• September 2011

Life is good!

Is your glass half full? “If not, then shift your thinking,” insist Bert and John Jacobs, the founders of the Life is good Company, who have turned the message of optimism into a $100 million firm.

From shirts and caps to spare tire covers, this message is more than great marketing. “We truly believe that people want to be positive and optimistic, and the power is the message,” insist our September Entrepreneurs of the Month, who graciously invited one of their biggest fans (my son, Dylan) and me to interview them this summer at their headquarters on Newbury Street in Boston. Scroll down to read that Q&A. And click here to learn more about his Sept. 18 backyard fundraiser.

In this issue: All of our columnists were inspired by the power of positivity. Click around the 20 columns for ideas on how to be optimistic in terms of conflict resolution, management, HR, sports, and more.

This month you’ll also meet:

  • We also welcome PNC Bank’s Tricia Mininger, our new Banking columnist, whose timing is perfect, for she teaches us how to manage the peaks and valleys of cash-flow.

We are also thrilled to announce that Inkandescent Networking is live!
Click here to sign up for a free profile on this new Strategic Social Media website that will help you build your business in seven East Coast cities.

If you want to suit up and show up, you’ll find a list of the best networking events in town. You can also network online by perusing our extensive list of contacts in the Network Directory. There are incredible advertising opportunities that will help you feed your business for $5 / day (less than a sammy at Starbucks). For details, contact Jody Maki at Jody@inkandescentpr.com.

Here’s to your incredible success! — Hope Katz Gibbs, founder, Be Inkandescent Magazine / Inkandescent Networking / Inkandescent Public Relations

Spreading Good Vibes: Bert Jacobs on the Power of Optimism

Bert and John Jacobs, Co-Founders
Life is good

Introduction by Dylan Gibbs, 12
(With a little help from my mom, Hope Gibbs)

Photo (right) of Dylan with Bert, July 2011

For my 8th birthday, my grandparents bought me my first Life is good T-shirt. It was really soft, the color of the night sky, and featured a superhero named Jake—playing basketball, my favorite sport. I wanted to wear it to school every day that week. After day three, my dad just laughed as he put me into the car and took me to the nearest Life is good shop in Old Town, Alexandria, VA, to buy more.

I’m 12 now, and haven’t worn anything but a Life is good shirt ever since (I even wear them under my Boy Scout uniform). I recently checked, and I have 24 of these Ts in my dresser—including a few that I outgrew, plus two that I turned into pillows for my bed.

Celebrating Life

My heroes are Bert and John Jacobs, owners of the $100-million Boston-based firm they founded in 1995. What I like about them the most is that they make shirts that are really comfortable, and their optimistic message spreads good vibes. Plus, I love the fact that they created such a big company out of a simple idea, and that they work hard doing what they love. That’s what I want to do when I grow up.

So when I learned that on September 24-25 there would be a Life is Good Music Festival in Boston to benefit The Life is Good Kids Foundation, I wanted to support it. I created a fundraiser page, made fliers, sent emails to my friends and family, and as of September 1, I have raised more than $1,000. By the time of the fundraiser, I am determined to raise even more by throwing a big backyard fundraiser.

Because my mom publishes this magazine, she thought it would be fun to go to Boston and talk to the founders. They agreed! So on July 28, we boarded a JetBlue flight for “Beantown.” At 4 p.m., after a tour of the Newbury Street headquarters, we sat down in the office of Bert Jacobs for an interview. Below you’ll find their Q&A.

So take it from a 7th grader: No matter what happens, Life is good!

Be Inkandescent: Tell about the origins of The Life is good Company.

Bert Jacobs: I think that John and I had less of a desire to sell T-shirts and more of a desire to sell artwork that communicated what we saw as the good stuff of life.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us more about your background.

