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March 25, 2014

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From Death's Door To A Heavenly Mountain: How Dr. Chris Hartnett Built a Billion Dollar Company and Discovered the Real Meaning of Wealth

Domains have made a number of people wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. People like Kevin Ham and Frank Schilling have built companies that earn not just millions of dollars a year, but tens of millions annually. Those individual success stories and the continuing rapid migration of ad dollars from traditional media to the Internet have people speculating on who might become the first domain billionaire

Which person might take a place among the titans of not just the domain industry but the world of business at large? As it happens, there is already one man in our space who can honestly say, "been there, done that"

Meet Dr. Chris Hartnett who resides on North Carolina's Heavenly Mountain. Though he is the sole owner of approximately 12,000 domain names and part owner of around 20,000 more, Hartnett made his fortune in a different field before returning to the domain business three years ago.

Dr. Chris Hartnett

In the 1990s Hartnett revolutionized the global telecommunications industry, outmaneuvering the long distance giants with his upstart company USA Global Link - the first to enable global phone to phone calling via the Internet. Publications like the Financial Times dubbed him the 

Dr. Hartnett on the cover
 of Telephony Magazine

"Father of Internet Telephony and  VOIP technologies."  After starting with just three employees in a remote Midwestern hamlet, Fairfield, Iowa, Hartnett grew the company to over 6,500 employees and agents scattered across more than 160 countries and territories around the globe.

By 1999 USA Global Link's annual revenue had hit $589 million. When another company he founded, internet service provider Global Online India, went public it made $780 million on the opening day of the offering. By 2000, Harnett's companies had a total market value of $2.8 billion (with him and his family owning and controlling 85% of the equity).

Hartnett became a Wall Street Journal cover boy (seven times) and was featured in cover stories published by eight different magazines. In 1996 he received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award sponsored by Ernst & Young, USA Today, and the NASDAQ Stock Exchange. He got invited to the ultra exclusive World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where he rubbed elbows with 42 

billionaires from around the globe. He also got to know Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Hartnett's company was chosen to be the first telecommunications company to link directly with Windows NT.

However all of this came at a price. Hartnett also came close to dying - three times. Over a period of 13 years, Hartnett was hospitalized 27 times. He managed to build and operate USA Global Link despite having to spend most of his time confined to his own bed. Hartnett was struck by a debilitating intestinal tract disorder in 1988 that eventually required doctors to rebuild his entire lower intestinal system.

In 2001, during still another hospital stay, it looked like he had reached the end of line when his weight dropped below 100 pounds. His family, friends, doctors and advisors intervened and told him his health was now the only thing that mattered. He was given two choices - sell his company or die. He sold.  Global giants Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom and Worldcom were happy to pick up the pieces but Hartnett won too. Today he is alive to talk about the remarkable life he has led.

This industry is filled with a lot of great rags to riches stories (and we have told many of them in previous DN Journal Cover Stories) but Hartnett's story has a different twist. He was born into a very wealthy family, but his father wanted his children to have the self respect that comes from making it on their own, which Chris did - in spades. 

Chris's dad, William Hartnett (a former FBI agent and attorney who is still going strong at 82), had become one of America's top real estate developers, overseeing such monumental projects as New York's United Nations Plaza, Century City in Los Angeles and his crown jewel - Chicago's Lake Point Tower (at the time the world's largest apartment building and literally a city unto itself). William went on to complete more than 260 buildings across the U.S. 

William and Lorrayne Hartnett

William's wife Lorrayne bore him four children; a daughter and three sons, including Chris who was born in Rockville Centre, New York on August 15, 1953.

One of Chris's particularly vivid childhood memories was of his father coming home from work one day, putting his hands on Chris's shoulders and declaring "Listen to me. You will never be a rich man's son. They have no respect for money!" William said he would cover the cost of the boy's education but after that he was on his own because the elder Hartnett wanted his kids to make their own success (the bulk of William's fortune was to be left to the Catholic church and to hospitals whose boards he served on). 

