From Chapter 10 “Optimism/Enthusiasm” in Ingredients of Outliers.
It’s one thing to use the power of optimism to dramatically improve one’s health, as Norman Cousins did. It’s quite another to use it as the foundation on which to build a $100 million company.
Meet Bert and John Jacobs, CEO and CCO, respectively, of New England-based Life is good, Inc. But don’t let those initials fool you; they’re not what you’d expect. Bert, the older by four years, is the company’s Chief Executive Optimist and John is the Chief Creative Optimist.
The story begins in 1989 when the brothers, then in their 20s, decided to launch a T-shirt business, something they knew absolutely nothing about. Their “office,” which did double duty as their “hotel room,” was an old minivan with the back seats removed. Their meals consisted primarily of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Bert and John would hawk their wares on the streets of Boston and on college campuses in other East Coast locations. It was tiring door-to-door work, with little reward to show for it.
Driving back home from one typically unsuccessful road trip in 1994, they began lamenting the constantly negative reports that filled the airwaves and newspapers. They’d both graduated from college and began thinking it might be time to get “real jobs,” as most of their classmates had done.
But they weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel. “There has to be a way to send a more positive message to folks,” they concluded. Back in their apartment, they gathered some friends to brainstorm ways to focus on the optimistic side of life.
Along Came Jake
One friend pointed to a drawing of a stick figure on their wall. It depicted the head of a beret-wearing, grinning stick figure John had drawn and had named Jake. “This guy’s got it figured out,” the friend said. That comment struck a chord, and the brothers quickly condensed it into three words: “Life is good.”
The brothers took that sketch of Jake with the words “Life is good” below it, printed it on four dozen T-shirts, and headed to a street fair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Forty-five minutes after setting up their display, every shirt had been sold. It was an eye-opening experience, in more ways than one.
In a profile of the company in the June 2012 issue of SUCCESS magazine, Bert described that happened. The first guy was a big strong Harley guy, all tattooed up and wearing a leather jacket. The second customer was a schoolteacher. She was prim and proper. The third person to buy a shirt was a punky kid with purple hair and a skateboard.
That experience sent a clear message to Bert and John that they’d hit on something that would appeal to a broad range of audiences. They quickly began introducing Jake to local retailers and that simple message of optimism spread far beyond what either brother could have ever imagined. Today, their company has grown to more than $100 million in annual sales and Jake’s image appears on a variety of products for adults and children. The products are sold through some 5,000 retail outlets in the United States and in 30 other countries around the world. Says John: “We don’t miss any demographics but we miss one psychographic—people who can’t see the positive side of things.”
Not content to simply build a large and profitable business, the Jacobs brothers have taken their message of optimism to another level. Bert explains: “’Life is good’ has always been about spreading the power of optimism. One way we accomplish this is through our social mission, helping kids overcome life-threatening challenges.”
Several years ago, the brothers launched the “Life is good” Kids Foundation, which supports extraordinary charities that create a lasting positive impact on children facing unfair challenges, including the trauma of violence, poverty, and loss. To date, it has raised millions of dollars to show those kids, in a tangible way, that indeed “life is good.”
You may wonder how Bert and John managed to have such an optimistic view of life after five tough years of struggling, knocking on doors, sleeping in their van, and eating PB&J sandwiches, watching every penny. It would seem enough to discourage even the most cockeyed optimist.
Bert is quick to credit his mother for instilling a positive attitude in her children. “At dinner every night, my mother would start by saying, ‘Tell me something good that happened today.’ It was a great life lesson—and business lesson. By starting with what’s good, whatever you focus on will grow.”