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F.A.T.E — From Addict to Entrepreneur, With Mike Lindell, Founder of MyPillow

A story of conquering addiction and thriving in Entrepreneurship

In our latest episode of F.A.T.E, From Addict to Entrepreneur, we had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Lindell. Mike is a former crack addict who has turned his life around through his revolutionary invention of “MyPillow”. You may recognize him or know of his endeavors through his highly successful infomercials for “MyPillow” as he has become a T.V. phenomenon selling over 38 million pillows.

Mike could be considered a late bloomer when it comes to addiction and being exposed to drugs and alcohol. Having lived through his parents divorcing at the age of seven years old, and only nine days into second grade, Mike was moved by his family to a new school. All the sudden Mike was in a new city, a new school with new kids and not knowing any of them. He was also the oldest child which meant a lot of responsibility was thrown on his shoulders. To fit into this new environment, Mike tried to be the center of attention and would do crazy things to distract from being picked on like the time he jumped out of a moving bus. Yes, this actually happened…..not the smartest move but a lot of us act out as both children and adults to be the center of attention and fit in.

Throughout his high school years and transitioning into college Mike continued to act out for attention. He started drinking when he was 17 or 18 years old like many adolescents do, all stemming from curiosity.

After high school Mike was admitted to the University of Minnesota in his home state, however he found himself very disinterested in school. He was working two jobs, one at a drive-in movie theater and the other at a grocery store but he had a difficult time following the rules. Mike was fired several different times and clearly remembers the owner of the grocery store telling him, “If you want your own rules maybe you should start your own company” a prelude of things to come. After hearing this, Mike felt belittled and decided to leave.

Not only was Mike challenged with keeping a job, but he wasn’t interested in attending class either. He would go once or twice a semester. Without a job and not attending class Mike, now in his early 20’s, found himself drinking more and more. He accumulated a lot of tickets and as well as several DWI’s. Of course, drinking wasn’t enough, so he tried cocaine and that changed everything because he was instantly hooked. Mike describes the amazing feeling that cocaine gave him, “WOW, I can be right where I wanted to be without having to drink all this alcohol and to me it was like I could function on it. I was a very functioning addict at the time. And so, it was daily maybe a couple times a week but when I did it I wouldn’t go to bed. I would just stay up. I never thought OK it’s time for bed. This was in the mid 80’s and at the time I was engaged to my first love after being together for 6 or 7 years. We ended up breaking up when my fiancé left me for a good friend of mine at the time.”

Now being alone for the first time, Mike was hurting and very lonely. Cocaine was an escape. His friends were graduating from college. Other friends were loyal successful employees working for the same company since high school. Meanwhile Mike was not progressing in any aspect of his life. He compared himself to others, became very upset with himself and had low self-esteem. The best way to mask the pain was to turn to alcohol and drug use. It was an escape and a way not to face where he was in life, not to face his reality and the addiction was picking up steam. One summer that really sticks out is when Mike got a job back in Iowa at his uncle’s farm. It was a two hour drive each way from Minnesota to Iowa. He worked in Iowa for six months while driving back to Minnesota almost every night to be with his “friends” at the bar so he could drink and drug with them.

The pain he was feeling at his lack of progress in his life was never more evident for him then when he attended his five-year high school reunion. At the reunion everyone was talking about their successes and where they were in life and Mike …… well he was right where they left him. As Mike describes it, “I’m still right here where we left high school even worse because I don’t have the drive-in job anymore or the job at grocery store. I got in a lot of trouble that year, a lot of trouble.”

Another addiction taking over

Realizing he hadn’t progressed in his life as others did, Mike was confronted with more turmoil and angst and as with a lot of addicts, Mike turned to other means of escape. “I was also an addict with sports betting, a compulsive gambler and I had some very bad people after me all the time. I’m now a 27-year old kid and I owed anywhere between $20,000 to $50,000 to be paid by Monday with no income coming in at the time.”

At one point, things got so out of control for Mike that he was scared for his life. Skipping back to when he worked at the grocery store Mike recalls telling his friend that he worked with, “Anybody shows up, I owe the Mafia like 20 grand. I said If anybody shows up, who looks like they’re collecting money, say Mike telephone line 3 over the store intercom”. Since they only had 2 lines in that grocery store, that was Mike’s queue that he was being looked for by the wrong people and his time to escape. But, of course there was only so long he could avoid them. Eventually Mike would have to pay off his $20K plus debt and would do that by giving them everything he had saved up and selling his trailer. And gambling was his second addiction.

