Even growing up, Michael Leip had drive. He mowed lawns and shoveled snow to afford the little luxuries that nobody just hands you when you're the last of five children growing up in a blue-collar New England family. He played school sports year-round – football, wrestling, baseball. Later, to rally back from a bad high-school GPA, he took extra classes, got great grades, and eventually earned a spot in college. Life kept teaching Leip he could do anything he set his mind to.
Life changed. In his mid-twenties, while running his own business, Leip suffered two bad concussions. On top of that, "I started feeling terrible, and I didn't know why," he said. It turned out he had Lyme disease from a tick bite. "At the time, I was training for an Olympic-distance triathlon, so I was in really great shape," he said. "But I tried walking up a flight of stairs and had to lie down and sleep for four hours. Lyme disease takes all of the energy out of your body and causes neurological symptoms. That's the first time in my life I experienced really acute anxiety or panic attacks."
He basically stopped being Michael Leip, and he needed his life back. So he studied everything he could find about productivity and the psychology of happiness. In his zeal, he gathered up more new habits than he could remember to do in a day, so he stapled a mess of reminders into a notebook and acted on all of them – writing down everything from his appointments to daily lists of things he was excited about and grateful for. The fleeting bursts of positivity this triggered were enough to keep him using his stapled-together planner, and over time this daily practice led to big change. "About six weeks into using it, I started noticing fundamental shifts in how I felt when I woke up in the morning and how I was experiencing life."
I remember high-fiving my girlfriend and saying, 'Three planners sold today! This is awesome!
With his hope surging, he was able to have a very "Michael Leip" sort of thought about his notebook: "I realized this could actually be a product that might help other people and that I'd have a lot of fun bringing it out."
Working with designers and other specialists, he took his funky, stapled, bulging notebook and turned it into an object that's a pleasure to hold, look at, and write in. He named it Panda Planner, printed 500 copies, and sent them to an Amazon fulfillment center, where Amazon employees take care of processing, packing, and shipping out any planners that customers buy. "I remember high-fiving my girlfriend and saying, 'Three planners sold today! This is awesome!'"
Now, less than a year later, Panda Planner is the #1 Best Seller in the personal organizers category on Amazon. It has an average rating of 4.3 stars, and a new larger version is averaging 4.7 stars. Leip said Amazon customers are playing a key role in making his creations even better. "In the end-of-the-day review, our early versions had a section called 'How I could have done better' or something like that. But people said they felt guilty every time they answered it. I changed it to 'How I'll improve,' and that seems to elicit a positive, actionable response, instead of feeling bad about what went wrong in the past."
Leip continues to look for ways to improve, but he appreciates where he is at age 31. "I grew up in pretty much your average blue-collar family. My dad was a police officer. My mother worked in a hospital doing ultrasounds. I understand what it's like when money is tight and you don't have much to spend. I feel really fortunate that I get to have a financially successful company that also has a chance to make a positive difference in the world. I get emails from people who are happy to be paying money for this product because they see the impact it's having on their lives. The people I get to deal with are all just cool customers. It's made getting up and going to work really exciting."