On today’s podcast you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who manufactures his products in conflict affected areas.
Matthew "Griff" Griffin started Combat Flip Flops to create peaceful, forward-thinking opportunities for self-determined entrepreneurs affected by conflict. And they’re starting out by creating and selling flip flops, clothing, and accessories.
In this episode, you'll learn:
- Why you want to find a PR firm that’s the same size as your business.
- Why you might want to consider outsourcing to countries like Afghanistan and Colombia.
- How to work with existing businesses in your industry to cut down on the learning curve.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
- Store: Combat Flip Flops
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommended: OmniFocus, Xporter Data Export Tool
Felix: This is Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. It's powered by Shopify, the easiest way to sell online, in person, and anywhere in between. To start your free trial, visit shopify.com.
Hey, Entrepreneurs, my name is Felix, and I'm the host of the Shopify Masters Podcast. Each week, we put out podcast interviews with successful eCommerce entrepreneurs or experts to give you inspiration, motivation, and actual tips to increase your traffic and sales so your store can generate the sales you need to live the life you want. On the last episode, we talked about how pridedesigns.com created a Facebook fan page that now drives the majority of her traffic to her $30,000 a month store.
On today's episode, you'll learn from an entrepreneur that manufactures his products in conflict affected areas. In this episode, you'll learn why you want to find a PR firm that is the same size as your business, why you might want to consider outsourcing to countries like Afghanistan and Colombia, and how to work with an existing business in your industry to cut down on the learning curve.
Griff: Well, thanks for having me today. I appreciate it.
Felix: Cool, so I guess I'll call you by your nickname going forward, which is Griff. Griff, tell us a little more about your story, and what are some of the most popular products that you sell.
Griff: Our story is we started out as Army Rangers. It's my brother in arms Lee. He and I served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq together, then we partnered up with my brother-in-law, Andy. Now we decided to go back to these war torn areas and started making fashion and lifestyle products. We started out making flip flops in a combat boots factory in Afghanistan, and now we've moved on into a full fashion and lifestyle brand on multiple continents.
Felix: You guys both, were you serving at the time? What was going on in your life when you were thinking about starting this business?
Griff: Yeah, it was ... Oddly enough, it was after I got out of the military. I started travelling back to Afghanistan to work medical clinics and contracts in Afghanistan. I saw the positive effects of entrepreneurship and business in these conflict areas, and the thought just kept occurring to me, we should do more of this. We should send more micro-loans and entrepreneurs than bullets and armored vehicles, and we'd turn these areas around.
I was just traveling around on the economy, and I thought we should figure out a way to have more business between our two countries, and it just so happens that everybody needs clothes, and everybody needs shoes. That's what we started.
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. You were just travelling around and noticed that there were a lot of people that were ... They either were starting their own business in these countries that you're going to, or wanted to, maybe didn't have the funds at the time, so what was the next step? You saw there was all this potential, not just for your own business, but then also a lot of potential for other people to start their own business, or find work. How do you even get started with something like this? You knew that you wanted to start a business. What were the very first steps to turn that to reality?
Griff: We followed the guerilla marketing 101. That's just how we started this, so the first thing that we did is that we sourced the idea through a few trusted agents, people in the industry and said, "Hey, what do you think? Is this a good idea?" and they said, "Yes." Then we started coming up with some lines, sketches, and designs, then we put it out on the internet. People thought that it was cool, and they provided feedback, so we went and we modified our line drawings again, and they said, "Yeah, that looks great. I'd buy some."
Then we went and we found out how to build footwear through some consultants. We built some prototypes, and we took product photos of them, and people thought they were really cool, and wanted to buy more. At each point, we established benchmarks and thresholds for the next steps, and we just kept doing that in a very iterative manner, to the point to where we had a couple hundred flip flops in a duffle bag, and a very basic website, and we decided we were going to go live and start selling.
Felix: That's cool. What was the timeline between all this, because you gave a lot of steps along the ways? It sounds like it might have taken some amount of time. What would give us an idea how long something like this takes to go from idea to creating these prototypes and validate them in the market?
Griff: I had the idea in 2009 and I met my brother in law in the back of a suburban on the way to his bachelor party. I really got to know him there, and I floated the idea past him. He thought it was really cool, and wanted to be a part of it. That was November 2010 when the company really started coming together. By February 11, we had line drawings, and by December 11, we had prototypes in hand. We started selling in January 12, so just about a year.
Felix: Can you say a little bit more about line drawings? I'm not familiar with that, and just give us give us an ... Ideally, what are these? Why are they necessary? Is this the beginning steps towards creating prototypes?
