Mike Ayalon is the CEO of Greek University, an educational platform that has inspired countless institutions across North America in identifying, understanding and resolving current social issues.
As a successful motivational speaker and entrepreneur, Mike has headlined over 300 presentations across 100 college campuses such as Sexual Assault Prevention, Hazing Prevention and Campus Safety, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Strategies for Managerial Excellence, and Diversity in Student Organizations.
Mike’s strong technological background and varied professional experience in building companies from startup to over $25 Million in annual sales gives him a profound understanding of the ways these issues penetrate educational structures today. Mike is a TIPS-certified trainer and the former Executive Director of Sigma Pi Fraternity with 125 chapters and over 100,000 members nationwide.
What would happen if we took an expert in sexual assault prevention, hazing prevention, campus safety, alcohol and drug abuse prevention, strategies for managerial excellence, and this person was available to present to schools all over the country? Do you think we could save some lives? Do you think we can prevent some things from happening? I want to introduce you to Mike Ayalon of Greek University who has built an educational platform that has inspired countless institutions across North America in identifying, understanding, and resolving current social issues.
Mike Ayalon on Following His Passion
Mike, welcome to the show, thrilled that you here. I can’t wait to hear about your journey of work. Tell me more, how did you start?
Thank you very much for having me, Mitch. I’m an entrepreneur, lifetime New Yorker. I started out working for a Cisco premier partner in New York City, and I was chief financial officer of that particular organization. We sold Cisco routers, switches, and firewalls, all kinds of network infrastructure and specifically refurbished network infrastructure when some of the companies were going bust in New York City in the early 2000s. Essentially I built that company from startup to over $25 million in annual sales. We had offices in New York City, in Amsterdam, and in Bangalore, India. Then my wife and I started having kids, and I recognize that I wasn’t getting home from New York City until 9:00 or 10:00 at night during the week and really only seeing the kids on the weekends. I decided to start my second company, which was a web design and search engine optimization company right from home. That company started growing like crazy, just getting tons of requests for web design and search engine optimization help out from all over the country.
As that company grew, I noticed that I had some free time and what I ended up doing was volunteering for my fraternity. I was in a fraternity at the University of Buffalo as an undergraduate, and started working with five universities in the Northeast. I was working with the Cornell chapter, Hofstra, Penn College of Technology, Kutztown, and East Stroudsburg. As I work with these five chapters, I started noticing that their chapter size started getting much larger, their chapter GPA became the highest on campus and some really good things were happening. Eventually, the last executive director of the fraternity had retired after fifteen years on the job, and so they were looking for a new executive director. They sent out an email to all the members, and I said, “I think now’s the time.” Sure enough, I ended up putting in my resume and I was hired as the executive director of Sigma Pi fraternity. We have 120 chapters around the country and over 100,000 members. In working with the fraternity for over three years and visiting many of the chapters around the country, I recognize that we have a major problem at universities. Specifically, I’m talking about sexual assaults, hazing and alcohol and drug abuse seem to be quite common.
I was quite concerned not only for the students but also for the future of fraternity and sorority life, because I recognize that I received, as an undergraduate, lots of motivation skills, leadership skills, and communication skills that I didn’t have before I came into the fraternity. It was very important for me to pay that back and also provide an opportunity for my children. I have a ten-year old daughter and a twelve-year old son. I’d love for them to have the same opportunities I had within fraternity and sorority life. I decided that I was going to start my own business again, and that’s when I started Greek University which allows me to work with fraternity and sorority students, and college students all over the country, small universities, large universities. It’s been very rewarding and I really enjoyed seeing what the students actually come up with after I leave, after I give them the resources and seeing what kind of peer to peer education they actually host once I leave.
It’s quite a story and it’s quite a journey. You condensed it nicely. I want to go back to when you were building websites out of your house. I want you to tell me about that journey because I have a feeling that a lot of our listeners are on that very same journey right now. Maybe if it’s not building websites, maybe it’s doing something else that they’re really just getting going with and would love to know what you did to be successful, even if it didn’t work. What happened?
