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How Tony Hawk Skated Past Rookie Business Mistakes on His Ride to Success

How Tony Hawk Skated Past Rookie Business Mistakes on His Ride to Success

Tony Hawk

Image credit: Dale May
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Tony Hawk is an epic brand in and of himself. The pro skater’s world-famous name is synonymous with skateboarding. And it’s everywhere, from his popular video games, to his own line of skateboards and ramps, to his signature clothing at Kohl’s beyond. Hawk, 46, also headlines his own weekly eponymous Sirius XM show and there’s even a Simpson’s action figure carved in his cartoon likeness, and we’re still not at peak Hawk yet.  

Over the last two decades, “The Birdman,” (née Anthony Frank Hawk) has managed to leverage his astronomical skateboarding success into an estimated $140 million dollar branding empire that just keeps growing.

Related: Finally, Watch Tony Hawk Ride a Real Hoverboard

Hawk, a tall, lanky (he’s a lean 6'3”) Southern California native, channeled his hyper energy as a kid into skateboarding starting at age 9. He’s pulled off more than a few impressive tricks in his day. His most famous was the record-making 900 he corkscrewed at the 1999 X Games. He also recently jumped a moving MINI and floated on air on a Back to the Future-inspired hoverboard (it was way better when he fake hoverboarded, though).

But Hawk’s most impressive trick so far is a feat only a handful of action sports icons, like “the Flying Tomato,” Shaun White, have achieved: he's built a long-lasting entrepreneurial business out of his name and claim to fame.

It’s a dream that almost didn’t become a reality following a number of false starts and rookie mistakes. In the 1990s, when skateboarding wasn’t as popular as it is now, Hawk sank into some dark times, nearly draining his earlier skateboarding winnings and barely averting bankruptcy. Basically, he became an entrepreneur because he had to. He needed the money.

Related: 10 Successful Entrepreneurs on How to Be Awesome

Immediately, it was a disaster. His first-ever entrepreneurial venture backfired.

“My first mistake in business was signing my name away in a bad licensing deal,” he says. “I didn’t realize I didn’t have any say about what they put out there until it was too late. This company could literally make anything with my name on it that they wanted.”

The sketchy licensing company, he says, made cheap products plastered in ripped-off aesthetics and logos from other businesses. “All with my name in the mix. I was so bummed that I ended paying the company to get out of the contract because it was so damaging to my brand, my reputation.”

Hawk’s number one lesson for beginning entrepreneurs looking to license products: “Never, ever give up control of your brand,” he cautions. “Not your name, not your logo, not your likeness. None of it, because it’s all you have and you need to protect it, even if it puts you at odds with partners and other companies.”

Related: Tony Hawk on the Importance of Constantly Evolving

For him, others attempting to hijack his brand is a battle that he says he deals with every day, one he used to fight alone before he knew better. Now he relies on a team of legal experts to fend off unlicensed imitators.

“I learned the hard way that you can’t bite off more than you can chew,” he says. “If you don’t understand something, especially licensing, work with an expert from that field who does. You can’t do it all.”

Related: Tony Hawk on Giving Back and Inspiring Change

Yet he still keeps complete control over his accounts on Twitter and Instagram, where he has 3.8 million and 1.5 million followers, respectively. He personally posts candid family scenes, stunt snapshots and behind-the-scenes pics and videos multiple times a day. “I absolutely do it myself. I wouldn’t let anyone else.”

While he says he doesn’t try to “do it all,” anymore, he confesses he’s speaking with us while zipping down the freeway to his office for a meeting. He’s fresh off of a hectic morning getting his kids ready for school, then dropping them off in a hurry.

His meeting is about the Tony Hawk Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 2002 after noticing that mainly only affluent areas had skateparks. The foundation has since raised some $5 million dollars to build just shy of 600 skateparks in low-income neighborhoods in all 50 states.

Related: QA: Tony Hawk on Taking His Business to the Next Level

“I saw that low-risk kids, the kids who needed skateparks the most, didn’t have a voice and they weren’t being heard. I knew this had to change. I wanted to use my voice to give them one.”

When Hawk’s not busy juggling dad duties, business meetings, celebrity appearances and skate park ribbon-cuttings, he does what landed him in the limelight in the first place. He skates.

“I never gave it up. I’ll never quit.” Apparently not even after ripping an 8-stitch gash in his thigh while skating in New Orleans last week. In true Tony Hawk form, after the accident, he tweeted “Living the dream! (but today kinda sucked).”

A few bumps in the road won’t stop him for long.

Related: Tony Hawk Carves a New Niche

Edition: December 2016

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