Griff: Really it's so simple. It doesn't really cost you anything to do some art on a computer. If you can find somebody who can graphically depict what your product is going to look like, people can see it before you actually have to invest the money to make it a physical product. I can come up with something, and it looks like crap, and people don't want to buy it, so I'm not going to spend money on it. Instead, what we do is we develop a line drawing. That way, people go, "Oh, it's cool, but it would look better in brown," or "You should put a bullet casing on it," or whatever else it would be. That way, by the time you get around to making a prototype, it's closest to the finished product that people would want.
Felix: Makes sense, and how do you get this created? How do you find somebody to create this? Do you do it all in house?
Griff: YouTube. I mean really, there's nothing you can't figure out now without YouTube and a book or a library as a business owner. You can figure out how to do everything from graphic art, to manufacturing, to marketing. It's all out there. The only reason you don't know it is because you haven't invested the time on it.
Felix: Is there a particular ... For anybody that's out there trying to do this themselves, is there a particular app or tool that you use to put this together, or is it even simpler than that?
Griff: It's even simpler than that, and you just literally figure out how to draw something on your computer, save it as a jpeg, and post it on the internet.
Felix: Nice, so that's how you got the validation. You created what it would look like digitally, you put it out there, and then you got ... You said that you were getting feedback from people to see if they would buy it. Was that the next step?
Griff: Yeah, that was it. Okay, we were thinking about this idea, manufactured in Afghanistan. Do you think it's cool? If so, what would you like better or worse about it? Then literally we just asked the question, and people gave us their response, and we just changed it up to reflect it. We asked the same people again. Does this look better? They said, "Yeah it looks great," and we just kept doing it over and over. I mean, you can't make everybody happy, but if you find the people who are trendsetters or leaders, and you get their opinion on things, you typically get closer to that finished solution than you would be able to get on their own.
Felix: Yeah, that's a good point about how you cannot make everybody happy. Then there's obviously going to be people out there that aren't going to like it. How do you know personally, when it's ready to go, even if there are people that are, not necessarily haters but people that are still not completely sold on it? How do you know when you're ready to say, "Let's ignore these people. We have enough feedback. All right, let's just keep moving forward." How did you come to that realization?
Griff: We had enough positive feedback that we knew if we sold every pair out of the first run we made, we'd break even and make a little money. Those were the people who said they liked them and would buy a pair.
Felix: Okay, so you had enough people that were saying, “Yes we would end up buying them," to sell all of the initial run?
Felix: Okay. You had these line drawings. You said that you went to get ... It was the next stage, to get prototypes made?
Griff: Correct. Yeah, we found a footwear company in Los Angeles that was doing manufacturing in Asia. We said, "Hey, we don't know how to make shoes. Here's the line drawings of what we want to manufacture. Can you help us make them?" We paid them a consultancy fee to help us develop our tooling and our leathers, and our material specifications. That way, we could have them really built in a quality manner that we wanted.
Felix: Did you have to get a bunch of samples, or how did you initially with them to get those prototypes made?
Griff: That's exactly what we did. They went and sourced multiple factories to either hand cut or get a rough sketch of what the product would look like, and they sent us multiple swatches of fabric and colors of EVA and rubbers and vinyls. Essentially we picked out everything in a raw material form and picked out the winners that we liked on that. Then 3 factories manufactured them with the materials that we liked, and then we picked out the cut, the feel, the finish, and the quality that we liked. Eventually we brought it all the way to a finished product between materials and manufacturing.
Felix: I see. You went to an agency to organize all this, or did you have to go out yourself and find all these manufacturers to try and find one that would work for you?
Griff: No, we went through an agency.
Felix: Cool. I think that's something I definitely want to talk about, because I think it's a part that a lot of entrepreneurs spend a lot of time, and it is just trying to find the right people to help them piece it all together. You went through an agency that had all these connections already. Can you tell us a little more about how you found them? What was it like working with an agency like this?
Griff: We don't believe in reinventing the wheel. There are people who are doing this on a daily basis, and they're very professional. They get bulk discounts on materials and shipping. They're always shipping stuff back and forth. We found them through just a business network. One of our owners, Donald Lee, had worked with this footwear company before, and knew some of the guys that did their footwear development. He literally just called them and said, "Hey, we're thinking about starting this company. Can you help us?" They said yes, and we sat down and we developed a statement of work between our two companies about what they would do for us and what we were willing to pay them. Then we executed on that statement of work.
Felix: I see, so it wasn't even like somebody or a company that was specifically focused on matching up new business owners with manufacturers. You found somebody that was already doing something similar. Maybe not exact same products, but was in footwear, and you said give us your knowledge, give us ... Not give us, but help us with your knowledge, help us with your contacts, and give us guidance, and there's basically some kind of consulting agreement from there?
