Life is (still) good: T-shirt company finds not even coronavirus can kill optimism

Derek Catron, USA TODAY

Life is good.

It’s more than a slogan. For more than 25 years, it’s been an ethos for the company that makes $100 million a year printing those three words on T-shirts, ball caps, coffee mugs and other merch.

But then 2020 arrived, and with it the coronavirus pandemic. When Bert and John Jacobs, the brothers who founded the company in 1994, met in March with the top leadership staff of Life Is Good, they spoke of things that seemed a rejection of the optimism they normally peddled. Layoffs. Bankruptcy. Even an end to the business.

It wasn't as if Jake – the smiley-faced stick figure who adorns many of the company's T-shirts – hadn't had a reason to frown before. After 9/11, people told the Jacobs brothers life wasn't good any longer. They responded with a shirt bearing a stylized American flag above their brand. Customers bought it up, and though the company donated sales from that shirt to charity, the gesture broadened its customer base.

Brothers Bert and John Jacobs founded Life Is Good on a belief in spreading the power of optimism. The belief was tested by the coronavirus when the brothers considered shutting down manufacturing to protect their employees -- and risk bankruptcy.

"Our business didn’t just survive that era, it thrived," Bert Jacobs recalled.

The 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon struck closer to home – the brothers grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, and the privately held company is based in Boston. They responded with a T-shirt bearing the city's name on the front with a heart replacing the second O and the legend, "There's nothing stronger than love" on the back.

But the coronavirus was something else. The company couldn't just print a clever T-shirt and ride it out – not if the very act of gathering many of their 200 employees in their New Hampshire distribution center jeopardized lives. Shutting down the center – even if it meant losing the business – seemed like it might be the right thing to do.

John and Bert Jacobs founded Life Is Good in 1994 and the company now makes $100 million annually selling that brand of optimism to customers who may be hungry for it now more than ever.

So the brothers met with their leadership team, which asked for 48 hours to seek feedback from the staff and consider alternatives.

Hanging in the balance: the future of a company whose origin story sounds like a folk tale.

After finishing college, the brothers put their artistic inclinations to work trying to sell T-shirts in the early '90s. They traveled the East Coast in a van dubbed "Enterprise," hawking T-shirts on college campuses and anywhere else they found a crowd.

After five years and with $78 to their names, they returned home to Boston and threw a keg party. They pinned drawings of their latest ideas to the wall for friends to critique. One showed the grinning stick-figure face they would soon make iconic. Someone circled it and wrote, "This guy's got life figured out."

Life Is Good was born. Their first time out with the new design, they sold 48 shirts in 45 minutes.

The Life Is Good origin story tells of how Bert and John Jacobs had $78 between them when they dreamed up the shirt designs that made the company. They sold out 48 shirts in 45 minutes in their first outing.

Jacobs, square-jawed, ginger-haired and, in his mid-50s, fit enough for all the activities celebrated on his shirts, looks like he's the guy who's got life figured out. But he's humbled talking about the business' success.

"We didn't invent these ideas," he said. "We didn't even invent 'life is good.' We just happened to get lucky and be the first ones to trademark it."

Even more important was discovering how their efforts to spread optimism struck a chord. Customers didn't just buy their shirts. They wrote notes to the company about how that message helped them through hardships like losing loved ones or undergoing medical treatments.

That feedback from the "Good Vibe Tribe" has provided inspiration for new ideas and motivation to keep going. "The business is more than a business to us," Jacobs said. "It's really a part of who we are."

So during the coronavirus outbreak, when the employees told them they wanted to figure out how to safely keep the business operating, the team mobilized to retrofit the distribution center.

"We brought in nurses. We set up stations 10 feet apart," Jacobs said, with staggered shifts. "It's been three months, and we don't have any cases. We've been fortunate so far."

The company smartly had invested in the technology to print T-shirts in an on-demand fashion. Most retail works on a 12- to 18-month window between design and distribution. The new equipment allowed Life Is Good to "design things on Monday for what will sell on Wednesday," Jacobs said.

New designs include drawings of animals with the message "Wash your paws" or "Stay calm, stay cool, stay home." A design for graduates bore the inscription, "Class of 2020: 'Virtually' the greatest class of all time."

"That one went crazy," Jacobs said.

Another home run: a baseball shirt with the message, "Longest Rain Delay in History: 2020."

"There’s something about allowing people to embrace the things they love even during these difficult times," Jacobs said.

After college, John and Bert Jacobs drove up and down the East Coast, selling T-shirts wherever they could find a crowd. They had $78 between when they hit upon the idea for Life Is Good.

As he told the story, business was good. The company was far ahead of its goal for boosting e-commerce, it'd had no layoffs, and employees "stand a good chance of getting bonuses this year if we can continue to perform," Jacobs said.

But there's the rub. The coronavirus is still out there, and being a Life Is Good optimist doesn't mean blinding yourself to threats like a second wave or a prolonged wait for a vaccine. 

"We’re fortunate to have built up a community of what we call 'rational optimists,'" Jacobs said. "Our customers, like ourselves, recognize that there are obstacles. … We like to say, ‘Life isn’t easy, and life isn’t perfect. But life is good.’"


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