Be authentic. Jumping on a trend isn’t the way to go about this. I’ve had clients who simply wanted to transition into the wellness space and emulate the big apps. They were motivated by money and thought they could be a carbon copy of what was succeeding. Except the moment these products launched the public could see through it. And they didn’t resonate.
In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders and I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Hotaling.
Michelle Hotaling is the founder of Michelle’s Sanctuary and Dreamaway Visions, a mental wellness company focused on using meditation and storytelling to alleviate insomnia and anxiety. Since 2015, Michelle’s Sanctuary has helped millions of people fall asleep, imagine better, and dream away. She has served as a consultant and creator for the leading wellness apps.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a trailer park in upstate New York, heavily influenced by my grandmother who was quite ill at the time. She had a vision for me to be a performer and an artist. From a very early age, she was an advocate of education and taught me to read. And though she died when I was 8, her influence was profound and her loss really inspired this imaginary world I created, envisioning my future and dreaming. She very much was of the mindset that dreaming is a form of planning. She planted the courage in me to take chances. I moved to New York City at 17 and accelerated my college education so that I graduated by 19. Her loss made me realize that life is short and I didn’t want to waste a single moment of my life doing something just for the sake of money or what society thought I should be doing. She instilled in me this urgency to live life on my own terms — because it’s short and it’s mine to live.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There are so many stories that have shaped my life in a profound way. I’ve been moved to tears and reminded how resilient and incredible the human spirit is. A few months ago I was struggling with changes that needed to be made to my content because the Calm App has trademarked the word “Sleep Stories.” Which to me, is insane. It’s like owning the exclusive right to use the terms “romance novel” or “rock music.” Sleep Stories, to most of us, is a genre. So, this discovery meant going back through uploads and replacing this term for dozens of published pieces. In my frustration from all of this, I received an incredibly generous gift from a listener. But even more moving to me was the letter she wrote. For some time she had been struggling with financial challenges, living in a mobile home on disability, and completely overwhelmed. One night she listened to a fantasy story I wrote about an Ice Castle. And in this story, there’s a butler who greets you and says that everything is yours to enjoy. I am well aware that so many luxuries in life are hard to come by. But in our imagination and dreams, we are one thought away from experiencing life in a castle or an overwater villa in the Maldives. And for those of us who prioritize sleep, that’s a third of our day that is spent in this dreamscape where anything can happen.
She mentioned that in between wakefulness and sleep, she heard these words and felt surprised, for the first time recognizing that she did deserve these things. And she listened again and again. She felt and saw herself in a new light. Ultimately she found a financial way out of her situation and in turn, after years, wanted to pay it forward to me with a gift. Before her message, I felt overwhelmed with being an entrepreneur who has to deal with companies that are really motivated by dominating the industry financially and owning terms. After reading, I felt completely re-aligned with my work and the purpose of it. As well as the invaluable connections that have formed with people.
We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
As a creator of stories and meditations, the greatest challenge for me has been creating content that resonates with listeners from all backgrounds. Inclusivity is paramount — but we all have different triggers and perspectives. There have been occasions where a story or setting, or even a time period, will conjure uncomfortable feelings for some listeners. I have to be incredibly sensitive and careful, learning from my audience and listening to understand their backgrounds. And at the same time, empower those who listen to my work to pass by the things that may not be a fit. I now will flag potential things that could be an issue. For example, if someone is struggling with weight, any mention of food or smells could be soothing for some listeners, but a challenge for someone who grapples with late-night cravings. Because of this, I create a library as diverse as I can and from time to time need to remind people that while the world can be cruel, in the sanctuary I create we will always parse through it to find the beauty everywhere we can. We will always do our best to imagine better.
As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?
I believe we are all connected. The impact we have on each other, even subconsciously, is profound. And it shapes my firm belief that everyone on this planet deserves sleep, the chance to thrive, and free access to mental health resources. Can you imagine how different our daily interactions would be if everyone was showing up rested and functioning from a state of equanimity?
I worked in the entertainment industry for many years, which exacerbated my insomnia and health struggles. I was shamed for not adapting well to a lifestyle that required waking for a 3 AM call time and looking like I slept ten hours under the ridiculous premise of “You’ll sleep when you’re dead.” I felt the lifestyle that the business perpetuated was so unhealthy it nearly promised a race to my grave. And I know that corporate America, hustle culture, and — — at this point just trying to survive in this economy, have led many people to sacrifice sleep and absorb the idea that sleep deprivation is somehow normal and a rite of passage.
