While John Jacobs focuses on 10 sworn superpowers when leading his brand, Life is Good®, there are three that really shine. By rooting itself in these values, the brand has grown from a T-shirt booth on the streets of Boston to a $150 million business that donates part of its proceeds to the Life is Good® Kids Foundation.
In a recent Office Hours episode, Jacobs explained how building the business with his brother, Bert, inspired him to remain optimistic as an entrepreneur – and make optimism the motto of the brand itself.
People think about either succeed or fail. To us, it's either succeed or learn. You pivot. But if you never try, you don't learn anything.
—John Jacobs, co-founder, Life is Good
That sunny outlook started way back in Boston at the Jacobs family’s house.
“Our mom just had this way of choosing to tell stories – to sing, to dance – and she was wrestling with some real struggles,” Jacobs said. “But it was only when we got older that we realized, ‘Wow, she changed the energy in the house.’ There was a lot of strain, and our mom was inspiring that way.”
Like any company or family, Life is Good® has had ups and downs too. But optimism has remained constant – and perhaps even gained more importance since the brand started in the '90s. The Life is Good® community’s stories have been an integral part of shaping the brand’s mission and growth, Jacobs said.
“Once we got the business rolling, we started hearing from other people who have gone through great adversity, and yet they choose optimism because it helps them to navigate through,” Jacobs said.
To spread that spirit even further, Jacobs leads the company with three core values: gratitude, courage, and simplicity.
Embrace Gratitude to Boost Motivation
There is always something to be grateful for, even in hard times. By pausing to recognize what’s good, a moment can shift drastically, Jacobs noted.
To embody this mindset, Jacobs typically kicks off staff meetings with reports from each department on what is going well. This approach sets a positive tone before the team addresses issues later. Celebrating wins helps people connect as humans, he said.
“What kind of energy do you bring to the table?” Jacobs asked. “Those things can seem kind of ephemeral or ethereal, but they're very important to both the success of a family [and] a business.”
When building the business was challenging, Jacobs used this approach. He was grateful to use his artistic creativity and be able to travel and connect with people. That helped keep him stay motivated, he said. These days he also uses a gratitude journal, along with making sure his family pauses to reflect on what’s good in their lives. Exercise also helps him feel good and sleep better, he added, along with fresh daylight in the morning.
Jacobs noted that being optimistic is a practice, and no one can maintain it perfectly. Gratitude is a great place to start.
“The world is filled with dark and challenging things,” Jacobs said. “But it's more of a mindset of, ‘I'm going to spend more of my energy on trying to help with the problem, being grateful for the things I do have, and maybe helping others who are less fortunate.’”
Have the Courage to Keep Trying
The ‘test and learn’ method is what the brand is built on, Jacobs said. Without the first five years selling shirts on the streets of Boston and to college dorms, Life is Good® wouldn’t have existed.
That meant mustering a lot of courage to get through days where no shirts were sold, getting kicked off streets and college campuses, and other setbacks. Still, those experiences were learning moments that helped the brand ultimately break through, Jacobs said.
“The most important thing is that we tried to learn from each rejection, and there were thousands of rejections,” Jacobs said. “Trying to use that as a trainer and as a teacher [is] really important for young entrepreneurs because sometimes people get a little lost on the theoretical and want to spend four years on a business plan.”
Still, setbacks can be tough to take. Having a business partner helped immensely, Jacobs noted. The Jacobs brothers, who grew up sleeping in bunk beds, helped improve each other’s moods to keep the energy alive.
“We could get on each other's nerves, but we could also lift each other up with a laugh,” Jacobs said. “If one guy got down, the other guy would try to pick them up. There's a lot of those nights where I can look back and view it comically. I think that's one part of optimism that people forget about: how you frame your memories, the present, and even the future.”
The pandemic posed many initial challenges for the business, but having courage proved incredibly powerful. In fact, it was the company’s New Hampshire-based manufacturing team that pushed to stay open and keep making products, Jacobs said. The proper safety protocols were put in place, and the company added some messaging to focus on hand washing, staying at home, and other important ideas that the team felt were needed during a difficult time.
“Leadership has been so strong. The team, top to bottom, has that mentality of like, ‘Let's take a shot and we're going to learn,’” Jacobs said. “People think about either succeed or fail. To us, it's either succeed or learn. You pivot. But if you never try, you don't learn anything.”
Seize Simplicity as a Superpower
Simplicity helped the brand solidify its identity and messaging to resonate with a wide audience. Before that, the messaging was overly complicated and hard to remember, Jacobs said.
“We simplified to ‘Spreading the power of optimism.’ That sounds and feels a lot more inclusive,” he said. “Both our community and our team can embrace that. We can remember it. It's like, ‘Come along with us. We're trying to do something here.’”
While building the brand in those early days, the Jacobs brothers asked friends for help and feedback. That meant showing them design ideas, one of which became the signature character on the shirts. With just that first character, the brand built itself up as retailers asked if the character could ride a bike, eat ice cream, and more. Simplicity proved its power again.
Eventually, simplicity would also help the brand establish its messaging about donating to good causes. Ten percent of the company’s profits go to the Life is Good® Kids Foundation, a nonprofit that helps train childcare providers, teachers, counselors, oncology departments, and others to maintain playfulness, optimism, and openness. The brand’s product tags simplify that to ‘10% for kids.’ Its website says ‘10% of net profits help kids.’
“If you just make it simple for people [that they’re] helping kids in need, they get it. They want to help us grow the business,” Jacobs said.
From simple T-shirts sold from a van, the brand has expanded to other product lines like beach goods and tableware, plus product partnerships with likeminded companies. Life is Good®’s community impacts everything the brand does, Jacobs noted.
“That community has been the number one inspiration to us,” Jacobs said. “It really reminded everyone that we're not just making widgets, that we're trying to get certain values out to the world, particularly optimism.”
“Know your deeper purpose, and find it early,” Jacobs said. “It will fuel your growth, and it will help you power through the difficult times.”
Like any business, Life is Good® thrives, falls, learns, and gets back up, always pausing for moments of joy along the way. Jacobs noted that the Life is Good® office is often filled with stories, laughter, or even coworkers playing ball.
“We spend a lot of hours at work thinking about work,” he said. “Why not connect as humans? It’s developed a culture that’s filled with trust and people that really care about each other.”
This interview is part of Office Hours, a series that connects you with entrepreneurs and experts and tips for running and growing a business right now. Find other can’t-miss conversations here.