About this episode

I’d like to introduce you to Michael Alvarez Jr., founder of Vision Media. Vision Media is a fulfillment and logistics company that services movie studios and television networks. In fact, if you walk into almost any movie theater today, I am confident that all marketing collateral you see has come through one of Michael’s warehouses. Vision Media has experienced some tremendous success, but Michael’s journey in bringing it to its current state was not without incredible trials.

In today’s episode, you’ll hear how important it is to not allow traumatic events in your life to define your future. You will also hear just how critical it is to have a support system in your life when traveling the road to entrepreneurship. Finally, you will discover how powerful having a deep-rooted self-belief can be to achieve success.

All of our Startup Stories begin with our featured founder unpacking their childhood because I truly believe it plays a role in how we handle the entrepreneurial journey. What I love about Michael’s startup story is how much he values the lessons his parents taught him as a child and how critical those were to his entrepreneurial journey. This is Michael Alvarez’s startup story.

In this episode you’ll hear

  • How and when he realized he wanted to be an entrepreneur and his early childhood
  • His desire to do something great with, to play on a major league baseball, or own a major league baseball team.
  • Michael’s experience getting drafted by the Saint Louis Cardinals, how it changed his life
  • His baseball journey, plus his experience with a career-ending injury and what he did next
  • How he got his start in the movies and marketing industry and his early days in fulfillment
  • The early days of his business, how it was a grind, figuring out what the heck they were doing and realizing his company was really an extension of marketing departments within the studios
  • How he went about balancing entrepreneurship and raising a young family
  • Growing his fulfillment company in the 90s, the growth pattern for you, plus selling it in 2002
  • Being urged to buy his company by his wife and working hard to not let traumatic events define his future
  • The importance of realizing we are all flawed and how that realization allows you to be more successful

“The greatest gift my dad gave me was the importance of respect, and this gift allowed me to get into doors many couldn’t.”
—Michael AlvarezJr. , Vision Media

Resources from this episode

Connect with Michael on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-alvarez-6a981476/
Vision Media website: https://visionmedia.com

Donate to: http://www.varietysocal.org

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Full Episode Transcript

Special Guest: Michael Alvarez.

Sponsored By:

Episode transcript

The Startup Story - Michael Alvarez Jr.

Michael Alvarez Jr.: Hi. This is Michael Alvarez Jr., founder of Vision Media, and this is MY startup story.

James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.

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James McKinney: Before we jump into our episode this week, I want to share a review that was posted on iTunes by Combo Guy, who gave The Startup Story a five star rating and wrote, "I would like to just say thank you. I lost my business after I purchased my fifth convenience store. I purchased the store because a mentor that I had a great amount of respect for convinced me it was a great deal. I did not follow my gut instinct to pass it by. Long story short, as an entrepreneur, listen to the advice of others but do not make snap decisions, and do your own research. In fact, follow your gut instinct. I have enjoyed every episode of this podcast and have learned so much. You have lifted me up from a long, dark depression, and have restarted my brain in thinking like an entrepreneur again. By listening to your podcast, I have been inspired to start looking for my next startup. Thank you."

I am absolutely humbled to be part of your journey, Combo Guy, and thank you so very much for sharing this type of feedback. Your encouragement makes all the hours that go into creating this podcast worth it. My hope in sharing these amazing stories is that we'll expose the challenges that one will face during the entrepreneurial journey, and that everyone will have a realistic perspective of the journey as well as an understanding that your challenges are not unique to you. All of this is to help inspire you and all of our listeners to keep moving forward. So for all of you that are listening right now, if you have found any value in any of The Startup Story episodes, please leave a review. I'll continue to read one each week, so plug your brand in the review as well. Giving your business a plug is the least I can do if you take the time out of your day to write a review.

Now, let's jump into this week's episode. Our guest today is Michael Alvarez, founder of Vision Media. Vision Media is a fulfillment and logistics company that services every single movie studio and television network. In fact, if you walk into a movie theater I'm fairly confident that all the marketing collateral you see has come through one of Michael's warehouses. Vision Media has experienced some tremendous success, but Michael's journey in bringing it to its current state was not without incredible trials.

Michael Alvarez: I was honoring something that my high school sweetheart, my wife, had asked me to do. That was go buy your company back. It's time. So we did that, and through that time, she would get sick. We would find out that she would have cancer and in 2014, on April 8th, we bought the company back, and she would die on July 21st of that same year, sick during that time too.

