Life is Good co-founder shares message of optimism

Published 10:40 am Monday, June 3, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

John Jacobs and his brother Bert sold t-shirts out of their van for five years before they stumbled upon a saying that struck a chord with people: Life is Good.

In less than 30 years, they’ve built a $160 million company founded on that optimism, and it spills over into everything they do.

At Kitty Hawk Kites’ 50-year celebration event on May 16 in Oceanview Hall at Jennette’s Pier, John Jacobs gave the keynote address, sharing the story of Life is Good, and how he’s managed when life hasn’t always been good.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

Growing up, the six Jacobs kids were tasked by one statement every day by their mother: Tell me something good.

John admits his childhood wasn’t easy. His father, an avid outdoorsman, was injured in an accident when John was young and lost the use of his right hand. The frustration their father felt resulted in a lot of yelling at home. But their mother was committed to focusing on the positive every day. She modeled resiliency and optimism for her children, which served as fuel for the brothers as they began their t-shirt business after college.

“We were kind of stumbling around trying to find what the right thing was, trying different messages and artwork and locations to sell,” John Jacobs explained of their early years in an interview with The Coastland Times. The brothers faced a lot of rejection, but they listened.

“People would have legitimate comments like ‘I don’t like the feel of the shirt’ or the message or the price and you have to just absorb that and try to use it as a trainer or teacher. So we took a lot of notes on what people said and tried to use it as fuel to figure out what where we should go with it.”

As a reaction to negative and sensational news that seemed to dominate people’s mindspace, the Jacobs brothers asked themselves if they could come up with a message that could help people celebrate what’s good in their lives.

John drew the first now-iconic Life is Good guy, Jake, with the famous phrase written underneath and took a batch of 48 shirts to a street fair in Massachusetts. They sold out within an hour.

Deciding to try their hand at retail, John and Burt finally found a flip flop shop in Cape Cod willing to order 24 shirts.

The owner, Nancy, called shortly after the brothers returned to their home in Boston. “Hey guys, I’ve got some good news. I want to place a reorder.”

“What’s a reorder?” John asked, drawing laughter from the audience at Jennette’s Pier as he relayed the story.

A week later, Nancy called for a friend with an ice cream shop. “Is there any chance that character Jake can be eating ice cream?” she asked.

“No, but give us two hours and he will,” John replied.

Nancy called again about a sister-in-law who had a shop near a bicycle store. “Does Jake ride a bike?”

“No but if you pay in advance he can definitely ride a bike.”

Life is Good images started out with basic good things like outdoors, mountains, beaches, dogs, family time and road trips. “We know bad things happen in the world but we feel like there should be a little more of a balance,” Jacobs said. The brand focused on things that people can be thankful for. But it quickly became more than just that.

The brothers started getting letters from customers saying that the message was helping them navigate through hard times like a battle with cancer or losing a loved one. Even children and teens with serious diagnoses were finding courage and hope in the daily reminder that life is good.

“The brand is about a mindset. It’s not about ice cream and frisbees – we like those things – but the depth of it comes from the idea that there are very challenging parts of life and yet there’s always two different ways you can look at it,” John said. “We find that optimism allows you to open your arms and see possibilities and find opportunities and grow and connect with people and enjoy yourself. And it’s a lot more fun, but it’s also a lot more fulfilling and more likely to lead to a happy life.”

As the company explains it, life isn’t easy, life isn’t perfect, life is good.

For John, he’s found that in his own personal challenges, optimism works. Specifically, gratitude, which is one of 10 Life is Good “superpowers” as he calls them. “I think you can get back to that rock solid foundation of gratitude whenever you start to feel overwhelmed or overburdened.”

The company has had reason to feel overwhelmed. With products primarily sold in retail stores, Life is Good, like many other companies, experienced major financial setbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They went from considering bankruptcy to developing an entirely different business concept that included custom printed messages. Once again, the company listened to its customers and pulled through, coming out stronger and experiencing more growth.

This growth enables greater advocacy for children through the Playmaker Project, a training and support program for early childhood educators who help kids recover from trauma. Life is Good donates 10% to this cause.

For John, when asked what makes life good (aside from cool t-shirts), he answered simply: love. Within that, he described family, friends, helping other people, and doing what you love. “We get to try to spread the power of optimism through our messages and our products, so I could go on and on listing a bunch of activities I love but really, love itself. I know how corny that sounds, but to me, that is the reason for living.”