Griff: Correct. That's it, and they already had their people on the ground in Asia. They already had their factory managers. As a new entrepreneur, I could go and spend thousands of dollars to buy a plane ticket to Asia, hotel fees, ground transportation to develop and build that network, which would take me forever and thousands of dollars. Instead, I could just use that money to access a network that's already built.
Felix: Yeah, I like that approach because a lot of times, as entrepreneurs, we want to be doing everything. We want to have everything come from our head and create everything from scratch. That's the creative mentality, but if you want to run a business, you want to run it fast, launch it fast and run it efficiently, you should definitely not reinvent the wheel like you're saying.
Cool, so you have the prototypes made, and you have the manufacturer already on the ground, or the contacts over there. You were mentioning before that one of the big unique things about your business is that it's being made from people in conflict afflicted areas. Can you tell us a little more about how that's all set up?
Griff: Perfect. Again, we started in Afghanistan, and it started in our combat boot factory. That is all in 2009. This factory was there to build boots for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. It was employing 3 to 500 people on a daily basis, and each one of those people supports 5 to 13 family members, so the social impact of that factory being open is enormous. It's huge. Thousands of people are supported by that one factory.
Our thought was, after the war ends, they're not going to be making combat boots anymore. They should be making something else, so you can continue to have that positive social impact. That was our thought, is that we started in a combat boot factory there. We got some challenges in manufacturing, but essentially our business says that we go to areas where people are affected by conflict, and they want to use business to make a positive impact in a community.
We started in Afghanistan, then we went to Colombia, then we went to Laos. We did some work in the Balkans, but we're not working there now. We make some stuff here in the United States in better known facilities, and then we're starting some stuff here in Africa in the next year.
Felix: That's awesome. That's amazing. When you had these contacts with these manufacturers, were they just producing the raw materials that then were going to places like Afghanistan or Colombia to be made? How does the supply chain all connect together?
Griff: It really depends on where we're manufacturing, so Afghanistan does not have the ability to make raw materials, so no leather, shoe laces, threads, or things like that, so essentially, you have to buy the materials out of country, ship it in, then have it assembled. That's logistically intensive, which is why we failed on our first couple runs. They say amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. Logistically it was just too long and too expensive to be feasible, so now what we do is we stopped making our footwear in Afghanistan.
Now we just make our woven products there, so all of our sarongs and shamals and scarves and cashmere are made in Afghanistan because they can source the material from the farm field all the way to the finished product in Afghanistan, so we have a better impact in the community from start to finish. We moved our footwear production to Bogota, Colombia, so everything from the leather to the EVA to the rubber is all made within 20 miles of our factory, so it's a very small logistical and carbon footprint. Our bags and stuff are made in the US out of USA based materials. The real thing that we did is we said, okay we're going to source our martials for our finished products in our areas of manufacturing, so that's what we do.
Felix: Awesome. When people think about ... I want to do a talk about logistics some more because I think a lot of times when entrepreneurs are thinking about outsourcing, how can you find a manufacturers for it, they immediately look to outsourcing or manufacturing in China. You obviously didn't go to that route. You went to Afghanistan, Colombia like you were saying, so if someone out there is thinking about sourcing the manufacturing outside the US, what are some pros and cons from the places that you've gone to, to get your products made that you maybe think are better potentially than, like I said, outsourcing to China?
Griff: I have to say the drive is better in these areas that don't have as much business, so if there's a quality issue, there's never a back and forth on "Hey this is kind of what you told us to put in," or "This is kind of the material spec." There's never any of those issues that you typically find in Asia where you get the bait and switch.
In our areas in Afghanistan, if there's something wrong with the product, we bring an opportunity to replace it immediately. The working relationship is great because they're hungry to be competitive on the global market, and they understand that the quality in customer service is a key part of that. From a business to business standpoint and a relationship standpoint, working with these countries that are outside of Asia has been quite spectacular just from a relationship standpoint.
Additionally too is that time zones matter. As an entrepreneur, it's already stressful enough, and you're taking time away from your family. What we found is that if you're working with people, say in South America or Central America, it's a lot easier on your work lifestyle, because you're having to be 10.5 or 12 hours off on schedule to talk to somebody and you're losing days. Having somebody in the same hemisphere as you is quite nice to be able to discuss timelines and product.
Then in the end as well, you really need to take a look at overall transit costs either in bulk or in a per unit cost plus time, so it's going to affect your landed cost. It's also going to affect your financing because if you have to spend more time shipping a product, you're paying financing while it's bobbing across an ocean or on a truck, versus if you do it somewhere in the eastern or western hemisphere, it's closer to your finish shipping point. You're not having to carry that financing as long because it gets to you faster, and you're able to ship it quicker.