Having personally lived through these exact addictions of gambling and cocaine, for me it was as if one addiction fed the other. One wouldn’t get us high enough, so we needed another to numb the pain and feed the need of escape. Mike was no different, “I always wanted that feeling of cocaine so, if I lost money with the football games, whatever, you’d just drown yourself in cocaine. Because you got to meet the guy (bookie) on Tuesday morning to pay him, so you would gamble it all on Monday night, to try and get even. I mean it was a vicious cycle of cross addiction.”

With gambling addiction, most do not just gamble on one thing. Most gamble on sports, cards, horses and whatever they can. Mike enjoyed playing cards as well and he was so hooked that he decided to take a 6-month course on card counting from a very famous blackjack expert in Minneapolis. Learning how to count cards would allow him to go to Las Vegas, beat the casinos and pay off his bookies in Minneapolis that he consistently owed money to from all of his sports betting.

It was now 1982 and Mike went down to Vegas. There, he lived out of a van for 45 days gambling to win money back to pay off the bookies after him and the bank he owed money to. He didn’t have one sip of alcohol the entire time because he was in a desperate situation focusing on winning and getting the bookies off of his tail. He would win $350 every single night; send money home to his mother and she would pay the bookies off and whatever was still owed to the bank for other loans he took.

As Mike experienced, “Back then, it was all mafia that ruled Vegas. My card counting instructor told me, ‘You’re never going to win. You’re a gambler, you’re a compulsive gambler, and you’re not doing it (counting cards) right’. I obviously could count the cards right and I would tend to bet more money, but there are all these rules about how to card count. Twice I got thrown out of casino, literally thrown out by my feet thrown through the front door when I thought I had caught a cheater one night. It started when I caught this guy back peeking, it’s called back peeking and I hollered to the casino host, to come over here and see this. He comes over and I say the next card is the jack of diamonds, he is cheating me and they flip it up and it’s the jack of diamonds. He came around the table, I was one of the only people in the casino, lifted me up and threw me through the front door “don’t come back, we’ll kill you”

Pretending to get help

Fast forward to the mid 1980’s where Mike’s life consisted of multiple addictions including a major cocaine and gambling addiction. As Mike’s life was going backwards, he was seeing all these people he grew up with accelerating ahead of him. They were where he wanted to be, where he knew in his mind he could be. He would pray to God that he wanted to be married with children, have grandkids. He thought that’s what he wanted and that this would bring him happiness.

With that in mind, in 1985 Mike met a gal who he dated and eventually married in 1987. They were married for 20 years. Through Mike’s gambling, ability to convince friends and family to lend him money as well as other ventures he was involved in, he purchased a small bar and a nightclub. Probably not the best idea for an addict but as addicts we have this innate ability to not take no for an answer and to be really convincing. Mike convinced friends and family to buy the nightclub and bar for him. He made an agreement that he would then pay them off allowing him to own the entities outright. This was a smart way to avoid having to get loans through banks since, at this time, his credit was shot.

Mike was living his “dream” or at least so he thought. He thought he was happy, he believed he had a great life. He had everything he had dreamed up, everything he had been envious of others having he now had — the white picket fence, the dream home, the wife who engaged in the lifestyle he lived, and by 1991 he had 4 children. Everything on the outside may have looked good but there was the little dirty secret, although it wasn’t really a secret expect to his children since they didn’t know. He was still partying, still using cocaine, still gambling and still numbing the reality of his life.

Addictions are hard work

Mike was now an entrepreneur and had done all these entrepreneurial things yet throughout the whole time he was covering up his addictions. “Let me tell you and any addict out there will tell you this same thing — Addictions are hard work. They’re hard work. You’re hiding it from everyone, you’re lying about it all the time and just, so you can go feed your addiction.”

This statement couldn’t hit home more. In the depths of my addiction, I would lie to my best friends. I would tell them I had to leave when we were all out together at a club in New York City, as an example. I would explain that I was meeting an ex-girlfriend, because who would question that? The hard truth of the matter was that I was leaving them, so I could go back to my apartment, play poker on the computer while doing cocaine until the sun came up only to smoke marijuana for hours so I could go to sleep. I lived this vicious cycle for years, so I could deeply relate to Mike.

