Maya Angelou said “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”
If that’s the case, then all eyes should be on 27 year old business owner Mike Batoff. A Philadelphia native, Batoff runs his own company, Batoff’s Garage Doors & Service whose motto is “Opening Doors with Innovation and Passion.”
Out, loud and proud in a traditionally macho business, Mike says “We’re a service that comes into your home and not only are we gay friendly, we’re gay owned and operated and are not shy about saying it. You’ll have a fun time with us and we’ll treat you like family.”
Let’s start with your name, how do you pronounce it and where is it from?
You pronounce it Bay-toff and it’s Eastern European. It’s not a name you see often, so if you meet a Batoff, I’m probably related to them.
What are some of the ways people have mangled it?
[Laughing] The worst one would probably be “beat-off”, though I’ve heard Bade-off, Bad-off, you name it. At the end of the day it’s the least of my worries when it comes to dealing with the public.
You have your own business at 27, did you do a lot of other jobs before this?
Well, in the garage door industry, there are a lot of different categories; there’s residential garage doors, commercial garage doors, industrial doors, steel doors for storefronts like you see in Philadelphia. There’s a whole cornucopia of applications in the industry. I started with just hanging a basic, residential automatic garage door opener, then went on to hang residential doors and then started doing commercial door work. When I graduated high school, my dad said, “I’m going to give you a couple of options, 1) You’re going to wake up tomorrow and get a job because you’re a man now and that’s what a man does. 2) You got accepted at Penn State, so you can go to college and I’ll help you pay the tuition and…” I didn’t even let him get to the third thing, I went to Penn State for 4 years. It was really fortunate, I know so many people who have mounds of student debt. I went to Penn State and graduated with a degree in communications and it’s helped me over the years as a writer to get my point across, communicating with people has always been a strong point for me. I’m comfortable talking in front of large groups of people.
That’s a great skill.
Yes, after college, I decided that this was what I wanted to do. From a young age I’ve had an interest in doors, as anomalous as that is. It started with liking mechanical devices, I’d take them apart and put them back together, not always successfully! One day I looked at the garage door at our house and I walked up and hit the button. I was like, “How does this thing work? I’ve seen them at friend’s houses, and on buildings and never paid attention, but it’s really cool!” I remember we had AOL dial-up and it took 20 minutes to download 24 pages on how door openers worked. Back then, that was fast! Before you knew it, I was going around the neighborhood fixing garage doors for fun and profit!
How old were you?
I was 13. My mom would drop me off at service-calls and I had my little tool bag and downloaded manuals. When I was 16, I developed a close relationship with a door dealer in West Chester. They became like a 2nd family and gave me guidance that I took and created wonderful things with. They still call me today to say how proud they are of me. Especially working in Philadelphia where there are a lot of tight properties and old construction. I love what I do, it really is my passion. I started my company when I graduated from college and it’s been my full-time job since 2015.
I can see it means a lot to you.
Oh yeah, I’m the administrator for an online group called “Garage Door Techs” and we have about 70,000 members across the country. I’ve been recognized by the International Door Association, I’ve been in the Dealer Access magazine a few times. The older guys are like, “Hey Mikey! You act like you’re 55 years old!” I do feel like I’m older in my mind.
You remind me of Jay Pritchett on Modern Family and his obsession with doors.
Ha! I can see that. I am a little obsessed.
Tell me about your family.
I have a brother who’s 4 years older, and a 2 year old nephew who I adore. My father and his wife, and that’s the family.
I read somewhere that you lost your mother at a young age, how old were you?
Thirteen years old I come home and my grandparents are in the house. They say, your mother has this disease, it’s called Lou Gehrig’s disease. We don’t know where it came from. I did some research and it said that she didn’t have much time to live and there was no cure. She was still walking and talking, so it was hard to imagine what was to come. The next 5 1/2 years were difficult, it was during those important formative years, and every day I’d come home and see my mother, who was my best friend, my everything, slowly wither away, more and more and more. She went from being vibrant to where she couldn’t speak. I was doing my best to get through high school, which is trying enough on its own, but my mother always taught me to look at the glass half full, to see the silver lining if you will. She died 2 weeks before my high school graduation, but at least she knew that I had gotten into college. She had a big smile on her face that day. So the silver lining is that because of what we went through I learned a lot about people and emotions and the world, and I promised myself that I would do whatever I could to make myself happy. That my happiness was something I could control, which is why after 4 years of college studying communications, I made garage doors my occupation. It made me happy and after facing the worst thing that could ever happen to me, it was all uphill from there.
What were you like as a kid?
I was your average kid, I was the jokester, and I got along with everyone and was well liked. I was very gregarious, a social butterfly, I’d talk to everyone. My mother, may she rest in peace, was that cool mom that everyone loved, so our house was where people hung out.
Where did you grow up?
Outside of Philadelphia in Lower Merion. We were always comfortable, but we didn’t have the kind of money that a lot of folks around us did. I liked being there, but I prefer being where I am now in South Philadelphia. And maybe some of it had to do with my sexuality, feeling like a pariah.
Looking back, were there early signs that you were gay?
