Words of Wisdom With John Jacobs Co-Founder of Life is Good
I had the pleasure to interview John Jacobs. John is co-founder and CCO (Chief Creative Optimist) of Life is Good, which spreads the power of optimism through inspiring art, a passionate community, and groundbreaking nonprofit work.
John and his brother Bert launched their business with $78 in their pockets, selling T-shirts in the streets of Boston. Today, Life is Good is a $100 million positive lifestyle brand sold by over 2,000 retailers across the US and Canada. John wrote and illustrated his first (poorly spelled) book at the age of five. He’s been writing and drawing ever since, graduating from the University of Massachusetts with dual degrees in English and Art. John began designing and selling T-shirts with his brother Bert during his senior year. After five years traveling in their van together, the brothers officially launched Life is Good with the mission to spread the power of optimism.Early on, John and Bert were inspired by stories of people, mainly children, facing great adversity. These stories illustrated that optimism is most powerful in the darkest of times and fueled the creation of a fully integrated business model dedicated to helping kids in need. Life is Good donates at least 10% of its annual net profits to the Life is Good Kids Foundation to positively impact over 120,000 kids daily facing poverty, violence, and illness. John provides the creative vision to guide the art and messaging direction of Life is Good to inspire optimism in everyone the brand touches. To inspire others to choose optimism and grow the good in their lives, John and Bert wrote Life is Good: The Book/ How to Live with Purpose and Enjoy the Ride, published by National Geographic in September 2015. He and Life is Good have been featured on CNNMoney, CNBC’s Business Nation, ABC News’ Nightline, NBC’s The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, and Men’s Health Magazine, among others.
When my brother Bert and I started back in 1989, we had no experience, but were game for an adventure. We were both looking for a way to make a living by creating art (and yes, avoid getting a real job). Designing and selling t-shirts seemed like a fun way to take a shot at starting a business. For five years, we traveled up and down the East Coast, selling door to door in college dorms. We lived on PB&J, slept in our van and showered on occasion. We had some great adventures, but in terms of sales, we were wildly unsuccessful.
By 1994, with a combined $78 to our name, we were considering giving up on the ultimate road trip. But one recurring conversation about the daily flood of negative news led us to wonder if we could create a simple way to help people focus on the good. That led to our first “Life is Good” design, which we printed and brought to a local street fair in Cambridge, MA.
We laid out 48 Life is Good tees along with our other designs that day, and within an hour of the fair starting, all 48 had been sold — including the ones off our backs. It confirmed everything we had hoped: That people want to rally around something positive.
We stumbled along in the early days learning how to grow the business, but the message was too strong for even us to screw up. Letters and emails started rolling in from brave customers who were facing all kinds of adversity and somehow finding strength in our products to help them forward. These people helped inspire our mission: To spread the power of optimism. And that simple mission feels more vital today than ever.
I think the best stories are from our most pathetic days. One time, in the midst of a long sales dry spell, we were hawking shirts outside Boston’s famous Faneuil Hall marketplace when we felt raindrops. Suddenly the sky opened up and we found ourselves in the middle of one of those summer downpours that erase all visibility. As we were frantically stuffing our newly-printed t-shirts into a soaked cardboard box, it exploded into a sodden mess all over the sidewalk.
Still, we kept trying to repack the wet shirts into the now non-existent box. We became aware of laughter from well-dressed tourists with umbrellas — and it caught on. We shook our fists at the merciless skies, sat down in a growing puddle, and howled at our own ineptitude. A few people clapped, and then a few more, and finally the whole crowd started cheering and clapping. Drenched to the bone, the soaking wet tees still on the sidewalk, we stood up together and took a bow.
Kids are the ultimate optimists, and I feel like we can all learn a lot from their openness and curiosity. But when a child is impacted by poverty, violence, or illness at an early age, it’s hard for them to retain that optimism.
The Life is Good Kids Foundation, our non-profit that shares our mission as well as our Boston offices, helps kids heal from various forms of trauma so that they have a chance to discover the power of optimism. The foundation provides support and training for childcare professionals who work in the trenches every day, and positively impacts the lives of over 1 million kids each year.
10% of Life is Good’s annual net profits is donated to help kids in need.
Our mom Joan was the true inspiration for Life is Good. She was an incredibly resourceful and resilient optimist. She brought positive energy — through stories, songs, laughter, and sheer force of will — to her family on a daily basis despite facing major challenges. When we were kids, she’d look around the dinner table at her six kids and say, “Tell me something good that happened today.” As simple as that sounds, it changed the energy in our house.
Our mom taught us that optimism is a courageous choice you can make every day, especially in the face of adversity. Life is not perfect. Life is not easy. Life is good.
1. You don’t have to. You get to. In our earliest years, we were generally positive people, but we also had that startup mentality of “us against the world,” and a little bit of, “Nobody understands how hard we’re working or what we’re trying to do.”
Then a legion of Buddhas (customers) wrestling with real struggles taught us the deeper power of true gratitude, and we learned to shift our mindset. When you learn to think in terms of get to, “This work is intense” becomes “I’m pretty damn lucky.” We don’t have to work; we get to work, to build a team and a business and try to do some good in the world. And before any of that, how ‘bout we get to breathe. Ok, I don’t know what got into my oatmeal, but I’m going all hippie on you. I get to stop now.
2. Decide what you’re good at, do what you love, and find people better than you to lead in the other areas. The business was our baby, so we held on tight to all facets for a long time. The higher position, the higher the stakes became for that growing baby.
But once we saw a teammate excel beyond our capabilities, it got easier to trust others in key spots. A recent example: It took a while to find the right fit for our president role a few years back, but we discovered a gem in Lisa Tanzer. With her unique combo of strong business acumen and personal commitment to our mission, Lisa enables us to focus more energy on creative — and the business to rock and roll.
3. Look for the X factor. No matter how good a resume looks on paper, ask yourself: Does this person passionately believe in our mission? Does he/she embody our values?
Our brand stands for optimism and ten core values we call The Life is Good Superpowers (including humor, gratitude, and authenticity). We don’t succeed when we hire on skill set alone; we succeed when we hire a talented teammate who also strives to live these values at work and beyond. Know exactly what you stand for, and hire people eager to stand, deliver, and build it with you.
Jordan Peele. I think he’s brilliant and damn funny, and I respect what I know of his back story. He weathered a lot of taunting in his teen years for his biracial background, and then managed to flip that into a stellar comedic career that nimbly tackles some of the hardest and most sensitive social issues we face. Laughter has no foreign accent, and this dude is applying his talents to bring people together in a way that’s desperately needed today.
Originally published at medium.com