Felix: That's amazing. Those are great selling points for manufacturing over there. Did you know all these things going into, or did it come to light as you were getting more involved in manufacturing over there?
Griff: They came to light more as we were getting into manufacturing. Additionally there's some incentives as well. We work in Colombia because there's a free trade agreement. We don't pay duties or tariffs on our stuff coming in and out from Colombia, so we save ourselves 18 to 30 points on footwear over Asia.
Felix: Wow, that's awesome.
Griff: Yeah. I mean there's a lot of programs that are incentivizing American businesses to do work in developing nations. If you take advantage of theirs, you can do good business for people and make a quality product, and run a good business yourself.
Felix: Do you have to be onsite when you go to these places? Have you visited? How often do you go and check out what's going on in these countries that you're manufacturing in?
Griff: Andy will go down to Colombia once or twice a year. I'll go to Afghanistan once or twice a year. We typically go there as long as it makes good business sense. A lot of it's tagged between manufacturing, marketing, and just business relationships, so thank god for technology because we can do a lot of it over Skype now. It saves us thousands of dollars in travel just being able to work with somebody on a daily basis via a camera versus having to be there in the factory.
Felix: No. Definitely that makes sense. You obviously were able to get enough demand to sell out that first run. Once that happened, what was next? What were the next steps in actually turning this from just a validation phase into an actual business?
Griff: It was really challenging because all of us had day jobs for the first year and a half of the company. All the way through summer of 2013, we all worked side jobs, and eventually got to a point where we had to manufacture, and all of our manufacturing fell out from underneath us. We had to convert my garage into a guerilla flip flop factory, and we manufactured 4,000 pairs of flip flops in my garage.
Felix: Wow, who's doing this?
Griff: Primarily that was done by my brother Andy, and then a couple of friends who just lived in the local area. We hired them to come in and help us out. Our factories closed down. We ran out of raw material and we needed to ship products to customers. We had seen them make footwear in Afghanistan, and our thought was, "Yeah it doesn't look very hard. We can do that." We got some adhesives and bought a sander, and put an investor into wiring the shop, and we got out of it for a few months. That legitimized the fact of how committed we were to this business.
We said, "All right, we can't make footwear in Afghanistan anymore, so we maybe jump to Colombia." Then we went back to Afghanistan for shamals and scarves. We started making claymore bags here in the US in our better known facilities. That was really the jump. It was, I have to say, spring '13 when we went from a footwear company with no manufacturing to a full on fashion and lifestyle brand in 6 months.
Felix: That's awesome, so 4,000 flip flops. You guys were ... Were these 4,000 that we ordered, and needed them no matter what? How much of a time crunch were you in between the time that your factories or your manufacturers could no longer take on the work, and now, you had to create a guerilla workshop essentially inside your garage? How much stress was there at that time? What was going on?
Griff: It was a ridiculous amount of stress. Some people had bought their products in January of 2012, and we didn't deliver it till February or March of '13, so some people actually waited 15 months for their footwear.
Felix: How did you manage that? How did you control it and make sure there wasn't a horde of angry customers?
Griff: We just kept telling them the story. Essentially as we bounced around the world, and went through all these different factories, we just took photos and videos. People saw how crazy it was.
Felix: Yeah, it works.
Griff: They said, "You guys are nuts. Just keep going." Essentially we had one factory close down in us in September. We had another factory close down on us in December, and essentially we showed the people like, "Hey, these are the factories we're working in, but they've lost their combat boots contracts, and here's the container of raw materials with our stuff in it. We're just going to make them ourselves. If you wait a couple of months, we'll send you photos of us making them. People just said, "You guys are crazy. Yeah, we'll watch."
Felix: Yeah, definitely get them involved. I think the companies that are not delivering on time, and then just really being secretive about it, people get really angry about that. I think if you're reasonable and say, "Hey," and being very transparent, most people are going to be reasonable back to you. It sounds exactly what played out for you guys.
Summer 2013 was the crunch time for you guys. You said that you still all had jobs at the time. When did you make that transition then to starting to work full time on the business?
Griff: It was June 2013. I was vice president of a government contracting company. We had saved up enough money where we had all our big expenses covered, and I could make the jump as an entrepreneur to fully commit my time. You know what they say, is that people don't commit to you until you commit to it. It just seemed like one of those things where we weren't making those big jumps as a company because all of us had our toe in the water, and we weren't fully committed. Essentially we got to a point where it was either sink or swim.
