In a world that too often seems to be mired with negativity and bad news, John and Bert Jacobs showed that optimism does in fact pay off. And they have their mom to thank.
"Our mom raised six kids with limited funds, but she had a way of just spinning everything into a positive and laughing about everything," said John Jacobs, co-founder of Boston-based apparel manufacturer Life is good, which has sales of $100 million a year. "She was juggling a ton when we were growing up, and yet she filled every day with laughter and just made everything seem like a crazy adventure for us. Our dad is also very optimistic, as well, in a less crazy, quieter way. Together they really taught us that optimism can take you anywhere."
With that belief, the brothers took three simple words and turned them into a message oriented brand that resonates with millions of people. John and Bert have gone from struggling T-shirt salesmen to the heads of an apparel giant with 4,500 retailers featuring their products in all 50 states and Canada. According to the brothers, the key to their success is their strong branding and a message that speaks to customers on a personal level.
"We were never the smartest kids in class," said John Jacobs, pictured below. "I believe it is really the power of the brand and the message that tends to carry us. We have made so many mistakes over the years, but there is a lot of hunger for this message and it is what carries us."
The message has also been a driving force in the charitable offerings of the company. In particular, the company established the Life is good Kids Foundation to help children in need. To finance that organization, the company entered into a partnership with the Boston children's charity Project Joy to create the Life is good Playmakers, the charitable arm of the company that holds events throughout the year to benefit the company's Kids Foundation. "The Life is good Festival has become the most exciting weekend of the year for us," Jacobs said of the festival that raised $1 million last year for Kids Foundation. "It is a way for us to raise money and awareness for kids facing adversities such as poverty, illness and violence. It is very simple why we exist as a company, and that is to spread the power of optimism. That is what we try to do."
The pair started their journey in 1989, when John and Bert were trying to make a living selling T-shirts at street fairs, college dormitories and anywhere their van would take them.
"My brother and I always liked to draw when we were kids, so when we finished college we were looking for ways to feature our art," said Jacobs. "T-shirts seemed to be an accessible way for us to do that. So we started designing shirts and taking them out to try to sell them. We did that for several years with little financial success."
Despite that limited success, the brothers continued to search for the big thing that would help turn their fortunes around. The answer turned out to be a lot closer than the brothers realized.
"When we came back from these trips, we would host a little party for friends," said Jacobs. "We had drawings taped up all over our apartment and we would often ask friends for feedback. Our friends would always comment and come back to this one drawing we had of a smiling face with sunglasses and a beret that came to be known as Jake."
With encouragement from their friends, John and Bert decided to test how an audience would respond to Jake. The brothers printed 48 T-shirts featuring Jake and the phrase "Life is good" and brought them to a street fair in Cambridge, Mass., in 1994. One hour later, the shirts were sold out and the brothers realized that they had something big on their hands.
"Finally, we had something that had a demand and seemed to have a broad appeal," said Jacobs. "We noticed that first day that there were a lot of people buying that shirt, from bikers to teachers. It confirmed that people would be drawn to something that was more positive. It was exciting and scary because we needed to learn how to run a business. We had been travelling around and having a lot of fun. Now we had something that had demand, so we started to figure out the nuts and bolts of the business and how retail worked."
Using what they had learned from their days on the road, the pair began selling their products to different mom-and-pop stores in Boston and Cape Cod. Stores started reordering the product right away
"From that summer on, it was a matter of connecting with new accounts and seeing where we could go with expanding the graphic offerings," said Jacobs. "In the years to come, we would add new products like hats and bags and Frisbees and children's products."
Today, the company has 245 employees and offers hundreds of pieces of apparel for men, women and children. The company also makes sporting goods, products for pets and a book written by John and Bert.
Although the early years of Life is good did not bring extensive financial success, the brothers are quick to credit later success to lessons learned during that period.
"The thing I love to share most with anyone who is interested in starting a business is, you have to try things," said Jacobs. "Putting together a detailed business plan is a positive discipline, but you learn so much just by trying. All those years in the street or the van, we didn’t have much financial success, but we learned so much."
Despite their current success, the brothers still remember all the rejections along the way and credit them for laying the groundwork for future success.
"The most important thing we learned was that hearing 'no' doesn’t hurt you at all," said Jacobs. "In fact, it strengthens you, makes you smarter and forces you to adjust your approach and all the details of your business. You have to stay open to hearing feedback from people. It is not an option; you must be open to feedback and listen to it."