are first-run sandals that contained minor deficiencies.
The flip-flops are described as rugged and sturdy, and are popular with the tactical and outdoor communities, Sewrey said. Many of the sandal designs have subtle Afghan influences.
“People see a retired Army Ranger coming back and doing everything he can to help support the economy in the place that they all tried to fight for, and it is a really powerful story,” Sewrey said.
They will continue to manufacture the shoes out of the Issaquah garage, though the plan is to move the bulk of the work to Colombia, to take advantage of the country’s fine leather, but more importantly, to give the company owners more time to pursue the main goal of establishing a factory in Afghanistan.
Combat Flip Flops expects to reach its goal with the help of crowd-funding campaigns using Kickstarter or Indiegogo, set to launch this year.
“I think that given everything that’s going on with our country in Afghanistan and how many friends I’ve lost, I really want to see a long-lasting impact and effect,” Griffin said. “What our country did there, the changes we made, I want people to know that we actually did a lot of good.”
Despite all the setbacks, Griffin said he is committed to seeing his vision become reality.
“We’re going to make it happen hell or high water,” he said. “We’re not going to quit. We’re going to get the job done.”