Issaquah’s Combat Flip Flops is a post-conflict success story
March 11, 2014
By Peter Clark
What do Army Rangers, a dedication to helping global post-conflict areas and flip-flops have in common? Together, they create innovation in Issaquah.
The Issaquah Chamber of Commerce honored Combat Flip Flops last month as one of three Innovation in Issaquah award winners. The award marked another milestone in the interesting business’ trajectory, which began in the mountains of Afghanistan.
“We fought in a different war,” company co-founder Matthew Griffin, casually known as “Griff,” said in his Issaquah garage, which served as the manufacturing facility for the first 4,000 pairs of flip-flops. “We had to run guys down in the most adverse conditions. But it was a really giving culture and we never forgot it.”
After three tours of duty, he began to see how small businesses were changing the landscape and wondered why American companies didn’t invest more into what seemed to generate a large social impact.
“Small businesses are making the biggest difference in Afghanistan,” Griffin said. “It’s a benefit to small business owners. They want to make sure the customers feel safe and comfortable there. I got to see a completely different side of it when I wasn’t wearing body armor.”
Griffin took a job selling medical equipment in Afghanistan and recounted the “light bulb moment” when a pair of flip-flops would change his life. He toured a combat boot factory in Kabul and spied a pair of boot soles that someone had modified by punching a flip-flop thong through them.
“I just picked it up and thought, ‘That will sell,’” he said.
He immediately registered the domain name combatflipflops.com and began making the business idea a reality.
The initial idea involved bringing the manufacturing to Afghanistan as way to help small businesses in the area affect the social climate. Griffin said the company tried enlisting three factories to make the first orders, but various difficulties halted the operations.
“We had a bunch of raw materials and nowhere to go,” he said. “The only way to break even was learning how to make it ourselves. So, we made 4,000 of them right here over last summer.”
Since then, Combat Flip Flops tried to secure future funding through kickstarter.com. While that effort did not succeed, it gave the company global media attention.
Griffin said the business was featured in a half page in The Wall Street Journal, on the BBC and even on “Sunrise Australia,” which he described as that country’s version of the television program “Good Morning America.”
“Now, we sell 100 pairs every two weeks there,” Griffin said. “We’re shipping tons of flip-flops to Australia, which is huge.”
Combat Flip Flops also found steady manufacturing in Bogotá, Columbia. Since October, Griffin said all the raw materials and assembling of the footwear is done there.
It puts the business on track to plan for the future. Griffin said the immediate goal is obviously to get into the black, but there is a broader vision.
“Our goal is we’re going to go to post-conflict areas and help small businesses build their markets,” he said. “We offer a quality product at an affordable price and do it globally.”
In order to accomplish that goal, Combat Flip Flops has actively expanded what it sells beyond footwear. Griffin stretched out a handcrafted sarong on his workbench, made in a woman-owned factory in Kabul, Afghanistan, as an example of new products. He said Combat Flip Flops also now offered jewelry made from Laotian land mines and patches from Kosovo. Additionally, to help support American manufacturing, the business offers laptop bags made in Lakewood.
Kate Ketschek, who works in public relations for Combat Flip Flops, said the strides the company has made would benefit its year-end finances.
“We are forecasting 100 percent growth in 2014 over 2013,” she said in an email.
The message matters most to the business, and Griffin said it has resonated through communities around the world, including from the roots that grew the initial idea. Fellow service members have greeted Combat Flip Flops with respect and enthusiasm.
“We were an elite unit,” Griffin said of his Ranger squad in Afghanistan. “Because of what we were doing, it provides credibility with what we’re doing now.”