Mike Lindell: How a Bedding Empire’s Unlikeliest King Escaped from a Waking Nightmare to Living the Dream
Jan 6th, 2021 •
If you haven’t been sleeping your life away, you’ve seen the MyPillow® ads featuring the familiar face and folksy charm of Mike Lindell, the company’s founder and CEO. Complete with an authentic Minnesota accent, Lindell’s voice is earnest and without a smidgeon of irony as he effuses about the bedding he has invented and produces in his hometown of Chaska, Minnesota. His enthusiasm for his mission is infectious. His authenticity is so uncanny in this cynical world that his audience buys his pitch and his MyPillow products to the tune of $300 million annually.
Like any other dream, the details of Lindell’s unlikely rise to fame and fortune seem fantastical. A penniless, sleep-deprived drug addict dreams he should start a business making pillows without the slightest bit of experience in textiles or manufacturing to back him up. Fast forward 14 years to Mike Lindell, inventor and CEO of MyPillow, one of the most successful pillow companies and bedding empires in the country. From one non sequitur to another, Mike’s journey from struggling entrepreneur to CEO of a multi-million-dollar company is nothing short of miraculous. In fact, Mike often describes the events on his path to success as miracles.
So, who is this guy, and how did he emerge from his checkered past to be a multi-millionaire with the most recognizable face and trustworthy voice on TV? Turns out, the circumstances of my chat with Mike demonstrate part of his secret to success: treat every individual like they’re the only person who matters. So as Mike prepared for a meeting with the Leader of the Free World at the White House and an appearance on the Tucker Carlson Show, he took time to talk to me to share the story of his humble beginnings, his business philosophy, and the mission that keeps him going.
Mike describes his younger self as a shy, insecure teenager with a deep sense of unworthiness. He struggled to talk to people he didn’t know — “Ya’ know you can’t be rejected if you don’t talk” — but he was ambitious, energetic, and looking for ways to help people.
When his sister flooded her apartment, he started a carpet cleaning business. When his uncle needed help on his hog farm, Mike became a farmhand and eventually raised his own pigs. He opened a lunch wagon, worked as a card counter, and owned a couple of bars and restaurants. None of these projects amounted to much, and any money he did make was largely funneled into his $500 – $1000 a week cocaine habit.
Mike knew he needed a change. He was broke, plagued by sleep challenges, and in the wrong line of work for a substance abuser. In 2003 he sold his bar and looked to his own experience for inspiration for his next career move.
It all started with a dream but not the kind of flight of fancy you embark on as you sit around the kitchen table wondering what to do with your life. This was a real, middle-of-the-night vision of the perfect pillow that bubbled up from Mike’s unconscious brain. That night, like most nights, Mike was struggling to sleep and bothered by yet another of a rather large pile of uncomfortable pillows that had robbed him of sleep all his life.
Mike breathlessly recounts the story of that dream and offers a glimpse of what makes this boundless bundle of energy tick:
I had a dream, which I believe came right from God, back in 2004… I wrote ‘My Pillow’ all over the house in different ways, and one of my daughters came upstairs and says, ‘What are you doin’, Dad?’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna invent this pillow. It’s gonna be called My Pillow. And she grabbed her glass of water and goes, ‘That’s really random,’ and went back downstairs.”
Her lack of enthusiasm, ripped straight from the Teenager Playbook, did nothing to deter Mike from pursuing his dream. His faith in God and his perseverance in the face of obstacles would become the hallmarks of his surreal journey to the top of a bedding empire. The next day, Mike set out to make the best pillow in the world to help himself and others get a good night’s sleep.
According to Mike, “Sleep is about the distance from your head to your bed.” He knew when he set out to invent MyPillow “It’s not about softness or firmness. It’s about the amount of height. So, if you had something that was soft and adjustable height, and it would stay soft, but yet it would hold that height” that would be a winner.
Now he just needed to figure out how to do that.
Mike says it took about a year to figure out the design for MyPillow. “I just got consumed by it. I tried over 90-some different kinds of fill, my son and I, my youngest son. When he’d get home from school every day, we’d sit out there and tear different foams and try different fills and nothing worked. I wanted something where you could move it, and it would adjust, and it would stay where you put it, yet it would be soft. And so, you basically would adjust your support, and it would be soft, but it would hold the height. Kinda like, if you can imagine a down pillow that would stay where you put it instead of the air goin’ out and just going flat.”
Finally, after seemingly endless testing, they found the formula that resulted in a soft pillow that could be adjusted to any sleeper’s desired height and stay in that position all night long. Mike learned how to use a sewing machine to make the ticking for the pillow and spent another few months modifying an old hammermill he found in a field about a mile from his home. The result was a machine that could rip the foam into three different-sized pieces that would interlock and allow the pillow to hold its shape. Now he had the pillow design. He had a way to produce it. All he needed was to get it into stores. And that wasn’t going to be easy.
