Hope Katz Gibbs


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Spreading Good Vibes: Bert Jacobs on the Power of Optimism [Be Inkandescent Magazine, September 2011]

For my 8th birthday, my grandparents bought me my first Life is good T-shirt. It was really soft, the color of the night sky, and featured a superhero named Jake—playing basketball, my favorite sport. I wanted to wear it to school every day that week. After day three, my dad just laughed as he put me into the car and took me to the nearest Life is good shop in Old Town, Alexandria, VA, to buy more.

I’m 12 now, and haven’t worn anything but a Life is good shirt ever since (I even wear them under my Boy Scout uniform). I recently checked, and I have 24 of these Ts in my dresser—including a few that I outgrew, plus two that I turned into pillows for my bed.

Celebrating Life

My heroes are Bert and John Jacobs, owners of the $100-million Boston-based firm they founded in 1995. What I like about them the most is that they make shirts that are really comfortable, and their optimistic message spreads good vibes. Plus, I love the fact that they created such a big company out of a simple idea, and that they work hard doing what they love. That’s what I want to do when I grow up.

So when I learned that on September 24-25 there would be a Life is Good Music Festival in Boston to benefit The Life is Good Kids Foundation, I wanted to support it. I created a fundraiser page, made fliers, sent emails to my friends and family, and as of September 1, I have raised more than $1,000. By the time of the fundraiser, I am determined to raise even more by throwing a big backyard fundraiser.

Because my mom publishes this magazine, she thought it would be fun to go to Boston and talk to the founders. They agreed! So on July 28, we boarded a JetBlue flight for “Beantown.” At 4 p.m., after a tour of the Newbury Street headquarters, we sat down in the office of Bert Jacobs for an interview. Below you’ll find their Q&A.

So take it from a 7th grader: No matter what happens, Life is good!

Be Inkandescent: Tell about the origins of The Life is good Company.

Bert Jacobs: I think that John and I had less of a desire to sell T-shirts and more of a desire to sell artwork that communicated what we saw as the good stuff of life.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us more about your background.

Bert Jacobs: We come from a big family in Boston, and both of us really wanted to see other parts of the country. So after I graduated from Villanova University in Philadelphia in 1987, I worked for a year in a warehouse so I could afford to buy a jeep and move to Colorado. Once there, I got a job as a ski instructor—and was probably the worst ski instructor they ever had on the slopes. But I was good with people and could make them laugh. To supplement my income, I delivered pizza. I loved those jobs, and could have done that for the rest of my life.

Be Inkandescent: How did John pull you away from that dream life?

Bert Jacobs: At the time, he was doing a semester at Chico State in Northern California, so I drove from Colorado to California to pick him up and do a cross-country road trip. He was an art major, and we decided that when we got back to Boston we’d start creating designs for T-shirts and try to sell them. We thought it would be fun. Quite honestly, we were trying to avoid getting a corporate job, but still support ourselves.

Be Inkandescent: How did the famous iconic Jake come to life?

Bert Jacobs: It took us a while to come up with designs for The Life is good Company. We started off in 1989 creating T-shirts with some other original designs that we sold to students in college dorms, and also to people on the streets of Boston. It went well enough for us to buy a van, and we’d take five- and six-week road trips up and down the East Coast. But we were living on peanut butter and jelly and not really making a lot of money.

It was getting to the point where we needed to figure out what we were going to do next. That was when John and I had a long conversation about the importance of optimism. We wanted to create a symbol that represented what was right with the world. So we came up with Jake—a superhero whose power is his disposition—someone who viewed the world as a big playground, and always saw the glass half full. Our idea was that because of that optimistic disposition, he’s a great lacrosse player. Because of his disposition, he learns how to play guitar. Because of his disposition, he finds a way to travel the world. He meets people, and he opens himself to what is possible.

Be Inkandescent: Who drew Jake?

Bert Jacobs: John did, and we had a few versions. But we knew which one to go with the morning after we threw this big “kegger” at our dive of an apartment in Boston. It was a big tradition to throw a party after we got back from a road trip. We’d tack our new designs to the wall, and everyone at the party would write their comments and thoughts around them. By far, the image with Jake was the most popular. We knew then that we were on to something.

Be Inkandescent: How did you pair smiling Jake with the three words, “Life is good?”

Bert Jacobs: One of the messages that our friends wrote next to that original image of Jake said, “This guy’s got life figured out.” That evolved into, “Life is good.”

Be Inkandescent: Do you know who that was?

Bert Jacobs: We don’t, but we think it was a woman because the handwriting was up and down and kind of curvy like a woman writes. Unfortunately, we didn’t pay a ton of attention at the time to who might have said it because it was just the start of the idea, and it took us about four more years to really get things up and running. But we get asked that question so many times now that Kerry, who is now a partner in our the business and lived upstairs at the time, has worked hard to help us piece it together. We still don’t know for sure, but it was a lesson to us that the best ideas don’t come from us. They come from our friends and the people we meet.

Be Inkandescent: Kids, especially, gravitate to the designs.

Bert Jacobs: They do, and one of the things we like to point out is that children are born optimists. It’s so natural to them. We hope the shirts help adults maintain a similar sense of optimism. That’s why we created the Fuel page on our website—to spread the word that people of all ages seem inspired by the work we are doing.

Be Inkandescent: I love the Fuel page with all the comments from your customers. I am especially impressed with the man named Joseph who tattooed The Life is good Company’s image onto his arm and wrote to you to say, “My life is so good I put it on my body.” He’s not alone, but still, why do you think that there is a good portion of the adult population that doesn’t embrace optimism?

Bert Jacobs: I think it has to do with the messages we get from the media. Too often, the stories center on what’s wrong with the world. It’s not that people in the media are bad guys. But this was the focus of the conversations John and I had when we traveled in the van all those years ago. We asked each other, why is it that there’s always a “6 o’clock news violent-murder report.” What would the world be like if there was a “this is what happened that was great today” report. Instead of sinking into our seats and feeling like we’re just part of this bad team, we might feel encouraged and powerful. Accomplishing that goal is our life’s work.

There’s more! Click here for Bert’s Tips for Entrepreneurs.


More Be Inkandescent Magazine Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.