The good vibes are flowing at Life is good — and it’s bigger than just holiday spirit. Fostering good vibes is what the Boston-based company was built on. The retailer sells clothing and products touting the “power of optimism” and donates a portion of its profits to help kids in need. But it’s not only a sense of purpose and generosity that sets Life is good apart in the retail world — it’s a business philosophy built around attitude.
Before he speaks to the crowd at Retail’s BIG Show next month, we wanted to share a little of company co-founder and Chief Executive Optimist Bert Jacobs‘s philosophy with our readers. Read on for a glimpse of how he and his brother started their business out of the back of a van, how optimism became a business strategy, and what’s next for Life is good.
How did Life is good get started?
After college, my brother John and I traveled the East Coast selling T-shirts on college campuses and at street fairs. At night we slept in our van. On a really long road trip, we had a conversation about how the media is always focused on what’s wrong with the world, instead of what’s right. We wondered what the impact of all the negative energy was. More importantly, we wondered if we could somehow create a brand that only focused on spreading positive energy. We had no experience building a brand or a business, no business plan, and only $78 between us. But we printed those three words, Life is good… And it worked!
What is optimism to you? Why is it so powerful? And how does Life is good spread it?
For us, optimism’s a strategy. It’s a decision to put our energy into opportunities instead of obstacles. Our motto is, “Do what you like. Like what you do.” It’s a powerful approach because it enables solution-minded thinking. You know, people who believe they’ll solve something are far more likely to do so. It’s also magnetic. It attracts other optimists to team up, share ideas and solve problems together. Life is good spreads the power of optimism by providing product, content and experiences that enable consumers to “do what they like and like what they do.”
How has your business evolved from your original vision?
When we started selling Life is good T-shirts, we knew that optimism is a lot more fun than pessimism. However, over time, our consumers taught us that in addition to being more fun, optimism is incredibly powerful. The most moving letters and emails we received came from people who were facing tremendous adversity in their lives. Some were going through chemo, some had lost a limb in an accident, and some had lost a loved one. In all cases, the ability to be grateful for what they had enabled them to still appreciate life. These people inspired us and eventually led to the Life is good Kids Foundation. Today, Life is good is a 501(c) charity and also a business for profit. We have a deep seated belief that the most positive tool in the world for positive social impact is free enterprise capitalism. When you do business with Life is good, you help kids in need.
How does the philosophy of optimism translate into the day-to-day running of your business?
We don’t believe we were born for business. We believe business was born for us. We try to blur lines between work and play. For example, our company calls our core values Super Powers, and they’re accessible to everyone. Our Super Powers range from Courage to Creativity to Love. We enable our employees to run our business with them. It’s not unusual to see a beach ball bouncing around a meeting, or even to have employees stand up and share something good that happened to them last weekend. It doesn’t mean we aren’t working – in fact, we get our best ideas when we’re having fun. Also, positive deviance is a proven way to change the status quo. Whatever we focus on will grow, so we encourage people to pour resources into what is working, not what isn’t working.
How do you use social media to spread optimism?
Today, anyone who thinks they can build a brand on their own is not paying attention. For the first time in the history of the world the people who buy things have taken control from the people who sell things. Technology connects consumer and empowers them to dismantle brands or build them. At Life is good we listen closely to our customers and try to co-author the evolution of our brand. We also try to be authentic and transparent at each engagement.
What’s it like running a business with your brother?
It has its challenges, but the most important things are that we have a deep trust in each other, and we are both extremely dedicated to Life is good. We are in for life and have no Plan B. Also, when we disagree it’s comforting to know that we can always just have a wrestling match to decide who’s right.
What’s the next step for Life is good?
We are in the process of making the transition from a clothing brand to a lifestyle brand. We are partnering with market leaders such as Hallmark for greeting cards and Smuckers for coffee. In doing so, we become a content engine and we grow our community of optimists and amplify our message through a broad range of industries.
To hear more about the unusual but effective strategy at Life is good, come see Jacobs at Retail’s BIG Show, January 12-15 in New York.