In spite of Mike’s signature feverish pitch, big box stores were not interested in the revolutionary pillow from the unknown inventor. “I wanted to reverse engineer it and give the consumer everything they’d ever want in a pillow. Stayin’ cool, being able to adjust it, 100% made in the USA, I wanted the washing and drying, I wanted to use my pillow…even the first ones I made, I put my picture on there, this little picture and said, ‘family owned and operated.’ I just thought, that meant something to me going back in time when your handshake was your word. Going back to a time when customer service and quality products meant everything. I wanted this to be that. And then when I did, I was turned down everywhere. It was a complete shutout. The box stores shut me out. It was one after another of ‘no.’”
A friend suggested a kiosk in the local mall. Mike laughed a self-deprecating guffaw as he recalled, “I said, ‘how do you spell that?’” After learning what a kiosk was (and how to spell it), Mike agreed to lease one with borrowed money and borrowed self-confidence. His wife at the time did most of the outreach to mall shoppers so Mike wouldn’t have to talk to strangers. As they opened their MyPillow kiosk, they hoped for big sales.
They never came. Only 80 pillows sold — not nearly enough to cover the $15,000 it cost to rent the kiosk. Mike remembers, “We were completely broke, penniless. We had to borrow money to buy Christmas presents that year. We had no money left in the world, and the kiosk did not work.”
Or did it? In business, and life for that matter, the path to success is never straight and smooth. And you never know what lies just around the bend. One well-timed break can mean the difference between success and utter failure.
For Mike Lindell, that break came from the buyer of one of those 80 pillows sold at the mall kiosk. A guy who ran the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show tracked Mike down after sleeping on his MyPillow and told him “It changed my life! This is a miracle!” He was so impressed with MyPillow that he invited Mike to open a booth at the Home and Garden Show.
Now Mike had an audience ready and willing to try new home furnishings. He set up a table in front of his booth that gave him the distance from his audience he needed to be able to talk to the folks as they walked by. And talk he did! During that home show, he sold out of every pillow he had in his inventory.
Maybe even more important than his inventory sell out was Mike’s epiphany during those early days of MyPillow. All the while he was designing and selling his pillow, Mike realized he didn’t need drugs to get high. He was totally consumed, first, with inventing the pillow that would change his and so many others’ lives, and then, with selling his pillows face-to-face with people who struggled to sleep as he did.
“If I was behind that table, I could [talk to people], so I didn’t need drugs. I didn’t need anything. I was just this salesman…and this passion of helping people. I loved helping people.” And while he was still using cocaine and crack when he wasn’t selling pillows, he knew there was a better way to get the rush he craved. One night in 2009, he went to bed and just prayed to God to take his intense desire for drugs away.
“I had one prayer that night,” he said. “God, I want to wake up in the morning and never have the desire again. I woke up the next day — and you’ve got to realize this is years of crack addiction — I go, ‘Wow, something’s different.’” Overnight, his desire for crack was gone, and he’s been clean and sober ever since.
Mike was selling lots of pillows at home shows and by filling orders generated by a simple ad he wrote that began with his famous opener “Just like you I had problems sleeping.” Mike was learning that his best sales pitch didn’t shock, awe, or otherwise try to impress people. It simply related to them on their terms, one human being to another. For the man who struggled to talk to people, Mike was finding his voice, and it was honest, full of conviction, and totally relatable. Just one guy talking to another person looking for a good night’s sleep.
Now it was time to take the next big step. Mike and his family and friends pooled their money to produce an infomercial that Mike insisted be as close to his home show experience as possible.
“I said, ‘I just want to be in it with a friend of mine and have a table, just like I do at the shows, and a real audience.’” The producer didn’t want Mike to be in the infomercial at all. He said, “‘This guy is the worst I’ve ever seen! He will never make it on TV!’”
Mike chuckled as he admitted to me that the producer was right. After doing nine takes of just the first line of the script, Mike ditched the teleprompter and simply ad-libbed the infomercial. And that was the secret sauce. Speaking from the heart with his genuine enthusiasm bubbling over, Lindell’s on-air performance was a hit. Orders came flooding in so fast that in forty days, Mike had increased his workforce from five to 500 just to keep up.
Now, seven years after that fateful night, Mike employs 1600 people and has sold more than 41 million pillows with revenues of about $300 million a year. He’s also expanded his product line to include
- Bed sheets
- Mattress Toppers
- Pillow cases
- Travel pillows
- Pet beds
- and more
Not bad for a once bankrupt, former crack addict.
Most people would be content to stick with the winning formula and continue making the product that made them rich and famous. Not Mike Lindell. He’s on a mission to help people — not just help them get “the best night’s sleep in the whole wide world” but help improve their lives in profound ways. Through the success of MyPillow and its advertising juggernaut, Mike has the money, name recognition, and public trust to help people like him who struggle with addiction and the cascade of problems that follow in the wake of substance abuse.
He’s currently working to launch the Lindell Recovery Network that will connect addicts with substance abuse recovery centers like the Salvation Army and Teen Challenge. A web site will offer stories of recovery and hope from people just like those in the program, giving them the motivation they need to kick their habits. Then Lindell plans to employ mentors who will provide post-recovery support to the former addicts.