12-year-old Chris Hartnett and a 
teacher with the science fair trophy 
he won for building his own computer.

Chris would have to learn to be independent and he got an early start in that process when he was sent off to a Catholic boarding school for fifth grade. "You really had to stake out your own territory because there was a definite hierarchy in the school. In some ways it was like a prison," Hartnett laughed. 

"Some of the kids had been sent there because they were disciplinary problems, but I was able to earn my classmate's respect by building my own computer and winning first prize in a science fair with it."  

His father's record of success left Chris feeling a lot of pressure to measure up so over the next couple of years he got involved in every activity he could, with his sites set on winning the school's top honor, All American Boy, that was bestowed on an eight grader each year. He made a case for himself by excelling in school, playing sports and serving as an altar boy. But just as it was time to enter 8th grade his dad moved the family to Chicago where he was starting his Lake Point Tower project. Chris had to start over at the bottom of the totem pole and make new friends at Hardy Prep School for boys in downtown Chicago. 

The following year his parents sent him to a prestigious college prep boarding school, La Lumiere, in Laporte, Indiana - close to South Bend and Notre Dame. "Once again I was back in this boarding school environment where we would only go home 3-4 times a year at most. The 

focus was entirely on school and achieving," Hartnett recalled. " My senior year I was a proctor, responsible for several underclassmen, and one of those I was responsible for was John Roberts who went on to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. There were only 96 students so we became very close and many of them became like brothers to me."

When it was time to go to college, Hartnett found the entire world was changing around him. It was the mid 60s and rebellion was in the air. Respect for authority, even parental authority, was waning and the new generation sought to change the world. "I decided to disappear," Hartnett said. At 18 he decided to get as far away as he could, enrolling at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. He would not come home again until he was 26 years old and then only so his parents could meet his new wife, Linda. She insisted on the meeting and was instrumental in bringing Chris back together with his family.

John G. Roberts - The current 
Chief Justice  of the U.S. 
Supreme Court
was Chris's 
high school friend.

"I didn't even know where my parents house was by then. I had to call from a gas station to get directions," Hartnett said. "In retrospect, I think having gone to boarding schools where you had to fend for yourself made it difficult when I was around my parents and they wanted to try to tell me what to do. Being sent off to boarding school in fifth grade was kind of like being sent off to the Army and there were a lot of rough things to deal with that I think kind of gave me a sharp edge," Hartnett said. "Fortunately that was softened over time because I always had an interest in spiritual things and when I was younger actually wanted to be a priest. I also came to realize that that "edge" helped me succeed and survive."

Chris gives his Dad a hug on his 
daughter Kristen's wedding day.

Hartnett also came to realize that his father had always had his best interests at heart, something that so many sons do not understand until they too have walked a mile or two in the old man's shoes and gained the kind of wisdom that comes only through real world experience. 

"He came from a poor family and went into the service, then put himself through law school working as a manual laborer. He learned the value of a dollar and he wanted me to learn that lesson too," Chris said. "Yes, it took me some time to realize it, but he was a great man - the very best father anyone could be blessed with. I love him more than life itself and don’t regret anything he did. He is at the root of all my accomplishments, materially and spiritually."

"I set out to over achieve and really wanted to do more than my father had done. He let us all know that we should look to ourselves to  

achieve so we set out on that path." At Loyola, Hartnett had been elected student body president just as he was getting ready to begin his senior year, but he stunned friends and classmates by deciding that he was not on the path he wanted to be on. 

The late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation, become a close
friend (and next door neighbor) to the 
Hartnett family.

He abruptly withdrew from Loyola and headed a couple hours north to Santa Barbara where he enrolled in the Maharishi International University's School of Management, founded by spiritual icon Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had also founded and developed Transcendental Meditation (the Maharishi would become a close personal friend and major influence on Hartnett throughout his life).

"I felt what I was learning in college was not talking to my inner spirit," Harnett said. "I heard about this school and I went up one weekend to visit and loved it." 

