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Needham-born brothers John and Bert Jacobs started the Boston-based "Life is Good" company in the mid-90s, by selling their shirt designs out of a van. Today, it's a $100 million clothing empire.
John and Bert have a new book out, "Life Is Good The Book: How To Live With Purpose And Enjoy The Ride."
On the driving force in their lives
Bert Jacobs: "Joan, our mom, was really the first powerful optimist in our lives and clearly, kind of the inspiration for the brand Life is Good. So although Needham's a really beautiful town, and kind of an upper middle class town, our home wasn't an upper middle class home. There was eight of us sharing a really small place, and money was pretty tight. Dad went through some pretty serious depression following a really bad auto-accident when we were kids. My mom kind of kept it all together and got us to focus on what's happening that's right rather than what's going wrong. And that had a lasting impact."
John Jacobs: "The huge thing that we look back at that had such great impact was every night at the dinner table she'd look around at each of us and say, 'Tell me something good that happened today.' And as simple as that sounds, it changed the energy in the room. Instead of us moaning about a tough assignment or a teacher or something like that, we were riffing on something absurd or funny or positive and that kind of thing creates momentum in a house."
On how the company came to be
BJ: "I was 30 years old before we had any success and JJ was 26 years old. So we had five and a half years of failing before we came up with something that was commercially viable. In those five and a half years we were selling t-shirts in the street and selling door to door in college dorms, and we got into this one conversation while we were traveling in the van about how the media inundates us with negative information. And we talked about trying to come up with some brand or concept that celebrated life and celebrated what was happening that was right in the world. And the idea really just came from that."
JJ: "If you go back to that kitchen and mom, both Bert and I loved to draw growing up and create and write, so we started brainstorming right about when I was finishing school and we drove across country and that's when we first started talking about starting a business together. T-shirts were an accessible way to blend art and business. So we jumped into the street scene that Bert talked about — Faneuil Hall, Harvard Square, college dorms --and it was pathetic at times but we had a good time driving around the east coast and it did take us five years to finally get something."
BJ: "It's one important thing to point out is that people sometimes look these days and say 'Life is good, now that you have a successful business, etc. etc.' But life was good when we were sleeping in the van. We looked at those days while we were sneaking into the cafeteria to eat and sleeping in the van and all that — we were getting to visit all the college campuses that we couldn't get into. And we had a ball on those campuses, we'd throw the football and the Frisbee, hang out by day, learn where we were could, get the lay of the land. And then at night we'd sell. So it wasn't a bad life, even in those days."
On how they've handled moments when life didn't feel so good
JJ: "A day or two after [9/11], we were kind of frozen — is it appropriate to send product that says 'Life is good' out there. Certainly doesn't feel it right now. And a quiet woman in our warehouse raised her hand at a meeting and said 'Why don't we do a fundraiser?' And we did a simple graphic of a stylized American flag and sent it out and told everyone 100 percent of the proceeds would help the families and we got a response like five times what we were hoping for. We were hoping to raise about $30,000 and it was like $207,000 in a very short period. In the darkest times, people are drawn to the light. When the bombings occurred at the marathon — our offices are actually like a block and a half from the finish line — all of us Bostonians saw EMTs running in to help, we saw runners running an extra mile or two to give blood. We saw people opening their homes to strangers and all this love poured in as a result of this."
"I think what we're trying to get people to do is to wake up in the morning and start by focusing on what's right with your life rather than what's wrong with your life, because whatever you focus on will grow."Bert Jacobs
BJ: "And then it went beyond the city and people started sending money and prayers and when the One Fund got going, it was pretty remarkable."
JJ: "And then we heard again from our community, you guys have to do a fundraising shirt, it took us a few days to clear our heads and say, 'Yes, we do have to do a fundraiser shirt.' And Boston Strong was the prominent message, and a great message of resilience, that was all over the city. But it didn't feel like our message. And what we wrote was 'Nothing stronger than love.' And we posted that on our website and it became rapidly the best-selling shirt we've ever sold. That ended up raising over a half million dollars for the One Fund and that was very unifying to our team, just like after 9/11, when you're kind of feeling frozen and how do you help. And then yes, we have a vehicle to help and the community rallies around it."
On the critics who call them out for a soft message
JJ: "We feel like optimism is not this soft, philosophical viewpoint. It's a pragmatic strategy for living a happy life, for fulfilling goals. We were lucky enough to learn it early on and we didn't really put all the pieces together until we were adults. But we've seen it, not just our own story, but these letters we get. It's real. It's not floaty, soft, hippie stuff."
BJ: "Life is not perfect and life is not easy, but life is good. The most inspirational lessons to us have come from people who have faced the worst [ ] possible. And that is inspiring. But I think what we're trying to get people to do is to wake up in the morning and start by focusing on what's right with your life rather than what's wrong with your life, because whatever you focus on will grow."
- "The Jacobs brothers, Needham natives who began selling their now-famous stick-figure T-shirts door-to-door in 1994, are now 47 and 50."
- "I spoke to Bert and John Jacobs, the Co-Founders of Life is Good and authors of the recently released book, Life is Good: The Book. They talked about how they originally came up with the idea for their company, some of their early struggles, with starting the business, their family dynamics, the types of companies they would invest in, creative process and top entrepreneurship tips."
This segment aired on October 2, 2015.
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