We had to go full time into it, so summer of 2013, my family and I, we rented out of our house, and we went on a road trip around Europe, and showing our products there, and throughout the US, and it grew ever since.
Felix: That's awesome. That's an awesome story. I think it's a position that a lot of other entrepreneurs are in, where they are ... You're thinking about how can I grow just a little bit faster? You saying you started making these big jumps in your business. If you have some advice for an entrepreneur that is thinking about starting a ... making this jump, what would you recommend? How much money, how much expenses do you think they need to cover for how many months? And give us an idea of how much preparation you went into before this, before you made that jump
Griff: Our minimum threshold was we needed to be generating revenue. I mean, you have to make a plan. You have to understand your forecast, your profit and your loss statement, and your cash flow. To leave a livelihood and a day job to support your family without doing the due diligence or planning is really irresponsible. You have to plan it out before you can make the jump.
Felix: You weren't planning on tapping into those 6 months of living expenses. You were hoping to live off from the revenue from the store, or you were actively draining from your savings account?
Griff: I say it's a little bit of both. Your overall goal is to make money out of the company, but more often than not, as a small business owner, you don't make any money for the first couple of years in running a business. If you do, and you've got your numbers together, you've probably got your numbers squared away better than most, so yeah, the next year as far as I can say, you're using those living expenses to cover your overhead while you're growing your business to the point where you can catch up.
Felix: Okay, it makes sense. When you were able to ... It sounded like things really started to move along once you guys all committed full time, or at least some of you committed full time to this business. What do you think that you were able to do that you weren't able to do while you had a full time job? What are some things that you immediately said, "Oh wow, now that I don't have a full time job, I can start doing this," and it actually had an impact on your business?
Griff: Sales. Sales is a persistent job. You get told no 99 times till you get that one sale, and it is just a matter of time and you're suddenly going after it. So being able to focus your time towards getting sales, whether it's developing online content or a marketing plan to sell it online, or to go to dealers. You need that dedicated time during work hours to be able to sell your product to them, and be able to fulfill it back on the operations side as well. Those are the things that are very iterative as you have a part time job, versus if you're able to focus your time on it. You can batch things together, and make huge steps forward in smaller amounts of time.
Felix: Makes sense, so you want to talk a little bit about PR, because that's what you were saying about how that rally kicked things off for you? I think one of the biggest pieces of PR that you ever had was the feature on Shark Tank. Tell us a little bit about that experience. How did you get involved in it? I guess we'll start there and we'll see where it goes. How did you get on Shark Tank, I guess?
Griff: Oddly enough, we didn't apply. We got invited. Through our PR effort, we ended up meeting who wrote for Gizmodo. His name is [Wes Sylar 00:25:35]. He's a fantastic writer. We met him for an hour at a bar in LA in the midst of other meetings just because we were down there doing some sales. Our PR agent, Kate had gotten us linked up with him, and 4 or 5 days later, our website started crashing. He had pushed 176,000 readers across his article in, I think, in 48 hours, so it was huge press for us.
Then one of the producers for Shark Tank saw it. They called us up and asked us to be on the show. We got invited to be on the show, and in the States there's between 9 to 11 million viewers on Shark Tank per episode, so it was just a huge chance to get our mission exposed to the masses in America. We said, "Hey, let's go after it. Let's do it." We put all of our eggs in that basket, and we went after it pretty hard. We shot in June of 2015, and we aired in February of 2016.
Felix: That's awesome. I think one of the big things ... Thank you for sharing those viewer numbers, and I think one of the other big things that people want to knows how much of an impact did it have on your actual business? I'm not sure how comfortable you are sharing numbers, or how in depth you want to go into it, but what happened after the show aired for your business?
Griff: In 72 hours, we did more business than we had in our previous years combined.
Felix: Yeah, that's amazing, and I can feel it. That's like when you say that, and if I was in your shoes, it would be a mixed emotion of "Wow, we've made it," and also, "Oh crap, how do we do this? How do we get everything for Phil?" What was that? What was it like, the weeks and months ... I guess not to mean months, but the weeks after that air date?
Griff: It was unique. I mean, generally everybody had a really good reception to our product, and to our mission. We were very clear about how back ordered we were. We sent out multiple emails telling them that we'd update people on the product. Generally, we were still a staff of 3. It was still owned and operated by 3 guys, and I sat down for essentially 2 weeks straight, and answered thousands of emails, and figured out a customer service system.
Then we had a customer service staffer, and then we started getting our first shipments in. We built our warehouse and figured out inventory and fulfillment, and how we were going to manage that. It was kind of fix it as we go, I would have to say, or don't plan too much ahead of time, because you really don't know the challenges you're going to face. Every time ahead, we had to generalize the idea of how things were going to roll, and as they came in, we focused on them, took care of them right then, and moved on to the next problems.
