Is it possible to change the world one pair of flip-flops at a time?
Donald Lee and Matthew Griff, founders of Combat Flip Flops, not only built a successful retail business but also help underserved communities all over the world by empowering them economically with employment opportunities.
As social entrepreneurs, Lee and Griff created a business model that drives “multiple bottom lines” – profits, social change, and sustainable economic growth.
How did the company come about, what unique challenges did they face, and what’s their secret for success?
The Multi-Million-Dollar Business Idea
Similar to many social enterprises that help communities in developing countries, the initial concept for Combat Flip Flops was born out of the founders’ personal experiences when they were living among the people they serve.
Lee and Griff were two Army Rangers stationed in Afghanistan where they experienced first-hand the people and culture of the war-torn country.
However, what they saw were not people waiting for a handout. Instead, they saw a community that embodied the virtues of persistence, creativity, and respect.
They saw hardworking people making combat boots and other army supplies to support their families and communities.
Then they realized that these workers would need a job after the war ends. They saw an opportunity to “manufacture peace through trade” and a business idea was born:
Combat Flip Flops would send veterans to countries affected by war, identify facilities that were established to manufacture tools for war and transform them to make commercial products that support peace.
They’d ship the products all over the world and create employment opportunities along the way.
Today, the company has factories in a few developing countries – creating employment opportunities and economic advancements in many underserved communities:
- Their flip-flops are made in Columbia, where all the materials are sourced locally.
- They use metal from landmines dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War to create jewelry. The revenue further funds landmine clearance to keep more people safe.
- Their women-operated factories in Afghanistan make all the sarongs and scarfs sold on the website. Each piece puts an Afghan girl in school – an effort to battle the 15% illiterate rate among Afghan women.
- They’re funding veteran missions overseas as well as clinical aid work – giving 2% of their bottom line to causes they support.
Unlike giving out aids and donations, Combat Flip Flops’ factories are creating long-term economic changes in the local communities. The business model gets to the root cause of poverty and creates a virtuous cycle of empowerment.
Learning Curve And Growing Pains
Taking an impact-driven startup off the ground is rarely a walk in the park. There are many moving parts and it can be quite challenging when all you have is a few thousand bucks and a simple website.
However, that didn’t hold Lee and Griff back.
Getting On the Radar With a Compelling Brand Story
Lee and Griff made their first sales at a trade show. They only had a night to prepare – barely enough time to get a website, a merchant account, and a bank account set up.
The event became the turning point for the company.
Making the most of what they’ve got, Lee and Griff attended the trade show and shared their compelling brand story with some bloggers who took photos of the products and posted them online.
They highlighted the story of how simply buying a pair of flip-flops can help people in underserved communities by creating jobs and putting them through school.
The business model was easy to explain and people’s immediate reaction was, “we wanna support that!”
From there, they sold thousands of pairs of flip-flops to consumers all over the world.
Make Products That Sell
As a for-profit social business, you need to generate a profit. Otherwise, you’ll be out of business before long and unable to make the social impact you set out to achieve.
That means you need to sell something that people want. Whether it’s a product or a service, you have to identify a market and create something your customers want to buy.
For Combat Flip Flops, their customers want high-quality and well-designed fashion items that also have a great story to tell. They want to feel good about their purchases by knowing that they’re helping communities in need.
Scaling the Company – the Power of Publicity and Team Work
A compelling brand story won’t generate sales if the world doesn’t know about it.
Lee and Griff designed a brand management campaign and had a clear target on which publications to pitch and how to direct their advertising budget.
They worked with a PR professional to help them promote their brand story and landed an interview with Gizmodo. The interview gave them the stage to share their story and a platform to introduce their products to the market.
A producer from Shark Tank saw the article and offered them a spot to pitch on the show.
The duo prepared well for the show and took that advantage to tell the company’s story.
They succeeded in building brand awareness and driving traffic to the website. However, they also learned the hard way that with a boost in publicity, they also had to make sure they have the infrastructure in place to support the increase in interest and the spike in traffic.