Bert Jacobs: We come from a big family in Boston, and both of us really wanted to see other parts of the country. So after I graduated from Villanova University in Philadelphia in 1987, I worked for a year in a warehouse so I could afford to buy a jeep and move to Colorado. Once there, I got a job as a ski instructor—and was probably the worst ski instructor they ever had on the slopes. But I was good with people and could make them laugh. To supplement my income, I delivered pizza. I loved those jobs, and could have done that for the rest of my life.

Be Inkandescent: How did John pull you away from that dream life?

Bert Jacobs: At the time, he was doing a semester at Chico State in Northern California, so I drove from Colorado to California to pick him up and do a cross-country road trip. He was an art major, and we decided that when we got back to Boston we’d start creating designs for T-shirts and try to sell them. We thought it would be fun. Quite honestly, we were trying to avoid getting a corporate job, but still support ourselves.

Be Inkandescent: How did the famous iconic Jake come to life?

Bert Jacobs: It took us a while to come up with designs for The Life is good Company. We started off in 1989 creating T-shirts with some other original designs that we sold to students in college dorms, and also to people on the streets of Boston. It went well enough for us to buy a van, and we’d take five- and six-week road trips up and down the East Coast. But we were living on peanut butter and jelly and not really making a lot of money.

It was getting to the point where we needed to figure out what we were going to do next. That was when John and I had a long conversation about the importance of optimism. We wanted to create a symbol that represented what was right with the world. So we came up with Jake—a superhero whose power is his disposition—someone who viewed the world as a big playground, and always saw the glass half full. Our idea was that because of that optimistic disposition, he’s a great lacrosse player. Because of his disposition, he learns how to play guitar. Because of his disposition, he finds a way to travel the world. He meets people, and he opens himself to what is possible.

Be Inkandescent: Who drew Jake?

Bert Jacobs: John did, and we had a few versions. But we knew which one to go with the morning after we threw this big “kegger” at our dive of an apartment in Boston. It was a big tradition to throw a party after we got back from a road trip. We’d tack our new designs to the wall, and everyone at the party would write their comments and thoughts around them. By far, the image with Jake was the most popular. We knew then that we were on to something.

Be Inkandescent: How did you pair smiling Jake with the three words, “Life is good?”

Bert Jacobs: One of the messages that our friends wrote next to that original image of Jake said, “This guy’s got life figured out.” That evolved into, “Life is good.”

Be Inkandescent: Do you know who that was?

Bert Jacobs: We don’t, but we think it was a woman because the handwriting was up and down and kind of curvy like a woman writes. Unfortunately, we didn’t pay a ton of attention at the time to who might have said it because it was just the start of the idea, and it took us about four more years to really get things up and running. But we get asked that question so many times now that Kerry, who is now a partner in our the business and lived upstairs at the time, has worked hard to help us piece it together. We still don’t know for sure, but it was a lesson to us that the best ideas don’t come from us. They come from our friends and the people we meet.

Be Inkandescent: Kids, especially, gravitate to the designs.

Bert Jacobs: They do, and one of the things we like to point out is that children are born optimists. It’s so natural to them. We hope the shirts help adults maintain a similar sense of optimism. That’s why we created the Fuel page on our website—to spread the word that people of all ages seem inspired by the work we are doing.

Be Inkandescent: I love the Fuel page with all the comments from your customers. I am especially impressed with the man named Joseph who tattooed The Life is good Company’s image onto his arm and wrote to you to say, “My life is so good I put it on my body.” He’s not alone, but still, why do you think that there is a good portion of the adult population that doesn’t embrace optimism?

Bert Jacobs: I think it has to do with the messages we get from the media. Too often, the stories center on what’s wrong with the world. It’s not that people in the media are bad guys. But this was the focus of the conversations John and I had when we traveled in the van all those years ago. We asked each other, why is it that there’s always a “6 o’clock news violent-murder report.” What would the world be like if there was a “this is what happened that was great today” report. Instead of sinking into our seats and feeling like we’re just part of this bad team, we might feel encouraged and powerful. Accomplishing that goal is our life’s work.