His stay in Santa Barbara was a brief one. "My first day on campus they announced they had just bought their own campus, which was the old Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa!" Hartnett made the move to the midwest, but his dad did not like the sudden change in his son's scholastic plans. Even though MIU was fully accredited, he withdrew his financial support for Chris's education.

"I had this rare Jensen-Healey sports car that my dad had bought me so I sold the car to pay my tuition." After he finished his senior year and got his business degree, Hartnett said he realized that he hadn't really learned much yet, so he stayed in Fairfield for three and half more years, taking a wide variety of courses in various disciplines simply because they were things he wanted to learn about. 

Hartnett paid for his extra classes at MIU by  working at various odd jobs. He was a UPS truck driver, a construction worker and also did time as an electrician. In fact in the latter role he helped build a studio for the Beach Boys, who had become devotees of transcendental meditation and came to Iowa to record their M.I.U. Album, named after Hartnett's alma mater. After the album was finished Chris was invited to join the band onstage at a concert in Iowa City

During this time Hartnett also met and within two years married his wife Linda.  She had come to Iowa for much the same reasons Chris had. She had been going to college in Vermont but was not getting the inner nourishment she wanted so she transferred to MIU looking for something more fulfilling. 

Linda earned her degree in business management and she and Chris both went on 

The Beach Boys - Hartnett helped them 
build a studio in Fairfield, Iowa where 
they recorded the M.I.U. Album.

to earn doctorates in the field. She has been Chris's partner in all of his various business ventures since they were married. When they sold USA Global Link the couple donated the company's modern office complex in Fairfield to their alma mater where it is part of the campus today.

Chris & Linda Harnett (in Italy 2006)

When Chris was finally ready to leave school, and having now reconciled with his father, he took a job in St. Louis managing the conversion of one of his dad's apartment buildings into condominiums. The successful conversion earned a $3.5 million profit but the the primary thing Chris got out of the experience was learning why it is better to be your own boss. "I was earning $13,000 a year on the project, so after it went so well I asked my dad for a raise and he fired me!," Hartnett recalled with a smile. Despite that they would not be apart for long.

Chris went back to Chicago and got involved in a variety of different endeavors simultaneously (he may have been the original multi-tasker, a practice he would 

follow throughout his life). He worked three different jobs and did especially well in condominium sales. He also started taking gemological courses because he and Linda were about to get married and he wanted to make an informed choice when he picked out her engagement ring.

His interest in jewelry was also piqued because his aunt Christine was married to Frank Pennino, one of the three famous Pennino Brothers who were probably America's most popular jewelers in the 20s and 30s. After learning the trade, Hartnett started his own gemstone investment company in 1979. It was the first limited partnership in the gemstone investment field and one that his dad also wanted to be part of. 

"I wanted to raise $5 million to buy gemstones and my dad gave me a list of 15 people he knew that had a net worth of over $5 million each. I contacted them and many of them in turn contacted others. I wound up with more than the $5 million we needed, as well as a network of over 100 people that had net worths above $5 million. It was a great business education"

Having raised the startup capital they needed, Hartnett's group also solidified their credentials by getting the world's top gemologist to join their team. Dr. Paul DeSautels, Head Curator and Chief Gemologist of the Smithsonian Institution become a partner and the  group's head gemologist. With his guns now fully loaded, Hartnett was able to land contracts to supply gemstones for some of the nation's top retailers including Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward. Within a year of leaving school and still only in his mid 20s, Harnett had made his first million dollars.

This 169-carat pink emerald, the 
world's largest heart-shaped pink emerald, 
is in Hartnett's private gemstone collection.

Chris felt like he really got to know his father during this time. "He was spurring me on to do more and more things. Here he was this consummate businessman and I was being tutored by him. Even though we couldn't always work well together, he was giving me good advice and telling me all the things I should be doing that I wasn't doing. I learned a great deal from him and looking back on it probably more from him about business than anyone else," Hartnett said. 

Floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on 
the day the market crashed - Oct. 19, 1987

Chris's foray into the gemstone business wound up leading to still another big opportunity that he was able to make the most of. "There were these wealthy young men that came to me to buy $100,000-$200,000 diamonds for engagement rings. When I started asking them what they did they said they were options traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I was curious so I went down there and checked it out and fell in love with that business!" Hartnett recalled. He wound up buying a seat on the exchange and, while still running his gemstone business, started a 7-year parallel career as a commodities broker. 

Specializing in international currency 

arbitrage and futures trading, Hartnett went on to compile one of the most successful records in the history of the CME with only six down days in his seven years of floor trading. The Wall Street Journal singled him out as being one of the few traders that had the vision to be on the “right side” of the market when it crashed on October 19, 1987. Hartnett made millions before retiring from that space in 1990.

The following year while traveling the world with a business friend in search of gemstones he found himself in a Hong Kong bar where he met a guy who told him about a new technology that automated long distance call back techniques to save money on tolls. It was something Hartnett had been doing manually for years. When he left for overseas trips, he would tell Linda that if she heard the phone ring twice, then stop, it was his signal for her to call him back at his hotel. "If I initiated the call from the hotel it would cost $18 a minute back then. But if she called me from home it only cost us $2 a minute," Harnett said.

"When I heard they had a computer that could do that, I told the guy that I wanted to buy the technology and that was the beginning of USA Global Link. We were cash flow positive within five months after the company started," Hartnett said. 

He brought in people in his gemstone and transcendental meditation networks who were scattered around the world, hiring them as sales people that allowed him to quickly expand globally. The biggest coup came when he got the World Trade Centers Assocation, that operates in every major country in the world, to select USA Global Link as their long distance carrier of choice. With that one fell swoop his company became the world’s largest provider of discount international telecommunications services. "Their 400,000 customers became my 400,000 customers and those customers included most of the largest businesses in each country," Hartnett said.

USA Global Link then moved into the groundbreaking new technology of internet telephony and that sent their growth rate into orbit. "We made the first voice over IP call received in the United States," 

Chris Hartnett making an early VOIP call
(long distance call over the Internet).

Hartnett said. He made the call himself, calling Chicago from Europe. Unfortunately, at the same time his company was experiencing exponential growth, his health was deteriorating just as rapidly.

He had first fallen ill in the spring of 1988 when the lining of his intestinal track started disintegrating. The exact cause of his disorder was never determined but the affliction would grow steadily worse over the next 13 years, culminating with three operations that basically removed, then rebuilt his intestinal tract. By the time USA Global Link took off in the early 90s he had to have a hospital bed put in the corporate jet so he could travel to the company's far flung outposts. The plane would often land at airports with business associates then coming onboard to meet with Chris. The plane would then take off without him ever getting out of the bed.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the cover of 
Time Magazine - October 1975

Hartnett credits Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's TM movement for helping him find the inner strength to get through that ordeal. He even moved his base of operations to the Netherlands so he could live next door to the Maharishi who became a close friend and adviser to the entire Hartnett family. Children of the 60s, even those unfamiliar with the TM movement, know of the Maharishi as the guru to the Beatles. When he passed away in February of this year, Hartnett said it was the saddest day of his life.

Despite the business and physical issues that whirled around him 24/7, Hartnett was able to initiate another business strategy in 1994 that eventually led to the article you are reading now - he started buying domain names. When global 800 phone numbers were introduced, USA Global Link bought more of them than anyone else in the world. When Hartnett started hearing about domain names he thought they might serve a similar function on the Internet. His instincts were born out by a runaway business success started by a family member.

"My brother-in-law Gary had one of the most successful 800 phone numbers of all time, 1-800-Dentist and he later got the accompanying domain name 1800dentist.com.  He came to me and asked to borrow $15,000 to start the business. At first I thought it was lousy idea but he started making money almost immediately and soon had 250 people working in his Los Angeles call center. For the past 15 years Gary and his partner have been making over a million dollars a month from that business," Hartnett said.

