By Hope Katz Gibbs
Clad in a T-shirt and jeans, Bert Jacobs (pictured far right) comes out to greet us from behind the giant oak desk set in his corner office of the Boston headquarters of The Life is good Company.
Located on chichi Newbury Street, the co-founder of the $100 million T-shirt company is anything but pretentious. His infectious smile and down-to-earth demeanor reflect the brand that he and his brother, John, have built since they started selling Ts from the back of their VW van in 1987.
“I think that sometimes people look at us and think that we’re in la la land,” he says. “Like we’re sitting here eating ice cream and throwing Frisbees around on the beach. But we’re not. At least, not always.
“We’re competitive people who live in the real world. We wake up and fight like anybody else. But we have a deep-seated belief that it’s powerful to be optimistic. And for us, the business is definitely a fulfillment of that philosophy.”
Jacobs also believes that making money isn’t the sole goal for his company—and it shouldn’t be for any entrepreneur. Consider his thoughts on how you can find success, The Life is good Company way.
Bert Jacobs’ 15 Tips for Success
1. Speak out.
I do a lot of public speaking to raise money for our Life is Good Kids Foundation, and 100 percent of the fee goes to raise money for children facing life-threatening situations—such as poverty, disease, and a lack of positive influences.
I’m always amazed when I ask the crowds to talk to me about how this negativity has shaped our perceptions of reality. Take the topic of national health care. Ask anyone what the state of our nation’s health is, and you’ll hear a litany of negativity: Americans are troubled by obesity, the high cost of health care, the number of people who die during surgery, and how limited our access is to the best medical procedures.
The reality is that when Boston was founded in the 1700s, the average lifespan of a Boston resident was 29 years. In 1800, it was in the upper 40s, and today it’s 78. Clearly, we must be doing something right. The same is true of our economic system, especially when you look at it from a global perspective.
So, if you take that global view, despite the recent recession and other negative considerations, there is reason for optimism. It just depends on how you look at the world. That’s my message, and I love to talk with people about it. Entrepreneurs simply need to know what they believe in, and then get out there and have good conversations.
2. Find your audience.
We didn’t have anything when we started except the idea that we wanted to spread the word about optimism. We didn’t have the money or the business acumen to grow the concept into a large company. But we knew that it wasn’t enough that only we believed in it. There had to be a hunger and a need for optimism. If there wasn’t, we would have given up.
The first day we put the Life is good shirt featuring Jake on a table for sale, we sold 48 shirts in 45 minutes. We knew we were onto something.
3. Find good partners who believe in you.
We started out by working with a local screen printer in Boston called Midland Graphics, in Marlboro, Mass. Two brothers, Jim and Mike McCarthy, owned it and they could relate to what we were trying to do.
That was key because they essentially financed our operation. We paid them in cash after we sold in the street, and overpaid them a little bit because we knew they needed some things, including more inventory. They began to trust us. We always paid them in a timely fashion, and it was a great relationship.
Then, we opened our first warehouse on their property. We parked a big truck and a container there, and strung up lights because they gave us access to their electricity. It enabled us to hold onto the equity in the beginning, which was important. (See tip number 4 to find out why.)
4. Hold onto the equity in your company for as long as you can.
There were a few people coming around pretty early on in the business who wanted to invest in us. But we weren’t sure they wanted to do it for the right reasons. Although we weren’t making much money at the time, we did feel that what we were doing was valuable. If it wasn’t for the McCarthy brothers, I’m not sure we would have been able to do that.
If you really have a long-term vision for your concept or organization, it’s always best to hold onto the equity. Some people would say it’s impossible, but I think there are lots of ways to do things. And maintaining control of our mission was important to us.
5. Hire and partner with people who share your vision.
I don’t think we would have become partners with anyone who didn’t agree that business is a powerful tool. We have a deep-seated belief that capitalism can be the most effective way to create positive social change, and so do the other four people who have a financial stake in our company.
We tend to think of nonprofits and government organizations when we think about organizations that do good things, but in truth a lot of the power is with people who know how to make money. So if you know how to make money, and have the visibility through consumer products, then you can do some pretty amazing things.
6. Listen to your customers.
Hands down, our customers have taught us a lot about what we might be able to do, and it’s not always just about making a profit. If it was, I think we would sell the company and go public. But I think we can do a lot of other really interesting things with the brand—like save kids’ lives.
We get letters from people who have experienced incredible tragedy and loss, and they say that our brand has given them hope. Their testimonials are on the website because they blow us away. We call that fuel.