Oh yeah. I was always very close with my mom and I loved going shopping with her, something most 13 year old boys don’t care for. They’d hang with their dads and do “man” stuff. And I was always comfortable with girls, with boys too, but at that time most boys had trouble talking to girls. Even my father would say, “I don’t know how you don’t get nervous around girls your age!” Then in 6th grade I had a friend, we’ll call him Jonathan, and he was a techie kid, he also liked to go down to the shore and up to the mountains. I developed a strong desire to care for him and want to be near him. It wasn’t until later that I realized that he was a first crush. I knew that I was different at about 8 years old, I knew that I was gay at 13, about the same time my mother got sick, and she was very okay with it. I officially came out at 16 to everyone. It was tough because I was still dealing with layers of sadness, but I had to do it.
How did you come out?
In school, I just stopped hiding who I was. I told people close to me and let the rumors do the rest. I heard the “F” bomb a multitude of times, but mostly it was people hugging me and saying congratulations. My father and grandparents were not so much okay with it. My brother told them before I was ready to so it was tough. My mom had been okay with it, but she was gone. And I was made to feel inadequate and lesser then. But they were scared and didn’t know any better, the first thing they thought of was AIDS and the isolation they thought I’d face. All I constantly heard was, “Are you sure?” Yeah, I’m sure. This is what it is.
Has your father gotten better?
150%. He’s so proud of me now. I’m very confident in who I am and my dad always says he loves it when I tell people, “I’m gay, and if you don’t like it, f*** off.” He loves that mentality. And he’s always been there for me, put a roof over our heads and made sure we were comfortable. I will forever look up to him for the way he handled himself during our years of crisis. We were having drinks once and he tried to apologize for things he’d done wrong and I looked him in the eye and told him there was nothing to apologize for. He didn’t have a handbook on how to raise a gay child and care for a terminally ill woman. He did the best he could and adapted on the fly.
What did he do?
He was an attorney. He grew up in a twin home with little to nothing, got into Penn law and worked his ass off to make something of himself.
Switching lanes, are you seeing anyone?
No, I’m single. I have a friend who I do things with, Josh, he’s 49 and I’m 27, but we’re best friends. He watches my back and smacks me in the head if I need it.
What was the hardest part of getting your business started?
Developing a presence and name in the field. It’s a very competitive space and it was pretty saturated when I came in, but the barriers to entry were very low. So I was able to open the business but then had to convince thousands of potential clients why I was the right choice. I developed a strong social media presence and wowed a lot of old timers with the knowledge that I had. It was a lot of hard work building the brand and we’re now seeing the fruits of that hard work.
What do you do for fun?
I love going down the shore and getting a little solitude or staying at home and entertaining friends. Family is important and I love seeing my little nephew when I can. I try to keep up with what’s going on in the LGBTQ community. As I said, I’m very social and I love to have people from different walks of life in my life.
Any good work stories?
I had a husband who contacted me before Valentine’s Day. His wife was visiting her mother and he wanted to surprise her with something special. Something that would make her think of him every day. We designed some beautiful doors and I got a call after Valentine’s Day. He said, “You made my Valentine’s Day night something special, har har har! My wife teared up and said this was something so simple, yet so meaningful.” It was special that we were able to be a part of his successful plan. The wife called us a few days later and said, ‘How did you do it that fast? This was such a nice surprise! They’re beautiful and so quiet you can’t hear a thing!” She sent us a gift certificate for Morton’s Steak House to say thank you.
That’s sweet! Okay, some random questions. I see you have several tattoos, which has the most sentimental value for you?
I have a lot, including a lion for my zodiac sign, Leo, but my favorite is of a chain with 5 links and a rose. The rose represents my mother, she loved roses, and the chain represents the sadness and the pain we were stricken with during her sickness. There’s one link for every year she was sick and the links on the ends are broken to symbolize that we broke free from our mental purgatory of being trapped in dejection daily. We made it through, but this will always be a reminder of the scars.
Last time you cried?
I cry all the time. Last time was with Josh. I have a tendency to get anxiety around my looks, if I see a pimple on my face, I’ll pop it or pick at it and then my face doesn’t look so good. He told me that when I do that I look like I’m a drug user. I broke down and he hugged me and said, “I’m sorry I upset you, but I don’t take it back. I said it because I love and care for you.” I thought about it and it felt good to have someone that was looking out for me. And now I have a slew of facial products to try to make it better!
Do you play any instruments?
Yes, I’ve played piano for over 20 years. I started with classical because it’s a good way to learn theory, but I play everything, pop, R&B, jazz.
I’m so gay…
I’ll change my outfit 3 or 4 times before I leave the house to go out. I’m also a total leather guy, so when I come home from work, work clothes come off, leather goes on.
Ever have to deal with homophobia in your business?
Not really, and in fact the Garage Door Tech group is mostly straight guys and they all know I’m gay, and they’re from Texas and Kentucky and no one has a problem. I guess because I’m not “Gay Mike,” I’m Mike who happens to be gay. You have to educate people, I believe that ignorance isn’t always the fault of the person and that with a little effort, you can change someone’s perspective. If they still want to behave badly, then they better step away because I don’t want them to have to tell their friends that they got their ass kicked by a gay guy.
What’s something you’d do if you had no fear? Other than skydiving!
That’s hard, I already faced my biggest fear, losing my mother and coming out on the other side of it. After that I can face anything.
To learn more, www.batoffsgaragedoors.com/.