How a 26-year-old college drop-out created a multi-million dollar t-shirt business with no business plan, no advertising, and no investors.
PARTY TIME Johnny Earle, in front of his Newbury Street store in Boston, greets fans lining up for limited-edition T-shirts. The event marked the store’s second-anniversary celebration in 2008.
As applications for the 2009 Inc. 500 | 5000 arrive, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (For more information and to apply, go to http://www.inc5000apply.com.) One that caught our eye was Hull, Mass.-based Johnny Cupcakes.
Walk into the Johnny Cupcakes store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and you'll find a twelve-foot oven emanating steam, pipes oozing faux frosting with custom-made five-inch sprinkles, and stovetops complete with fake flames. "I wanted it to be the Willy Wonka of t-shirt stores," says Johnny Cupcakes founder John Earle, who teamed up with a building company that works with Disneyland and Universal Studios to create the store. But when Earle first started selling his t-shirts eight years ago, it was out of the back of his beat up '89 Camry.
"Since I was a kid, making lemonade stands, having yard sales, and selling candy in school, it's been important to me to find a way to work for myself and be happy doing it," Earle explains. "Eventually I found my niche in this Johnny Cupcakes brand, which started as a joke, really."
After dropping out of college in 2000, Earle worked at both a silk screening shop and a record store, where he acquired the nickname "Johnny Cupcakes." While making shirts at the silk screening shop for the metal band he was in, he made a couple of shirts with "Johnny Cupcakes" written on them as a joke, replacing popular icons like the skull and crossbones with cupcakes. The shirts turned out to be immensely popular with coworkers and customers, and eventually, Earle sold so many he was able to quit his job and sell shirts full-time.
"One person would tell ten people, and ten people would tell a hundred," says Earle. "Word spread fast, and the shirts developed this cult following." Earle then took the shirts to trade shows, where he received offers from Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom, Hot Topic, and Macy's, but decided not to sell. "As much as I want the entire world to see these t-shirts I created, I'd made a lot of sacrifices—broken up with my girlfriend, left my band, dropped out of school—and I wasn't about to sell my soul just to make some quick money."
With a strong aversion to selling out, Earle continued to sell his limited-edition t-shirts online, and opened stores in Hull, Mass. in 2005, Boston's Newbury Street in 2006, and Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles in 2008. He takes a special pride in his unique shirts, an emphasis on personal attention to detail, and the inclusion of his family and friends in his strictly independent business that still relies on the rapid word-of-mouth.
"I'll sit down with my customers, take them out to eat, hang out at the shop with them. You don't see Ralph Lauren or Marc Jacobs playing kickball or eating pizza with their customers," he says. "When these kids camp out for days to get limited edition shirts, my own mom will go out with brown bag lunches to hand them out to customers. My sister will give out freeze-pops. I want to give people something to talk about. I want them to feel something when they walk into my stores."