The key for me is obviously with my knowledge of building websites and search engine optimization. That it really gave me a big leg up on the competition. Having a website is critical. Having some video on the website especially now is increasingly more important. Many of the videos are actually getting top rankings on Google and other search engines. They’re very important. They’re just as important as your website. I started listing testimonials, testimonials are really critical. People want to know that other people have used you and they had successful experiences. Then I think the key to everything is having a really good CRM package, having some way to store all of the data of all of your customers and putting that into a database that allows you to essentially have a funnel, and really monitor your customers as you grow the business. You might start out with only a handful of leads, but every day as you’re populating this database with additional contacts, email addresses, and phone numbers, you’re constantly setting up what your agenda is for future dates with this CRM package. You also have to be constantly getting in front of your customers through email and newsletters, and just staying in front of them so that we when the opportunity does present itself for them to get a website, then obviously you are building that top of the mind awareness.
Another thing I would suggest as well is when I was in that business and building it, I was highly active in some local networking organizations in town. That really opened up many, many doors for me because a lot of these networking organizations in local towns, there’s various businesses that are represented there. The one thing that’s in common is that they all need a web presence. Every single one of them. Sometimes, I would actually do a session for these networking organizations and speak to the groups about search engine optimization. I would even give them all of the secret sauce. I would tell them exactly how I got my websites at the top of the search engines freely, and they appreciated that information because it gave them a greater awareness of what the techniques are. It is very time intensive and I said, “I’d rather focus on my core business.” If I was speaking to, let’s say a landscaper, “My core business is being a landscaper, and that’s what I enjoy doing. I appreciated learning about search engine optimization, but you’re clearly the professional. I’m going to outsource all of my web design and search engine optimization work to you so I can focus on my core business being a landscaper.” I ended up getting a lot of customers that way.
You’ve laid out the plan for most people now. It’s pretty common, and I think important to have the basic systems in place as you described. When you started, did you start with a client base? You must have had some form of a client base to start with, or did you grow a client base from scratch?
I grew it from scratch. Everyone has these stories that they were very intentional about building their business, but to be honest with you, this one fell on my lap completely unexpectedly. What happened was that essentially my wife, her mother breeds mastiffs, which are very, very large dogs and champion Mastiffs at that that ends up going to dog shows and getting all kinds of ribbons and awards, etc. My mother-in-law actually had a litter of thirteen mastiff puppies, and she didn’t know what to do with them because they end up getting very large very quickly. She asked for my assistance, she knew that building websites was just like a hobby for me at the time. She said would you be able to build me a website and help me get in front of customers? Being my mother in law, what else are you going to say, right? I built her the website, and just I guess just through trial and error, I really just figured out what search engine optimization was all about. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks using these techniques, I was able to get her website to the top of Google for the term mastiff, and her phone was ringing off the hook because on her Web site I had included photos of these new puppies. It was very, very profitable for her to say the least. That really was the story.
I have recognized through that exercise that the pet industry is now a $60-billion industry. I recognized that really nobody had focused in on this particular niche market. There were many web designers out there, but they were just generalists. I recognized that this was a huge market that was not being served by the web design community, so if I focused in on this niche then people would reach out to me because of that expertise. It’s almost like a brain surgeon for example, versus a general practitioner. General practitioner doctors are a dime a dozen, they’re on every street corner. If you’re a brain surgeon and you’re a good one, people will seek you out for that experience, and they will pay you significantly more because of that experience. Me being a web designer focusing in on the pet industry, really we took all the market share very, very early on and we could charge a premium for that expertise.
It’s a great approach as well, specializing in a niche market. As the business built, did it remain scalable and successful? What happened to it? After you started getting clients in the Mastiff community, why didn’t you stay in that business and keep doing it?
As a matter of fact, I did. When I took the job as executive director of Sigma Pi, I knew that I really had a cash cow on my hands, but I felt a calling to help college students. What I ended up doing was making my wife the president of that company. Basically, she was able to take over at that time and really continue on. To be quite honest with you, it’s really the type of business that you could run very easily from anywhere, from the beach. There are people that are willing to do web design all over the planet, you just need to have somebody that’s going to be the interface between the customer and your programmer. Those two people, customers and programmers, can really be anywhere in the world. You’re just that interface between the two to essentially hear out the customer’s needs and make sure that it gets done in a timely fashion. You really could be anywhere. For example, I moved from New York to Tennessee to take this job as the executive director of the fraternity, it was still very easy to just take all those phone lines, port them over to Tennessee. None of our customers even necessarily even knew that we had moved because we kept the same phone numbers and just moved everything. It’s very, very good business, no overhead whatsoever, and it’s just a cash cow.