After telling Mike some of my story, he explains “It’s like you say, when you are at a party and you’re leaving the party to go home you get cover by the story you tell. You are really feeding this addiction but you’re making up the excuses, where you are going, all these things and things are hard to cover. It’s a lot of work to function through and you are in this big downward spiral.”

This was Mike’s reality. Owning a bar gave him the perfect cover for his addictions. He was “working” all those late nights out and he could easily explain things under the guise of being in the bar business.

But his addiction was out of control. Recalling a trip he took with his family to Disney World Mike recounts, “We would take a month trip to Florida and we would drink or do drugs the whole time we were there, at Disney World and everywhere because while I’m going there to be entertained, I’m an addict. My wife and I were both addicts and we just had to feed our addiction. The kids had no idea and to this day after staying married for twenty years, I am amazed that all my kids turned out really good.”

Rock bottom? Not for Mike

After Mike left Vegas because he was so sick of Blackjack he said he’d never play again so 20 years went by and its now 2002 and his son was ten years old at the time. Mike was telling him the story. Mike recalls, “We were sitting, it was a stormy night, 3AM in the morning and I’m telling him this story about how I broke the rules I learned in the card counting game which is why I got kicked out of the casinos to begin with. My son said to me, “Dad why won’t you go back and do it right this time”.

“I was in fear, I wasn’t gambling at the time and so I decided to go back. I called my old boss back up, he says well you ready to do it right this time? I was ready, so here we are 20 years later, and I decided to sell the bars and start card counting again. I took almost all the money from the bars, a good chunk of it at least, and went to Las Vegas. I had no skill other than that card counting. I went to Vegas and I drank alcohol that night. Alcohol affected my focus, I made some mistakes and in the next three days, I lost the whole 50 grand which was supposed to be used to support our family for the next year. I was completely devastated.

This was just another devastating episode in Mike’s life. The normal person would think, that should be a rock bottom. Not for Mike. He would cry and cry and cry. He would quit one drug or quit drinking, which was easy because he would just switch over to another. Quit gambling and then go to cocaine. Quit cocaine and he had alcohol and it was a vicious cycle but somehow throughout all of this he was still functioning.”

A Dream from God that changed his life

Right after losing all his money and after driving home from a night at the bar, Mike had this dream from God about the idea for “MyPillow”. It was 2004 and it was about 2AM in the morning Mike recalls. “I had this vivid dream and woke up and I wrote the “MyPillow” logo all over the house. It’s everywhere. I’m just really excited about this and when one of my daughters comes upstairs and looks at me strangely asking, “What are you doing Dad?” Mike explained his idea in exuberance. “I had this dream and I know it’s from God about this pillow but I got the logo in my head for “MyPillow”. I’m inventing this pillow, it’s going to change the world, it’s going to be amazing” and all these things and I’m talking about and she goes and grabs a glass of water. She looks at me and she says, that’s really random Dad and she walked back down stairs. Over the next several weeks, I just got really into it. My kids are asking their mother, “when is Dad going to get over this pillow?” and she would just say, oh it’s just a phase it will pass.”

Mike still had a little money coming in from the sale of the bar but was otherwise broke. That money he did have he kept putting into MyPillow. This became his newest addiction. Every day he would work on some new strategy with his son Darren who would rush home after school to help his Dad try different strategies. Although nothing was working and whatever money was left was quickly running out.

The addictions were still in full force and getting worse. Mike now discovered crack. Mike explains, “What crack did was it grabbed me and it didn’t have all the downfalls of cocaine. It hit all the highs but you could eat on it, you could go to bed when you want to and it was like all this false comfort and you go wow, it’s just like this is perfect in your mind. Then after doing it so many times, you are now hooked and then it starts taking over and it changes you. It switches and now you can’t sleep on it, as you get into it, you start doing things you would not normally do. I couldn’t even pick up the phone because once again you’re trying in your mind, not only to hide your addiction because you can’t admit that but now your paranoia is so overwhelming I can’t even describe it. So, you’ve got this teeter totter going on, getting a great feeling from being high but the other side of it was horrific. But I couldn’t stop.”

So, Mike in the midst of this powerful crack addiction which was worsening, put all of his other energy and focus into his pillow. After 1 ½ years of work on the pillow, with absolutely no money left, it finally was invented. Someone suggested that he do a kiosk which Mike never even heard of before. The only way to be able to do that was to borrow money against whatever equity he had left in his house. He borrowed all he could and was able to get $15,000 to rent a kiosk which failed miserably. He started doing shows consistently getting turned down everywhere he pitched his idea. He walked into a big box store and started telling them how it was the best pillow ever asking them how many they wanted to buy, and he would literally be escorted out of the store. All this time he was only able to sell 80 pillows and had 300 of them left. He and his family were broke.