James McKinney: In listening to Michael's startup story, you will hear how important it is to not allow traumatic events in your life to define your future. You will learn how critical it is to have a support system in your life because the entrepreneurial journey should not be travelled alone. And you will discover how powerful a deep rooted self belief and determination can be to achieve the levels of success possible. All of our startup stories begin with our featured founder unpacking their childhood because I truly believe it plays a role in how we handle the entrepreneurial journey. Now, it doesn't necessarily dictate anything for us, but it definitely plays a role. What I love about Michael's startup story is how much he values the lessons that his parents taught him as a child, and how critical those were to his entrepreneurial journey.

Michael Alvarez: Two hardworking parents. I watched my dad run a warehouse and work hard and come home. Watched my mom have dinner. We sat around the table and we had manners. My dad was just this tough guy with big forearms. My mom was a nurse aid and always wore white clothes. I thought she was a doctor half my life before I found out that she only had a part time job at the local convalescent home. But I grew up in a loving family and watched my hardworking dad, with these big sideburns and gigantic forearms, kind of lead us, and he was tough. Respect, manners, got slapped in the back of the head if we walked in front of my mom and didn't open a door for her. He was so tough. He was my hero. I didn't know that at that time, but just a tough loving dad, and a balanced, loving mother. That's what I remember most about my parents.

James McKinney: You mentioned your dad was tough three times. Why does that descriptor stick out so much for you when you talk about your dad?

Michael Alvarez: Because I wanted to impress my father. He always stressed to be great, not good. He always reminded us that God gave us the strength and the wisdom to do great things, so use it. Don't be foolish, he would say, use it. And he just demanded that we stand up straight. Demanded that we were respectful. Demanded that we appreciated everything we had. Demanded a high level of respect.

James McKinney: Are you an only child?

Michael Alvarez: Two other brothers.

James McKinney: What's your role? Are you the first, the middle, the baby?

Michael Alvarez: I'm the oldest.

James McKinney: You're the oldest.

Michael Alvarez: Yes.

James McKinney: And I believe that there are roles that children play, so as the oldest, my assumption is he was hardest on you.

Michael Alvarez: Very much so, oh very much so. I was the leader of the brothers. I have two other brothers. He expected that I was going to be in charge of them. He expected that I was going to be the captain, the leader, the president of my brothers.

James McKinney: Now thinking back, and obviously a few decades ago, but thinking back on that expectation, was that a burden or a challenge for you? What do you remember in playing that role, being the oldest? What was that like for you?

Michael Alvarez: It wasn't a burden. It was I suspect I guess it was a challenge, but it was an opportunity. I loved the fact that my dad put me in charge. I loved that he believed that I was going to do what he wanted me to do. That was to lead my brothers, to have grace, to have respect, to have humility. But to be a leader. I was the older brother. I was responsible to make sure that they didn't do bad things. It prevented me from doing bad things and my brothers ridiculed me for that too on many occasions.

James McKinney: So come to the end of your high school years, back in the day and even still now there are college and career days. There are things where you start contemplating your future. As you look at your junior and senior year of high school, what did you think you wanted to do with your life?

Michael Alvarez: oh, I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wanted to have enough money to buy my parents a home. I wanted to be successful. I wanted my own business. I wanted to go to the big leagues and play for the Oakland A's, and then I wanted to buy the Oakland A's.

James McKinney: Oh wow.

Michael Alvarez: Because I wanted my dad to be able to have a seat in that stadium that he could feel proud, so I can remind myself when we used to go to those games and watch the A's, you know next to the bay where it was freezing by the seventh inning, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to impress my parents. I wanted to prove that what had occurred to me right before high school, that wouldn't define me. What would define me is victory and championships, and winning, and giving back to our community.

James McKinney: What occurred right before high school?

Michael Alvarez: Something happened to me that, it's probably one of the worst things that can happen to a child. I had somebody take advantage of me. I had a moment in time that someone stripped me of my innocence and at that point, I was either going to hide and be in the background and be embarrassed, or I was going to prove to myself and the world around me that I was going to take that event and make something out of it, that I was going to be great. The act that occurred to me made me feel horrible, terrible. Like I could never make it. Instead, I turned it around and I got rid of the hatred out of my heart for the individual that did this to me. Ended up praying for them and I used them all of the time as a launching pad to be successful, for they never left my mind. They never left my heart.

James McKinney: You had this desire to do something great. Play on a major league baseball, own a major league baseball team. So what was your next step out of high school?

Michael Alvarez: My next step out of high school was to go to college and to get drafted, because I had scouts looking at me when I was in high school. I knew that there was an interest in me, that the good Lord had blessed me with speed. I can run so fast. And I knew that if I fine tuned my skills in college that I would probably get an opportunity. In January of 1986, I got drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, a day that I'll never forget. That moment changed my life.

James McKinney: How so?

