In the 25 years we’ve been in the t-shirt business, most of our partnerships and growth opportunities haven’t come from talking to people about the t-shirt business. They’ve come from talking to people about the shared values that connect us: optimism, gratitude, simplicity, humor, etc. Our strategy is to partner with other thought leaders in industries we’re not involved in. For example, we have no idea how to make a bicycle, but Schwinn does. And we’ve partnered with them because our companies have aligned on the importance of emotional health for our shared customers. We also believe art is the single most powerful tool for uniting and inspiring people. Think about it: Right now, in the United States, you can barely get two people on opposite sides of the political spectrum to talk to each other. That is, unless they love the same band. So, we connect with thought leaders in the music industry — artists like Dave Mathews, Jack Johnson, Brandi Carlile, The Avett Brothers, and many more. We introduce millions of our customers to their music, and they introduce millions of their fans to our brand. The magic is not in the t-shirt. And it’s not in the guitar, either. The magic is in the ideas and emotions that the guitar or the t-shirt convey.
As part of my series about how to become a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure to interview Bert Jacobs, Chief Executive Optimist of Life is Good. Bert and his brother John launched their business with $78 in their pockets, selling T-shirts in the streets of Boston and at college dorms up and down the East Coast. Bert and John 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 inspired 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 1 million kids every year facing poverty, violence, and illness. Bert focuses his energy on guiding overall vision and creating the art and message for the brand across categories. To inspire others to choose optimism and grow the good in their lives, Bert and John wrote Life is Good: The Book/ How to Live with Purpose and Enjoy the Ride, published by National Geographic in September 2015. Bert has been awarded honorary doctorates from several universities for entrepreneurship, business innovation and philanthropy. 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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Bert! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I’m Bert. I’m the co-founder and CEO (Chief Executive Optimist) of Life is Good, which spreads the power of optimism through inspiring art, a passionate community, and groundbreaking nonprofit work.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
My areas of expertise include rational optimism, the integration of social work with business, and the utilization of art to unite and inspire communities. I definitely wouldn’t claim to be an authority on the topic of thought leadership, but I’m happy to share my ideas!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As soon as we homed in our message, “Life is Good”, our customers started sharing personal stories about their hardships. That has definitely been the most interesting aspect.
We’ve gotten personal stories about individuals struggling with cancer, losing loved ones, or dealing with serious accidents. It was unexpected, but it really shaped — essentially built — our company and its value system. These stories give our brand greater depth and give voice to the challenges we all face. We’ve found that the people who have been challenged the most are often the ones who appreciate life the most.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made was wearing a suit.
My brother and I were young and looked pretty unprofessional when we started out. So, at early trade shows, retailers would often stop by our booth and ask us if they could speak with the owners. It started getting on our nerves, so at one show in Atlanta we decided to both wear business suits and ties. It was so phony — it just wasn’t us.
Towards the end of the show, we opened a great new account with a surf and skate shop on the West Coast. As the buyer was leaving our booth, he turned over his shoulder and asked, “What’s with the suits?” When we explained, he leaned in and gave us a gold nugget of wisdom: “Know who you are and act like it.” This was a mic drop moment if I’d ever seen one. And his candid advice quickly became the definition of branding at Life is Good and remains so today.
And here’s an extra fun fact for you: That was in 1997, and neither of us have worn a suit or tie since.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
A thought leader is someone who’s respected and considered an authority on specific topics in his or her industry, or across multiple industries. They typically earn their stripes by doing, not saying. In other words, in order for thought leaders to have attentive audiences, they have to do something to earn their credibility.
Every business or organization seeks a point of difference, and thought leaders not only create dynamic points of difference but also openly share their wisdom to help other leaders reframe their views and ways of thinking. Leaders are often so deep into their own projects, they can’t get a good look at them. As they say, “We can’t read the label from inside the jar.”
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
In this day and age, anyone who thinks they can build a business on their own is out to lunch. We all need collaborations, and you never know where your next collaboration is coming from. I’ve found that sharing unique and interesting ideas attracts unique and interesting minds. At Life is Good, we say that OPENNESS is a superpower; the more people we can truly be open with, the higher our chances of helping each other. Throughout the years, some of our best solutions have come from our co-workers, friends, customers, employees and their kids, and even perfect strangers.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
In the 25 years we’ve been in the t-shirt business, most of our partnerships and growth opportunities haven’t come from talking to people about the t-shirt business. They’ve come from talking to people about the shared values that connect us: optimism, gratitude, simplicity, humor, etc.
