The Ranger buddy owners of Combat Flip Flops are now backed by not just one, but three of the high-powered investors on "Shark Tank."
And while the show's millionaire investors passed on two other veteran-owned startups on a recent military-themed episode, they did say yes to R. Riveter, a company that makes handbags from upcycled military surplus, all designed and manufactured by military spouses.
"Shark Tank" stars Mark Cuban, Daymond John and Lori Greiner invested $300,000 for 30 percent equity in Combat Flip Flops.
"Having our mission of 'Business, Not Bullets' validated by the Sharks is powerful," said Matthew Griffin. "It's not just a good idea, it's a legitimate course of action now backed by dominant players in the fashion, retail and tech sectors."
But besides the cash infusion, what can these new Shark-backed business builders expect? We checked in with other "veteranpreneurs" who won investments in previous episodes of "Shark Tank" (ABC, 9 p.m. Eastern on Fridays) to see what's in store.
To be sure, veteran-owned startups have made a splash in the tank. Among them:
- The Natural Grip. Army Capt. Ashley Drake turned a problem with torn and bleeding hands from the pullup bar at her local CrossFit box into a business selling custom-made grip gloves. Self-declared "Sporty Shark" Robert Herjavec bought in with a $100,000 investment for 33 percent of the business.
- Bottle Breachers. Launched by former SEAL Elijah Crane when he was still in the Navy, Bottle Breachers converts dummy .50-caliber rounds into bottle openers. Mark Cuban and Kevin O'Leary were hooked, teaming up to invest a combined $150,000 for 20 percent of the business.
- TurboPUP. Former Air Force C-130 pilot Kristina Guerrero wanted a kind of MRE for her dogs. She couldn’t find it in the stores, so she created her own canine meal bars and turned it into a business. Daymond John bit with a $100,000 investment for 35 percent of the business.
- Stella Valle. Sisters and fellow U.S. Military Academy graduates Ashley Jung and Paige Dellavalle snapped up a $150,000 investment from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner for 35 percent of their fashion and jewelry company.
- RuckPack. Marine Maj. Rob Dyer started concocting his own energy drinks downrange when he was serving as a forward air controller for special-ops forces. Those drinks became RuckPack, in which Herjavec invested $150,000 for a 30 percent stake in the business.
"The impact of the 'Shark Tank' was unbelievable," says Bottle Breachers' Crane, who started the company in 2012 with his wife, Jen, in their garage about a year and half before getting on the show. In those early days they were selling about 175 units on a good day.
And then the show aired. And everything exploded. To the tune of more than 1,500 orders a day.
More money, more problems
"We kept watching and watching the sales roll in. We did approximately $1 million,000,000 in sales in the week after airing," he says. The sudden success, however, brought sudden problems.
Former SEAL Elijah Crane and his wife, Jen, started Bottle Breachers while he still in the Navy.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Crane
"We had a three-month back order. This brought a whole lot of stress, adversity, angry customers and a whole lot more. We had to develop new processes, buy new technology and even bring in some outside consultants to get fresh eyes on the problems we were facing."
"It's true, the 'Shark Tank' effect is very real," says Drake, who started The Natural Grip in 2013 after her husband crafted some custom gloves to ease the pain from her CrossFit classes while she was attending graduate school in Kentucky. After enough people asked where they could get their own pair, she created a quick storefront on Facebook.
"My husband was very cynical, but by the end of the year we grossed $60,000 in sales," Drake says.
By the time she got on "Shark Tank" the following year, they were making about $10,000 a month and had hired a few employees to help with manufacturing.
"The month the show aired in November 2014, we did $132,000."
"But it's not like winning the lottery by any stretch of the imagination," she cautions. "It doesn't get easier, it gets exponentially more difficult. We went from being a squad-level effort to a battalion-sized operation."
It's not just the challenges of keeping up with the sudden demand, it's also coming to grips with the next-level expectations that come with new business partners.
"When it was just us around the kitchen table, everyone thought we would fail. There were no expectations."
