STRUGGLES, SUCCESS, LESSONS
THE PRESIDENT EXPLAINS HOW HE BUILT NIGHT OPS TACTICAL FROM THE GROUND UP
Find out how Night Ops Tactical has grown to a giant in the industry and what this means for you. By Amelia Earl
Matthew Johnson isn’t your typical businessman. At age 24, he was running a $12-million company. From there, Johnson went on to enter the night vision industry and eventually started a company of his own, Night Ops Tactical. Despite his successful nature, Johnson has retained a humble demeanor. His years working for million-dollar companies helped him realize the type of leader he wanted to be. Today, around six years after he decided to start his own night-vision company, Johnson runs a thriving business with a family-business attitude.
In this interview, Johnson discusses his struggles, successes and lessons he learned along the way. Keep reading to find out what makes Johnson the successful businessman and leader he is today.
TACTICAL WORLD: TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF. JOHNSON: I’m an avid wine collector and a huge sports fan. I grew up playing sports and have been involved in athletics all my life. It’s shaped me and helped become who I am. I coach my daughter’s travel softball team and my daughter’s soccer team. I love the outdoors and really enjoy camping, hanging out with family and working on cars. Being self-employed makes it difficult to go on a week-long vacation to Hawaii, so we make the most out of long weekends and often go out to nearby lakes.
TW: WHAT’S YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND? JOHNSON: I’ve worked in the night vision industry for over 15 years. Prior to that, I worked in the sales and redistribution of wine.
TW: GOING FROM THE WINE INDUSTRY TO NIGHT VISION PRODUCTION IS A SIGNIFICANT CAREER CHANGE. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCES? JOHNSON: It’s a small industry, so you always have to be on your A-game. There’s only a handful of people who do what we do in the nation. In this line of work, I believe I’m contributing to the homeland defense and safety of our nation. I think the technology we sell is paramount to homeland security and the safety of our soldiers as they go abroad to defend and protect our country.
TW: GROWING UP, DID YOU EVER THINK YOU’D END UP BEING THE PRESIDENT OF A NIGHT VISION COMPANY? JOHNSON: No, not even close. I thought I’d be involved in something with the wine industry and some type of sales. I was told by my parents and a lot of my teachers that I would be good at sales because I’m very outspoken.
TW: DESCRIBE HOW YOU STARTED NIGHT OPS TACTICAL. JOHNSON: My father has been self-employed his whole life. At an early age, I always knew I would be my own boss someday. Several of my bosses throughout my life knew that I would be in charge at some point in time. It was an easy decision for me, once my former employer and I parted ways because I was basically already running that company on the day-today basis. Since I had experience in the tactical market, I just started working out of my home. My dad is a contractor, so he helped me build a cleanroom in the garage and I used an extra room in my home as my office. In the mornings from 8 to 12 o’clock, I’d be on the phone and working on marketing, sales and working on the website. After lunch, I’d be out doing production, building the systems and shipping orders. It required a cleanroom and it was a process to do this properly. It was a bit of a challenge because I was working in such a confined space. We stayed there for the first 12 months, and then moved to a larger facility and just hit the ground running.
Even though it was a challenge, it was fun for me. Starting Night Ops Tactical was a big step for me and my wife. She handled the admin side. My wife and I were ready to do it at the time, and I was up for the challenge.
TW: SUCCESS IS DEFINED DIFFERENTLY BY MANY PEOPLE, BUT WHEN WOULD YOU SAY NIGHT OPS TACTICAL STARTED TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL? JOHNSON: Mentally, for me, it was the moment when we decided to move our home-based business to a 1,500-square-foot facility in Roseville, California, a year after we started. It was that moment where I felt like we had finally arrived. It gave me a sense of accomplishment. Driving up to our business in the morning, where I could see our sign and walk through the door and be greeted by the receptionist, made everything a lot more real.
“IN THIS LINE OF WORK, I BELIEVE I’M CONTRIBUTING TO THE HOMELAND DEFENSE AND SAFETY OF OUR NATION.”
TW: EVERY BUSINESS HAS UNIQUE CHALLENGES. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOURS? JOHNSON: One of the biggest challenges we had, starting up, was capital and learning how to manage the cash flow as we grow. We grew exponentially during the first 18 months, and managing cash flow was extremely important. For me, that was definitely a challenge because that was something I had never done before. I ran the organizations I worked for in the past, but I never dealt with the finances. I never had to make sure that we had enough capital to operate and invest. I had to learn how to make those critical financial decisions.
TW: COMING UP WITH SUCCESSFUL PRODUCT DESIGNS TAKES A LOT OF SKILL. HOW DOES NIGHT OPS TACTICAL DEVELOP THEIR DESIGNS? JOHNSON: A lot of the stuff is already off the shelf. The things that we design in-house with our mad skills, pencil and paper—we work out our ideas and then outsource the engineering design for development. Every employee has an opportunity to come to me with their ideas. Any ideas we think could be successful, we will sketch out, mock up, and figure out how it would function. Once we have a concept that we like, we get in contact with the right people to make it happen.
TW: DESCRIBE THE MANUFACTURING PROCESS. WHAT SETS NIGHT OPS TACTICAL APART? JOHNSON: All the night vision systems are built and assembled here in our cleanroom in the warehouse. There are different processes for each system. Each individual ground-based night vision system has a different operating procedure to build it, clean it, and certify it. We buy the core components: the housing, the optics, and the image tubes, which are basically the engine. Then, we go through the assembling process and build them based on our standards.
