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Life is good, based in Boston, MA, spreads a fresh outlook on life with its colorful collection of apparel, its quality accessories, and its optimistic cultural hero with the huge smile, Jake.
Life is good, Inc. (LIG) designs and markets T-shirts, other apparel, and accessories. After coming up with Jake, the grinning stick figure mascot, and the "Life is good" slogan in 1994, the company quickly became one of the fastest-growing in the apparel business, a veritable textbook case in viral marketing. It quickly diversified beyond T-shirts into a wide variety of casual clothing and accessories.
Life is good has been described as a lifestyle brand à la Ralph Lauren or Nike, except that instead of social status or athleticism, its adherents aspire to appreciate life's simple pleasures. The corporate culture is reportedly hardworking but casual. The dress code permits not just T-shirts but flip-flops and shorts. Ideas are brainstormed over beer and sandwiches, not power lunches.
Whatever the company's methods, its results have attracted the attention of the press, and several suitors interested in buying out the company. Company president Bert Jacobs has said that he and his brother have no interest in selling. They see LIG as a force for good in the American culture, and spend their advertising dollars on festivals to raise money for charity rather than on slick media campaigns.
The Life is good, Inc. story is a feel-good tale of two brothers, John and Bert Jacobs. They grew up the youngest of six siblings in a suburb of Boston. John studied art and English at the University of Massachusetts; Bert majored in communications at Villanova University. They both graduated but then took a step off the conventional career path.
They decided to sell T-shirts and began selling products of their own design in 1989. They traveled the Northeast, hawking their wares at college dorms. A Plymouth Voyager was their mobile boutique.
They lived a low-margin existence, but were able to land odd jobs such as delivering pizza or substitute teaching during some of the dry spells. The brothers reportedly launched the next phase of their adventure with $78--their accrued earnings of five years.
Creating "Jake" in 1994
Their ticket to material abundance lay in a drawing they had pinned to the wall of their Boston apartment. It was a stick figure John Jacobs had penned that they called Jake--a nickname the Jacobs brothers shared as teenagers. Simple enough for a child to draw, the image would be replicated millions of times on LIG's distinctive, garment-dyed T-shirts.
Jake's infectious grin (the smile taking up half his pie-shaped face) was an instant hit; he made his debut at a 1994 fall craft fair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Jacobs brothers sold out of their first batch of four dozen Jake shirts before lunch. Soon about 14 local merchants were stocking the shirts. First year revenues were $80,000, according to the Associated Press.
The Boston Herald later revealed that the shirts originally had Jake wearing a beret above the word "draw." The brothers soon realized, however, that artists were not the most lucrative market. Instead, a more universal slogan, "Life is good," completed the T-shirt design. "Those three words mean a lot," Bert Jacobs later said in Worthwhile magazine. "Appreciate everything around you. Celebrate today, don't wait until tomorrow." The phrase was chosen from a list of candidates in an informal opinion poll among friends.
There was a simple but important philosophy behind Jake. The message was one of humble optimism. It would be reflected in the company name Life is good, Inc. The company was incorporated in Massachusetts on August 18, 1997, but counts 1994, when Jake was created, as its founding date. It had taken the brothers three years to trademark the "Life is good" name, according to the Daily News Record.
The brothers gravitated to different roles. John, the art major, focused on the creative end and Bert, as company president, concentrated on growing the business. The pair apparently did not let administrative details get in the way of having a good time. At Life is good, sandals and shorts would be acceptable corporate attire.
Cool as Ever in 1998
By 1998, Life is good products were available at more than 500 outlets. Revenues were an estimated $2 million to $3 million, according to the Daily News Record. The company had ten employees at its headquarters in Needham, Massachusetts (the Boston suburb where the brothers grew up), and 21 independent sales reps.
New props and scenarios were created for Jake, often at the request of customers. Many harkened back to the simple pleasures of childhood, such as enjoying an ice cream cone or peanut butter and jelly sandwich (the latter was also the food that sustained the founders through the Jacobs brothers' first few years as entrepreneurs). Whatever hobby or pastime Jake took up, he was always having a good time. Sometimes the graphic did not include Jake but a simple emblem such as a guitar or a mountain. A canine companion, Rocket, was created for Jake in 2003. (A female character, Jackie, had been scrapped, however.) By this time, the company also was pitching pet products.
