When John and Bert Jacobs were kids, their mother would look around the dinner table and say, “Tell me something good that happened today.”
As origin stories go, that one -- for the $100-million apparel company Life is Good -- is pretty low-key. But it reminds us that great businesses are not solely the products of revelatory market insights or mind-shattering innovations. In their new book, Life is Good: How to Live with Purpose and Enjoy the Ride, (National Geographic, 2015) the Jacobs brothers describe a rollicking entrepreneurial journey that began as a fun way to scrape out a living and evolved into the expression of a simple philosophy based on optimism. That philosophy -- laid out in 10 “superpowers” that are the company’s core values -- is instructive whether you want to be a better person or build a better business.
There’s a lot less sturm und drang in Life is Good than in most business memoirs. Bert and John Jacobs are the entrepreneurial equivalent of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: a couple of eager, naïve kids itching to put on a show in the barn. Beginning in 1990 the brothers traversed the east coast in their “burgundy soccer mom minivan,” dorm-storming colleges with duffle bags full of T-shirts. In their hometown Boston, they sold shirts from card tables, howling at the heavens when a sudden storm drenched their merchandise (much to the delight of onlookers).
Those and other tales of against-all-odds scrappiness illustrate the superpower “Courage:” defined here as the ability to overcome adversities large and small. Each chapter is devoted to a superpower (the others are Openness, Simplicity, Humor, Gratitude, Compassion, Fun, Creativity, Authenticity, and Love). And each intersperses the Jacobs’ story with the optimism-powered stories of their family, friends, and customers. The Jacobs call these stories “Fuel” because they are what keep the Life is Good team going.
Fuel in the form of customer letters is particularly powerful. One reproduced here is from a 10-year-old boy who had a leg amputated at birth and whose twin brother is blind. (“Me and Nicky have all of your shirts with the things we like doing best…. You’re lucky to have a brother too. I hope you do fun things together!”). Such testaments to the deep connections people form with Life is Good’s message -- and by extension its products -- make conventional screeds on brand-building seem superficial by comparison.
Scattered throughout the book are nuggets of actionable advice, most of it common-sense rather than revelatory. (Invite rejection; infuse humor into your meetings; eschew people, possessions, and activities that don’t create positive energy in your life.) The Jacobs don’t pretend to be masters of tactics and strategy: rather, they are masters of attitude. That distinction is most clear in their chapter on gratitude, where they urge readers to think about their chores and responsibilities not as things they “have to do” but as things they “get to do” -- because they have free minds and working bodies and live in a society where most basic needs are covered. Maximize what you have, preach most business books. Appreciate what you have, counter the Jacobs.
Again and again the Jacobs return to the subject of children, who are their inspiration and the object of Life is Good’s philanthropy. (At least 10% of profits are devoted to children’s causes. Playmakers, the company’s non-profit arm, trains and supports professionals who help vulnerable kids.) Children, the Jacobs point out, are the ultimate optimists: they possess the superpowers in abundance until experience and maturity take their toll. The challenge, then, is not learning to live well but rather re-learning it. For business leaders, that translates as recalling who they were before earning the first line on their resumes.
With their recommendations for funny movies and tales of being chased by pitchfork-wielding farmers, the Jacobs brothers are boisterous good company. But their high spirits are given ballast by the suffering they have seen and their desire to make things better. They are optimists, but also realists. Yes, this is a book about how to build a particular kind of business. But it also a compilation of best practices for being human.