Michael Alvarez: I was validated. A boy that had so much challenge when he was younger and dealt with so many moments that other people didn't know about, I proved to myself that nothing was going to stop me. Those out there that have an event that's awful, that's bad, I would say to anybody, all people, use it to your advantage. That resilience made me battle tested and me being battle tested allowed me at 5'9" to get drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. That event, on that night, was a reminder that I didn't give up.

James McKinney: What was that night like for your dad and you? Because part of your drive was to prove and to provide, so what was that moment like you for you and your dad being drafted? That's a big… a very small percentage of people get drafted.

Michael Alvarez: Yeah, I'll never forget it. I came home. Back then, I think I had a pager, and I remember my mom paging me. She said, "Come home." I got home and she said, "Son, somebody from the St. Louis Cardinals called and said that you got drafted." I said, "What? Are you kidding me? Are you sure?" They said, "Yeah, his name is D Flores, and here's his number. You should call him." I said, "Did you tell dad?" I get emotional thinking about it, and she said, "No, not yet." I said, "Okay, give me the phone." So I called my dad and I said, "Dad, you've got to come home. It happened. The Cardinals drafted me." I remember on the other line, he was emotional, and he said, "Oh my goodness, mijo. It happened, it happened! I'll come home." Before I knew it, he was coming through the front door, and when he walked in my dad, he wasn't a big hugger, he wasn't a big kisser, nothing like that. But the hug that he gave me, I'll never forget. We rolled on the ground. We laughed and we cried, and the scout had come over about an hour later, and that moment of seeing my dad so proud, and the scout having the contract, it was great. It was a great moment.

James McKinney: That's awesome, that's awesome. So I assume signing the contract, you then went into the minors.

Michael Alvarez: I did.

James McKinney: So how long was your, and obviously we're sitting here today and you are not a baseball player right now at this moment, so obviously we know that journey did have an end date to it. So what was your baseball journey, and then how did that set you up for the next step?

Michael Alvarez: My baseball journey, I went with the St. Louis Cardinals, I went to rookie ball. I went to Johnson City, Tennessee. I played a few years with the Cardinals. I then, my contract was purchased by the Oakland A's.

James McKinney: Oh, there you go.

Michael Alvarez: Yes. My college coach, who was a scout for the A's who was also my coach at Fullerton, Mike Sgobba, called me up and said, "We're going to buy your contract from the Cardinals." And I said, "Holy smokes." I couldn't believe it. Told my dad, told him I'm going to wear the green, the yellow and the white, dad. Went to spring training with the A's and I got invited to play in a big league camp game. A great baseball player by the name of Carney Lansford hit a ball over my head, and I was playing right field. Ricky Henderson was playing left. I had just traded off with Jose Conseco's brother Ozzie. I was playing right field, ball went over my head, and I tried to rob it and unfortunately my shoulder caught the wall and my career was over.

James McKinney: Wow.

Michael Alvarez: It was over.

James McKinney: So before the bigs, but you did get to share the field with Ricky Henderson.

Michael Alvarez: I got to share the field with one of my idols, Ricky Henderson. One of my idols as a baseball player, Ricky Henderson, yes.

James McKinney: That is awesome. Knowing that your ambition was to play major league baseball, then owning a major league baseball team and actually the team that you were playing for at that time, when that happened, did you know that was the end? You hear sometimes, you hear these documentaries on athletes where they hit the wall or they hear a pop, they knew that was it. Did you know at that time?

Michael Alvarez: It's interesting, because when I was on that plane coming back home, I knew I was done. My girlfriend at the time, who ended up being my wife for over 30 years, we went to the doctor. At that time, they called it internal derangement. I think today they would call it Tommy John surgery, but they said I'd be out for 16 months. She started crying. The doctor left and I remember looking at her and saying, "It's okay, baby. It's okay. My big leagues, our big leagues, we're going to have it in business. I'm going to go nuts for nine. I'm going to do this and we're going to be great. It's going to work out." She just believed in that, and she said, "Okay. Let's not look back," and I said, "Never looking back." I think a lot of that came from probably when I was younger. I was battle tested, so that event did not scare me. It didn't scare me at all.

James McKinney: How old were you? Let's put an age stamp on that.

Michael Alvarez: I was 23.

James McKinney: So 23, drafted by the Cardinals. Contract sold to the A's, baseball career over at 23. For those listening, I don't know what round you were drafted in, big money is usually round one, maybe round two, possibly round three. This was mid eighties, so the money there is not what it is now. Did you have money or did you happen to blow it like a lot of athletes do?

