“They were three of the biggest dealers in the cities,” Lindell recounted to the Salvation Army in 2015. “They refused to sell to me again. One of them tried babysitting me until I fell asleep.”
Instead, he sneaked outside to score elsewhere. But no one wanted his business. Lindell waved around a $100 bill for $5 worth of crack. Nothing. He tried to hide his distinct mustache behind his hand. No luck.
“I get back to the apartment, and [the dealer] is sitting there, and he goes, ‘How’d that work out for you?’ ” Lindell said to CNBC last September. His dealer picked up Lindell’s phone and snapped a photo of the addict’s face — walking-dead skin tone, disheveled hair, mug shot scowl. It was a memento of what it looked like at rock bottom.
Lindell got clean the next year and powered ahead with MyPillow, turning an idea plucked from a dream into a successful international business claiming nearly 30 million sales. For years he struggled against addiction and long business odds. Today, Lindell finds himself up against a political backlash.
Last week, Fox News host Laura Ingraham hopped on Twitter to blast David Hogg, the Parkland massacre survivor and gun-control advocate. The comments — a cheap shot about Hogg’s college rejection — quickly sparked outcry, with at least 18 advertisers pulling their spots from the host’s show, according to Media Matters.
“Advertising decisions are based on what’s best for MyPillow, my employees and my customers,” Lindell added in a statement to the Shakopee Valley News. In response, there has been a call online to boycott Lindell’s own business. The Minnesota businessman, whose mustachioed face is familiar from MyPillow infomercials and ads, has now found himself in the national debate.
It’s the latest stop in a quintessentially American wild ride, a journey that has run from pig pens and Las Vegas card tables to QVC and the gold-plated halls of Mar-a-Lago.
As Lindell tells it, his success has the classic Horatio Alger shape — with cocaine and infomercials and divine inspiration.
Raised in Chaska, Minn., Lindell attended the University of Minnesota before dropping out, CNBC reported. He jumped from one business idea to the next in the following years, often pulling ideas from his experience. After his sister’s apartment flooded, he started a carpet cleaning company. He heard about the success of lunch wagon businesses in California, and he tried the same concept in the Twin Cities.
Lindell also tried to fill his pockets counting cards at Las Vegas casinos and raising pigs. Eventually, he started pouring drinks behind a bar and eventually purchased the business. “Probably wasn’t a real good idea, because I was an addict at the time, a pretty hardcore cocaine addict,” he told CNBC.
He started using cocaine in 1982, Lindell told the Salvation Army, switching to crack in the 1990s. He was still deep into his addiction when a lifelong sleeping problem pointed him to his million-dollar idea.
Lindell never could find a comfortable pillow all his life. Then in 2004 he woke from a dream in the middle of the night with an idea for a pillow that would hold its shape. He jumped into the project, cutting up foam and material, learning to sew the pillows himself. When he finally had a finished model, he unsuccessfully pitched the items to chain stores.
While struggling to keep MyPillow going, Lindell finally bottomed out on Jan. 16, 2009. A Christian — today Lindell can always be seen with a cross dangling from his neck — he believed the MyPillow idea had come directly from God. He asked for the same intervention from above to end his addiction.
“I had one prayer that night,” he told CNBC. “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.’ ”
Lindell says his desire to get high was gone.
Infomercials would prove the key to ballooning the business. The 30-minute spots featured Lindell himself singing his product’s praises.
“I want to come across as an average guy, talking to his neighbor,” he told the Star Tribune in 2014. Business picked up after the spots started running in 2011. “By the end of the year, we went from five employees to 500,” Lindell told CNBC. In 2017, MyPillow’s founder estimated the company had spent $100 million on infomercials, with 30 million pillows sold to $300 million in annual revenue.
But the company has run into controversy. Prosecutors from nine California counties hit MyPillow with a lawsuit for running deceptive ads about the health and healing properties of the products. In 2016, the company settled the claims with $1 million in civil penalties, NBC News reported.
In January 2017, Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota downgraded MyPillow’s rating from an “A+” to an “F.”
“Among other issues, BBB has attempted to persuade MyPillow to discontinue their ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGO)/other discount offers without success,” Dana Badgerow, president and chief executive of BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota, said at the time in a news release. “Continuous BOGO offers, which can then be construed as an item’s regular, everyday price, violate not only BBB’s Code of Advertising — which all BBB Accredited Businesses agree to abide by — but also other state and national organizations’ rules.”
Lindell has since said he believes the downgrade could have been motivated by his vocal support of Trump.
The pillow entrepreneur first met Trump in the summer of 2016 when the then-candidate had a 30-minute meeting with Lindell about his business and all-American manufacturing process. Lindell told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal that Melania Trump asked for a pair of his pillows. “I overnighted him pillows from my Minnesota factory,” Lindell said. “I got a personal email from him saying he and his wife really liked MyPillow.”
Lindell was also invited to Trump’s 2017 inauguration, where he hobnobbed with other high-profile Trump backers like Stephen Baldwin and Scott Baio.
The relationship has continued. Last weekend, Lindell was invited to dinner at Mar-a-Lago for dinner with the Trumps during the Easter holiday.
“The President shook my hand and told me, ‘You are doing a great job, Michael.’ He also said he is sleeping great on his MyPillow,” Lindell told the Star Tribune.
Despite millions in the bank and proximity to the Trump inner circle, Lindell still regularly talks about his crack cocaine days. As he told CNBC last year, he still has the photo his protective drug dealers snapped — walking-dead skin tone, disheveled hair, mug shot scowl — as a warning.
Lindell plans to use the photo as the cover of an upcoming autobiography.
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