Baseball caps, knit hats, and shorts were early hits outside of the T-shirt genre. In 1998, the company brought out some products for cooler weather, such as long-sleeved T-shirts and sweatshirts. The company also branched out into loungewear, backpacks, and stickers. Specific products were developed for the golf and yoga markets. The range of accessories extended to coffee mugs, Frisbees, and more.
Although brand extensions were a classic tactic for capitalizing on success, LIG was not willing to skimp on quality to improve margins, Bert Jacobs told American Executive. In another interview in SGB, he said they were focused on quality, rather than growth per se. "We're much more focused on making higher-quality products, having better merchandising at retail, and servicing better. The idea is not necessarily to get bigger."
The headgear was being made in China. T-shirt manufacturing was contracted to plants in North and South Carolina. In January 2001, LIG licensed production to The Shirt Factory in Derry, New Hampshire; it would buy the company four years later. Even then, it continued to outsource some printing due to demand.
Like other young, hip brands, Life is good benefited from a little celebrity exposure, draping the torsos of notables such as Drew Carey, Matthew McConaughey, and Stephen King, noted Entrepreneur. Revenues were up to $3.1 million in 2000 and reached $10 million in 2002.
Launch of the Pumpkin Festival in 2003
Philanthropy was an integral part of the company's mission. LIG favored children-related charities such as Project Joy, an expressive therapy program in Boston, and Camp Sunshine, a Casco, Maine, retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses.
In 2003, the company launched a festival in Portland, Maine, to raise money for Camp Sunshine. The main event was a near miss at setting a new world record for number of jack o'lanterns lit at one time. The charity gained $52,000. Soon the company added a second festival in Boston. One 2005 fundraiser brought in $100,000 while fostering competition in "backyard" events such as watermelon seed spitting.
Such festivals helped introduce people to the brand. The company had gotten even this far without doing much marketing beyond a little trade advertising. According to American Executive, the company had developed radio spots but at the last minute decided to allocate the funds toward charitable causes. Proceeds from a special flag-themed T-shirt raised money for the United Way after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Life is good International Inc. was set up in 2003. When the product was exported to non-English-speaking areas, the Life is Good slogan remained in English to preserve the brand and to add an air of mystery, said Bert Jacobs in American Executive. Foreign partners were required to support the company's charitable activities; LIG aimed ultimately to take the Pumpkin Festivals to world capitals overseas.
Tenth Anniversary in 2004
Revenues were $35 million in 2004, the year Life is good celebrated its tenth year in business. By this time, more than 3,000 retailers were carrying LIG's products. The company was selling more than one million T-shirts a year.
LIG bought its licensee The Shirt Factory in Derry, New Hampshire in March 2005. Financing of $16 million was arranged. The operation was relocated to Hudson, New Hampshire, a few months later due to a need for more space to accommodate an expanding product line, including bulky fleece items.
LIG's products were being distributed as far as Japan and Europe by 2005. The company then had revenues of $59 million and employed about 170 people. Most were based in the small town of Hudson, New Hampshire.
The company had established a new design center and headquarters on Newbury Street in Boston. This became the location of its first store in Boston in July 2005 (in addition, company stores were located in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine).
By this time, the T-shirt business was accounting for less and less of revenues, percentage-wise. Bert Jacobs told SGB the company was developing products using high-performance synthetic fabric for the athletic market. Another new product line was jewelry made of natural materials such as stone and leather.
Large sporting goods chains such as REI and Dick's had embraced the brand for years; many had brand boutiques inside their stores. Bert Jacobs told SGB, however, that most of the company's business was coming from small specialty retailers. By early 2006, there were more than two dozen "Neighborhood Shoppes" devoted to stocking LIG products. These were operated by independent retailers who had so much success with LIG products that they stopped carrying other brands.
The press pondered the secret of the company's stellar climb. Perhaps positive sentiment was what the country needed after a couple of decades of cynicism, irony, and negativity. Bert Jacobs took a longer view. "The foundation of our brand is optimism, and optimism is timeless," he told SGB magazine. It was a brand the whole family could enjoy, he added.
Life is good was looking forward to eventually being able to raise $100 million a year for charitable causes. The founders reportedly had no plans to sell the company or go public.
Columbia Sportswear Company; Nike, Inc.; Patagonia, Inc.