Our strategy is to partner with other thought leaders in industries we’re not involved in. For example, we have no idea how to make a bicycle, but Schwinn does. And we’ve partnered with them because our companies have aligned on the importance of emotional health for our shared customers.
We also believe art is the single most powerful tool for uniting and inspiring people. Think about it: Right now, in the United States, you can barely get two people on opposite sides of the political spectrum to talk to each other. That is, unless they love the same band.
So, we connect with thought leaders in the music industry — artists like Dave Mathews, Jack Johnson, Brandi Carlile, The Avett Brothers, and many more. We introduce millions of our customers to their music, and they introduce millions of their fans to our brand. The magic is not in the t-shirt. And it’s not in the guitar, either. The magic is in the ideas and emotions that the guitar or the t-shirt convey.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
Honestly, I don’t think you should set out to be a thought leader. I think you should set out to do something. Being a thought leader should just be a byproduct.
In my own experience, and in most cases I’ve observed, becoming a thought leader is a product of other achievements. However, whether you set out to be a thought leader or it just happens to you, here are five things that make sense to focus on:
- Take the advice of our friend at the surf shop. Know who you are and act like it. If you’re going to be a thought leader, you should be writing, thinking, speaking, and teaching ideas that truly represent the person you are. If you are, the work won’t seem like work. If not, your position as a thought leader isn’t going to last.
- Identify a community that has common needs. Ideally, it’s one that lacks leadership and one that might not even consider itself a community.
- Identify your value system. For Life is Good, these are the 10 superpowers: Authenticity, creativity, courage, compassion, fun, gratitude, humor, love, simplicity, openness.
- Be very clear about what you stand for. Take a black and white stance on the issues you’re an expert on; allow no gray. Gray positions don’t attract followers.
- Don’t take yourself or your position on any issue too seriously. Everyone needs to smile and laugh and have a good time. If you can sprinkle in some entertainment as a thought leader, your stock as a thought leader will triple.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
I’ve been really impressed with Gary Vaynerchuk.
America is obsessed with starting businesses, yet most people never follow through and do it. Why is that? In part, it’s because it’s hard to get real advice from people who were in their position. In Gary’s case, he was probably even less likely in a position to start a business. He scrapped it out from the ground up and built a wine business along the way. He learned enough about sales, marketing, culture, and human beings to become a thought leader on business development in general. When he speaks, he speaks from the heart, and it’s riveting.
He is fully committed to every word he speaks, and you can sense it. He believes what he has to say. As Bob Dylan once said, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing it.”
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I agree. At this stage in the game, I don’t think the term is something we should avoid like the plague. But at the same time, I think it’s soft. And perhaps too many people are positioned as thought leaders. In my experience, the words consultant, teacher, and coach can be dirty words. In general, well done is better than well said, and if someone’s entire career involves saying it well, I’m on guard.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
We weren’t born for business, business was born for us. We shouldn’t be utilizing our lives to make better business, we should be utilizing business to make better lives. You don’t need to sacrifice your life to make your business run smoothly. Make sure to prioritize your health (physical and mental) and relationships over that business meeting.
I believe the natural path of capitalism is solving social and environmental issues. A great benefit of founding or working for a business that’s making the world better in some ways, is that it makes you feel good. The burnout rate is a heck of a lot lower for people who feel like they’re contributing something positive to the world, so choose the purpose of your business very carefully. Your health depends on it.
Organizational health is the primary driver of long-term sustainable growth. It means you’re working in a place with kind people who are looking out for each other. Why not build an environment like that, especially when it’s good for business?
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
That’s the whole reason we started the Life is Good brand. We’re trying to inspire a movement of rational optimism. We believe the media’s hyper-focus on what’s wrong with the world is damaging to humanity, collectively. Our desire is to get more people to realize that their disposition is powerful, and what we focus on grows. We don’t ignore the obstacles in the world, but the best way to get through those obstacles is to focus on the opportunities.
This year, for example, we launched a campaign to celebrate our 25th anniversary. The #SomethingGood campaign encouraged people to focus on all the good in their lives and also raise funds for the Life is Good Kids Foundation. We asked people to share #SomethingGood on social media, and for each share, $1 was donated to our Life is Good Kids Foundation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ll go with Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “To the illuminated mind, the whole world burns and sparkles with light.”
I never want to think of myself as someone with a dull mind who can’t notice the beauty that surrounds us. I want to always remember — even when I’m struggling — how lucky I am and how beautiful this world is.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have less desire to meet someone famous and would rather spend more time with people I know and love. It seems too many of us are an inch deep and a mile wide these days. I personally prefer to have more meaningful conversations with fewer people.
How can our readers follow you on social media?