Though he started buying early, Hartnett did not zero in on the great generic domains that are so prized today. "We had had great success as a global company so I decided no matter what business I'm in I wanted it to be global."  So when he started buying domains names Hartnett registered those with the word "Global" as a constant prefix, like GlobalOnline.com, a name that became the website for Global Online Inc.,  a separate company he founded to enter the internet service provider space. Global Online India followed and that was a huge money maker so he also bought descriptive names like GOLFrance.com and GOLSpain.com that the company could use for businesses they envisioned.

Hartnett also bought names in other businesses he was familiar with like jewelry and banks, picking up names like RedRuby.com, PinkEmeralds.com and some sentimental favorites like MyMother.com. He wound up spending $3 million on domains which through most of that period cost $100 apiece to register. Though in hindsight he would like to have picked up more one-word generic domains he is happy with the portfolio he has.

A poster that promoted GlobalOnline.com

Hartnett continues to add domains today and said he is mostly a value investor, looking to acquire names at prices that represent solid values in the current market. "When I am a buyer I want to buy from people who have to sell, then it helps them as well as me" he said. Hartnett added, "You make your money in domains when you buy them not when you sell them and you do that by buying them at the right price." Hartnett takes the opposite approach when selling. "Then I ask for a high price because I would rather shoot for the sky and land in the trees than shoot for the trees and land in the mud," he said.

Though he is basically a value investor Harnett also admits to speculating occasionally, most notably in the .tv extension where he is believed to be the largest private owner of .tv domains in the world. Hartnett owns or co-owns a total of 17,000 .tv names. On the co-owned domains Hartnett works with four partners, one in each of four different verticals.

"They produce almost no revenue whatsoever," Hartnett said, "but I am attracted to them for several reasons. TV, like the word "global" is the same in most widely used languages around the world so there is instant recognition. There is a convergence of computers and the television set and it is happening faster than anybody thought. I feel that text is going to be on .com while 

visual content is going to settle more on .tv. Basically it just supplements and glorifies the existing website. If you have the .com and it is working well, having the .tv is only going to give it a deeper and more vertical integration. Would people rather read the story or watch it? I think ultimately they would rather watch it," Hartnett said.

"Why can't we have a .tv site for every product, so I can see a demonstration on how to use it instead of digging through a manual?," he asked. "Why can't we have one for every disease, so if I want to learn about ulcerative colitis I can sit there and watch a program about it? It is an educational thing that you can apply to almost every field. I think .tv is a great extension for that."

After the sell off of USA Global Link was completed in 2001 Hartnett put business, domains and everything else except regaining his health, out of his mind. He got a mental boost one day when his father walked into his hospital room with a copy of the Wall Street Journal that had Chris on the cover that day, telling his son something that too few fathers take time too say -  "I'm proud of you, son."

Still Chris's long struggle to get back on his feet continued for almost four years. It wasn't until late 2004 that he was healthy enough to get out of bed and as soon as he did he slipped on the ice and broke his leg in five places! It was back to bed for six more months. 

Chris and his father William
in Ireland in 2005

Calamity strikes Chris again. Paramedics pull Hartnett to an ambulance after a slip 
on the ice in 2004 broke his leg in five places. Wife Linda at left looks on with concern.

When he finally got back on his feet again Hartnett's interest in domains was rekindled and while researching the current state of those assets in Google he ran across a DN Journal article about the T.R.A.F.F.I.C. conference and decided to go to the next one in Las Vegas in May 2005. He has been at every one since and has shared his vast business and personal experience as a speaker at many of those events as well.

Just as so many before him have discovered, Hartnett found that the domain community is something truly unique with a special blend of bright entrepreneurial men and women. "I love these people!" Hartnett exclaimed. What he likes best about them is how well grounded the vast majority of them are, regardless of how successful they have been. 

"Arrogance - thinking you are better than someone one - is the one thing that is stopping harmony and tremendous wealth in the world, whether it is on a spiritual level, a financial level or an intellectual level," Hartnett said. "The truth is intellect doesn't define a person, a pocketbook doesn't define a person and spiritually, however you define your God or commune with him, in my book it's the same God whatever different people call him," Hartnett said.

