THE WAY I WORK

My Son, the Entrepreneur

Lorraine Earle of Johnny Cupcakes is a doting mother who also runs the family business founded by her son, John.
MOTHER'S DAY Mama Cupcakes nourishes son John Earle with business advice in the morning and eggplant parmigiana at night.
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To some customers, Lorraine Earle is Mama Cupcakes -- the warm, wiry woman who delivers hand-packed lunches to the lines of young people who wait outside Johnny Cupcakes stores when new limited-edition T-shirts go on sale. To her son John, the 27-year-old founder of the $3.4 million apparel company, she is the cocoon protecting him from the creativity-damping pressures of the business. "In a sense, I'm still like a kid," says John. "I never stress out. I'm always happy. When I come up with my ideas, I'm thinking of the solutions, not the problems. My mom is a big part of that."

Earle, a former office manager at a big Boston law firm, encouraged -- and often bankrolled -- her son's early business ventures, which included selling glow sticks on the beach near their home in Hull, Massachusetts, and candy and gag items at his high school. In 2001, when John began designing whimsical cupcake-themed T-shirts that he sold from the back of a van while touring the country with his band, Earle kept her son stocked with shirts, tracked sales, and processed and fulfilled orders. John was just having fun, until one day Earle informed him he had a promising business. She cut her law-office hours to manage Johnny Cupcakes's finances and operations. Three years ago, running John's business became her full-time job.

My office is in my dining room. It's very cozy. I have my own art on the walls and flowers I've pressed. There's a glass cabinet full of special things people have given me. I work on a Mac, but that's as high tech as it gets. I file my bills in accordion folders, and I use a calculator that's at least 25 years old. It's added up a lot of money over the years. Subtracted it, too. If it ever gives me a wrong answer, I'll stop using it.

John and I spend way more time together now than when he was a kid. I begin my day at 6:30 by checking e-mails that have come in overnight, including some from him. John stays up late writing blog entries and responding to messages -- our customers are very enthusiastic and feel like they have personal relationships with him, so he gets a lot. Also, when he gets excited about an idea, which happens constantly, he can't drag himself away from it. So he usually doesn't go to bed until 4 or 5 a.m. and sleeps until 10 or 11 a.m. It's not so different from when he was a kid and I had to drive him to school every day because he never woke up in time to make the bus.

My husband and I have lived in the same house for 30 years. John lives about three miles away. He usually drops by here on his way to the warehouse in Weymouth or to the Boston store. I'll make him blueberry pancakes, and we'll talk about new products or employee issues. I'll give him papers to sign and tell him what I need him to do that day. We might have to go together to the bank, for example. My daughter, Linsay, who is 23, started managing HR and customer service last year. She sometimes stops by to discuss payroll. It's a real family business. My husband, who is a contractor, did all the work on the Boston store and built out the warehouse office space.

I'm training Linsay's best friend, Kelley White, to do the books, so she comes over at 9 or so. We live right up the street from our first retail store -- we've since opened two more, in Boston and Los Angeles -- and the manager often visits before he opens for the day. All of the employees are young, so it feels like the old days when this was the house where the neighborhood kids hung out.

John is CEO, and I'm CFO. I handle all the finances, the trademark and legal issues, the staff. I'm very good with numbers. I act like it's my money, even though John owns 100 percent of the company. I always know where every penny is.

John checks with me before he hires anyone. He meets a lot of people who have skills he thinks we need, but often it makes more sense to train someone in-house and make it part of that person's job instead of bringing on a 40-hour person. Anyway, that's part of running the business, and he's not too interested in that. He has no idea about rents or anything like that. He doesn't care about the money. He doesn't care about the bottom line. So I have to be extra diligent. I have to say no more than when he was a kid. He'll say, "Mom, why do you have to be so negative?" But later, he's grateful. A few years ago, he wanted to open a store in New York. He was standing on the street in this one spot taking pictures so I could see how many cars were going by. "Look, Mom -- 400 cars an hour go through this intersection!" I said, "No, John. If we do that now, the business will suffer." Six months ago, the same thing in London. "Look, Mom. I found a store!" "No, John. You can't." He talked me around on Los Angeles. I gave him a $60,000 budget, and he spent $750,000. Fortunately, the L.A. store is doing very well.

I have to be the worrywart so my son feels free to exercise his imagination. John comes up with all the products. He's constantly feeding ideas to our graphic designer, Clark Orr, down in Florida and Jenna Rivers, a local fashion designer who creates our clothes and accessories. John also tries hard to make work as much fun for our employees as it is for him. In December, he flew the staff of the Los Angeles store out here for our Christmas party and interviewed everyone about his or her favorite childhood toys. Then he went on eBay and bought them all as presents -- Nickelodeon Moon Shoes, Disco Barbie. John is always doing things like that.