Michael Alvarez: Yeah, I didn't have a big contract. Back then, I was a seventh round pick in the January supplementary draft is what they used to call it. That draft doesn't exist any longer. I remember I got $7000, and I got $800 a month. That was my contract. I gave my money to my girlfriend. Her dad was a CPA so we were able to keep most of it. We just put in our little account, we saved it, and that money would eventually allow us to buy our first home at 23 and a half. Then we had a credit card and I bought a second home, a third, a fourth, and a fifth by the time I was 25 we had eight homes.

James McKinney: By the time you were 25, so two years out of minor league baseball. One of the things, just real quick because you mentioned and I don't want to skip over for the listener, your minor league contract was $800 a month.

Michael Alvarez: Correct.

James McKinney: A friend of mine played major league baseball. His minor league contract as of three years ago was $1,100 a month so over the course of 30 years, it only went up $200 a month.

Michael Alvarez: That's right. That's right. And it was I think we got, I want to say $13 a day for meal money, and if you're playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and you would pop up, because they wanted you to hit the ball on the ground and run like heck, if you popped up you got your meal money taken away or $2 or whatever. So there were some days I only had a couple bucks.

James McKinney: That's awesome.

Michael Alvarez: Yeah, yeah.

James McKinney: So by the age of 25, you have eight homes. So baseball career is done. Was your next venture thinking real estate? That was going to be the trajectory of your life was real estate?

Michael Alvarez: It was. I really believed in real estate, and I figured out the art of being able to buy homes, non owner occupied homes. I had a credit card and I would take the money-

James McKinney: You bought homes on credit cards?

Michael Alvarez: I took an advance on my credit card, bought a home, refi'd that home, got another home, and I should have done some of those commercials that I see today but I never did. Because through that, I had met somebody I reunited with who was a baseball friend of mine who had a little company that was producing copies and doing some mailings for a small TV show called Our Magazine. One day, I went over there to see what he was doing and I started to understand it. I started asking why isn't he doing this, that and the other. Before you know it, I was a big part of that business. I took over that business. We started typesetting scripts and I didn't realize that these scripts were going to television stations. I didn't know how to spell the word "fulfillment." I spelled it wrong most of the time in the beginning, and before I knew it was in the fulfillment business.

James McKinney: So at 28?

Michael Alvarez: At this point I was right at 25 and a half.

James McKinney: 25 and a half, so eight homes. You acquired what was a printing company but you converted it to a fulfillment company. Found out you were working with the studios and obviously, your current… not obviously. For those listeners, your current business is in fulfillment. So really from we're looking at 1990 to now, so over the course of 29 years, that has been your industry. So let's talk about that journey from your early days in fulfillment. Were you married at this point?

Michael Alvarez: Had my girlfriend.

James McKinney: Still a girlfriend, so not married at the time.

Michael Alvarez: Wait a minute, that's not true. Oh my goodness, I'm wrong. We were married at that time. Oh my goodness. We were married, yes. I had a wife. My girlfriend who was my high school sweetheart, she was my wife. She believed in me. She didn't understand the fulfillment piece that I was interested in. All she knew was one day that we got some scripts for a show called Silver Spoons and we typeset the scripts, and gave it back to a wonderful individual by the name of Allen Daniels, who I ended up, today I still have a relationship with him. He ended up being at Sony for 30 something years. He taught us the angle and understanding of what fulfillment was. The ability to ingest content and get it out to people's buyers or the end user. Before you knew it, we weren't just sending out scripts. We were send out t-shirts, caps, and water bottles and helping the marketing departments at that particular studio support their sales team, to help them sell shows.

James McKinney: So what were those first, we'll say first five years like? One, what was the name of the company in 1990, early nineties, and what were the first five years like for you? Because I assume and maybe I'm wrong, you didn't grow that business off your credit cards like you bought your real estate portfolio.

Michael Alvarez: Oh, no, I did use my credit cards. Thank you to my Meryl Lynch credit card. I think our first few payrolls were done on our credit cards. Laurie and I bought our first home early. We had all those other homes, but they were rentals. But we had our own home. I refi'd that two or three times to make ends meet. I never borrowed any money from any individual necessarily. We just figured out how to do it on credit cards and our home. But the first few years was tough. It was a grind. I was trying to figure out what the heck we were doing, and I started to realize that we were really an extension of marketing departments within the studios.

First it was Columbia that became Sony. Next it was Imark that became Maxim that became CBS. Before you knew it, we were doing stuff for MCA that then became Universal. ITC that would evolve into Paramount. Next thing I knew, I was a fulfillment guy. I was storing product for people, I was sending it out to television stations across the country. I didn't really know all the ins and outs of a business. I just hired some of the people that I loved and I trusted. Being a baseball player and going through all the things I went through, time didn't bother me. It didn't bother me to work 10 to 15 hours a day. And I had somebody there supporting me, that didn't give me a hard time, that didn't say, "Why aren't you here? Why aren't you doing this with me?" Instead, she encouraged me to go be great.

