Bert and John Jacobs Discuss the Evolution of 'Life Is Good'

How I Built This


Welcome back revenue which is which is great rate. You know you could start to see maybe a path towards towards real profitability. <hes> and i guess the the next year you really i mean you. You're still running his business by the way out of your apartment in boston that you guys share right <hes> the starts to turn a corner though because as we see that reaction in the street and boom we start thinking about distribution and hiring a sales rep and that that summer of ninety five the momentum starts rolling and debt was when you made your first higher as well i guess right that's right yeah. The <hes> cary sherman moved in upstairs cheers from us and became a friend and we just used to beg her when she got home from work to help us <hes> pack orders and help us try to organize the orders ars and <hes> she was a big help so we begged her to quit her job eventually and she did it. She could do things five times faster than us for one thing and then it became clear we needed the help pretty badly and she needed to take a leap yeah. We we had a friend over for dinner one night because he was pretty sharp and we asked him to tell us how much business we would have to do to be able to afford to pay carry <hes> seventeen thousand dollars which is what she said was the minimum the question to her was what is the lowest amount that you could possibly get paid to work with us and seventeen thousand dollars so he did the math for us and he said that we would have to do a quarter of a million dollars in business which sounded like a billion dollars yeah and we we did two hundred sixty two. I think it was two hundred sixty two thousand a a year yeah and that two hundred sixty two thousand was like that's to pay for all your supplies and everything and everything was not profit that is that is oh no in those in those roche revenue days we we would get prepared for died t shirts p._f. Dis they caught and we'd store them. We didn't have enough room for them in our apartment which store them in a bulkhead in the building and we had to put them in trash bags <hes> that were tightly wound up because it was moist down there and so a in any given day we would get a certain amount of orders we would be designing during the daytime in the afternoon and we would take those shirts down to new bedford. Get them died in the shirt collars. We wanted the next afternoon. We'd take those shirts out to a marlboro mass and to screen printers midland graphics screen printed t shirts and then <hes> by four o'clock drop them off at u._p._s. Whatever the orders were which was you know two or three retailers a couple of order and then we then we set up a trailer like the back of a eighteen wheeler container owner containers like permanently stationed next to our screen printer with their permission they had a dirt parking lot and for zero rent they because we were afraid to to get the overhead of a warehouse and so they let us was thirty dollars a month to rent the <hes> lease the container and end for zero dollars. They let us <hes> park it on their lot he because you didn't take the risk on on like a long term lease so you'll just let us a shipping containers are warehouse makes sense your we want. We wanted to make sure the revenue ran way out ahead of this needed a couple extension cords lighting and not a lot of ventilation in those containers but <hes> we cranked some of ninety five ninety six and it was kind of non stop twenty four seven how did you how did you get the trademark on it. I mean it seems like a very very common phrase. Life is good but you got a new trademark. How did that happen well. We failed five times. We were going to the boston public library at all you couldn't important attorney and we sent five applications and failed and then i went one night to play basketball and some guy asked me. Did i see you and your brother selling t shirts in front of the boston garden the other night and i said yeah and he said how's that going not so good but we have this great idea the eh i went on and on about what the concept was and that we're trying to trade market and then i realized that i'd been rude and not ask the guy what he did. I said what do you do for a living and he said <hes> trademark attorney and guy's name was bob pierce and i went and saw him two days later and convince them to do the work pro pro bono and he knew just what to do so we had to make a lot of changes we had to create hang tags and labels we the label in our shirt said jacobs gallery gallery so we switched the label to life is good and then we had to get affidavits from five different retailers who said that it represented a brand and by definition legally trademark denotes the source of the goods so there's when you just put a mark on a t shirt that's called ornamental but if people look at it and say that represents the source of the goods in some way then it's a brand so he did all those things correctly and i gotta tell you it's twenty five years later and and bob pierce still gets all our intellectual property business. That's amazing so you got the trademark on this phrase. Life is good as a brand and that's your you sort of you own this phrase phrase and you can use it as your business even the fact that you said it a few times during