I guess it was about being present in the problems that we were facing as a business, doing our best with them at each occurrence, and then moving on to the next, and it seems to be working out well for us.
Felix: Awesome. Can you tell us about the deal? How much did you eventually get invested in, and which sharks were involved?
Griff: The deal in TV was $300,000 for 30% equity of our company, and that was split 10% each between Lori Grenier, Daymon John, and Mark Cuban.
Felix: That's amazing. What a great group to work with. I guess it's only been a couple of months since your air date. How involved are they with the business? How much access do you have to these sharks?
Griff: I would say it's more of a mentorship role. You are there to run your own business and they're there to help, and they'll help you as much as you ask. I guess is the question. That is the answer so as much as you want to communicate with them is they'll communicate and work with you, but you have to run your business in a profitable manner in order to get that attention.
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. They are ridiculously busy, so you have to put in a lot of work and then almost like go from first base to second base to third base, and they help you get home. You can't expect them to hit the home runs for you. I think that's typical of anybody that has a mentor or anybody they're working with for help that's much more established than them. You have to put the effort in to expect to get effort back.
Cool. I want to take you a step back now. Aside from the Shark Tank, because I think a lot of your success that led to the exposure on Shark Tank came from all of your PR work before that. You said that you had an agent that you worked with for PR. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you were able to find an agent? Because I think the listeners out there who are also in a similar position where they don't know a lot about PR, but know that it's an important part of marketing. Give us an idea of how you find somebody to work with.
Griff: We are very fortunate in the fact that I knew a couple of companies in the outdoor industry that had had PR, and they were smaller businesses. As a small business, you can't invest in a huge PR firm for a $10,000 a month retainer. It just doesn't work, so you need to be able to find somebody who is a small business just like you, worked well in PR, has multiple clients to support their overhead costs and go from there.
I have to really say it's a business matter for all, and then really be specific about what you want to do. Like I want to get into this magazine, or I want get my product placed on this blog. I need product releases and PR releases done quarterly, and really plan it out so you know what their costs are going to be, and then go from there.
Felix: Okay, cool. I want to break this down a little bit. The agent that you found, you said that you found people in the outdoors industry. You want to also find a PR agent that has experience in the same industry that you're in. How important is that?
Griff: If I'm making auto parts, I don't want somebody who's experienced in cosmetics, who knows all the people that know cosmetic magazines. If you're selling an outdoor or a military type product, you want somebody who knows all the writers in the outdoors and in the military type environment. We went and found those communities and found out who are the PR firms that spoke to those agencies. Really my criteria on a PR agent is really simple, is when they call, and their caller ID pops up on your phone, do you want to answer their call?
Yeah, I think it's really simple because if you want to answer their call, you know all the writers and all people are going to write about your product, you want to answer her call as well.
Felix: One thing you said was about how you'd be specific about what you want. I think this is a really good point because you can't just be like, "Hey, I hired a PR person. Now our PR service is taken care of." I've got to think about it. I've got to worry about it, but it's not like that at all. Tell me a little bit about how specific you have to get, and is this all done before the business relationship begins? When do you start talking about these specific goals?
Griff: You start talking about specific goals with them prior to committing to a contract, to a retainer. You have to tell them what you need them to do, and what your expectations are, if they're going to meet those expectations.
Felix: Got you, so how do you guys work with them? You say you want to be on this magazine, or you want to be on this blog, how involved do you get once you have these goals? What do they do and how do you work with them?
Griff: I mean, essentially say I'd really want to be on this blog in this quarter with this product. Please pitch it to them, and make sure that it's good. Essentially they'll put together a product release and photos, and they'll reach out to the editors of a blog or a content platform, and they'll build a relationship to get the person comfortable to posting it. If they have any secondary questions, or if the people at the content site want to speak to you, then you arrange a time to speak to them. Essentially is that you make it easy for them to pitch your product to that site, and you make it easy for the person to get the information they need to, to make it relevant to their reader base. That's what we do.
Felix: Makes sense, so it sounded like up to Shark Tank, probably the biggest PR win that you had been, you also had the ... You said it was on ... Gizmodo was the site?
Griff: Gizmodo, correct.
Felix: Cool, so what was the key to getting the Gizmodo feature? I know you met with him in person, but did you or your PR agent pitch them beforehand to get that meeting? How do you get people to pay attention, or to at least open their ears to hearing what you have to say to begin with?