Former Air Force C-130 pilot Kristina Guerrero created to TurboPUP canine meal bars for on-the-go adventures with her dogs.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of PetSmart
'All of a sudden, I'm in an elevator'
Guerrero had low expectations when she pitched her doggy power bars to the Sharks. And even after she landed the deal, she had her doubts.
"Honestly, I thought it would be a lot of Hollywood smoke and mirrors," Guerrero says. "And then, all of a sudden I'm on an elevator in the Empire State Building going to my first real meeting with Daymond John."
Far from a dog-and-pony show, she's been surprised just how real the involvement has been.
"I've been amazed at how available he is. Really, I'm constantly amazed that I get to work directly with him." She laughs a little as she says that. "I actually just got a text from him."
The publicity and investment that came with appearing on "Shark Tank" was great, but it's John's business connections that are really fueling TurboPUP's growth, she says.
Guerrero says she's been surprised by all of the moral support and advice Shark investor Daymond John has given her since she appeared on the show.
Photo Credit: Courtesy ABC/Shark Tank
Case in point, before "Shark Tank," TurboPUP was in 30 stores. Now, largely though a licensing deal John helped negotiate, the company is in more than 1,000 stores.
At first, though, it was all a little nerve-wracking.
At one point, Guerrero had some concerns about a pending deal with PetSmart, but wasn't sure if she should say anything.
"I finally sent him a message, but I was really nervous about it. He told me he was really glad I did that. He said a lot of people just use the show for the publicity. He was proud of me."
Now her expectations are higher than ever.
"Working with a Shark really amps up your game," Guerrero says. "There's so much more at stake. And it's about 1,000 times harder than it was before."
But don't let that stop you.
"I would say 'awesome' to any veteran who wants to build their own business," Guerrero says.
"What people learn in the military directly translates to the business world, but I think a lot of veterans don't realize that," she says. Even without a big bump from something like "Shark Tank," "there are all these incredible resources you can leverage and amazing networks you can tap into."
Indeed, well before her appearance on "Shark Tank" she was already connected to the guys at Combat Flips Flops, among a slew of other fellow combat boot-strappers who share intel and lessons learned.
In fact, she only found out about the "Shark Tank" opportunity because of an email from one of those connections saying producers were looking to audition veteran business owners.
Just temper your dreams, cautions Drake.
"I was told 145,000 companies applied to be on the show in 2014," she says. Of those, fewer than 220 were invited to record their pitches in front of the Sharks. "And only 117 actually aired that season. They say it's harder to get on the air on 'Shark Tank' than it is to get into Harvard."
For those who just made it through the gauntlet, Drake says don't even think about slowing down.
"You think you've kind of arrived and you want to take even just a moment and enjoy it a little. You can't. There will be time for that maybe in five years. My advice is to just keep the pedal to the metal. As quick as it all became great, it can all come crashing down."
Temper your dreams, but don't temper your passion. That's the real deal-maker.
Cash is king, mission is queen
"You can do it, if you want it bad enough," Drake says. You just have to be willing to wake up every day and want to be punched in the face."
Veterans are great at turning a face punch into opportunity.
"I didn't know that going in. The business world can seem really scary. I have no business background. But I do have all the tools the Army taught me — leadership, teamwork, the gusto that something has to happen no matter what," Drake says.
Former SEAL Crane agrees.
Elijah Crane, seen with wife and co-owner Jen, says entrepreneurs must have contingency plans.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Crane
Veterans "don't need a fancy MBA and $60K in debt to succeed. You need to build a team of smarter, more talented people around you. You need to spend more time on your contingency planning than you do on your business plan," Crane says. "Just like in war, Murphy's Law is always present, and if you don't have built-in contingencies, you will fall flat on your face."
Crane credits much of his success — both in the "Shark Tank" and in the wider waters of real-world retail — with building a business that's also in the business of giving back.
That's a common thread among many of the startups who've found success in the tank.
"If cash is king, having a mission is queen," he says. "This is so important. The mission is up to you. For us it is to employ veterans and give back to veteran nonprofits. Not only does it give you one more reason to succeed, but it also helps the team that you have built feel like they are a part of something much bigger than a paycheck."