I believe that sleep is a necessity, and it should be treated as the mental holiday that we all deserve. It’s not a chore, and it’s certainly not something we should be expected to sacrifice for the sake of corporate profits. I come from a mission of wanting everyone to feel as good as they can. To recognize that their story and life experiences matter. I also believe the approach to dealing with insomnia and sleep issues benefits from creating a practice that is looked forward to like a vacation. If someone approaches sleep with dread, after years of struggling to feel safe and sleep, it is easy to understand why bedtime becomes problematic. But this entire experience can be transformed.
What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?
As an artist and creator, I have always been driven by a need to feel personally fulfilled and that I am making this world better — kinder, prettier — in some way. I’ve always believed art makes us feel less alone. When feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of modern society, my first instinct has always been to explore how I can shine my light brighter and make things softer. I constantly grapple with considerations during the darkest times of well, what is there left to appreciate and enjoy and savor?
I struggled with insomnia since the age of 5. In college, I would go on middle-of-the-night jogs because I’d wake up with my mind racing and my body not able to cope. It only got worse when I worked an erratic schedule as a singer-songwriter and actor. At one point, I went to an actor’s clinic and it was just the norm to get a script for Ambien to prime myself for the unexpected 5 AM call time for the following day that I sometimes wouldn’t receive until 11 the night before. I knew my life had to change. And I discovered free meditation and sleep hypnosis videos on YouTube. I began to listen regularly and found I would fall asleep or get back to sleep within minutes. And the messaging within these recordings changed how I handled anxiety and felt the next day. I knew I would have never paid for this — this was years before Calm and Headspace even existed. But the chance to try it for free and see such results immediately made me regret the twenty years of my life that I went without this tool!
Through curing my insomnia, I felt a really strong need and desire for more narrative-driven stories and there weren’t many out there. I grew up reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books and the immersive second-person narrative used in hypnosis and meditation felt like a natural approach to writing stories. I am so grateful for the creators before me who introduced me to the practice and gave me a sense of purpose that could utilize my talents as a creative.
Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?
I am constantly inspired and feel the flow of kind energy from the community I’ve created. There’s a level of support and teamwork that goes beyond the traditional corporate model with a primary focus on selling a product to as many people as possible. There are listeners who have been with me for years, using my work as a tool to navigate addiction, grief, and depression — — even a global pandemic. I have a relationship with people I’ve never met that I value deeply. The creative process makes room for a lot of co-creation as I am always given suggestions and ideas to expand on. It’s so much more rewarding than the times I’ve been brought on for big corporate projects and put in meetings with a “creative” team that stifled all the rich feedback I get from my listeners. On a personal level, I feel blessed to have total artistic freedom and to have found a niche I never imagined could exist when I first started my career.
I also love the immediacy of my business — I can launch something within days of first conjuring an idea. It makes every moment interesting and full of new paths and opportunities. I can also do really niche projects that wouldn’t be launched by many companies because they may not garner the most financial profits, but I know they will resonate and make a difference in someone’s life. And from the beginning, my mission has been to help one person sleep better and feel better. That’s a measure of success for me.
How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?
In some ways, yes it has. From a financial perspective, I could have gone to a paid-subscriber model years ago and made more money from a smaller audience than the way I release content for free that is typically ad-based. But that doesn’t align with my desire to give access to as many people as I can. It’s held me back from a financial standpoint and so the metrics I use are overall growth and reach each year (from a business perspective). From a personal perspective, it’s the outpouring of love, personal stories, and feedback I receive on a daily basis. And knowing that more people are sleeping better. Ask anyone out there who is sleep-deprived if there is a gift more valuable than a restful night with good dreams.
Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?
I noticed when decision-makers at successful companies and apps started reaching out to me for advice, consulting, and collaborations that I was making headway. I didn’t run focus groups, or have a team of Wall St. investors to grow my company. I didn’t hire celebrities or known writers. I created everything from the haven of my Manhattan apartment, pouring my experiences and heart into everything I shared. A pivotal moment for me came early on when someone working as a counselor at an in-patient mental health facility shared with me that a client was in serious distress and not taking care of herself. He told her to start listening to my work and she did. And within a few days, she came in to request toiletries and soap. She expressed that she had started to consider what her future could look like. It was the first time she demonstrated self-care behaviors since being admitted. I also have so many listeners who live with chronic pain, and while unable to physically take on the adventures detailed in my stories, they are able to calm their nerves and experience new landscapes in their minds.
Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability in your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or have to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?
Not to specifically name names, but in terms of collaborations and partnerships, I have experienced moments where a shared commitment and purpose seemed the same in conversations but over time proved otherwise. Under the guise of profit-sharing in the long haul, a mental health app reached out to me and licensed my meditations. The CEO, like me, wanted to keep certain tools free globally, while finding unique ways to fund the project and monetize without taking away key features. In the end, they went another direction and weren’t transparent about the money raised and living up to the contract with me. Thankfully, I’ve only ever offered non-exclusive licenses. But it is frustrating to think about the apps that have made significant amounts of money on my content and in the end were not equitable as promised.
What are your “Top 5 Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.”
1. Find something that resonates in a deep and meaningful way so that even before your work day begins you walk up and think,” I get to do this today!” Rather than, “I have to do this.”
2. Be authentic. Jumping on a trend isn’t the way to go about this. I’ve had clients who simply wanted to transition into the wellness space and emulate the big apps. They were motivated by money and thought they could be a carbon copy of what was succeeding. Except the moment these products launched the public could see through it. And they didn’t resonate.
3. Find a niche. I think that we live in a world where being hyper-focused and known for something very specific can be a good thing. Especially for a purpose-driven business. I didn’t start my business with the specificity it now has. My brand evolved into something very specifically focused and that enabled rapid growth as opposed to when I was trying to do multiple things at once.
4. Listen. Really listen. With the connectivity of social media and access to people all over the world, now more than ever, we have a way to really understand where people are coming from. It’s much easier to get your finger on the pulse of what is trending, of what is lacking, of what people seem to really need and desire right now. Being purpose-driven starts with finding a purpose and one that resonates on a large scale. And there is so much that needs to change for the sake of thriving as individuals and society at large.
5. Align yourself with like-minded people who are doing what you want to do, or inspire you professionally. When I first started, there were the bigger brands and creators who had been in my niche for years. I reached out to every single one of them. As an entrepreneur, it is so helpful to have a sense of community and connect with people who understand the journey. And really successful people who are driven by purpose are often the most open, honest people to approach. Because they too would like to see this world become a better place.
I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?
Most often, I team up with other companies rather than hire my own team. I am usually brought to their teams to share my mission and unique approach. It’s not always easy to do with some partnerships I’ve had, with companies that wanted to be formulaic and mimic other industry leaders. In those instances, I would push back and give targeted examples of how my approach would be effective. With one company in particular — they discovered during the pre-launch that the work I created under their strict guidance performed worse than the content that came solely from me.
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
In two years’ time, I would like to quadruple my reach in subscribers and streams. I would like to get a book deal to bring some of the beloved series I’ve created to life in a novel. I would also love for my work to be included in scientific research focusing on the impacts of sleep meditations and stories when it comes to helping with insomnia, pain management, and stress and anxiety relief.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
While sleep is a big component of my work, I am also very focused on helping people learn how to better self-soothe and self-regulate their nervous systems. I think it’s one of the most vital things we can learn as individuals to thrive and be our best — and even more importantly feel our best. Collectively, we all benefit from a society full of people who are well-rested, centered, and have their basic needs met. I would love for this to be taught in schools — early on. I would love for an international movement that puts mental health and wellness as a priority. As well as sleep. Sometimes I consider what it would be like to go back through the centuries and describe the reasons why we don’t sleep to earlier civilizations. Despite all the modern amenities life affords us, quality sleep has been the price may pay for this.
How can our readers further follow your work or your company online?
Check out www.michellessanctuary.com. My stories and meditations are available on YouTube and through my podcast Michelle’s Sanctuary for Sleep. I am also launching a new podcast called Meditation Tides by Michelle’s Sanctuary which will contain brief meditations to change your mindset in a moment.
This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!
About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is an accomplished entrepreneur and visionary leader. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc., while attending Ohio State University and grew it to become an industry outlier before selling the business after 25 successful years. With the launch of his second venture, [re]start, a career development platform, Chad aimed to help people find meaningful career opportunities. Under his leadership, his team was recognized as a “Top Workplace” award winner for over a decade, twice being ranked the #1 small and medium-sized business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023, enabling him to focus on building an online community of high-performing leaders and continuing to make a positive impact in people’s lives.