INNOVATIVE PEOPLE: Michael Downey, A Man For All Seasons and an Innovator For Any Reason

Michael Downey is like the Seinfeld of business – he gets an innovative idea and then creates a businesses out of virtually nothing – or nothing that a serial entrepreneur might consider business-worthy.

Take kickball, for example. He created a business for adults who felt nostalgic about the games they grew up playing outside.

The business, PlayCoed which also hosted dodgeball, flag football, volleyball, soccer, and basketball games for adults, was ultimately sold and evolved into a multi-million dollar business.

Then, after a stint working in media in NYC, Downey created a business around Christmas trees with a friend, Matt Bliss.

That company, Modern Christmas Trees, is still going strong. The duo developed a unique twist on an old standby, with collapsible trees, decorated with elegance. The company’s HQ is in Denver.

And, a unique OC connection – the original creator of the first tree, which the entire business is based on, was the father of Alteryx CEO Dean Stoecker and Bliss’ grandfather. Lawrence “Bud” Stoecker was an engineer, and an architect, who passed away in 2012.

Now, Downey moved onto film for the majority of his time, applying the business lessons he’s learned. In addition to producing films, he’s writing original screenplays with his brother, Jordan, in Playa Vista.

OCSN recently caught up with Downey to talk to him about his endeavors.

Downey’s Business Background

Downey grew up on a farm in Ohio. His business and media savvy started young, as he wrote movie reviews for his classmates, as well as editing sports highlight videos and contributing articles for the Granville Sentinel (acquired by USA Today).

“I grew up watching every movie I could get my hands on, managed video stores in high school and college, over the years building up a collection of thousands of VHS tapes, DVDs, and laser discs,” he said. “Ultimately I sold that collection to fund my move out West.”

After graduating from college in Ohio, he went to grad school at the University of Denver. It was during his MBA program that he started the business for adult recreational sports.

I saw an opening in the Colorado sports market. No one was really organizing sports leagues for adults very well,” he told OCSN. “So I got the permits, recruited teams, built my own website, found sponsors for the equipment and went around setting up and (being a referee) for the games with friends.”

Four years, the business had mushroomed, serving 30,000 adults around the city in various leagues and Downey even had an office.

The company obtained sponsors like Corona beer, Clif Bar, and Vitamin Water.

It was a great way for people to get exercise and socialize,” Downey said.

He eventually sold PlayCoed to 212 Media in NYC, which was looking to diversify. He worked for a while under the new ownership.

212 Media is now the owner of a multi-million dollar global sports app, LeagueApps, based on the business model Downey started.

After completing his work in NYC, he produced hundreds of concerts and worked with professional athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Dexter Fowler, Wesley Woodyard, and D.J. Williams.

He also published more than 1,000 songs, many of which are TV shows and films like “Won’t Back Down,” as well as Coke Zero and Sprite commercials. TV shows featuring his songs include “The Wilds” on Amazon, “Wahlburgers,” “Hollywood Medium,” and “Dance Squad.”

Foundation of Modern Christmas Trees

The elder Stoecker created the first tree out of cardboard in the 1960s in Colorado, as a one-off. Over the years, the tree’s design was refined, moving from cardboard, to Masonite, to Plexiglas.

And the ornaments that adorned it were updated with aesthetic fine-tuning. Today the trees are designed in a range of colored acrylics, while the ornaments consist of classic globes and chandelier crystals.

Bliss and Downey debuted the first commercial tree at the Denver Modernism Show in 2011. They wanted to appeal to upscale shoppers who prefer convenient Christmas trees that make a style statement with their décor and ornamentation.

Downey is a partner in the business, overseeing all marketing, web development and social media, as well as working with set designers. The tree was recently featured in a Cadillac commercial.

The following year, the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim made an order and started displaying the trees. They were the first to hang them upside down. And, every year, they continue to display the trees at this hotel.

The trees can reach up to 10-feet high. Companies typically display them in giant atriums, including Alteryx. With Dean Stoecker at the helm, Alteryx locations around the world hang these trees in their offices every holiday season.

Shark Tank

Downey helped Bliss prepare for Shark Tank a few years ago to pitch Modern Christmas Trees. The company received an $100,000 investment from shark Barbara Corcoran for a 15% equity stake.

Downey and Bliss made the trip to NYC to meet with Corcoran and her team. She still makes herself available to Modern Christmas Trees for advice, including marketing during the holiday season, reviewing the quarterly business plans and tips on manufacturing.

The real bonus is her extensive network. “Because she owns so many businesses, she can tap the rest of her network,” Downey said. For example, she has helped the company by referring manufacturers and buyers.

Another OC Connection

Downey started, and helped grow, the marketing department of Parcel Pending for a stint. That was before the company — founded by Lori Torres — got acquired by a French corporation. See article on that acquisition here.

The experience at Parcel Pending was amazing,” Downey said. “To be on the ground floor of the marketing department and help it grow to multiple people and agencies was a blessing. Lori was an incredible leader, I got to experience the growth firsthand and contribute in a great environment that encouraged my creativity.”

He also worked with Fred Haney for several years – helping him organize events, design websites and handle the marketing for his book “The Fundable Startup.” Haney is a serial entrepreneur and author, who hosts monthly Monday Club meetings in OC and LA.

Other Interests

When Downey’s not selling Christmas Trees in the winter season, he’s involved in film production, screenwriting, music supervision and film distribution/marketing.

Although he did a short stint as an author, publishing the book “A Golden Heart,” he’s mainly interested in screenwriting. But, he acknowledges, it can be tough to make a career of that. So, he got into the production side of film.

I generally think it’s fascinating, every single aspect of (filmmaking),” he said. “Collaborating with crews, casting, putting together budgets, obtaining tax rebates, scouting locations, it’s all very fascinating to me. The goal of any creative artist is that they’re making their own material. So far, most of the material I’ve produced is someone else’s screenplay.”

He recently finished co-producing “The Big Ugly,” filmed in Kentucky, which has an expected release date this summer. It cost about $7 million to produce, and stars Malcolm McDowell and Ron Perlman. The investors are based in Michigan.

His next film project, producing-wise, is a crime thriller where he’s scouting locations and working with the film commission in Puerto Rico for the project.

The original screenplays he writes with his brother are typically a blend of sci-fi and horror. The one they just finished is a “contained thriller,” analogous to “Panic Room.”

The sibling duo recently scored an agent and a manager, so they’re stoked about what the future holds for their independent film career.

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