There was a young woman in 1999, Lindsey Began, who was 11, and really opened our eyes to the message of The Life is good Company. She was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, given less than a year to live, and walked around wearing one of our hats, and we didn’t know why. She got interviewed a few times in the Boston Globe and at a Patriots football game, where she said that before this she took her life for granted, and even if it would be a short life, she was going to appreciate every day.
She changed our perspective on what it was that we were selling. I think that maybe 10 percent of the time we can teach something, but 90 percent of the time, we can learn something.
7. Realize that you don’t know as much about your business as you think you do.
Thinking you have all the answers is a pitfall companies should avoid as they start to grow. There is a lot more you don’t know versus what you do know.
8. Know what you are selling.
I could bore you with a lot of information about how to make T-shirts—with sourcing strategies and manufacturing details—but we don’t really care about those things. To be honest with you, I really don’t even care about clothing. My brother doesn’t like it when I say that, for fear that it will be misunderstood. So let me clarify.
What I mean is that the brand provides us a great platform to do good things, and to talk about something more important than T-shirts.
That’s why we don’t want to talk about the stitching on a garment, or the softness of the T-shirts. The Ts are soft, and we work really hard to make sure they are. But it’s insulting to consumers to tell them when they can go into the store and feel the Ts for themselves. I’d rather talk about how we can all make a difference in the world.
9. Know that your customers can put you out of business in a minute.
Now that we’re in the digital era, the power has shifted from the sellers to the buyers. Do you remember the housewife in the Midwest who blogged about the fact that Apple’s iPhone battery was too expensive and didn’t last long enough? Two weeks later there are 200 letters on Steve Jobs’ desk, and he made a change. That housewife changed Apple.
Most entrepreneurs are wising up to the fact that consumers can make your business, or they can rip it down. It’s all based on whether or not your business is authentic. I don’t think we’re overly intelligent about our business, or overly intelligent in general. We probably made more mistakes than most entrepreneurs, especially in the beginning of the business.
But one thing that we have done right for the last 17 years is to be consistent and authentic, and we’ve tried to help people. We’ve been open-minded, and we’ve tried not to make the same mistake twice. We are regular people running an organization, and that resonates with people.
10. Think big.
A lot of our strategies for future growth are community-based. The people own The Life is good Company. We felt lucky to have gotten to travel in a van, sell and make T-shirts, and see things that we hadn’t seen before.
We also believe that optimism creates the opportunities, and as we move forward, we envision that a lot of those opportunities will move the organization outside of clothing—maybe into creating healthy and sustainable food products, and even getting into the entertainment industry. We’re working on it now and will keep you posted.
11. Be universal.
We hear that Christians think this is a Christian message, and we think that’s great. But it’s also a Jewish message, and very much a Buddhist message. Anybody can associate, and we appreciate that so many groups embrace us.
We are very careful not to get involved with any political organization or religious group. To us, the idea that “Life is good” represents people. Both sides ask, and we say, The Life is good Company is both.
12. Delegate everything—except for two things.
You can delegate everything else, but hiring senior staff has to be your decision. That, and your vision, has to be kept close to the breast. Other than that, someone else can do almost everything else in your company better than you do.
13. Don’t white-knuckle it.
As a small-business owner, you have to remember to loosen up. I see so many people try to hold onto things so tightly that they white-knuckle it a bit. John was a bit like that early on with drawing Jake. But now we have people who sometimes draw Jake better than he does, and that has opened us up to new options and ideas. That’s all good.
14. Chill-out on the prototypes and focus groups.
I know a lot of entrepreneurs who love to create prototypes and host focus groups. Yes, you can sit around in a room and have a dozen people say this is what I like about this and that is what I hate about that. It has some value.
But an even better approach is to get out there and see what sells. We got lucky because the very first day we sold the Jake Ts, we got feedback on what is good. When people reach into their pockets and get out “dough, ray, me,” that’s enlightening. They told us that beyond everything they could buy on the street, they wanted Jake.
So here’s my advice: Don’t quit your job. Make something and sell it. That’s how you know if you have a viable business.
15. Start from the end.
Don’t think about how you can get to the next step, or where you’d like to be next year. Ask yourself this question: When you are old and gray, what do you want to look back on and say that you have accomplished?
Once you know the answer, go ahead and do it. People don’t do that enough. They are realistic, sure. But I encourage everyone to be idealistic.
As poet Mary Oliver asked, “ “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
That’s the only question you need to answer when you are starting a business, picking a major in college, or plowing through a midlife crisis. We weren’t created for business, it was created for us. So your business should serve your life’s purpose.