Tony Hawk got his first skateboard when he was 9 years old, and he's been rolling ever since: He turned pro at 14, won more competitions than any other pro skater in history and in 1999 astonished the world by becoming the first to land a "900"--a 900-degree turn, that's two-and-a-half midair spins--at the X Games in San Francisco.
In a sport rooted in the hard-partying fringe of Southern California, Hawk was something different: While he was still in high school, he used his winnings to buy a house in Carlsbad, and a few years later, he started his first company--Birdhouse--even though the skateboard industry was tanking at the time. Hawk was convinced better days were ahead.
Billions of dollars later, who wouldn't agree? At 41, Hawk rules an empire. He is the world's highest-paid action sports athlete, according to Forbes, with estimated earnings of $12 million last year. There are Tony Hawk skateboards, bicycles, clothes, shoes, a bestselling autobiography, the Boom Boom HuckJam exhibition tour and a video game series that's a phenomenon unto itself, with worldwide sales topping $1.6 billion since 1999.
"He has his finger on the pulse of his audience because he is that audience," says Pat Hawk, his sister and the chief operating officer of Tony Hawk Inc.
Two years ago, Hawk was struck by the idea of a video game with a skateboard controller. Now, Tony Hawk Ride is set for release Nov. 17, and while gamer sites are already buzzing about it, Hawk admits he is nervous. The game and its motion-sensing skateboard controller are expected to sell for a hefty $120 in what is likely to be a soft holiday season.
But Hawk is the master of making radical moves under pressure. We stopped by the sprawling offices of Tony Hawk Inc, in Vista, Calif., about 40 miles north of San Diego, where the CEO and chief trick-rider presides dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. The offices could have housed almost any business except for one special feature: $2 million in state-of-the-art vertical skating ramps used for product testing--and the unabashed thrill of Hawk and his employees.
When did you realize that skateboarding could be more than just a sport?
I got a taste of it in high school. Skating was popular, but it wasn't mainstream. It had this underground following and you could go on tours, win decent prize money and make royalties from signature products--that's how I came to buy a house when I was a senior in high school. Then skateboarding fell out of fashion in the early ?s. A lot of skate parks were closing and there were liability issues. People didn't see it as an acceptable sport for kids to get into.
And yet you started Birdhouse in 1992.
It seemed insane, but I wanted to be in control of my destiny. I took out a second mortgage on my house. My partner was also an ex-pro skater, Per Welinder, and he took out a second mortgage on his house. I got $40,000 and Per put up $40,000, and off we went. It seemed like a big risk, but my heart was in skating, and I felt it was going to come back in a big way. And the skating industry was so small it wasn't hard to establish ourselves as a major brand.
Was it hard to move from skateboard to boardroom?
When I started the business, I thought that I was easing my way out of being a pro skater, that I would work more behind the scenes. But at some point I realized that was the completely wrong approach: I was more effective being a pro skater and being an ambassador for the company, instead of being the guy that created the ads, which someone else could do better than me.
So I jumped back into the pro circuit and started doing pretty well. The X Games had just started, and I was winning most of the events. People recognized my name--and as a result, I started raising the profile of Birdhouse much more than I ever could have behind the scenes.
Is it important for business that you stay active in the sport?
You have to walk the walk. You've got to be out there skating and seeing what people are into. If I don't make time to skate, I feel like I'm faking it.
And people would sense that.
Well, yeah! And I have to skate, just for myself, too. I feel like I'm just spinning out of control if I don't get out there and skate.
Does following your instincts work in business as well as competition?
Some of my best decisions were really following my intuition. Any time skating was featured in a video game, I ate it up. So around 1997-98, I was shopping this video game idea. I was weighing my options when I went to Activision, but when I saw what they were working on, I said, "This is exactly what I'd love to be involved with," and following that gut reaction was hugely successful. They already had something good, but I felt with my expertise, connections and direction, we could really make it authentic and fun, so that real skateboarders would appreciate it, but also that video gamers would enjoy playing it.
Your new video game, Tony Hawk Ride, really pushes that idea.
Everything is wireless now, and a lot of it is motion controlled, and I said to Activision, "I think it's time to do a skateboard that you can stand on."
That was your idea?
That was my idea, yeah.
Are you nervous about the November release?
I'm scared to death about it because I know how much is riding on it, how much Activision has invested in it. I brought this idea to them, and they've dedicated two years of development and research, but who knows how it'll do? It's a scary prospect. But I know it's good.
Not all of your ventures have worked out. Talk about one that didn't.
We decided to invest in a high-end denim company and just kept throwing money at it because it had created a buzz, which was deceptive. We kept believing it was hitting until we realized how few people would actually pay $120 for a pair of jeans. So we were taking away the profits from our successful businesses to keep this one alive. Finally, we realized we had to get out.
You're a determined guy--was it hard to give up on that?
It's a big blow to the ego to have something not succeed the way you thought it would. I learned that not everything that you love will become popular.
Can you talk about the influence that your dad, Frank, had on your life?
The biggest lesson I learned from my dad is to support children even if they're doing something that is unorthodox.
Who else influenced your career early on?
My first inspiration in skating in terms of guidance was Stacy Peralta. He recognized my talent and got me on the Bones Brigade, an elite group of skaters, and sent me to Florida when I was 13 for this competition. I had never even traveled at that point, and it wasn't the type of terrain I was used to. I didn't do so well, but it taught me about being versatile and accepting the situation, and I was glad he did that. Then I went back the next year and did better, and the next year ended up winning or finishing in the top three. It taught me a lot about how to handle myself in adverse situations. So I think he was the one that took me and said, "You can do a lot more with this than you ever imagined."
You started your business during a down period. What advice do you have for someone starting out these days?
My advice is to follow your heart and do it because you love it. Do something that you would do even if you didn't get paid, and everything else falls into place from there. Even if it's not a huge financial success, you will still be happy. These things that I'm doing, I would do for free.
My definition of success is doing what you love. I feel many people do things because they feel they have to, and are hesitant to risk following their passion. And obviously, yeah, it's hard right now. But maybe there's a chance that if you get laid off, maybe that's your saving grace, your chance to restart.
Is there a process you'd follow?
My best advice is to set small, attainable goals for yourself. Don't think of the big picture all the time, because you're just going to end up being disappointed the whole way there. You'll be so fixated on the challenges that you won't step back and realize you're already there.With skateboarding, at some point I was on top of the world, but I had no idea because I was so busy and so focused on doing it. When finally I stepped back, I was like, "Wow! This is really a dream I never imagined." If you love what you're doing, all the other stuff falls into place.
Regarding skating, you once said, "I'm never satisfied with my skill level." As an entrepreneur?
I wouldn't consider myself a business expert. I've had successes, I've had failures, I still have a lot to learn. I need to improve on how to navigate big business and make sense of it all, because to me, a lot of it is just mumbojumbo. When people start talking about venture capital and finances and how to create this and do that, a lot of it, I swear, it's like sitting in an escrow meeting when all you want to do is buy a house, and you're signing 50 pieces of paper, but you have no idea what they're talking about.
Are you surprised by how your life turned out?
In my personal success, everything is amazing; every day I have this "How did I get here?" moment. In terms of skateboarding I'm not surprised, because I always felt like it can have a huge, positive impact on your life. It taught me about self-confidence, about tolerance, about diversity, and I always felt like there was something more there than people were seeing. You know, I'm 41 and I'm still a professional skateboarder--it's just insane! That is my job description. And I love it.
Gary Cohn is a freelance writer in Santa Monica, Calif., and an adjunct professor at the USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.