James McKinney: Any kids during the first five years of growing your fulfillment company?

Michael Alvarez: Michael was born in 1992, so we had Michael. That was a gift. That motivated me even more. How in the world can I not be successful? How in the world can I let my family down when I have a son? So we worked even harder and tried to work even smarter.

James McKinney: How much of your childhood played into, the way you were bought up and the events of the past and the goals of being a major league baseball player, and wanting to buy a major league baseball team, and not attaining those goals. How much did that all of that play into how you wanted to balance entrepreneurship and a young family, and grow that?

Michael Alvarez: I think tremendously. When I was little, I would fantasize about buying a home for my mom and dad. I would fantasize about being a president. We used to have, my dad used to bring home phones that were no longer used at work. I would have the phone and a TV tray, and my two brothers would have their phone and TV tray, and we called it office. We played office. My brothers would joke today that they were actually bossing me around at times during that time. But I loved playing office. I loved playing business.

Between that and having my super friend dolls, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, all that stuff. That's just where my mind was. My mind was always wanting to do something better than good. Just always wanted to be great and even when the bad event happened to me, that motivated me even more. My childhood, it was big. The fact that my dad gave me a gift. The gift that he gave me was respect. I understood how to have manners. If I didn't have those manners, I would have never been able to do what I did. Being kind to people. And he taught me this art of when people are mean to you, when they shove you away, then you kill them with kindness. That art changed my whole world.

James McKinney: How so?

Michael Alvarez: Because I started to realize that my ability to be respectful, to be approachable, to be kind, to really use my manners allowed me to get into doors. Allowed me to have conversations with people that I don't think I would have been able to have those conversation. I had likability. It wasn't fake, it was real. I embraced the engagement of a conversation. I feared nobody, and I'm a minority. I was bald. And everybody around me, nobody looked like me at all, but I didn't fear any of that. I was resilient. I grew up with a tough daddy and a mom that gave me love. I had the balance. I had what I needed. I didn't have all the business traits. I didn't know everything about EBITDA or margin, or appreciation or depreciation or anything like that. I just understood the art of being a concierge, a respectful service provider.

James McKinney: That's awesome. I think a lot of people nowadays as they grow organizations, the service side, it comes second to monetization. It sounds like you were wired differently. You were wired for service, monetization second. So as you were growing your fulfillment company in the nineties, what was that growth pattern for you? Because again, you bought a company that was magazine printing. Turned into typesetting for studios. Don't know what kind of space you had as far as a building. Your organization is much larger now. So what was your growth in the nineties only?

Michael Alvarez: The growth was really around television, our ability to get syndicated content out. Without Seinfeld and Married With Children, I don't know if we would have ever made it. Without Designing Women or Who's the Boss, I'm not sure life would have been where we were able to take it. I think the shift was in the early nineties or towards maybe it was somewhere around those nineties, my problem is sometimes I can't remember the days, they just kept going. Before I knew it, it was a year later. But somewhere in the nineties, I remember coming home and thinking, "Wow, there's all this paper product. Holy smokes. What if this ever goes digital?" because digital was just coming out.

There was a company called New Mexico Software, March 1st, and these companies were starting to OCR. They were scanning paper products and creating a digital format, and I remember thinking I've got all this product. One day it might be gone. I better get into the space of digital. I figured it out. I went to a convention. We had laser discs and I remember somebody saying that it'd be better not to have these laser discs; I wish we had something that had a touch screen format. We met with a company called Advanced Media. They were small, but they had a software package that allowed touch screen where you could touch the screen and up would come a video. QuickTime it was. I remember thinking I've got to have that.

So we engaged with that company, we start selling that service to the marketing people. They bought it. I started to realize that the website business was a real business, that I can digitize a synopsis, log lines, scripts, I can code radio spots, I can create video. I only wish now, when I look back, that the first website we created for Sony, then one for Disney, then one for Warner Bros., I wish I would have connected all that stuff and created more of a personal outlook, and maybe we would have had Facebook. That might have been a miss for us.

But at the end of the day, the growth of the digital piece of the business, combined with the forever physical piece of the business - a t-shirt, a cap, a water bottle will be around forever - that combination became brilliant for us. That offering was unmatched. Before you knew it, it was 2002 and we were in a position to be looked at for a sale. We had Technicolor and Deluxe approach us and they liked our digital stuff, appreciated our physical stuff. So I sold the company in 2002.

