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The 'Joy' of Bert Jacobs

The cofounder of the ubiquitous “Life is good” brand will explore the power of optimism to change companies and the world during IHRSA ’13 


"Life is good" guys Bert, l., and John JacobsCBI: The name of your company is “Life is good,” and the legend on one of its T-shirts—our favorite—reads “Optimism can take you anywhere.” That just about sums up your personal and corporate philosophy.

BERT JACOBS: I guess that it does. And those are two of the key points I’ll be making during my appearance at the IHRSA convention. The presentation does a number of things, with the important ones disguised in a fun story that offers a few laughs—it’s sort of like a family slideshow. I’ll tell a simple story about how Life is good developed, but, along the way, I’ll try to provide a few lessons. And paramount among them is, No. 1, that optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy—that believing that life is, in fact, good is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you believe in something, you become open to accomplishing it. You’re far more likely to be able to see opportunities, and to want to pursue them, and be able to solve puzzles. Conversely, if you’re closed to life, and to people, and closed-minded in terms of your thinking, you’re more likely to notice obstacles, and to view puzzles as insoluble. You get focused on what’s wrong in the world or in your life, and whatever you focus on tends to grow.

CBI: And this is the lesson imparted by “Jake,” your company’s iconic “skinny-guy” character, who appears on countless T-shirts, mugs, and other consumer products. How did Life is good come about?

BJ: The idea of Jake developed from a conversation that my brother, John, and I once had when we were traveling around the country, selling T-shirts out of the back of our van. We were discussing how the media was always telling us what was wrong with the world rather than what was right. And we wondered if we might be able to develop a hero whose superpower was his upbeat disposition, his positive perspective—in short, his optimism.

We had a tradition of throwing a keg party whenever we came back from one of our six-week road trips, and, after one trip in 1994, we put all of our optimistic-superhero artwork on a wall, and asked people which piece they liked best. Jake was the hands-down winner. A girl at the party drew an arrow next to him, and said, “This guy has got life figured out!” We’d read somewhere that, unless you have a robust ad campaign, you have about three seconds to capture someone’s attention, so we distilled that thought into three words: “Life is good.” Two days later, we took Life is good T-shirts to the street, and they sold well. Everything really just kind of grew from there.

CBI: Interestingly or, perhaps, predictably, your title with the company is chief executive optimist. Exactly what sort of responsibilities does that entail?

BJ: At this stage of the game, I’m responsible for two things. The first is long-term vision. What are we trying to accomplish? What do we want to do with our lives? 

What’s the purpose of all of this? In many respects, we’ve been lucky. We’ve made enough money. If we wanted to, we could sell the business, or go public, or retire and go to the beach—whatever—but we’re committed to, determined to, do something more with our lives.

The second responsibility is to hire and empower the right leaders to decentralize our operation as much as possible. I try to find people who are smarter, faster, and stronger than I am, and then I get the hell out of their way and let them go.

CBI: If you were asked to describe the belief system, the philosophical underpinnings, that drive Life is good, what would you say?

BJ: You should know, first, that we consider capitalism a powerful tool for social change. Making money is a very good thing, but capitalism is so well designed that, beyond that, it can also change the world for the better. Second, only customers can build your brand. No matter how smart an entrepreneur, or CEO, or marketer you are—you can’t build your brand. ... And customers have become more demanding in a very healthy way—they want to know what your organization stands for. If they don’t feel that you’re authentic, that you’re making the world a better place, they have the ability to destroy everything that you’ve accomplished. We’re fortunate in that our customers have built our business, and part of our plan is to continue enabling them—our “community of optimists”— to do so. That’s a very central piece of the puzzle. Our customers know that we’re authentic, that we want to make a real difference.

CBI: In what sort of way, exactly, do you want to make a difference?

BJ: Well, for example, a central part of our social mission is to help kids overcome poverty, illness, and violence. And a big part of our company is Playmakers, a nonprofit organization we founded that works directly with frontline professionals—teachers, social workers, childcare specialists, and others—who’ve dedicated their lives to looking after children in need. We help these individuals use the power of play to develop transformative relationships that heal and strengthen those in their care. One of Playmakers’ mottos is “Life Can Hurt. Play Can Heal.” At the moment, 10% of our profits go to Playmakers. ... Within the organization, people from both sides of the house—the corporate and Playmakers—show up at any given meeting, so that the company’s plans always align with theirs. Nobody in this organization can do their job without helping kids—that’s an integral component of all that we do. At one point, someone described us as “a for-profit for a purpose.” This whole organization is for a purpose. The overarching mission is to spread the power of optimism.

CBI: Let’s bring that concept—the power of optimism—back into the club setting. How do you think that notion could be utilized by owners, staff, and members?

BJ: I think the implications are huge. Every manager should look around their club, and say: “We’re not going to knock things. We’re going to build things! How can we build this organization?” They should start every meeting by saying, “Tell me about something good that happened today,” because that changes the energy of the meeting, and it changes the attitudes of the people.

From the minute a member walks into a gym, whether or not a staffer smiles at them or says hello determines if that customer is going to have a good experience. Optimists smile more than realists or pessimists, and they have more fun, which puts a bounce in their step. That’s magnetic—it attracts people. They want to be around other people who are having fun.

If you have a trainer who knows the science of exercise and nutrition really well, but who’s an absolute drag to be around and is robotic with their clients—customers aren’t going to pay premium dollars to spend an hour with them. But if, on the other hand, you have a person with less expertise, but with a hell of a personality—they’ll do a much better job of maintaining their customer base and contributing to the club’s profitability. It’s all closely tied to optimism!

CBI: In terms of your business experience—if you were asked to identify the single most important lesson you’ve learned, what would it be?

BJ: Keep moving! Whenever we began to get too academic or theoretical, which wasn’t often, we had to focus on not getting stuck. We might not always have known what we were doing, but, initially, for instance, we were just working the streets and college dormitories—constantly selling T-shirts. It comes down to this: Make something and sell it! Deliberate 20% of the time, and, the rest of the time, get out and do it! As Shakespeare said, “Action is eloquence.” Even if what you’re doing isn’t going exactly how you expected—you still move forward. Don’t get stuck in the paralysis of analysis.

CBI: Speaking of moving forward, what lies ahead for Life is good? What’s on the drawing board for the future?

BJ: We’re now in the process of doing license agreements. We just signed one with Hallmark for greeting cards, and we’re looking at a second agreement in the food and beverage category. I can’t tell you whom our partner is going to be, but the product is going to be distributed nationally through grocery stores, maybe a year from now. We’re also exploring toys and games, hospital apparel, health and beauty, pet products, home products, and even the automotive industry—we’re really wide open. We’re talking to the best players in all of these categories, and we want to bring optimism to all of them.

CBI: You’ve had offers to sell your business or take it public, but, thus far, you haven’t had any interest in doing so. Why?

BJ: If we did that, we’d be selling ourselves, and this brand, short. I think we have something that, potentially, could be a lot more meaningful to the world than it is today. We really believe in the power of optimism, and in the idea that business can be a great thing for the world. And we’re just getting started! The business has never really been about the T-shirt. We make a great, high-quality T-shirt, but it‘s just a vehicle for the message. You could say, “Well, sell the company, and take the money, and invest it in a nonprofit or something.” But it’s really hard to create something sustainable. Our hope, with our brand, is that at some point, when we’re ready to step away from this, we’ll be able to empower someone else—make it possible for them to do the best work that Life is good has ever done. We don’t know whom we’ll hand the business over to, but it will be someone who can do a better job with it than we have. That’s kind of our little dream.

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