Do what you like. Like what you do.
It’s a philosophy that brothers John and Bert Jacobs have embraced in life to become successful in business. The result of their down-to-earth, glass-half-full attitudes is a happy little brand called Life is good. And the success of the brand over the last 10 years says a lot about what Americans are hungry for: something positive.
Life is good, the ever-evolving lifestyle brand of happy-looking clothing and accessories that began as a two-man mobile T-shirt business, has evolved into a 152-person staff in Hudson, N.H. (pop. 7,814), and a 15-person design center on Boston’s tony Newbury Street—just across from where police used to run the brothers off for peddling shirts without a legal permit.
Siblings Bert, 40, and John, 37, hail from the Boston suburb of Needham, Mass., and are the youngest of six children. Both college-educated brothers dabbled in substitute teaching to help subsidize their fledgling brand in the early days.
"The media are tremendously focused on what’s wrong with our world," Bert says. "Nobody has an opportunity to focus on what’s right. You wouldn’t think our clothing would be so different than what’s out there, but it is. People are drawn to it."
Enjoying life is one thing the brothers have never forsaken as their fledgling T-shirt idea, which they designed in 1989 and originally peddled out of the back of a van, has grown into a $50 million business with international reach. They admit they’ve made mistakes along the way, but they never faltered from their original intent of having a greater positive impact on American culture than any other brand in history.
"It hasn’t been hard to stay focused," Bert says. "How can you preach this message and not live it? We’ve defined branding as knowing who we are and acting like it. We are such regular guys and we don’t know how not to be regular guys."
The iconic face of Life is good is Jake, a happy little stick figure with an infectious smile who loves to hike, play Frisbee, drink coffee and—you got it—enjoy life. He’s a regular guy who doesn’t know how not to be a regular guy.
It’s clear that Bert, who handles business development, and John, who holds up the creative end, aren’t stiff-shirt corporate types. As soon as the profit margin would allow, they established a charitable division to raise money for children’s causes. Instead of stuffy black-tie gala fundraisers, they opted for something more fun.
The company created two annual outdoor festivals that raise money for Project Joy and Camp Sunshine, charities that focus on children. At the June 2005 Backyard Festival in Boston, which consisted of a watermelon seed-spitting contest, Frisbee, crafts and music, more than $107,000 was raised for Project Joy.
Steve Gross, longtime friend of the Jacobs and founder of Project Joy, says the brand captures the spirit of Bert and John. "Those guys have a really powerful energy," Gross says. "They are fun. Both of those guys are so positive, when you hang out with them, you feel like you are a part of something. When you wear the clothes, you feel like you are a part of a movement to get as much out of life as you possibly can."
Bert says that although the business is thriving and expanding, it’s what they can do with that profit that excites him and his brother. That’s why the brothers decided early on never to sell the company, no matter how attractive the offer. He says being able to impact the lives of children is much more fulfilling than a pile of money and a Mercedes-Benz.
"What gets us up in the morning is that someday we are going to have a fundraiser that raises a million dollars in one day!" Bert says. "If we can be a business for profit and turn that profit into helping people, that’s what has us revved up right now."