James McKinney: So you sold the company in 2002. So a lot's happened in your personal life during that gate. You said your first born was born in '92. How many other kids during that season?

Michael Alvarez: Gosh, then Noah came about five years after that, that was '98, or whatever it was, six years. Then my daughter Nicole came shortly thereafter two years later in 2000. So I had three kids.

James McKinney: How do you balance the drive that you had, because again there are listeners that are listening that have a mortgage and kids, and they're working a 9 to 5 but they have this idea and this ambition for more, but they think of the responsibilities of life and it gives them a little bit of pause on moving forward on their dreams. How did you balance it?

Michael Alvarez: An outstanding partner, an outstanding spouse. Someone that owned it and the fact that I wanted those kids, it wasn't something just to do. I wanted my kids. I wanted to mentor my two sons. I wanted to be the type of man my daughter would want to marry one day. So it was all important to me. I coached during that time. I didn't give myself any excuses. I didn't sleep a whole lot in those first 10 or 15 years. But I just made it work. If you want it to work, you can make it work. I just refused to be lazy about it. I refused to give myself an excuse that I'm just too tired to get up to go teach my kid how to hit a baseball, or go watch my daughter play tennis, or listen to Noah who wanted to just talk.

It was just part of not making excuses. Really honestly, it sounds like a cliche. Just wanting to be great. Having no desire at all to be mediocre. Like zero desire. Zero. But a good partner. We had a good plan. One of the things I learned over time was to be three dimensional. Don't just be a stern business man. Also try to be a funny guy, be a loving guy. Those three dimensions without that, I don't know if it would have worked. I remember the Three Stooges. I always wanted to have a little bit of curly. I remember Clint Eastwood was my tough side. Because of my faith, Jesus Christ always gave me that side of faith and love and grace. So being three dimensional was always important to me.

James McKinney: So how did your life change after 12 years of growing your business and selling, in 2002, to Technicolor I believe you said.

Michael Alvarez: It was Deluxe.

James McKinney: Deluxe, I'm sorry. Selling to Deluxe, how did your life change and your family life change during that event?

Michael Alvarez: Well, my life changed because again, it was about validation. It was what we were doing really worked, to a point where we were able to I remember taking my wife to the bank at that particular time, and I'll never forget giving her $1 million. We didn't make a whole lot of money at that time, but I gave her $1 million, and I said, "You take this, and you put it in the account and thank you for being a phenomenal partner to me."

James McKinney: That's awesome.

Michael Alvarez: That was an incredible moment, a moment of emotions. It was crazy. She couldn't believe it. Because for her, she never thought nor did she care about how much we were going to make. She just wanted me to be able to be happy and knew how important that success was. That was a big moment.

It also changed my life because now, for the first time, I was with a corporation. Deluxe was a machine. It was a corporation. No longer was I this entrepreneur guy, so I learned so much being part of a corporation.

James McKinney: That's right. All the way through your baseball career and the real estate, and the printing turned fulfillment company, it was all you. It was homegrown. So now you're a part of something and you, your entity was brought into another entity. So what was that transition like for you?

Michael Alvarez: Exhilarating.

James McKinney: Really?

Michael Alvarez: It was awesome. I'll never forget sitting in front of everybody, showing them the website for the first time, and people going, "Wow, that's cool. That's a digital piece." Then everyone's appreciation for the fact that we had, I can't remember at the time, thousands and thousands of pallets of materials of t-shirts, and caps, and water bottles from Arsenio Hall to Who's the Boss. God, even Ricki Lake back then. There was so much that was going on, and the fact that they had bought my company, I felt pretty darn special. It was great. Then they turned around and made me president of the company that I just sold to them, which was awesome. I think the most amazing thing of it all was I remember getting a check. I'm like oh my God, I've never done that. I always took out distributions. I remember getting a check and thinking, "This is pretty cool." It was really cool. I learned a lot with them. Great leaders, great mentors. Cyril Drabinsky and Warren Stein, just great individuals.

James McKinney: How long were you with them? Because you're an entrepreneur, your DNA through and through, so how long were you with an organization before you decided there's got to be a change here?

Michael Alvarez: Yeah. I did it for about 10 years, and I started to realize that I wasn't being honest with myself, that I needed to get back to be that entrepreneur again. That I wanted to build. It was good, a good job. I got paid good money, but my soul was missing something. So I did something most people probably don't do in their lifetime. I bought the business back.

James McKinney: Out of Deluxe?

Michael Alvarez: Out of Deluxe. These great, beautiful people allowed me to buy the business back with a partner that helped us put the money together. He helped change our world. Because of him, we were able to buy the business back and do some really great things with the business. I went and we bought it back, and immediately went to my competition and did a deal with them so that we could own market share. It was an incredible moment. That was in 2014. We bought it back for in the teens and two years later, we would sell it for a lot more.