Although their financial situation was in dire straits, Mike finally caught a break when he received a call from a guy who had purchased his pillow. “This guy called me in January and he says Mike; are you the guy that invented this pillow from Minnesota? I said yeah, and he goes I got one and it changed my life. He said I help run the Minneapolis home show, would you like a spot in there? And I said sure.” So, Mike took his 300 pillows and went into that show still all this time, supporting his and his wife’s addiction.

Mike was living two lives. He was so passionate about this pillow that he could speak at shows and to other people about it at any time. However, in order to speak in any other aspect of his life he needed to be on cocaine. It was his crutch and he couldn’t function without it. Mike explains, “For me it was absolutely amazing that I could speak about My Pillow without any drugs. There is no way I could speak in front of a group of people or anything like that. I could only speak in the back of bars when I was showing off and stuff so to be able to speak without drugs was absolutely amazing.”

So, Mike and his wife put all the focus in going from show to show trying to sell his pillows. Ten-hour drives would lead to cocaine and crack binges to stay up driving throughout the night. Addictions would collide and need to be fed. It was a vicious cycle but all he knew.

As Mike attended the shows he sold stock to a few friends and family members to support his lifestyle. He was then besieged with friends and companies trying to take his idea and his pillow. Friends would betray him and try to start their own pillow idea, large companies would try to manufacture similar pillows and undercut him and a variety of other challenges and obstacles were encountered. Mike had borrowed all he could and felt his dream was being ripped away by outside forces. Mike didn’t know it at the time but he was also about to lose the love of his life. “Every time I reached out to raise outside money to come in, they tried to take My Pillow and that’s what happened in the spring of 2007. There was really no chance that we were going to be able to keep the company. These guys that had bought into the company had fired me, my wife and they basically had the company sold. They were going to just take it and get rid of it and just sell it off to someone, just whatever I don’t even know what their plan was.” The one smart thing Mike had done prior to all of this was file for a patent which would change his fortunes and we will come back to that. At the same time this was all happening they were shutting the lights off of in his house. His family was losing their home and up to their eyeballs in debt. After throwing his wife a 50th birthday party and everything seeming fine in Mike’s mind, she had enough and 5 days later she left for good.

Mike’s addiction was about to hit new levels. Divorced and about to be out of a home for him and his kids, Mike got another house on a contract for deed. Mike was doing the best he could but the closest people to him were worried because everything seemed to be falling to pieces. And then as if a gift from God, Mike got the patent. The outside forces could no longer destroy him and take what he worked so many years on. My Pillow was safe with Mike. He started sending others out to shows around the country to market and sell My Pillow. Mike was acting as the call center. He was trying to keep track of all these people at the shows across the country. No one taught him how to do this, he just had to figure it out and figure it out while doing a massive amount of crack cocaine.

Mike was going from one drug dealer to another in Minneapolis. He couldn’t stop himself and he didn’t want to ever go to sleep because when he woke up, he would wake up to reality — the business sinking, reps on the road trying to keep all the money made, outside forces trying to take his business, divorce, kids, no money, etc. It became so bad that Mike was up for 14 days straight and his drug dealers did an intervention! His drug dealers! Three of them were waiting at his house and one of them stayed with him trying to force him to sleep. They made sure no one would sell him any more crack until he sobered up.

A Miracle from God

One night, shortly after that intervention, Mike had been on a little public access station in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis). The woman always ran it for free and she had Mike on to do a little interview about MyPillow. It aired around three in the morning all the time and Mike would get calls from his appearance. Of course, Mike would still be up at that hour and he would take these calls and he would sell a few pillows.

Mike explains one of these calls that he believes was a sign from God. “I was all by myself, it was like ten o’clock at night, and I get this phone call from this lady. She goes, I don’t want to buy a pillow. She says but GOD keeps telling me to call you and I’m calling to pray with you that what you’re doing is so important that don’t ever give up. I go, OK and so she prays on the phone with me. About forty-five minutes later I get another call, a totally different lady and nothing surprised me more at that time. This lady calls up and now she says, yeah, I’ve seen you on channel 6 and she said, I keep getting in prayer that I’m supposed to call you and tell you what you’re doing is so important. The pillow is a platform for a much bigger thing and I said OK and so we prayed for about a half hour.” Two more calls followed from complete strangers with similar messages to Mike. It got him thinking that God might have a bigger plan for him but that thought sounded horrible at the time. Quitting his addictions and having a platform to speak to others wasn’t something he wanted to do. Mike had all this pain and having this weight on his shoulders sounded unbearable. So he procrastinated and did nothing about it through that entire year of 2008.