Griff: It takes time, and it's really upsetting. I had a reporter tell me once, is it's going to be 3 years before anybody ever really listens to you. That is 3 years of solid business, so you have to work your way up the food chain. My PR, they were going to start with a local newspaper or a smaller online publication. You're going to get away and you're going to go business, and then you're going to go to the next bigger one. Let's say you're working your way from the low hanging fruit to the big apples at the top of the tree, and it just takes about 3 years to do it.
Felix: I see. What you're saying is that focus on the smaller scale PR outlets, get them or pitch them while featuring you, then from there, parlay that into bigger features on other publications?
Felix: Okay. Do you have to go into these? Like let's say that you get featured in a local magazine, and you want to get featured now in some nationwide magazine, do you go nationwide magazines, and say, "Hey look, I got featured already here," or is it more like they see that you've been featured and then reach out to you?
Griff: I mean, they see that you've been featured. I think it's a mixture of both. You've got to be very honest about where you want to go, and they're going to research you. The more they find out about you on the internet via other third parties, or more publications, the more they're going to want to write about you, so yeah.
Felix: Based on your experience so far, if there's a listener out there that doesn't have any budget at all to hire a PR agency, is there anything that just based on your experience, that they can work on, on a smaller scale? Smaller scale PR wins that they should be focusing on when they're early on in their business?
Griff: Yeah definitely. You can do a lot of your won PR yourself, learn how to do a product release or an announcement. There's plenty of online publications that can show you the format, how to do that. You can do all that stuff yourself, and you can also contact every one of those media publications via their website online, their Facebook, their Twitter, in order to get a hold of them and to get the relevant person. That way, you can push your product to them. Remember, persistence wears out resistance, so it's going to take time.
Felix: Yeah. You were saying that it was a ... There was a launch or a product announcement method that you used. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Griff: Yeah. I don't do it, so I can't really speak too clearly on it, but I know that every time you launch a product, there's a public announcement or a press release that gets put together, and goes out. Basically has a photo of the product on top, name of the company and location, the new product why it's cool, and basic information about the company. That way all the people in the press have the basic who, what, when, where and why in order to ask more questions if they want to put it on their publications.
Felix: I see. Maybe someone goes around for product announcements, press releases, or press release templates, or something like that, you can probably find what you need to put together to get this out there in a way that is easily digestible by the PR outlets that want to feature you. Cool, so I guess your agent probably handles all the organization of everything. Did you ever have at any point, had to create a system, or anything to keep track of all the PR contacts or campaigns that you guys want to run?
Griff: Yes, she runs her own spreadsheet and just tracks everything, so it's a PR pipeline, so the month, publication, how many readers they get, what product they're going to be taken to look at, and what they expect to come out. Literally you just start building a calendar and you find out where you're holes are at, and you try and fill in those holes in your calendar. That way you have consistent PR.
Felix: I see. Definitely sounds like a full time job. I can see why you hired out for this now because there's so many moving pieces. Other than PR, are there other marketing channels or strategies that work well for you guys?
Griff: I really like content marketing, so blogging on our website and then sharing through social media. It's a great way for you to really get your message and mission out there, as well as getting people to learn about who you are as a company. Instead of them feeling like you are a company, you're more a group of people that are doing something cool.
Felix: I like that. That's another way for you to focus on marketing when you have very little budget, because content marketing is free. It costs you your time, but you don't have to pay for it especially if you're creating yourself. For anybody out there that wants to go down the same route, content marketing, I think their biggest obstacle is they ask themselves ... Oh they don't ask themselves. They say to themselves they don't know what to talk about, so is there a method or a thought process that you go to, to figure out what you should be blogging about, should be posting about?
Griff: Our thought process is, for us is we just want people to come to our website to learn how to do stuff, whether it's entrepreneurship, hunting, fishing, motorcycle racing. Whatever it is, the theme of our company is just enabling, learning to do something then going after it. So my criteria is 2 thumb swipes, talked about them, because people don't like to read too much anymore. On a phone, the whole article has got to be 2 thumb swipes, talk about them, and there has to be a minimum of 3 links to relevant information on other independent sites on there.
That does a couple things. One is it enables the reader to find out more information if they want to, but it also gives you more Google juice. You see me as a relevant site because you're linking out to other sites from yours, and it just seems to help with your SEO, and that doesn't cost you very much either. To be able to publish content, post lots of links there, and then figure out how to drive people to your website through social.
Felix: Yeah. I love that you have a format that's that methodical. When I asked you initially, I didn't think that you had almost a template for 2 thumb swipes and 3 lengths. I think that's important though because if you're sitting down and writing content, writing blogs, and you have to come up with a new format each and every single time, that's exhausting because it does tap into your energy and your mental energy when you have to come up with a format. If you have one already, and you have to fill in the pieces, it makes it a lot easier. Cool …
Griff: Also change your readers as well.
