How has Bert Jacobs managed to build his apparel company, Life Is Good, into a $100 million business and raise more than $9 million for children's charities? It's all about optimism, said Jacobs, to an audience of like-minded entrepeneurs at the Inc.500|5000 conference today.

In college, Jacobs began designing t-shirts with his brother, John. The two made a meager living selling shirts as they traveled up and down the East coast in a van. Then, after a road trip in 1994, John drew the image that would wind up displayed ubiquitously on their shirts: a smiling face named Jake. Jake symbolized an optimistic antidote to the steady stream of negative messages in the media, Jacobs said--just what the brothers sought to bake into the company. They sold their first 48 Jake shirts in 45 minutes in downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Early on, the brothers welcomed submissions for designs that illustrated an optimistic approach to life. Jake was shown eating ice cream or going on a bike ride. "Our customers took ownership from the very beginning," Jacobs said.

But the Life Is Good message soon went beyond t-shirts. After learning that a young cancer patient, Lindsey Beggan, was a fan of the company's designs, Jacobs was inspired by her refusal to adopt a negative outlook. So in 2000, he and his brother organized a pumpkin festival to raise money for children's charities. The festival became an annual event, and in 2006, attendees set a Guinness world record for the most lit jack o' lanterns at one time. At that event, Life Is Good raised more than $500,000. 

Today, 10% of Life Is Good's profits go to charity, and the company has begun facilitating small fundraising events, by encouraging others to incorporate charity into, for instance, birthday parties. Such efforts have raised more than $5,000 so far.

The social mission at Life Is Good's core doesn't take away from its efforts to make money. The company recently signed a deal to license its designs to the world's largest greeting card company. Jacobs didn't name it, but presumably he means Hallmark. He's even talking about a Life Is Good car, to spread the optimism message beyond apparel.

"I believe that capitalism is the most powerful tool in the world for positive social change," Jacobs said.

Oct 4, 2012