Ask Bert and John Jacobs about their multimillion-dollar company and they’ll say you either get it or you don’t. Not that the brothers are dismissive or callous (actually, quite the opposite)—they’ve just learned that some people embrace the message and some don’t. Fortunately for the Jacobses, a great number of people get Life is good.
What started as a simple slogan and stick-figure mascot that the Jacobs brothers slapped on T-shirts has morphed into a national craze and a brand rabidly backed by loyal customers and fans. You’ll find Jake, the stick figure, and the company’s artwork on shirts, hats, water bottles, car magnets, tire covers, even pants and shoes, but you’ll never see Jake without that slogan: Life is good. For the brothers, those optimistic three words aren’t just a slogan or a business model; they are the lens through which they view the world.
“We get to choose at some level what we do with our lives. If this were just about trying to make a successful business, make a pile of money, buy a boat and go sail away, we could have done that. But that wasn’t appealing to us,” Bert Jacobs says. “From the beginning, we wanted to do something more meaningful with our lives. Art is something we spent a lot of our lives on, and it never seemed like work. Today we get to spend a lot of time on artistic projects—music or painting, drawing or poetry. That stuff’s fun and games to us, and that’s our work. To be able to turn the fun things you do in your life into your work and have a positive impact on the world around you is a dream to us.”
But first, they had to make money. In 1994, after almost six years of living hand to mouth, motoring to colleges across the Northeast to sell their wares, the Jacobses faced a harsh reality: Make their T-shirt business work or get jobs. One day their conversation drifted to the negativity that permeates the world, and they began brainstorming Jake as a way to combat it through optimism. They pinned a sketch John did to their wall. A friend noticed it and commented, “This guy’s got it figured out.” Struck by those words, the Jacobses distilled the idea into “Life is good.” They printed 48 T-shirts with Jake and those three famous words to sell at a street festival in Boston. They sold out in 45 minutes. The speed was impressive, but the Jacobses were more amazed at who bought the shirts—everyone.
“We didn’t hit the preppy crowd or the crunchy crowd,” Bert says. “The first guy was a big, strong Harley guy. The second one was a schoolteacher. She was prim and proper. The Harley guy was all tattooed up with a leather jacket. The third kid was a punky kid with purple hair and a skateboard. And they all bought the same shirt. We thought, This is an inclusive message.”
The Jacobses don’t deny the impetus behind Life is good was to make a living. But more than just turning a profit, they wanted something they could get behind, something they believed in. It just so happened Life is good could do both.
“Life is good is about promoting the disposition to see opportunity,” Bert explains. “That’s something that can change your life.”
In a world that some regard as increasingly cynical and focused on getting ahead at all costs, it’s hard to believe something as simple as optimism or positive thinking can drive a multimillion-dollar business. But Bert insists the core message of appreciating the details of life is what has turned consumers into loyal fans.
“Trends have an ebb and flow, but the idea of seeing the glass half full is timeless. It’s not something we invented. We put our spin on it, but so many people through history have gotten behind that message in one way or another. It was a brand that could have existed 500 years ago and could exist 500 years from now,” Bert says.
The company receives hundreds of messages from thankful fans, sharing tales of how the simple, joyful message helped them through difficult times. One letter from a young couple who lost their child in a car accident left Bert speechless. “I was thinking, why is this guy writing me this personal stuff? I was emotional about it. I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until more came that we started to get it. We started to see that the people who face the most adversity in their lives are the ones who embrace the message the most. We learned a lot from them.”
Life is good has nurtured its positive message and the people who love it. It hosts concerts and events to benefit its growing charity designed to help at-risk children. The company partnered with Project Joy to provide play therapy for children born into poverty, abusive home environments and other bad situations. And just like Life is good, the charity focuses on what’s going right in the children’s lives, not what is wrong.
“Children have always been the greatest inspiration for us,” Bert says. “Being open minded is a key component to optimism. The most open-minded people are children; their lives are wide open.”
The brothers don’t pass judgment on entrepreneurs who follow different paths. They turn a blind eye to the many knock-off companies putting out “Life Sucks” shirts. “Hey, where there’s an optimist, there’s a pessimist,” Bert proclaims. “Maybe there’s a market for that, but I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Bert stresses the importance of believing in what you do, regardless of what it is. “Don’t get involved with something simply because it could work. Get involved in something combined with the love of your life. Then I think you greatly increase your chance of success. You’re pouring the things that are most meaningful to you into your work. Eventually, your customers read that.”
What about Jake, the hero who started it all? Now that he has an army of followers, where will the Jacobses take him? The pair has no interest in selling or even taking the company public. They hope to spread their message across the globe before finding someone “faster, stronger, smarter and who believes in what we’re doing” to take over for them.
“We believe a responsibly run business for profit is one of the most influential tools for positive social change. We are the ones with resources, money and the public’s attention because we have consumer products or services. We have a platform, and if you’re willing to use that for the right things, that’s really powerful.”