How the Toilet Paper Entrepreneur Branded Himself Too Well

Scott Bradley

When Mike Michalowicz published a book in 2008, he was looking for a name that would stick. He chose: "The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur."

He wanted to tie the concept of doing whatever it takes to succeed in business to an everyday object. He chose toilet paper because he figured people would remember it. "Everyone has been stuck without toilet paper at times," he said, "but we all find a way to survive. That is how entrepreneurship is — you often get stuck with your pants proverbially around your ankles"

Initially self-published, the book was later republished by Harper Collins, and people did remember the name. In fact, it stuck too well. "People couldn't remember who I was," said Mr. Michalowicz. "They called me the Toilet Paper Guy. The T.P. Man. Few knew my name."

As it happens, his real name is hard to spell and hard to pronounce (it's mi-CAL-o-wits) and something people had struggled with almost all of his life — even after he became an entrepreneur at 24, starting and building three companies with no outside investment money. He sold two of them — Olmec Systems to a private equity firm in 2002 and PGLA to Robert Half International in 2006 — and is now running his third, Provendus Group, a consulting firm that helps companies whose growth has stagnated.

One of the cool things about social media marketing is that you can build a brand with pretty much any name you want. In Hollywood and in marketing, you can always give yourself a new name, and for Mr. Michalowicz, Toilet Paper Entrepreneur was it. Once his book was finished, he pulled together a two-person team, his executive assistant from his first company and a recent college grad who was adept at social media and e-mail marketing. They created the Toilet Paper Entrepreneurs Facebook group, and he defined the criteria to join the group: "This is what made you a T.P.E.: You don't believe in looking for money to start your business. You are doing something you really believe in. You don't believe in business plans — three sheets is all you need." Then he and a few friends invited their contact lists to join the group, and it had nearly 1,700 members the week it made its debut.

He then created his Twitter handle, @TPEntrepreneur, which he has since changed to @MikeMichalowicz, and established a daily blog. He enjoys making jokes, mostly at his own expense, and takes a just-say-it approach to social media, which his fans seem to love. "I like to keep things real and I love to joke around," Mr Michalowicz said. He said he never promised get-rich-quick schemes, "because it doesn't exist, and I am always making jokes about entrepreneurial situations and myself." He shares information on his blog, but his community members also learn from each other.

The T.P.E. community started treating his blog posts like appointment television. Every time a post went up, one of his team members would blast out an e-mail to the Facebook group sending them to the blog. Visitors would see a pop-up ad within five seconds of arriving that invited them to download free book chapters.

Every Wednesday his blog featured an "On the Roll" video to answer questions from his community or offer business tips. He would always do something funny or some kind of stunt at the end of the video. He also used the Web site Help A Reporter Out to solicit content for his blog. He regularly posts questions on business topics and then curates answers from his loyal readers and other small-business owners to create a blog post. He hired a coder to build a simple system that allows followers to submit business tips, Web site links and a head shot directly into a database for his blog posts. This saves him lots of time and lets him turn all of these submissions into one massive post with 50 to 100 contributors. Here's an example of one he did on contest ideas for promoting small businesses.

Once the post was published, an e-mail would go out to all of the people who submitted telling them that they were on his blog that day and asking them to help get the word out. The e-mail would include language to tweet or to use in a Facebook post, and he always invited readers to put the post on their blogs, too. He did this to build links, Google ranking and traffic. He also used a marketing tool to create pop-up ads on his Web site that invited people to subscribe to his blog and join his e-mail list.

Before long, he was getting 1,000 visits a day. At its peak, the blog attracted up to 70,000 visitors a month and his e-mail list now has nearly 15,000 names. He makes money through his membership club, book sales, speaking engagements, sponsorships, and consulting.

But now, four years later, he has decided he wants to teach people his real name. "Being the Toilet Paper guy helped people get past having to pronounce my name, but at the same time, it painted me in the corner of potentially having to stick with toilet paper for the rest of my life," he said.

So now, he's actually trying to kill the T.P.E. brand. "The brand became so strong, so fast, that people call themselves T.P.E.ers," he said. "I love that, but I recognize it needs to change. I decided I have one shot at having my own name be the brand and it was now or never, so I've started pushing Mike Michalowicz for everything I do."

As part of the plan, he is releasing a new book with a new metaphor under his own name. In "The Pumpkin Plan," Mr. Michalowicz writes about his own business struggles, feeling like a hamster on a wheel trying to grow his business, until he decided that pumpkin farmers, the kind that grow record-breaking pumpkins, hold the secret to entrepreneurial success.

"When you focus on growing one pumpkin exclusively, it can grow to colossal size," he said. "When you spread seeds everywhere and try to grow everything, the only guarantee is you will never grow something to colossal size. The formula is basically seven steps from selecting a seed, to watering properly, to managing the root, to over-the-top attention. And while some times colossal businesses don't come from it, the formula is sound."

It's the same formula he is using to build his new identity.

Melinda Emerson is founder and chief executive of Quintessence Multimedia, a social media strategy and content development firm.