"Countries that trade with each other do not kill each other”: I read this years ago and recently repeated it to my recent guest on the Shark Tank podcast, entrepreneur Matt "Griff" Griffin.
"No, they don’t," Griff agreed. "I thought I was helping the country by swooping in at night and kidnapping bad guys. But now I realize I do much more good helping people engage in business. People don’t believe me when I tell them . . . maybe because I look like a hippie, but it's true.”
Hippie? Nah. Rich man’s version of Rick from The Walking Dead? Perhaps. But Rick would need to add "West Point graduate" and "Army Ranger" to his resume to compete with Griff.
It was a night in February 2015. Griff and writer Wes Siller were polishing off a casual conversation with a few beers, when Wes stood up, mentioning he was headed to the airport. Recalls Griff: “I remember [him saying] something about Vegas, a private plane and [British musician] Billy Idol. Up until that point, it had been a normal conversation among strangers.”
Usually you wait until you get to Vegas before you name drop and tell stories . . . but to each his own. Fast-forward a few days after that, and Griff's website saw a flood of new sales. His company, Combat Flip Flops, recorded some 180,000 hits within 24 hours.
Hoo-yah! Turns out that Wes Siller writes for Gizmodo and liked what his new “hippie friend” had to say. The article Wes authored is a great piece of storytelling. It also turned out to be a rock-solid favor that would pay Griff monumental dividends.
Griff has completed four military tours for the United States Army. One was in Iraq; three were in Afghanistan. While serving overseas he told me he'd observed that, "Entrepreneurs were the guys that made it over there. They would drive fuel trucks.They would set up soda stands by our bases, they would hustle and sell whatever they could find. Entrepreneurship is the one thing that survives conflict, and it’s vital in these communities"
That observation started Griff asking himself, "What if?" What if we could provide jobs, skills and opportunities for these people ravaged by war? What if we could trade bullets for business? What if peace is best manufactured through trade?
And that's how Combat Flip Flops was born. The company, which Griff founded, along with business partner and fellow Ranger Donald Lee, now makes flip flops in Colombia, bags in America, sarongs and shemaghs in Afghanistan and jewelry in Laos.
A portion of those entrepreneurial proceeds goes to help young girls access proper education, Griff pointed out. “Did you know that roughly 15 percent of Afghan women are illiterate -- 15!” Griffin said, his voice tinged with emotion. “Think how easy it is to radicalize a child who has no education, because his mother did not understand the value of an education."
Instead, the young moms of these girls have actually contributed to the much-needed changes in their society.
Griff went on to cite Vietnam, one of the few remaining countries with a Communist regime, as a success story that can be replicated. “They are the leading global producer of footwear, and near the top for coffee," he said. "We now have a trade agreement with them." He then quipped: "Welcome to the unarmed forces!”
At that moment, I felt the way sharks Mark Cuban, Daymond John and Lori Greiner must have felt on Shark Tank the day they became acquainted with Combat Flip Flops. I was officially under Griff's spell as he told me how that event came to pass . . .
Tactical 'Shark Tank' strike
Neither Wes, Griff nor Billy Idol could have known that that article on Gizmodo had caught the attention of Shark Tank 's producers. An invitation to apply for a spot on the TV show followed. Griff established a clear mission directive, contingency plans and a withdrawal plan. On my podcast, he described all these points and, en route, provided some great insights for others looking to successfully “raid” the Shark Tank. Here is a sample:
The 'Shark Tank' fast-pass
One out of every four entrepreneurs is asked to audition for the show. Combat Flip Flops was one of these companies, and its founder provided the following two tips on how anyone can make this happen:
"After receiving the invite, keep impressing the producers. Every time they call, already know how you are going to raise their interest level in you."
"Ensure that you maintain extreme energy and positivity each time you interact with the producers."
"We wrote down every question and answer from every episode to discover some important trends," Griff said. "We understood which words and phrases would solicit the desired responses. We had the data to back it up." Further:
"Keep every answer to three to six seconds! This is important."
"It isn’t the entrepreneur tank, it's the Shark Tank. Don’t be under any illusions that you are the star of the show."
"We chose a 6x valuation. It's high, but not unrealistic, per standard business practice," Griff said. On that financial theme:
"Prepare to have your valuation cut in half." (See above.)
"You want tension, you want back and forth, but you are going to lose value. This is the trade-off for doing a deal with a shark. Embrace it, plan for it."
The night of the Combat Flip Flops pitch, Mark Cuban and Daymond John made an offer that included Lori Greiner as a commissioned rep rather than a partner. This was quite unusual in the Tank, and Griff wasn’t having it. He insisted that the business needed a “feminine touch.” Specifically, Greiner's. I asked her about it.
TJ: "Rather than accept a quality offer from Mark and Daymond, Combat Flip Flops took a risk by insisting on your inclusion as a partner. Were you surprised to receive such a formidable endorsement during Shark Tank?"
Lori: "No, of course I wasn’t surprised! These guys are Army Rangers and they do excellent recon. They knew what shark would be great for them!"
TJ: "Well played, Lori. How important was it for you to be a part of the Combat Flip Flops mission?"
Lori: "I was greatly impressed by both men. These two Army Rangers thought of a way to solve this issue and, it felt to me, [that was] a morally responsible action that could pay for itself by 'paying it forward.' They have the Ranger mentality of working hard, taking responsibility and doing whatever it takes to get the job done."
Combat Flip Flops sold so much product on the night the company's pitch aired that it now has products on back order for months.
“Did Mark and Daymond bail on your deal when you told them you needed them to help you assemble flip flops?” I asked Griff, trying to sound serious.
“We funded today,” he answered, flashing the Hawaiian hand signal known as the "double shaka."
“Yup, the wire went through this morning. The deal is official."
Shark Tank success. It’s a beautiful thing. The moral of the story? Next time you go to the bar, keep an eye out for Wes Siller . . . or someone who knows Billy idol.