You still have that business to this day?
Again, what I like about your story is that you’ve figured out a business model that removed you from the day to day operation, yet still the business is run well by your wife and with I’m sure your input as well. At the same time, is it continuing to grow, or is that an assumption?
Yeah. It just continues to grow. It’s pretty fantastic. Now, it’s to the point where both my wife and I have now taken on other roles, very prominent roles, that demands a lot of our time but we’re able to just continue that business running as a cash cow and outsource whatever pieces that we need, again with no overhead necessary whatsoever.
What’s the path that straightforward and clear to you? It sounds almost like you live a blessed life in a way that you didn’t have any problems. All you did was start up by building a couple of dog websites, next thing you know, sounds like that’s what you’re telling me. I have a feeling that generally it’s not always that way. Was it truly that way for you?
Obviously you have to learn quite a bit along the way, and it definitely wasn’t always easy, especially in the beginning. This is now the third business that I’ve started. Every single time, in the beginning, it’s really, really hard. Starting a new business is not easy whatsoever and I’ve learned that, time and time again. From what I’ve seen, my instincts are generally pretty good. I was very lucky in the web design business, for example. I found a niche that was completely not being served whatsoever. There was a huge, huge upside and literally a $60-billion business that was not being served by the web design and search engine optimization community at the time. I got in at the right time, and I was very fortunate that way, and I am living a blessed life. To say that it was easy, I think would be not correct. I would say the first year of every single business that I’ve started have been the toughest. Then once you start building your clients and you start getting some positive results, you start recording all of those testimonials, the business just builds. I’ve been very passionate about every one of the businesses that I’ve been in, and so ultimately, the passion is what ends up driving the business. I think if you’re committed to it, you have good results, you serve your customers in an excellent way, and you give it 100%every single time, eventually you’re going to see those results. It just seems to happen over and over and over again in a positive way. I would say that the first year is definitely the toughest, and they have not been easy, but once I got beyond that first year and I built a lot of great customer testimonials, it became much easier.
I think that what I’m hearing is that you had a lot of passion for this, and that’s what drove you to build it and probably kept you up late at night making sure that your customers were happy. Then as the years have gone by, your passion shifted. Tell me about what happens when your passion shifts. In your case, it shifted to the market you talked about earlier. Tell me about that transition.
You go through different stages in life, and this is the best way that I can describe it. The first stage of life, you graduate from college. What motivates you then is you want to have a lot of toys. You want to go out and drive a nice car, and you want to have a big house, and eventually you get all of those things. Then you go through the second phase of life when you want to protect all of those things, so you’ll go out and get things like home insurance and life insurance to protect all those things that you work so hard for, so that way nobody takes it away from you. Eventually you get through a third phase in life. That third phase of life is when you realize your own mortality. You realize that you’re not going to be on this planet forever, so what are people going to remember you by?
For me, I think making sure that everybody reaches their full potential, and that we have the ability to go to colleges and universities, educate young people, and give them the tools they need to then go out and be really successful. That’s really what motivates me. I want to make sure that they have that ability and they can do that safely. When I see things like sexual assaults and hazing incidents happening, and alcohol and drug abuse, all of these things are detracting from the full potential of all of these people. I came to the realization that that’s what I want to be the lasting legacy, is the fact that I helped thousands and thousands of college students realize their full potential and do so in a safe environment. That’s going to be the legacy. Now I’m just paying it back so that way others have the same opportunities that I’ve had. That describes the shift that I’ve gone through in these three companies, and now I’m on that third phase.