Nonetheless, the “Shark Tank effect” was real and they enjoyed a steady flow of traffic for months afterward.
In addition to the publicity, Combat Flip Flops grew from one distributor to a million-dollar company, thanks to its great team composed of dedicated individuals who know each member’s strengths.
Each member contributes his expertise to the company, such as networking, operations, business plan development, and design.
Lee and Griff roll up their sleeves and get into the trenches. All the partners are knee-deep in the business because everything is interconnected – from product design to logistics and marketing – one thing can affect many others and ultimately, sales.
Finding the Sweet Spot
As a startup, pricing your products and services can be quite a challenge – and Combat Flip Flops wasn’t spared such growing pain.
Having a social cause doesn’t make them immune to market forces. If anything, they need to be more diligent with their demand forecast because of the business’s mission to support the wide net of local communities.
Lee and Griff did the research, analyze market trends, and made adjustments based on their website metrics so everything fell in line with the industry standards.
The advantage of being a small company is their ability to pivot and turn on a dime to respond nimbly to the market.
They were able to optimize conversion rates, maximize revenues, and fine-tune ad spending to increase their ROI.
Combat Flip Flops experienced a 450% increase in their annual revenue recently. But they also invested substantially in inventory and infrastructure to get there so they just broke even.
To make the business profitable, Lee and Griff had to find out which products were making money using existing data and creating forecasts. They cut out products that were losing money and brought in more winners so they can come out ahead.
Now they can accurately forecast their demand and make sure their supply chain is set up to meet the needs of the market while supporting the communities involved in the manufacturing process.
Combat Flip Flops is a great example of how a social venture can generate a profit and deliver profound social impact at the same time.
It follows the “multiple bottom line” concept that works well for many social enterprises.
Lessons For Startup Change Creators On Creating Profit and Progress
Here are a few lessons you can glean from the company’s success and apply it to your own social business startup:
Travel to learn about the world and your market.
Traveling gives you the opportunity to learn about the world. You can get inspired by your travel experience and turn it into a business idea that can help a community.
Spend time in the communities you want to serve.
Spending time in the community you want to serve allows you to understand their culture, environment, resources, and economic reality – information that will help you structure a sustainable venture that benefits those who are most in need.
Share your mission with everyone.
Share your mission with the world. Tell a compelling brand story that takes your product beyond “commodity” and turns customers into evangelists to further your cause.
Don’t hold back until you are ‘ready’. Move forward now.
Take every opportunity you can and make the most out of it. Don’t hold yourself back just because you don’t have all the bells and whistles in place.
Generate the right kind of publicity for your products.
Generate the right kind of publicity for your products. Keep putting yourself out there and you never know who may see your article or interview!
Be prepared. When an opportunity comes, you’ll want to be ready!
Be prepared. When you come upon the opportunity to promote your brand, make sure your infrastructure – such as website and shopping cart – are set up to handle the increased traffic.
Build a strong team.
Build a team of dedicated individuals who share your vision and understand each other’s strengths. If you are looking to fund your idea, investors will look at your team and ask: Can I see this team executing this vision? If not, what areas of your team do you need? Can you hire someone else? Get advisors?
Know the metrics that matter.
Analyze your website metrics to find the sweet spot in pricing, ad spend, and other marketing activities. Don’t waste time tracking metrics that do not matter to your brand, or company right now. Get to know how to read the reports, and how to make smart marketing choices.
Stay on top of market trends.
Stay on top of market trends and forecast demand so you can effectively manage your supply chain, sell products your customers want, and implement the right promotion strategies.
Get involved in the operations of the business so you know how your business works.
Get involved in the operations of the business and understand how all the moving parts affect each other and ultimately, sales. Keep an eye on the revenue as well as the profit – you’ll have to invest in inventory and infrastructure to grow but you also need to make sure they’re paying off.
What’s your million-dollar idea for an impact-driven business? How will you turn it into reality?
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