this podcast you owe us money got yeah. It was a it was a big day when we got it. We we still didn't really know how to run a business or what to do but it was. We knew it was a a valuable thing yeah. How did you guys divide up labor between the two of you like who did what who did finances who who did the art who to the delivery. How how did you guys who was in charge. Who was the boss older brother. The boss anything that involved brainpower pretty much fell on my side no seriously bur burden off he had more of a background coming out of school <hes> on the business side and he's a great communicator great motivator so he worked worked the phones a lot. I spend more time on the drawing table or like at the screen print shop or maybe packing up stuff but there's plenty of crossover birt's. It's very creative as well so it mixed pretty seamlessly over the years. I guess there was a turning point pretty significant turning point in nineteen ninety-six. You guys get a call from a pretty big sporting goods chain based out of indianapolis named named kelly ins or gaylon galleons something something like that yet galleons yeah. What was that yeah they were. They were actually in our opinion. The best sporting goods in the country <hes> their stores were incredible and yeah they they were open to a sales call and interested in the brand so they invited us to go visit them in indianapolis and we actually actually couldn't afford to fly out so instead we've just transparent with them and asked if we could piggy back when they came here would they come and visit us i would they didn't realize was that there was no life as good in that when they came to visit austin becoming to our apartment so they <hes> anyway a we made them prince spaghetti and rago sauce and we hung out and they they were on board and <hes> they placed the biggest orders is by far that we'd ever seen and they kind of put us on the map outside of new england. I think dick's sporting goods eventually bought galleons right. That's right and i i i don't know if it was apparent to them that the entire company in burt myself in kerry or sitting with them in our kitchen at dinner but but we did have a lot of laughs and then we got an in order and that was a huge step for us to suddenly be shipping two hundred and eighty eight pieces instead of twenty four pieces to a retailer so so once you get into galleons aliens was at just like a game changer i mean. Did you see your business just like skyrocket. It was a game changer because once he would happen was <hes> most of our business stan and now is a specialty mom and pop business so the mama pops will take a look at the big guys. Try to find brands. Sometimes that different <hes> retailers carrying galleons was kind of a model citizen that a lot of small retailers looked up to and so once we were in galleons we're in all these geographic <unk> graphic locations and there was great visibility for us so all of a sudden our phones were ringing like crazy from other retailers from other territories and so- galleys was probably responsible responsible for hundreds of new accounts over the next year or two and business really started booming. You know went from that. Two hundred fifty thousand six hundred twenty then we broke a million at one moment to the was just mind blowing t- thinking how do we go from having like seventy eight dollars between us three years ago. Two million dollars in sales was pretty mind blowing and we didn't have a concept of you know like what it meant to do a million dollars. I think we thought maybe we should retire knows wow we hit a million dollars. I mean i think we definitely stopped and sort of you know how to how to beer and kind kind of said wow man what what has happened but on the other hand was still in our apartment and you don't really look around and see any differences just a mad scramble we'll still but but i think yeah i think galleons an crossing not million dollar mark connor gave us the confidence to invest in a lease get the warehouse and and we hired a few people we i mean we we didn't even have a computer would do untold kerry who still works with us to this day by the way she actually owns five percent the business. He's a partner yeah but she you know she said to us. You really need to get a computer and both on our like oh. We're artists we. We don't want a computer and they so she needed to run the business. Why do we need a computer but she was right well. There's a lot of absurd of exchanges. We had this guy who had run champion the brand chair and wilson sporting goods and he was helping us out through his a sales up. You know we connected personally. Jay phillips god bless him. He was flying up phillies like an angel. We didn't yeah to get angel slash devil the best kind and he <hes> he would give us advice and direction and then he would ask us very basic questions like you know what he got on the books for next year. We're like what what what do you mean like. How do you plan how much product to make me. We like <hes> we just. We've been doubling for like the last few years. We figure you're on a double again. He's like that's a very scary way to run a business and he asked us what our assets sets where he's trying to get us off our personal off our loans because our our personal names were on the loan notes and <hes> he