For those of us here and have the thought, “I’m doing something right now to make money, doing my best to start my business, but my true passion has nothing to do with my business.” The thing about what you did and I want this to be very clear, you stuck with what you were doing and made it successful first, and then you pursued your passion which now is another thriving business. This is a very interesting transition point, when someone builds something good and powerful, like I did and like you did, and then they move on to the next thing. It’s in this spot I think where there’s some magic. This is what I want you to talk about now. I know you told me about having a passion for the people who you’re serving, but what I really want to talk about was what was missing in you? What drove you to do this? What were you fulfilling that maybe you didn’t have as a kid? Help me understand that.
When we talk about, let’s say hazing for example. Even in my college experience when I was eighteen years old at a university, I was hazed as a member of my own fraternity. They have a ceremony obviously to induct new members. For me that was a little bit of a letdown in that I went through the ceremony and part of that we would consider to be hazing. That was just my experience, and again it’s not everybody’s experience. Most people, 99% of the population, have very positive experiences with that, and it’s unfortunate that we only hear about that bottom 1% in the newspaper. Whether it be the hazing or the sexual assault or the alcohol and drug abuse and those types of issues, that’s really only 1%. The 99% they do with the right way. For me, it was just a negative experience, the hazing that I went through as an eighteen-year old. I believe in fraternity, and basically I’m looking to correct that 1% to ensure that everybody gets the positive experience that they deserve. For me, there’s nothing better than working with college students because you really can give them the resources that they need. They will just blow you away in terms of the events that they’ll put on with the resources that you give them. I’ve seen that time and time again at universities all over the country. They’ve put on these awareness events. If we talk about sexual assaults for example, we’ll put on a bystander intervention awareness event or a consent awareness event on their campus.
That speaks to their student and that looks different at every single campus that I go to because something different speaks to each student depending on where they live in the country. That really is the magic. Going and doing the presentation is great, doing it in front of 3,000 to 4,000 students at a time, absolutely. There’s a lot of power in that and I enjoy it tremendously. What I really, really enjoy is watching what the students come up with after I leave to address the issue using peer to peer education. Because then the fraternity and sorority leaders take it upon themselves to teach the other students on campus what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. That’s the real magic is finding students that will come up to me at a conference maybe a year or two years later after I spoke, and they will come up to me and say, “Mike, I really appreciate the words that you had for us last year. I remember when you came to our campus.” They literally recite word for word some of the things that I said a year or a year and a half ago. Then they tell me what positive changes they made within their chapter or their counsel or their campus, and that’s the magic. There’s nothing more rewarding than that. My shift has been that I can build successful businesses and I have a really good model and a process to do that no matter what the product of the service is, but for me, that’s really what motivates me, is hearing those success stories. That’s what motivates me to continue on.
A lot of us come from our pain, and a lot of us build a life around trying to either protect that area that’s been hurt, or to lash out and find a way to fix it not just for us but for many others too. I’m not saying that that’s you, but I will say this. You had an experience, you were hazed. I know many others who went through hazing as well, and did not have what you’d call a mild experience. I believe that no matter what anyone says, what we truly come from is that place of fixing a part of us by doing something good for others and eventually for ourselves. Without putting words in your mouth, does that sound at all like where you came from, when you did this, when you headed in this direction?
I think that’s definitely where it comes from certainly trying to address that issue that happened to me 20 or 25 years ago. I look at my children and I want them to have a really positive experience. Again, I got some wonderful things out of being in a fraternity. I didn’t have these kind of communication skills, I never felt comfortable speaking in public. I didn’t know how to motivate the people in my chapter when I came into it but coming out of it, I had wonderful motivation and leadership skills that I use to create multimillion dollar businesses. For me, it’s just a way of paying it back. I feel obligated to pay it back and make it a better experience, because it was a very good experience for me in many ways. Was it perfect? No. It certainly was not perfect clearly, but I still feel that it is very relevant today. Talking about values is extremely important today, especially when a lot of college students, they come from broken families, maybe they only have one parent. Whatever their situation is that they’re going through, the reality is that I think this conversation about values is extremely important and that’s really what shapes me and what motivates me to continue on.