His addiction was still in full blown affect when several events occurred that lead to a turning point. First off, he was with a girl who had a severe case of personality disorder. His son who was living with him told him he wanted to leave. Between the girl he was with and him seeing his Dad’s addiction out of control, his son had enough. Mike thought he was hiding it well but the ruse was up. His son left.

He then got an unexpected visit from his best friend in December of that year. Mike used to buy drugs from him all the time. They used together and Mike respected him because he was the only person Mike knew who did as many drugs as he did. When his best friend visited he had been clean for three years. So they had a heart to heart and the first question Mike asked was, “Is being clean boring?” Mike said he gave him an amazing answer and it made Mike even more comfortable to ask him other questions that he wouldn’t be able to ask anybody else because he wouldn’t respect their answers.” He understood how an addict’s mind worked because he was one. This had a profound effect on Mike and started turning his thought process. He started thinking maybe he could quit and become the biggest comeback ever. A few weeks passed and he received a call from his sister in January of 2009. His sister had called and said God’s got this platform for you. “She called me and says; the pillow is just a platform for a much bigger thing. I said, yes and I’ve heard that before, I get it and she goes well God is tired of waiting, that he’s tired of you standing and that door is going to shut and someone else is going to be picked. He has finally picked you and so that kind of rang in my head. I knew and on January-sixteenth 2009, not one more day. I said one prayer and I said I want to wake up in the morning, please I don’t ever want to have the desire for alcohol or crack, cocaine, tobacco, everything.”

He woke up the next day and felt like a different person. Miracles started happening. New guys who tried taking his company failed. He was able to raise $30,000. Two months later not having picked up a drug, he met a man who asked him to come to a church recovery group. Mike went and it was unlike the other groups he went to before where you have to admit all of the mistakes you made, the people you hurt and put a plan to make amends. This always made Mike feel terrible about himself. This group though discussed his childhood, father’s abandonment and childhood trauma. Remember Mike’s parents were divorced when he was seven so this resonated. Being able to work through and address the inner pains of childhood was a really big thing for Mike. No one had approached this with him before. This gave Mike the opportunity to address all the pain he had been carrying for years and continued to support his sobriety.

Links between Addiction and Entrepreneurship

Mike discovered along the way the traits that both addicts and entrepreneurs share. “As an addict and an entrepreneur, I was able to be very resourceful, to be very reactive. Something happens and you’re reacting to that situation, whatever it was I was thinking it was just catastrophic. You are going; how are we going to get through this.”

“Now, they don’t even ask anymore when an issue occurs. I always know I’m going to come out the other side and it’s going to be good so I am able to approach situations differently. So many people worry about something that never actually happens and you spend all your time worrying and living in fear. 99.999% of everything you worry about doesn’t even come true anyway. Everybody’s got some addiction and people are ashamed or they don’t want to talk about it. Let’s put the problem under the table and then when it rears its head we will deal with it. People are now dying from opiate addiction and people are afraid that have addictions, they’re afraid to come forth.”

Mike’s resourcefulness while a deterrent with addiction was a major benefit in business. He now runs a company with 1600 employees and does all their work in-house. Mike reflects, “Everything we do, all our media and how that almost to me is less work than when I was an addict because it was so hard. Not only you are hiding from people, it’s like playing a big orchestra. Play each of these dual lives and let your time just fly by because you’re spending your time worrying about this or worrying about this. Another thing addicts get into is that thought process of going — wow I wasted all that time. You can’t think of that that was all wasted time. You think of all the stuff you learned as an addict is so powerful using in entrepreneurship. Some of the best workers I have are former addicts because they’re good people, passionate people. They have the same pains. They are masking these pains. They’re good people with good hearts and they just want to break through that and not have the pain anymore and be able to function.

Do you think anybody wants to be an addict? No, we don’t.”

This is part one of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part two where we discuss how Mike has built MyPillow into a company of love, support and second chances for recovering addicts.

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