There’s more! Click here for Bert’s Tips for Entrepreneurs.

Bert Jacobs' 15 Life is good Tips for Business Success

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent

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.

The gem cannot be polished without friction; nor man perfected without trials.”

– Chinese proverb

Women once had the goal of being Superwoman; I think most of us now simply strive to have a super day.”

– Author, Activist Lee Woodruff

Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.”

– Leon Joseph Suenens

They who give have all things. They who withhold have nothing.”

– Hindu Proverb

Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

– Brian Tracy

Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.”

– Benjamin Disraeli

‎That which grows fast withers as rapidly; that which grows slowly endures.”

– J.G. Holland, novelist

Don’t follow, lead. Don’t copy, create. Don’t start, finish. Don’t sit still, move. Don’t fit in, stand out. Don’t sit quietly, speak up. (Not all the time, sure, but more often.)”

– Seth Godin

Success is about finding a livelihood that brings joy, self-sufficiency, and a sense of contributing.”

– Anita Roddick

When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

– Audre Lorde

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

– John Quincy Adams

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

– Albert Einstein

We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”

– General Omar Bradley

The journey is the reward.”

– Greg Norman

The man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.”

– Andrew Carnegie

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Whosoever knows how to fight well is not angry. Whosoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

When you are asked if you can do a job, tell ‘em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

When I was younger I thought success was being a star, driving nice cars, having groupies. But today I think the most important thing is to live your life with integrity.

– Ellen DeGeneres

The biggest flaw in our existing theory of capitalism lies in its misrepresentation of human nature.”

– Muhammad Yunus

Don’t follow your dreams. Chase them.”

– Richard Dumb

Everyone is a mirror image of yourself—your own thinking coming back at you.”

– Byron Katie

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

– Winston Churchill

The goal of Life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with nature.”

– Joseph Cambell

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Supreme Court justice

How do you stay resilient? It’s about momentum. Like riding a bicycle. If you stop you fall over. So I keep pedaling.”

– Diane Lane

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

– William Butler Yeats

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

– Basil King

The person who makes a success of living is the one who see his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication.”

– Cecil B. DeMille

I’ve come to confirm that one’s title, even that of president, says little about how well one’s life has been led. No matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, to learn, and to achieve.”

– Barack Obama

I was taught at a very young age that you can do whatever you want to, but you have to make it happen — not just talk about it.”

– Kathleen Jo Ryan

4oz tequila + 1oz TripleSec + 2oz lime juice + 1oz simple syrup (sugar=water), 1 cup crushed ice. Shake + dance around the kitchen.

– Avenida Margarita

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try going to sleep with a mosquito in your room.”

– A wisdomism

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity.”

– Ray Bradbury

Never never never never give up.”

– Winston Churchill

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

– Mark Twain

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it”

– Andrew Carnegie

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

– Marcel Proust

A person who learns to juggle six balls will be more skilled than the person who never tries to juggle more than three.”

– Marilyn vos Savant

Ambition is the germ from which all growth of nobleness proceeds.”

– Thomas Dunn

Almost anyone can start a community, but it takes real talent and commitment to get people to show up and keep coming back.”

– Andy Sernovitz

A people who mean to be their Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

– James Madison

Confidence is the most important thing you can teach someone… if you can teach them confidence, you don’t have to teach them anything else.”

– Vin Diesel

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

– Seneca

History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”

– John F. Kennedy

‎No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.”

– Charles Dickens

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

– Carl Rogers

That which grows fast withers as rapidly; that which grows slowly endures.”

– J.G. Holland, novelist

The awakening to the mystery of life is a revolutionary event; in it an old world is destroyed so that a new and better one may take its place.”

– J.J. Van Der Leeuw, The Conquest of Illusion

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

Be Inkandescent Magazine's Back Issues

Don’t miss the great advice our entrepreneurs have offered in the past. Click below to view our back issues.