It comes back to the entrepreneur, the person who’s sitting there struggling to make something work. Why are they doing that? They went to work, they got a job or maybe they lost a job and had no other choice. If I don’t start a business, maybe I won’t eat. It’s that motivation that kickstarts action and that action moves somebody to do something that at least attempts to make the money if not make the money. Going back to that part of your story and the thing that kickstarted you. Now we get past that, take us to where you started getting and when you hit your thousand clients. Where was that in your journey?
I’ve done that now three times, so each one of those businesses eventually got to where I wanted it to be. The first time was certainly with the web design company, just reaching out those thousand clients and I think it was a very slow build. Initially, it was very, very difficult to make ends meet and to make everything happen the way I want it to because sometimes you’re torn between putting food on the table and investing in your own business. These are very real things, but I think when I got those first thousand clients within the web design business, it was a very rewarding feeling because from that point on, the business really drove itself. That’s when I knew that I could start to remove myself from the business, and there would be no let down in terms of revenue. It would continue to grow at that point, because at that point it was just a matter of sending out emails, newsletters, keeping social media going and those types of things. The business would just run itself based on positive referrals, based on the number of subscribers that we had to our email newsletter. It would just run itself.
That was the first time that I experienced it, but I experienced it within each one of the businesses. At that point, that’s when you know that we have one of two choices here; either we’re going to continue to grow this thing and we’re going to grow it to be a 100-million-dollar business or potentially find somebody else to run the day to day. You can just stay on an advisory role then you could go on to what your next passion is. That’s really up to you, and I would always stress just be in the space that you’re passionate about. Is earning a paycheck good? Of course. It feels very rewarding, and that’s certainly a way to keep score but ultimately, I think that I’ve been the most successful when I’m in a business that I’m extremely passionate about. Because what ends up happening is that I get ideas even in my sleep. Sometimes you might even want to have a notepad or something right next to your bed so that way if you do come up with something in the middle of the night because you’re just so consumed with the business and the idea and the potential, then you at least you have an outlet to record those things and not lose it. Just do what you’re passionate about. If you look at any of the people that have really made it in life, it’s because they’re really passionate about their business, and that’s a recipe for success.
I’ll add one more point, and that’s not only do what you’re passionate about but learn how to build systems around that, so that you can remain passionate and not be so busy that you can’t enjoy it. Michael, you’ve done an exemplary job of that, and I have one more question for you. I have a feeling that you’ve already helped us understand the answer to this, but I’m going to ask it because I ask it of every single person I interview and that’s the grand finale, the change the world question. I know what you’re going to say, but I’m going to ask it because I want a bigger perspective even. What is it that you’re doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
My goal in 2017 is to reach one million fraternity and sorority students, so we’re going to be taking this model of me speaking around the country and universities and really applying that online, so that way students have the ability to go onto the GreekUniversity.org website and actually go through some of these trainings virtually 24/7. I think that’s a scalable model, so that way I could be in front of, and all the people that I’ve teamed up with, they can all be in front of all of these students and we can get experts literally to their living room 24/7. Eventually the goal will be to ramp up to 24 million college students, every single college student in the United States by 2018 if this first round is successful in 2017. This is a big dream, and in terms of books that I would recommend I certainly think that you should check out Servant Leadership written by a guy by the name of Robert Greenleaf. In there, he said, “Not much happens without a dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams.” When I’m talking to college students and I’m listening to their dreams, sometimes they get caught in a situation where they’re just dreaming very small. I would really urge the people to dream big dreams, because in order to build a business with over a thousand clients, you need to be that dreamer. I think if we all become dreamers and we start thinking a little bit bigger, then we can change the world for the better together.
For those who want to share that dream with you, how can they connect?
I’d love it for them to go to my website, it’s www.GreekUniversity.org. They can also find me on Facebook and Twitter, @GreekUniversity, or they can just give me a call. I would certainly love to have any conversations. My phone number is listed on the website. Feel free to give me a call at any time I’m available most times, if I’m not on the stage on the college campus.
Michael says to dream big, build from your passion, create the systems around it. Who knows, it could happen for you and probably pretty darn quickly. Thank you, Michael. It was great chatting with you. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I hope we get a chance to talk again soon.
Thanks, Mitch. It was a pleasure.