"The Maharishi used to tell me that if you sit down with people and you make money together and they are your friends, you don't bomb them, you don't go kill them. By breaking the telecommunications monopoly our company was able to help foster communications between people. When you can communicate for 2-3 cents a minute around the world, or free with things like Skype now, people can form bonds and relationships and start making money together. When you can do that you can eliminate a lot of conflict." 

Chris Hartnett with the late great magician 
Doug Henning in New York City on the day the Maharishi Global Development Fund was established in 1997. Hartnett also worked for a time as a professional magician.

Hartnett has tried to foster that ideal by pouring time and money into the Maharishi Global Development Fund which was formed in 1997 with the goal of helping to eliminate problems of poverty, ill health and improper housing in under-privileged countries throughout the world. Chris and his wife Linda both serve on the charitable foundation's board of directors (they also donated $157 million to get it started), Over the last seven years the Fund has built over 200 schools educating over 350,000 students on an annual basis and has funded four hospitals in India

In an effort to raise more money for the fund Hartnett agreed last November to join the board of Kevin Ham's Reinvent Technology with the understanding that much of his share of the wealth created will be used to continue the Fund's work.

Kevin Ham, Joe Casale (Casale Media) and Chris Hartnett at a 2008 AdTech conference.

While Hartnett has gotten to know some of the world's richest people he said many of them are not rich in the most important sense of the word. "Wealth is something that you see in someone's eyes. It is happiness and fullness. It is a lack of arrogance. It is not someone who feels they are superior, but someone who thinks everyone else is equal to them," Hartnett said. 

"The most important thing to understand is that when your are at death's door, and I have been there three times, you can't take any of the material things with you. The only currency on the other side is the good deeds you do while here on earth."

Hartnett loves motorcycles but he knows he can't take them with him at the end the ride.

Hartnett noted that any of us could lose everything we have at any given moment and that knowledge guides his outlook on life. "I don't define myself by what I have created or accomplished. I define myself by how happy I am at this moment and how happy I can make other people at this moment. That's really the wealth that I think everyone should aspire to."

"Yes money is important and I tell the kids in this business that you should have enough money to do what you want to do when you want to do it. That is real wealth. But I also tell them the moment you think you are better that someone else you cut yourself off from the very source of all of your energy, your bliss and your ability to create. That attitude end ups costing you money. We are all cells in the same cosmic body. If we help other people, we are helping ourselves." 

Hartnett said we don't realize the value of things we take for granted until we lose them. "I know what it is like to suffer hunger pangs (he was on a liquid only diet for 13 months) and I know what it is like to be in so much pain that you cry yourself to sleep at night." 

In addition to all of his past ailments, Hartnett is now totally blind in his left eye and has only half the normal vision in his right eye which is also deteriorating. "So what does that mean?" Hartnett asked, before answering his own question. "It means I'd 

Young magician Chris Hartnett bringing joy 
to people at the Magic Castle in L.A. - 1977.

better have some pretty good inner vision going for me. I'm going to have to start appreciating the things that are not just on the surface, but the things that I can't see -  the inner relationships between people and families, the way you honor other people."

Chris, Linda, their three daughters, son-in-law and grandchild (all pictured in the photo below) feel blessed to live on Heavenly Mountain (near Boone, North Carolina). Chris and Linda also have a home near MIU in Fairfield, Iowa, one in La Jolla, California (where Chris's mom and dad lived) and another in the Netherlands (where they originally moved to be near the Maharishi). They are all great places but Hartnett says their Carolina home is literally like heaven on earth and he is thankful for every day he gets to spend there.


"I'm living every day of my life like it is the last day of my life. I'm living every day like this is going to be the best day of my life. I want to be the fullest human being that I can be, I want my family to be as happy as they can be, I want my friends to be as happy as they can be and I want the world to be as happy as it can be. That's all I care about."

(The view from the Hartnett porch on Heavenly Mountain)


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