When Dane Laster told his mother he wanted to distribute tanning-salon goods and services, she told him it was a fad that would never last.
He has proven her wrong.
“It’s the fad that never died,” he said, and the business he once dreamed of now supports him, his wife and their three kids.
After his 1994 graduation from Perry Meridian High School, Laster went to work as a pharmacy technician before trying his hand at sales. Eventually, he made his way to Indianapolis-based tanning product firm Australian Gold, where he was a regional marketing director.
That’s when he got serious about starting his own business and duplicating the success he saw at distributors that were serving salons and private owners alike.
So he and his mother, Virginia Hoffmann, talked again. Together, they invested $5,000 and started Tan Mart in their basement. At first, they did a little bit of everything-from emptying trash to shipping orders.
Laster said he didn’t have a formal business plan and probably broke all the rules when it came to starting a business. He and his mother relied on credit cards and cash on hand to keep them afloat.
“Eventually, we got a line of credit from KeyBank, but that was four or five years into it,” he said. “We finally got big enough that we had to do it.”
There was little profit the first five years, Laster said, and lots of sacrifices along the way. But he advises other entrepreneurs to be patient: Those who live frugally have a better chance of success.
He also had to learn a lot about the business, like how to stock the products customers wanted and how to survive in a seasonal industry.
Tan Mart sells and services new and used tanning beds, both to salons and private owners. The company also sells parts and bulbs, lotions and other accessories such as goggles and lotions.
“It always looks easier on paper,” Laster said. “We started growing really fast, but sometimes [that] can hurt you. You have to be able to accommodate the growth.”
Maintaining cash flow was a particular struggle, since products are often shipped to customers before full payment is made.
“During the busy time, you can have $60,000 to $70,000 out there floating around,” he said. “To someone on the outside looking in, it [seems] a lot simpler than it really is.”
Advertising was another lesson. He started by placing classified ads, but realized online advertising was more profitable. Laster said he now spends 1/10th of the money he used to on advertising and reaps three times the reward.
But business is still seasonal: Spring and summer are busy, while the rest of the year is slow. During the slow months, Laster makes service rounds to his regular customers and prepares mailers for the following season. He plans to eventually train his employees in hot tub repair, to bring in more revenue during the off months.
Ed Cobb with Sun Kiss Tanning in Indianapolis has worked with Laster for 10 years. Cobb said he likes having a local company he can depend on to service his beds.
“Other companies usually have to send someone in,” he said. “Dane has a personal commitment to help you. Since I am small, too, I’ve grown to appreciate someone who will work with me to find solutions.”
Joni Caruso at Maui Tan in Carmel said Laster’s personality allows him to go above and beyond, even helping with issues not related to tanning.
“We started within months of each other and we have grown close because we have learned so much together,” Caruso said.
That’s how Laster does business.
“My clients aren’t a number and because we are very personal, people will buy their bulbs and accessories from us,” he said. “We get to know our customers rather than getting their dollar and getting them out the door.”
Dane Laster’s company distributes an array of tanning products to salon owners and individuals alike.