Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Lifelong Social Entrepreneur: Tony Hartl, Founder and Former CEO of Planet Tan

In many respects, I’ve always been a social entrepreneur. My first business venture at the tender age of nine was a combination lawn mowing, snow shoveling company that I ran seasonally to make social change in my own family’s life. Being raised by a single mom, I took it upon myself to help her make ends meet. My mother worked as a waitress, and I got any odd job I could, from manual labor to tossing newspapers and eventually selling subscriptions. I made enough money to help out with bills, and even to buy our first piece of brand-new furniture—a big comfy armchair for my mom. I’ll never forget the incredulous look on the salesman’s face when I poured out more than $200 in bills and loose change on his counter. Nor will I forget the look on my mom’s face when she sat in that chair for the first time, sipping a glass of sun tea. I had worked hard and long, and best of all, I had used my efforts to help someone other than myself. Not much has changed on my outlook on business since then, but I have certainly made more profit than I ever thought possible growing up impoverished in the Midwest. I don’t lament my upbringing. I believe it made me the socially conscious, hardworking entrepreneur that I am today.

My latest project to bring social change is an unconventional one. I’m not running a nonprofit, or starting any kind of business. Instead, I’m selling knowledge and donating all the profits. In 1995, I founded the Planet Tan Corporation in Dallas, Texas with three locations and $10,000. When I started it was a defunct chain of tanning salons that no one had ever heard of. I poured my life into the company, designing the brand, meticulously planning our strategic growth, and expanding in ways I never could have imagined. In 2008, I sold it with 17 locations for millions. It had been a wild ride, full of ups and downs, but ultimately it was a huge success. My risk and sacrifice had paid off. I took a year to travel the world and re-energize for the next phase of my life. I climbed mountains and search the depths of my own soul. I hit 12 countries in as many months. During this time, I thought about how best to contribute to the good in the world in a sustainable way. I decided I didn’t want to write a check to a good cause, I wanted my life to be a good cause. Although I had organized many charitable events while running Planet Tan, I was itching to do more for my community.

After much contemplation, I realized the most valuable asset I owned wasn’t my bank account; it was my business acumen. For my entire life, I had looked to business greats such as Jack Welch and Peter Drucker for winning strategies. Many of the ideas found within their books propelled Planet Tan to the front of the pack. Books provide virtual mentorship and can reach hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people. I decided to write a book, Selling Sunshine: 75 Tools, Tips, and Tactics for Becoming a Wildly Successful Entrepreneur. The book will explain my business philosophy, how I built the Planet Tan brand from the ground up, and what made it the leader of the indoor tanning industry. My hope is that this book will do in the lives of aspiring entrepreneurs a fraction of what Jack Welch and Peter Drucker’s books did for me. As a further testament to my commitment to the next generation of entrepreneurs, all book proceeds will be donated to the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). I serve on the board for NFTE and strongly believe in its mission to empower low-income youth to reach their potential and unleash their entrepreneurial creativity.

In 2009, I started volunteering with NFTE’s Dallas branch. The students immediately impressed me, as did the innovative work the organization was doing. Although I had already decided to commit to a non-profit organization in a big way, I hadn’t known which one to choose. Based on my experiences with NFTE, I could quickly tell that their purpose was on target with my personal goals and values. One of NFTE’s main goals is to identify students at risk of dropping out of high school and give them a reason to stay. The NFTE curriculum and training is provided at no cost to teachers who will educate and inspire students to take hold of their own destiny and follow their passion in life. While NFTE identifies certain students who have a passion for entrepreneurship, the goal of the organization goes beyond business.

The organization seeks to teach young people to take responsibility for their future and work hard to set and achieve their goals—whatever they may be. I knew NFTE was a great organization and that I could have a social impact on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds if I partnered with them. My life has truly come full circle. I once would have been in the target group for NFTE, and now I am helping to shape its future. My dream is that my book, both the content and the profits, will have an impact on the next generation of entrepreneurs.

For me, social entrepreneurship is about giving of my time, talents, and resources in the community in which I live. That’s why I’m involved with Dallas area non-profits that provide support to underprivileged children and their families, and I volunteer at an inner city Dallas middle school to give lectures on entrepreneurism and business. I would never have gotten to where I am today if it weren’t for the help and counsel of those older and wiser than myself. Because I am indebted to those who have gone before me, I am reaching out to young and aspiring entrepreneurs through informal mentoring. I meet regularly with entrepreneurs in the Dallas area and provide guidance and advice. I enjoy meeting with college students, recent grads, and anyone who has recently caught the small-business bug. One of the greatest tools a social entrepreneur can have at her disposal is a strong network of like-minded individuals. For the past eight years, I’ve been a member for the Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO). My forum consists of Dallas business owners, and we meet monthly to discuss our companies and challenge each other. It’s such a great opportunity to have access to successful business minds; it’s as though you have a high-level, objective board of directors at your disposal. For many start-ups, this is impossible. I’ve personally benefited a great deal from the counsel of my forum, and I would recommend it or a similar program to any entrepreneur, no matter what level of experience he may have.

I’m always on the lookout for new social entrepreneurism ventures that I can participate in. Another organization that caught my attention and garnered my participation is the Idea Village in New Orleans. I have maintained a residence in New Orleans for eight years, and I have a deep love for the culture and people there. The Idea Village exists to foster entrepreneurship in New Orleans. It provides support, education, and grants to local businesses in their infancy with the hope of retaining entrepreneurial talent. More than 75 percent of the organization’s total funding is by private sources. I’ve provided mentorship to the directors of Idea Village and the entrepreneurs who are partnering with them in New Orleans. Any company with a mantra that tells people, “Trust your Crazy Ideas,” and then provides the economic channels to do it, gets my vote!

For those entrepreneurs who are considering going social, I can promise you will get more than you give out of the process. I’m amazed by the strength and determination of so many young people who are trying to improve their lives and contribute to society in meaningful ways. In America and across the world, entrepreneurs build wealth and improve communities. There’s a lot of talk about the cycle of poverty, but there’s also a cycle of prosperity. Having wealth and using it to better the lives of others and equip them to control their own destiny creates independence and upward mobility were there was none. Your entrepreneurial journey may start in your own country, in your hometown, but the effects can be felt around the globe. With the interconnected world we live in, there is no limit to where the outstretched entrepreneur can reach. When you can be part of that, whether it’s providing encouragement, guidance, or finances, it’s an investment that pays rich dividends.

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