Mike’s dedication to helping people recover from addiction, as well as his own recovery, has caught the attention of President Trump, who has endorsed MyPillow and Mike’s Made in America business model.
The two businessmen have a mutual admiration for each other, and Mike has already participated in meetings with the President and his team to discuss ways to attack the opioid crisis in America. He looks forward to joining forces with the President to tackle this growing problem.
Other outreach projects include the Lindell Foundation, which raises money for charities that have been fully vetted by the Foundation, so people can trust that 100% of their donations goes to the local people in need. “People like to give in their own backyard…And you get to hear back the difference you made…My tagline is ‘Bringing trust back into giving’ because people don’t trust foundations and stuff anymore.”
Funded by private donations, including $6 million from Lindell himself, the Lindell Foundation has already helped with relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey, Florence, and Michael. MyPillow also donated 20,000 pillows to Florida residents who lost everything in the storms of 2018.
Lindell has a soft spot in his heart for budding entrepreneurs, so when I ask him what advice he would give to people trying to start a business, he was happy to pass along his tips for success. A few jockeyed for the number one spot on Mike’s list.
- “View every customer like it’s your only customer, number one.”
- “Stay true to your word and have passion. I’m tellin’ you, you gotta have that passion…If you’re just in it to try and make money, I don’t see you makin’ it. You need to have that passion, enjoy what you’re doin’, and the money will come.”
- “Find someone in that business that you can trust to mentor you, or at least to ask advice so you don’t waste time on things that don’t work.”
- “Here’s the biggest advice: it’s deviations and blocks. If you don’t learn from your deviations once you’re in the business — and that could be ‘why did this happen that’s good or why did this happen that’s bad,’ and react to it, you’re not makin’ it.”
- “If [you’re making] a product, there’s nothing better than the fairs and home shows because you can get feedback from customers.”
Calling All Entrepreneurs
Lately, Mike has turned another problem he faced into an opportunity to help other. “Over the last three years, entrepreneurs have sent me their ideas, told me about their products, and I’ve had to just stack them up because I couldn’t go to them, and I didn’t have the time to vet them all.” So, Mike decided to create a digital clearinghouse for all of those innovative ideas.
Early in 2019, Lindell plans to launch MyStore.com, a website that showcases new entrepreneurs with a product or service that will help others mentally, physically, or spiritually. As with all of Mike’s projects, he has set his sights high. Entrepreneurs are “gonna have a platform with millions of eyes coming there, and it’s gonna rival anything ever out there in history…That’s gonna be a game changer in this country.”
His final piece of advice for people with new business ideas: be passionate about your ideas and take a chance on yourself. “Consumer confidence is at an all-time high. And there is no reason not to take a chance nowadays…Now is the perfect time in history to take that risk because everything’s so good out there right now.”
The Success Story that Almost Wasn’t
The Mike Lindell story could easily have turned out very differently. What if he hadn’t had that prophetic dream? What if he hadn’t sold a pillow to the director of the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show? What if the first MyPillow infomercial had been the disaster its producers predicted? Or worse — what if Mike had gone the way of many substance abusers and died prematurely? Call it serendipity. Call it good luck. Mike calls it Divine Intervention. “There were so many Divine appointments and so much protection for MyPillow when things were going completely bad. The power of prayer got me through.”
He counts the intervention staged by his drug dealers as another of the many examples of Divine protection. After a sleepless, fourteen-day, crack-fueled marathon of overseeing MyPillow production and selling pillows, his dealers refused to sell him crack until he got some sleep. That was a turning point for Mike, but it still took him another year to finally commit himself to sober living and pray for a cure for his addiction. Recognizing the hand of God shepherding him along his path to success gives Mike the determination to share his story and his blessings to help others. He’s wrapping up work on his autobiography — due out in March — to do just that.
People really need hope nowadays, and I just want my story to bring’em hope.”
After describing how he reverse engineers his products by taking “every reason out of it not to buy it,” I observed that he’s a born engineer. Mike slowed down. For the first time in 45 minutes, this run-away train eased into the station. His voice changed pitch, he took a deep breath, chuckled softly, and modestly replied, “Well, I give the glory to God. I didn’t have any ideas,” he said with no small amount of self-deprecation. “He put them in my head.”
“You’re a channel?” I suggested.
“I’m a channel.”
You can’t help but be moved by Lindell’s humility and his devotion to transforming his material success into redemption for others who may have missed the kind of providential boost Mike says set him on his life-changing path.
- CNBC: cnbc.com/2017/09/20/how-mypillow-founder-went-from-crack-addict-to-self-made-millionaire.html
- CBS: cbsnews.com/news/the-story-of-the-my-pillow-king-mike-lindell/
- YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=_k1B5jnBNIE
- YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=FsvYbiIzbbs
- Lindell Foundation: lindellfoundation.org