By Tina Irgang
After growing up in a hard-scrabble Queens environment, Michael Parrella found tremendous success as an entrepreneur in his 20s. Then, less than 10 years ago, a lack of experience in business lost him everything and brought him to the edge of subsistence. Today, he leads iLoveKickboxing.com, a global franchise with locations in all 50 states, the United Kingdom, Canada and Peru. In the following interview, Parrella discusses the tough times, the turnaround, and what keeps him going.
Before you started iLoveKickboxing.com, you went through a bit of a rough patch. What happened, and how did you turn yourself around?
Parrella: As a teenager, I started training in martial arts and then, when I was 24, I opened up my first studio. I had some marginal success from the 90s into the mid-2000s. When I was probably 26, I was earning about $100,000 a year, pretty much because I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. … I didn’t really have any organizations or associations or mentors, so I didn’t really know what to do or not to do. So I went through the rough patch in about 2007. Everything started going downhill. I made a series of bad decisions. … There was a student of mine who claimed he was a trust fund baby and was going to solve any problem I had, so I was really excited … I was kind of chasing money and drove my business into the ground. … I got divorced from my wife. My house was in foreclosure. My only employee that stayed with me, his mother was a hoarder. … She had body-sized freezers in her basement, and he would bring over every day microwave dinners that were up to two years old. … I literally stole electricity from our neighbor when ours got turned off. … In my search for something new and different, I started reading a lot more about sales and marketing service, and thought, “Wow, everyone is doing everything wrong.” … So I started really driving into direct-response copy and web design, and made this website that really worked. … Since about 2008, we have sold over 1 million memberships online. … I started a business in a box and operated it out of gyms and martial arts facilities. It did really well. … We’ve been franchising for three years, have just about 160 locations on the ground, and there are over 400 in various states of development.
You’re trained in martial arts. Do you ever find those kinds of skills helpful in running a business?
Parrella: Martial arts teaches you a level of tenacity and stick-to-itiveness that you need as an entrepreneur. … You will have a problem; it’s just going to happen. Whether you have the toughness to fight through — for me, a lot of that came from training in martial arts. If you’re a high-level athlete, you face that adversity and push through. … I went to the gym, worked out, so I understood the fitness mindset and that it was very results-driven, but I also understood the martial arts side.
What motivates you to get up each morning?
Parrella: I used to think it was money, and it’s definitely not. I have a favorite series on the History Channel, The Men Who Built America. It’s all about Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan. These guys made more money than anybody today, in equivalent. … They weren’t in it for the money at all, but when I didn’t have money, that’s what motivated me. I thought money would solve all my problems. … I have about 130 employees, I have a little under 100,000 members, and I think those are the things that really get me going. … I really do like the fact that this business changes someone’s life. That’s what gets me motivated.
What do you consider the best decision you’ve ever made, either personally or professionally?
Parrella: Somebody gave me the suggestion, what would your tombstone say if you died? I actually drew a real tombstone and wrote some stuff, and then I started really thinking. … And I thought, what would people say at my funeral? I started writing it down, and I made it sound so awesome, [but then] I was like, this is total bullshit. … I think that it was more what I wanted everyone to remember me as, versus what I was really doing. At that very moment I said, half my life is gone. I have this opportunity to become the architect of the rest of my life. I can write my eulogy now. And I wrote literally a page and a half of what I would like said about me at my funeral. And I had six or seven things from that letter I wrote that became guiding principles for my business. One of them was, “Above and beyond, do the right thing, even when no one’s looking, even when it’s hard.”… The last seven years or so, I’ve been operating in that mentality the whole time, and when I stopped acting selfishly, that for me changed everything because it gave me direction. … That’s what I think was the best decision for me, was to become this person that I wished I would’ve been my whole life.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.