said we gotta. We've got change this. You know what do you got for assets. Burton are like we can get a mountain bike and we're dead serious. We didn't even know how to answer questions like think. I got that picture mom. We got a v._c._r. And he was just like dumbfounded. Looking at us like these guys are so so clueless spine shirts like i because i mean when i think of life is good. I think like <hes> going to ocracoke island. You know someplace. I like cape. Cod like you know you would life is good and it's the summer and it's easy to feel that way. Is that where the shirts were being solden like beach towns and places like that in the summertime. <hes> one of the strengths right away was that it wasn't one distribution channel. Oh so you're talking about destination resort which became important to us right away but sporting was really big. Two gift shops for people like you know around themes like home. Themes like you know love family gardening grilling all that kind of stuff so it really was <hes> oh the distribution was really spread out which which you know we didn't really i can't take credit for strategically planning that but a helped us a lot through the two years the economy has gone up and down and when you're in a single distribution channel it's hard to weather economic downturns but for us you know some would get hurt worse than others and we were always able to weather it because we were <hes> not too many eggs in one basket yeah there. It was so many different places for us to go in when the economy went down it would not all the channels will get impacted the same way i mean did you. I mean when you think think about <hes> a very simple phrase some very basic and not i mean your guess agreed artists no no no oh judgment but like very simple our work and it became this thing t shirts and and dinner plates and posters and things like what what are the things that i'm probably forgetting about recipes backs towels. I mean really doesn't you know it really just became you know what he's a good canvas to connect emotionally with people and in more recent years more things like video content and publishing books excetera which is extremely exciting to us but we're still most known for the t shirts. Did you guys. I mean you've been doing this now. Since really i guests since the late eighties rape on t shirts. Have you ever <hes> any part of of of of you guys want to sell it. You know sell it to a bigger her company and just kind of cash in 'cause you 'cause you've both of you become pretty well off from this tiny little t shirt business and <hes> <hes> you can. I don't know can do whatever you want. I think the reason that we're not interested in selling going. Public is what we learned. Learn from these customers that started sending us letters emails sharing their personal stories and they really taught us that optimism is most powerful aw in the hardest times and these are people dealing with chemotherapy losing loved ones and they'd say we all wore life as good t-shirts to the memorial service for my brother because that's the spirit with which he lived and we've got thousands of those letters and emails and people kind of <unk> opening up their whole personal lives to us because the emotional connection to the brand. They're the ones who taught us this and if we'd hadn't received those letters that may they have been appealing to us like yeah. We've been at this for a few decades but we want to spread that message as wide as we can because we believe in it more than anything anything else in the world am burt but what what are your thoughts on. I mean did did you ever consider find to sell the business well in a lot of ways. We really feel like we're just getting warmed up. It honestly feels like a startup today. We're we're like a twenty five year old startup where there's all these young people oh walking around that remind us of ourselves but are much faster and stronger and smarter and i'm not <hes> operating the business. I was as president and c._e._o. For a long time and we replaced me with a woman that actually came from our nonprofit side and she's killing it and you can tell pretty quickly oakley that she's about ten times the operator that i was and it's allowing me to dive back into the creative and i haven't been there in a while l. so we're really kinda back to where we started in the beginning. Hey let's design some t shirts but now we have a really strong balance sheet. We own one hundred percent of the business us and you know we have no intention of going public or selling the business we just wanna see you know how far we can take this in at some point figure out what to to do with the structure something creative maybe denisov to our staff. Maybe we can sell it to our customers. Something that enables the <hes> that will enable the best work of life is good to be done after john de gone so i mean. Do you guys feel like you grew up up with very working class home. I mean in the room upstairs with frost on windows and like you presumably today a a up. Both of you are doing pretty well. I mean you can you can live pretty comfortably. No no question about it yeah just to have our own home seriously not not to be too corny but that that's pretty cool and to be able to travel. It's incredible and <hes>. I don't think we would ever take that