The things that require huge machinery are not my forte. My grandfather always said, “Let the baker bake the bread.” So, I trust those people to do it. We try to control as much as we can. There can be times where you realize how much you rely on your supplier, and if that supplier has a problem, then you are kind of up a creek. We are trying to get to a point where we have more of our own production, and design our own night vision, then we could control our own fate. But, at the end of the day, we still must rely on our suppliers’ production. We are at the mercy of them and their production, but we control other things.
As far as what sets us apart, I would say our lead time. A lot of other larger companies have crazy lead times. It can take them 20 days to deliver some systems and that’s not conducive sometimes, like when troops are deploying and need to get out with the gear in a couple of weeks, or a SWAT team that’s going to have its training and needs their gear to get certified. We have a good amount of inventory to help offset some of that.
TW: BEING A SMALLER COMPANY, HOW DO YOU MANAGE CUSTOMER SERVICE? JOHNSON: That’s one of our challenges with the limited number of employees we have. Making ourselves readily available for the customer service side can be complicated because we primarily sell night vision and learning about it is an educational process. Whenever our customers called with a problem, I like to use the analogy that you’re not buying shoes. Night vision systems are very complex, and you need to understand how to use it, the warranty that’s involved, and the service that we offer. Our customers can reach me, as an owner, anytime they want, on email or phone. Being available for them has a lot to do with time management.
All our sales people and production people are required to understand the gear and how to use it. All our employees go through training and learn how to perform tasks that other people do. Sales people learn how to work the production side, and production people learn how to handle the sales side. We like to know that our employees wear multiple hats. A lot of larger companies miss out on the benefits of that because the front end doesn’t know anything about the back end, and vice versa. At Night Ops Tactical, we really want to get rid of that, so everyone understands that they are an integral part of this company. When you understand more facets of the business, you’re a more well-rounded employee.
TW: IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT MAKES NIGHT OPS TACTICAL STAND OUT AMONG OTHER NIGHT VISION COMPETITORS? JOHNSON: Us. The people, the employees. Were what keeps it fresh and keeps everything going. It’s important that you have good employees and that they understand they play a vital role in the company.
“THE PRESIDENT SAYS HE BELIEVES HIS PRODUCTS ARE SUPERIOR IN PERFORMANCE, PRICE, SERVICE AND WARRANTY TO THE OTHERS IN THE MARKET.”
There’s nothing that we do differently from other night vision companies, it’s just the people that work here. They’re what makes us great.
TW: ON YOUR “ABOUT US” PAGE, IT SAYS, “WE STRESS LEADERSHIP, INTEGRITY AND LOYALTY TO OUR EMPLOYEES.” WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT AND WHAT ARE SOME OF THE EFFECTS THAT THESE VALUES CARRY OUT? JOHNSON: We are a small business, so if we are not reaping what we sow, you can see it because we work together every day. In a larger company you can have all these meetings and not know what’s going on with other people. When I used to work with my former night vision employers, I would go to these sales meetings and listen to these big wigs running their mouths off—i’m talking about the process, the process, the process.
At one meeting, I met this man. I don’t want to name names, so let’s just call him John. We went out for beers and I had multiple meetings with him about our business. When I attended a training they do annually, he made everyone wear name badges. I didn’t put one on because if John didn’t know who I was, then I didn’t want to be working for him. When he saw me, he was looking up and down trying to find my name badge. I engaged in a conversation with him and it was clear that he didn’t remember my name. He only had 30 distributors, so if he wasn’t going to take the time to remember our names, then he obviously didn’t care about us.
From that experience, I learned that I never want to be someone that stops caring about the people who work for me. It’s important that I lead from the front and lead by example and that I’m willing to box and ship a unit, sweep the warehouse and show everyone that comes to work that I’m willing to do anything with them. And I will do it. Doing it shows them that I can do their job and that I take the time to understand how long tasks take and what they have to do on a day-to-day basis. When my employees come to me at the end of the year, I’m able to discuss fair raises because I’ve done what they’ve done and know how hard they work. I want to be a good boss and lead from the front. I care about my employees and I want them to feel appreciated for all the work they do.
TW: DESCRIBE YOUR TRIAL PROGRAM. JOHNSON: Back when I was a distributor for FLIR, they used to offer a trial program. Distributors are always begging their suppliers and manufacturers for leads and opportunities. Well, FLIR’S trial program was a huge success. They would send their customers a demo where they could see the product being used in a real environment. FLIR provided a shipping label for the customer so it was free to ship it back to them. Once the customer was ready to buy it, FLIR would call one of their distributors and tell them the customer’s information and what products they wanted to buy and how many. FLIR basically took out all the work the distributors normally have to do. By putting their product out in front of the customers, their product stood out from other competition and they got a lot of business.
As a small business, it is a little more difficult for us to do. FLIR’S marketing budget was more than we do in revenue. So, it’s a little different, but we’re trying to give our products exposure. We’re willing to put our gear next to anyone’s in the country. Period. We believe our products are superior in performance, price, service and warranty. At the end of the day, you must put up or shut up. The trial program gives our customers the opportunity to experience our product first-hand and assess the quality for themselves. We’re not afraid to put anything we sell in front of a customer. TW
“JOHNSON SAYS HE NEVER WANTS TO BE SOMEONE WHO STOPS CARING ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO WORK FOR HIM.”
Night Ops Tactical’s product line includes helmets ( ballistic and bump), night vision systems, thermal imagers, lasers and IR illumination, scopes, sights and various accessories.