The Responsibility Project web site focuses on stories that explore “what it means to do the right thing”. This article focuses on the journey taken by Life is good including its commitment to help children overcome poverty, violence and illness through the Life is good Kids Foundation.
In the fall of 1994, Bert Jacobs and his brother John were driving a van up and down the East Coast, selling T-shirts, when they started wondering why bad news is so prevalent in the media – is life really so awful? John pulled out some markers and crayons and drew a cartoon face with a huge smile, sunglasses and beret. When they got home to Boston, they tacked the smiling hipster on the wall of their apartment, along with other artwork they’d created, and invited friends to a party. The Jacobs brothers always threw a big bash when they returned from a road trip, and their guests were always encouraged to express themselves by scribbling on the walls.
The next morning, Bert and John noticed more comments scrawled around the cartoon face than any other drawing – by a large margin. So they decided to call smiley face Jake, the nickname they’d both had since childhood, and put him on a T-shirt. They added the words “Life is good” because that seemed to sum up Jake’s outlook as well as their own. They printed the image on forty-eight shirts and brought them to a street fair in nearby Cambridge. Expectations were not high. Bert was 29, John was 26, and they’d spent the last five and a half years hawking shirts much like this one, sleeping in their van, eating peanut-butter sandwiches and showering when opportunity allowed. Though they always felt a strong responsibility to convey positive messages on their shirts, they were also trying to run a business. If Jake didn’t sell, he’d be out.
But Jake did sell. By noon, all forty-eight shirts were gone. What startled the Jacobs brothers most was the wide diversity of people who loved the cartoon – punks and preppies, teenagers and grandparents, older married couples and young hipsters. “We’d never seen anything like it,” Bert says.
Today the Jacobs’ company, Life is good, has annual sales of $80 million, all earned without spending a dime on advertising; Jake’s face has become a ubiquitous presence on clothes, coffee mugs and tote bags sold by more than 4,500 retailers nationwide, including over a hundred Genuine Neighborhood Shoppes dedicated solely to the Life is good brand. As the company grew, its founders realized they were creating more than a successful business; they began to see their company as a powerful instrument to counteract the negativity they had talked about in the van during those itinerant days. As Bert puts it, “Our mission is to spread the power of optimism.”
Their first inkling of just how potent the brand was came in 1999, when an 11-year-old girl named Lindsey Beggan, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer, showed up in the local news media wearing a “Life is good” hat. “She said she understood that she might die within a year, but she wore the hat because she never wanted to take another day for granted,” Bert recalls. “She was really the first one to zero in on the depth of the message. After that, we heard hundreds of other stories like that.” Even more inspiring was that Beggan survived, graduated from college and today remains cancer-free.
The next turning point came after 9/11, when employees began to question the company’s entire outlook; maybe life in America wasn’t so good, at least not right then. But a woman in the firm’s shipping department suggested holding fundraisers for families who had lost loved ones in the attack. So they created an American flag T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Life is good” and raised $207,000 in just two months, a significant sum for a company with only $3 million in sales at the time.
Thus began the company’s commitment to charitable causes, which has generated $6.5 million over the last decade. In 2006, the company established its own foundation to help kids overcome life-threatening challenges such as violence, illness and extreme poverty. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010, the firm made a long-term commitment to raise money for victims using images like Jake holding a Haitian flag, and later created a play-based program for the country’s affected children. “Optimism has no borders,” Bert says.
The company’s fundraising events reflect its quirky culture. The Life is good Pumpkin Festival was held on Boston Common in 2006 broke the Guinness World Record for the most carved, lit pumpkins in one place at one time. In September, the company hosted an art, music and games festival on a farm in Canton, Massachusetts, geared toward families and offering an “Instrument Petting Zoo” (which lets kids play with musical instruments) and a display of extreme bicycle stunts. All proceeds will go to the Life is good Kids Foundation.
“The social mission to help kids overcome life-challenging situations is a subcategory of the company’s mission to spread optimism,” says Bert, whose official title is Chief Executive Optimist. “With play therapy for kids facing violence, you’re teaching them the importance of engaging in the world and seeing the glass half-full. I think of it as one organization with both for-profit and non-profit arms.”
The Jacobs brothers have big plans to expand far beyond clothing. They recently signed a deal to market traditional backyard games such as bocce, badminton and croquet (a portion of sales will go to its foundation) and are now eyeing markets for stationery, pet supplies, food and drink, footwear, and entertainment. Both brothers are in demand as motivational speakers and donate their fees.
“We’d like to become a hub of optimism, a place where people can go, in both digital and physical space, to share stories about the power of optimism – how important that change of disposition is,” says Bert. “That’s what this is really about. We’d like to draw all kinds of entertainers and artists and athletes and thinkers, any exceptional people with a voice. Because business by itself is not a turn-on for us. Building community and improving education is.”
The Jacobs brothers grew up as the two youngest of six children in Needham, Massachusetts; they credit their mother with instilling in them sense of responsibility to make a positive social contribution. “Everybody wants to be proud of their life,” Bert says. “At some point, we’ll get old and gray and we’ll want to believe we made a difference, that we did everything we could. Fortunately for us, it’s woven into our career.”
The arc of that remarkable career, going back to the day 17 years ago when they were riding around in a van, looking for inspiration, is proof enough of the power of positive thinking, says Bert. “Optimism can take you anywhere.”