STRUG­GLES, SUC­CESS, LESSONS

THE PRES­I­DENT EX­PLAINS HOW HE BUILT NIGHT OPS TAC­TI­CAL FROM THE GROUND UP

Tactical World - - Contents - TEXT BY AMELIA EARL | PHOTOS COURTESY OF NIGHT OPS TAC­TI­CAL

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.

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