James McKinney: So in that 10 years where you were an employee, contemplating your next move. If I'm aging your kids correctly, one or two might have gone off to college at that time. You had the money in the bank that you gave your wife to sit there because she was a tremendous partner. But what was going on in your personal lie during that whole season that you were navigating? Were things comfortable for you? Because now your DNA is an entrepreneur. You're getting a paycheck, which is nice because a lot of entrepreneurs out there, maybe completely frustrated with their business and they're not getting the distributions they were hoping. They're not getting a paycheck sometimes. But now you're buying this business back as well, which I assume your debt burden was going to be tremendous because you grew this business inside of another business, with their resources. So a lot of things were changing for you during that 10 years. What was all of that like?

Michael Alvarez: When I go back and think of it now, wow, it must have been a little crazy. It was incredible. It was fascinating. It was about grit. It was about belief. It was about an understanding that there was an opportunity here to reach financial freedom. It was an honor. I was honoring something that my high school sweetheart, my wife had asked me to do, and that was, "Go buy your company back. It's time." So we did that. Through that time, she would get sick. We would find out that she would have cancer, and 2014 on April 8th we bought the company back, and she would die on July 21st of that same year, sick during that time too.

James McKinney: And she just kept encouraging you to move forward, even in her sickness?

Michael Alvarez: In her sickness. I gave her her pills, we took care of her. We never believed, every day that she was alive, she was alive. She wasn't gone, so we never believed that we were going to lose her. We didn't have that attitude. But we did. The good Lord needed her.

James McKinney: What did that moment, that season really, do for your drive and ambition? A lot of guys would use it as an excuse to hold back. They would use that as a season just be reserved and play cautious. A lot of guys would not find it as fuel. What was it for you?

Michael Alvarez: A responsibility. I needed to raise my kids. They were watching me. I needed to lead. Still cried, still hurt. We huddled up always. I remember getting ready for work and making their sandwiches and their lunches, and putting notes in their bags wishing them a great day, and letting them know that we are going to have a great day despite mom being in heaven. Just a responsibility. I was their father. I had no time to curl up. I had no time not to get out of bed. I needed to lead and now I had a personal guarantee on a company that if this thing didn't go right, we would lose everything. Everything. And I also was motivated for the families of Vision, all those families that stayed with me, that believed in me. The people that were there, the incredible people that were there. My responsibility was to make sure that we made payrolls, that they had money to take home to their families and I watched them grow, and they were depending on me. Resilience, responsibility, and calculated hope.

James McKinney: As you tell that story, I can see… I feel like I'm seeing something on your face that there's something you're processing as you speak. What is it you're thinking as you tell that?

Michael Alvarez: We are all flawed. I was flawed. I am flawed. But because of that, that allows you to be more successful. Humility. I got punched in the gut. My kids mom was gone and I think at the end of the day, the way, the reason why I get into this mode, is because you either get up and you go, and you try to let go of good to be great, or you just stay home and you are sad and curled up, and you blame the world for everything. I was not about, especially with my faith, to allow the devil to take over what I was going to do because my faith was in God.

I don't know how to describe it in any other way than to tell anybody that is flawed, anybody that has challenges, anybody that's been through something eventful, get up and go. Be responsible, because you can still win. There is a fact out there, you have no chance of winning if you don't know how to lose, if you haven't lost.

James McKinney: As you reflect back on that season, the passing of your wife, the buying back of your company, obviously the financial burden, the people burden, the mouths you have to feed. As you look back, that's a heavy season. Just as you're telling me the story, that is a heavy season. When you think back, all the way from upbringing through your baseball career, through everything, what moments do you look back on as just incredibly critical to prepare you for that moment? Because I don't know too many people who have the shoulders to carry all of that. That's a lot at one time.

Michael Alvarez: I think the confidence that my mom and dad always gave me. I think in Savannah, Georgia at a grocery store called Piggly Wiggly when I was the fifth baseball player in line, and when I got up to the line they didn't cash my check because of the color of my skin. I remember calling my dad from a payphone and telling him about it. I just remember him saying, "It's okay. They just don't know how great you really are." I think it was those moments. Not moments to have a cliche, to make it sounds good, it wasn't that. It was real life moments that changed my entire world. That just what happened to me as a child, breaking my wrist in college and have to fight back to get on the field so that I can impress the scouts.