Felix: Good point. They get used to seeing the particular format. I like that. Cool, so let's talk a little bit about, to wrap this up, about what your day is like, so you wake up in the morning, you get into your work mode. What do you spend your days on, or what do you spend your days doing?
Griff: Typically I wake up around 5. I make coffee. When coffee is being made, I usually take about 30 minutes just individual reading whether it's professional development, personal development, or just some entertainment reading. I typically take that time while coffee is brewing to take a problem or just to throw some information into the brain. Then I'm a big fan of the getting things done mentality. We use OmniFocus for task management software.
I'll get in to the office around 6. I'll sort through my emails really quickly, and if I can answer everything in under 2 minutes, I'll get those questions done. Then for everything else that's going to be more involved I put that into my task management software, and put it on the calendar when I'm going to tackle it. I take one call between 9:30 to 10, and then I work on projects between 10 and 3. Then I take calls between 3 and 4, and then work on other projects between 4 and 6, and then just do that every day.
Monday is our typical planning day, so as company, we all put our plans for the week on Monday. We do our weekly cash meeting forecast pipeline meeting as well as team updates. That way, we all know what we're doing for the week, and can support one another. That means everybody knows what they're doing on Mondays. That way Tuesday through Friday, we can all execute knowing what each member of the team is doing, and we can support each other doing it.
Felix: Awesome. I love how you have it all scheduled out. I think that's important because you have it scheduled out. Then all you do show up and put in the work. I love it. You mentioned OmniFocus. Are there any other apps either through shop at apps store or outside of it, like OmniFocus in this case that you use, that you depend on heavily to run the business?
Griff: Yeah. We use ... Everything is online and cloud based, so all of our file management stuff is done through Google, so the Chrome suite. All of our files are there. Everything's shared through Google, all of our email. Our individual task management stuff is OmniFocus, our group task management is Basecamp. Then I think if anybody's doing any customer service, or lots of emailing in a day, they need to get the software text expander. It's a text expansion software. If you're typing multiple similar sentences over and over in a day, you can type them out once, and then be able to quick access them with a bunch of different keystrokes, so it really saves on your typing time.
Then as far as apps go, the biggest app that we use on shopify is the Xporter. It's X-P-O-R-T-E-R, no E on the front of it. It's a super robust reporting software that enables us to get our financial management, our sales management, and all the other data we need to make legitimate decisions in this company. It's a really great app.
Felix: Awesome. You mentioned before that you spend your mornings, first thing is to try and learn something career or personal development. What are some of your favorite blogs, or books even that have helped you create and run a business?
Griff: Everything. I didn't take an MBA, but I believe in thepersonalmba.com, so it's essentially 99 books, and an online community of people that believe that you can educate yourself in business on your own for free. You know, just to start reading one book, and then the problem that you're having, whether it's accounting, or marketing, or operations, there's a book in there that deals with it. If you're having a problem in your business, bring down a book from the library, read the book, figure out your problem, and then put it in your immediate action in your business.
If you work your way through all those books on thepersonalmba.com, you're going to have what they believe to be an equivalent of an Ivy League MBA for a heck of a lot less money.
Felix: Awesome. Yeah, that's a great resource. I've definitely been on that site too, and I think it makes a lot of sense. If you put the time in to learn what you ... You figure out what the problem is, and then someone out there has already solved, or has steps to solve it. You just got to digest that information, and then apply it to your business. It's really, I don't know, straight. It's definitely straight forward, but it definitely requires work. I think that's why people shy away from, but if you just put in the work, it seems to always play out.
What's in store for the remainder of this year? What do you have planned for Combat Flip Flops?
Griff: Really over the next couple of months, we're really focused on securing our back orders and then moving on to a full on forecasted plan in being able to deliver our product in the summer, our summer product, so then being able to afford, buy and move in to the holiday season in the fall with our winter clothing line. Then being able to roll out into spring '17 aggressively with more footwear in beach detect items from dangerous places.
Felix: Nice, awesome. Thanks so much Griff. Combatflipflops.com is the website. Anywhere else you recommend to listeners to go check out if they want to follow hat you're up to?
Griff: For our Facebook is at Combat Flip Flops. Instagram is @combatflipflops, and Twitter is @combatflipflops. Basically everything is @combatflipflops.
Felix: Perfect, awesome. Thanks so much, Griff.
Griff: Thanks Felix.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com for a free trial.
About The Author
Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, and founder of TrafficAndSales.com where you can get actionable tips to grow your store’s traffic and sales.