for granted to your what what is your i mean. What did your parents make. If your business your mom passed away <hes> a couple years go and then i can see your later. Your dad dad passed <hes>. What do they make of this. I mean this t shirt business at turned into something huge yeah they they loved it. I think they were proud of it and <hes> they really did do their part while we had our dysfunction growing growing up and there were times. Were you know right right up until the time that our mom passed away if she saw somebody in life is good t-shirt she'd run up to them and say my son's made it was embarrassing when your weather but <hes> our our dad got a kick out of the nuts and bolts of the business he always wanted to know the details els and he was so encouraging when bert ni- for that year and a half when we did live at home and we're still doing the van trips he always was. Just you know we'd roll in at three a._m. Some night how'd you do did you do. It was never what the hell are. You guys doing like your you know your college graduates like you get get your act together. There's no pressure on career. It was always how'd you do and that helped a lot and maybe maybe the interesting thing going full circle. Oh with our dad is that in the autumn of his life he he came out of that funk he really came out of the depression and he really became the a guy that we never knew that we see in those pictures you know before we were around and it's hard to say what that what caused that but as our business grew grew that house that we grew up in really fell to pieces and our and our parents while we were living just like you mentioned guy better and better along the way and we'd go oh visit our parents living in that same house falling apart so we decided to knock the house down and build them a nice new home and <hes> you know i think it was the first time in my father's life since he you know since he had all those kids that when people came to visit they had a place to sit down and at the he could be proud of his home and i think also where he felt like he was a failure he looked at his six kids now and you know we we landed on our feet all of us and he didn't screw everything up so i think he was a little easier on himself and in some ways this success of the business <hes> might help my dad you don't get over that hump and realized that if we're not failures he wasn't a failure and it was really cool to see him relaxed and and enjoying his grandkids and it was like it was like he in our mom were dating again. I mean they just like hang out and spend time and you know the who won away on some weekends and things they hadn't done that and you know thirty years i mean it just they were married for fifty six years and then the the last one believe it or not while it was tough with moms illness in everything they they had some great years now. Our mom said that too just before you know once she knew the cancer was was taking her life and there was nowhere to go. She said nobody should feel sorry for me. On the happiest i've ever been in my life you know part of that was i'm sure because because my dad had come out of the funk and also that she knew that that she did a good job with with our kids and they were all okay wow you know when you think about this crazy story going from t shirts up and down the eastern seaboard to sell them out of the back of van and knock on the dorm rooms to seventy dollars between you two you know a shipping container as your office and and the company today what it does reportedly almost one hundred million dollars in revenue years at about right that's right. You got about what almost two hundred employees today right pretty good. I mean do you for for seabird to you. When you think about the success of this company the attributed to your hard work and you brothers hard work or in your intelligence or do you think that a lot of it came from just luck law to walk. I think we we stumbled into something. That's much bigger than we are <hes>. I think we've been resilient. You know maybe more resilient than smart but it's a good good fifty percent ain't luck we right place right time <hes> two percent skill and then we've we've worked our asses off so that that's that's played a big factor factor too so you know maybe there's all those parts are equal and john how much of it because of like how much because of your hard work and your skill intelligence. I would say skill intelligence. Maybe twenty percent <hes> hard work another twenty eh and then brute strength. Maybe from me twenty so neither only in really the you got your answer there in that neither of us know hotter add up to one hundred percent and yeah just you know so until definitely not skill a lotta luck clearly no question that's john birt jacobs. Co founders of the life is good company for the way we know for a fact that at least one other t-shirts has traveled traveled all the way to space and twenty thirteen astronaut karen nyberg posted a video on the international space station and she was showing how she washed her hair in zero gravity and the shirt that she's wearing in that video. It's from life is good. It's a grinning girl who looks like the original jake sitting back to back with her dog and underneath. It says lean on me.

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