When I break it down, it's grit. Just faith, man. I just never gave up on me, myself. Baseball taught me to play for nine innings, so I came up with this goofy thing about we're going nuts for nine. We work no matter what, nine hours in those first 20 something years. Minimum nine hours that always seemed to turn into 15 or 16, but I don't know if I can explain it any other way. So embarrassed to not make my daddy proud, so embarrassed to have my father's last name and not do something with it. I was so embarrassed to do that. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to let him down. He worked so hard for us. I wanted to make my mom proud.

James McKinney: That's awesome. When you think back on your entire life's journey, and I ask this question from the perspective that I believe if we forget all the shoulders that we stood upon to get to where we are, we're going to think we did it ourselves and we're going to inevitably lead to our failure as we try to traverse this journey solo. So when you think back to your entire life's journey to get you to where you are today, who do you look to with just immense gratitude for what they contributed to your journey?

Michael Alvarez: Gosh, I would just be so foolish to say one. Obviously, my father who today is my hero. He's 74 years old and there's nobody that gives me better advice than he does. There was a time when we were little, he was so darn tough, I was so scared of him. My father. A guy named Al Tetreault that I played baseball for. The incredible Rusty Russell who believed in me as a baseball player, believed in me as a person, and welcomed me into his business, and said to me, "Take this and make something out of it incredible."

I'd be remiss if I didn't give credit to Scott Wenrick, Mary Nakagawa, Warren Stein, Cyril Drabinsky, and the eyes of my children, Michael, Noah, and Nicole. But those are some of the names I would mention. Yet there's an arsenal and an army of other people that definitely come to mind. But those are the names that stick out in my head.

James McKinney: That's awesome. The last question as we wrap up our time together, some of the people listening, this podcast is mentorship for them. They're hearing the journey of a successful entrepreneur and how they navigated some challenging waters, how they got to the level of success that they are, and while you're speaking to thousands, I would like you to speak to just one person right now. I don't care who that is, but if you're having coffee with just one of those listeners this very minute, what do you say to them? Regardless of whatever stage they're in their entrepreneurial journey, what do you say to that one listener?

Michael Alvarez: If you don't accept humility and if you don't have the courage to deal with failure, then you're going to have a really tough time going down the path of success. We are all flawed. We are not made perfect. There is no perfect day. Whatever you do, if you believe in your idea, that's fantastic. But the thing you need to believe in most is yourself. That's what I would tell them.

James McKinney: After hearing Michael's story, I hope you can see how powerful our self narrative can be. Throughout Michael's story, he kept pointing back to his desire and determination to be great. His journey had quite a few challenges and hurdles, but it was his determination to honor his family and his commitments that kept him going. Michael's story probably has some similarity to yours. For some, the similarities are the levels of success, but for many, the similarities are the challenges. The challenges of being knocked off your original course or the challenges of a traumatic life event during your childhood, or the challenges that come along with losing someone incredibly close to you. All of those challenges can play a role in your entrepreneurial journey, because they play a role in your life journey.

For Michael, it was his desire for more and his faith that kept him moving forward. Are you moving forward or are you stuck? If you're stuck, I would challenge you to fully understand your why. Why did you start the entrepreneurial journey and why must you continue when you get sucker punched and feel like you can't breathe? Without a strong purpose and conviction, it becomes incredibly challenging to get back up whenever you get knocked down, and you will get knocked down.

I hope you found real value in Michael's journey and his willingness to be vulnerable and transparent with us. If you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. One way you can help support Michael in his entrepreneurial journey is to donate to Variety Children's Charity. It's a charity that he is very active in. Variety Children's Charity provides freedom to children through specific mobility solutions for those challenges, so please consider making a donation by visiting varietysocal.org. Again, it's varietysocal.org. Entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs, so let's make sure to support Michael's charity as a token of appreciation for the value he brought to us today.

And now, for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible with sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We are a startup and the most powerful way you can support The Startup Story podcast is to leave a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Share The Startup Story on your social media, either with a link or a screenshot. Make sure you tag or mention us @TheStartupStory.co so we can see your help and say thank you for it.

Lastly, share the podcast on your LinkedIn profile. The Startup Story is for entrepreneurs, so please do not underestimate the power of sharing The Startup Story on your LinkedIn profile so other entrepreneurs can discover us. In fact, most people struggle to share good content on LinkedIn anyways, so if you want to support The Startup Story then search for The Startup Story company page, follow us, and share our posts to help encourage other founders and spread the word about the podcast. Every single founder has a story, and the startup stories we bring you every week can encourage and inspire another founder. It might just be what they needed to hear to keep moving forward on their dreams. I look forward to sharing these stories every Tuesday with hopes to inspire you to start YOUR story.

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June 04 2019
Michael Alvarez Jr., founder of Vision Media

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