John has incredible marketing ideas. Last year, he rented out a theater every month for midnight showings of his favorite movies from childhood, like Ghostbusters, The Goonies, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For Pee-wee's Big Adventure, he dressed up like Pee-wee Herman and rode onto the stage on a replica of Pee-wee's bike.

His latest big idea is the Johnny Cupcakes Suitcase Tour. For a month, he is driving across the country selling T-shirts out of a suitcase, just like his band days. When he tweeted about it, more than 200 bakeries and art galleries and clothing stores offered to let him set up in their shops for a day. John did what he calls his "monkey math" and figured he'd sell $240,000 worth of shirts in a month. Then I did my monkey math and figured he'd do about half that. That gap is pretty typical, but I can usually talk him into low-balling his estimate. That way, if we do better, he's even happier. When the kids were little, I used to tell them we were going on an errand, and instead I would take them to a carnival. They loved to be surprised when they spied that Ferris wheel above the trees. John understands the value of a pleasant surprise.

I love it when John releases a new T-shirt, which he does every year on Halloween and on the company's anniversary in the summer. The kids who collect them line up on the sidewalk outside of the Boston store. Some of them camp out because they want the first shirt. The first year, I made 130 lunches and passed them out: ham and turkey sandwiches with cheese. But that was really messy, and a lot of the kids turned out to be vegan. Now, I just do a piece of fruit, peanut butter crackers. Nourishing things. We put a little flashlight in each bag, and some stickers. Last summer, Linsay and I brought them Popsicles. Ten bucks' worth of Popsicles feeds 100 kids.

John has made the business so much fun that it's hard to imagine there's a darker side. The legal issues aren't trivial: People try to steal from us all the time. Every day I do Google searches for John's name, Johnny Cupcakes, and some of our trademarks: Freshly Baked, Make Cupcakes Not War, and our cupcakes-with-crossbones logo. I write cease-and-desist letters myself -- I learned enough from working in a law office to make them sound scary. I've issued about 200 warnings since we started, and our lawyers have gone after 20 or 30 of the biggest cases. People steal our name, our logo, our designs. In some countries, they're actually opening Johnny Cupcakes stores and selling our stuff.

I usually go to the warehouse two or three afternoons a week to be around the action. I'll answer questions, comment on projects, train Linsay, and pitch in where I can. I try to sit and chat with each of the employees so they know I'm interested in them. Sometimes I'll help put together little bags with decorative pins and trading cards that we pack with each order. A few times a month, when we're very busy -- or just for the fun of it -- I'll bring pizza or cold cuts for lunch. Often I'll drive orders back and forth between the warehouse and the retail store near my house. A few times a month, I'll visit the store in Boston. Two weeks ago, my sister-in-law and I stripped the floor there and waxed it. Mothers really know how to scrub.

I work 12 to 16 hours a day, though some of that is just Googling and doing research at night. Back when I was at the law firm, I used to come home in the evenings and decorate picture frames, mirrors, and boxes with seashells. I was making $16,000 a year from my shell art. John was really proud of me. He built a website for my business and wanted me to be free to pursue it. Johnny Cupcakes was supposed to let me be an at-home mom. I guess I am. But I have less leisure time than ever. Now that Linsay and Kelley are working for us, I can focus more on the big picture. Someday I'll get back to the shells.

John and I phone each other five to 10 times a day and exchange around 20 e-mails. If I don't see him, I use Facebook or Twitter to see what he's up to. We also talk about business over dinner. We like to eat out together, and once or twice a week he'll come over to my house for dinner. I'll send him an e-mail that just says: American Chop Suey or Eggplant Parm so he knows it's one of his favorite comfort foods.

Colleges are always asking him to speak, so he travels frequently. He likes me to drive him to and from the airport. He takes comfort from the fact that it's just him and me. He can lie back in his seat and take a nap.

Every trick John pulls, he always wants to pull a better one. At Christmas, he flew my sister, whom I hadn't seen for six years, out here from Hawaii and wrapped her up like a present in a big box in the living room. I watched him create the Boston store, filling it up with industrial refrigerators and ovens so that people would be fooled into thinking it was a bakery. It was great seeing how surprised people were. I love how he makes the kids who come into the store feel good about themselves, and how much he cares that his employees are happy. I say to my husband, "Michael, I'm so proud I can barely hold my heart in my chest. If I get any prouder I don't know if I can take it."

IMAGE: Richard Schultz
Last updated: May 1, 2010




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