How a couple of local veterans found out that rebuilding a war torn economy is almost as hard as fighting the war in the first place.
Combat flip-flops started as a joke in a factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. But for Matt Griffin, a former Army Ranger who was stationed at Fort Lewis, it was like a light bulb went off.
Griffin, who goes by Griff, was on a tour of one of the new factories that had been set up in Kabul to produce the uniforms for the burgeoning Afghan police force as part of a NATO policy to jump start Afghanistan’s manufacturing industry.
Then he saw it: Someone had stuck a flip-flop thong through the sole of a combat boot.
“It was a joke… the juxtaposition of the word combat and flip flop,” recalls Griff.
But he was immediately sure that the idea would sell in the US: Not only was it ironic, but it would hit a nerve for some people who felt a responsibility to help Afghanistan recover from years of war—especially veterans.
“My motivation is that we can represent ourselves better as a country,” says Griff. “Whether we’re in uniform or not, we committed to going over there and improving their quality of life.”
But Griff had no funding and no idea how to go about designing a shoe. So he called his friend Donald Lee, another former Army Ranger, with whom he had done three deployments. Lee had been a designer at the front end of the tech boom in California, but after 9/11, he put his career on hold and joined the Army. Lee was quickly sold on the idea and started putting together a website.
And he wasn’t the only one. Dealers began to pre-order the flip-flops, believing in the idea enough to pay up front.
Within six months, the new entrepreneurs had sourced their materials and recruited Griff’s brother-in-law Andrew Sewrey to design the shoe.
Griff visited several of the factories that had been set up by businessmen in Kabul seeking the NATO contracts, searching for one that could produce Combat Flip Flops. He found one he liked, and before long had the first sample shoe in hand.
But then things started to get complicated.
First President Obama announced a 2014 withdrawal date for troops in Afghanistan, which affected factories’ production schedules, and the flip-flops were delayed until early September 2012. Then all of the shoes in the completed order failed quality assurance testing, and the company just ended up giving them away to people in Kabul.
“You’ve got people who have been putting all this faith and trust in you to get this done… it’s just devastating,” Griff says, recalling that disappointment. “I think I would have been more distraught about it if people weren’t so supportive,”
Of the 2,000 flip-flops that were pre-sold in that production run, less than five people actually requested a refund.
Griff soon found a new factory that had a unique practice of hiring at least 50 percent female workers. A December 2012 production deadline was on track until news came that the Afghan government was taking over its own equipment procurement, and the boot contract that the factory held with the US military would not be renewed. The factory, which was producing Combat Flip Flops on the side, would have to close.
The next idea was to move forward with the production of the flip-flop in a US factory, but Griff found the US market to be more expensive and less flexible. The solution turned out to be a “micro-model” for assembling the unfinished flip-flops in Griff’s garage–the materials were sourced in Asia (as planned) and shipped to the States unassembled.
He joked that the company will now have a Phil Knight-like beginning, and that the flip flops will, at least temporarily be “Made in the US by veterans,” with the goal of moving manufacturing back to Afghanistan as soon as possible. Griff and with other veterans in his personal network assembled the shoes just this month.
The experience has been frustrating, but the Combat Flip Flop businessmen say they won’t be deterred from their original goal of putting production in Afghanistan.
“We knew it would be frustrating,” said Griff. “To be honest I think some of our excitement got in the way of our better judgment. We worked at a pace that was not conducive to long-term business,” he said explaining that they rushed in anticipation of a potential closing of factories.
So, while President Obama announced a diminished military presence in the State of the Union earlier this month—another 34,000 troops are slated to come home over the next year— Combat Flip Flops hopes to continue to support Afghanistan with the presence of American business.
Rebounding from the frustrating failures of setting up large-scale production in Afghanistan, Griff envisions a small-scale factory—similar to the one in his garage— in Afghan homes or small businesses. In this model, Griff says that the company would have more control over the factory and would be able to put in smaller, consistent orders, rather than one large order, annually or so.
In the meantime, the Combat Flip Flops company is marketing some other products made in Afghanistan. They partnering with artisans who are melting down bullet casings into a solid brass sarong ties decorated with Afghan stones, making Pashmina scarves for men and women and printing T-shirts.
“Most of the work is being done in small shops and people’s homes,” says Griff, who believes the next step for the company is to work on making production transparent. According to his plan, when consumers purchase a Pashmina scarf, they will be able to see the name of the person who actually made that scarf.
“We want to show people that they’re directly helping someone,” he says.
Those new accessories aren’t available yet at on Combat Flip Flop website, but the flip-flops themselves finally are (though Griff encourages people to order from the dealers who helped to invest in the idea in the first place: Mission Ready Equipment and U.S. Elite Gear).
With NATO officials drafting a proposal for greatly reduced military assistance to Afghanistan post-2014, Griff emphasized the need for US government support in order for small American businesses to be able to work with Afghan businesses.
“Restructuring the policies that will enable small businesses to grow is where we need to be focusing,” he said. “The policies haven’t gotten [Afghan entrepreneurs] there yet… They’re trying to grow their businesses, but they need help with their policies in order to grow faster.”
Without better policies, Griff says that other American businesses like Combat Flip Flops might see the opportunities in Afghanistan, but decide to go elsewhere.