Life has been very, very good to Bert and John Jacobs — more than $100 million worth of good. And they owe it all to a happy stick figure named Jake.

This story first appeared in the January 13, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The brothers, who started the Life is good Inc. T-shirt business with “no business acumen and no money” in 1994, credit their success to the unrelenting optimism of the human spirit.

When the Jacobs graduated from college in the early Nineties, they “started hawking T-shirts” on the streets of Boston, related Bert Jacobs, chief executive “optimist” of the company in a presentation at the National Retail Federation this week. They soon bought an old van and traveled to colleges around the country, selling their wares to students in dormitories. They slept on the inventory and kept their cash in a box under the passenger seat.

During their down time, Bert said, the brothers would discuss various topics, one of which was the prevalence of bad news in the media. “What does it do to our psyche if we only focus on what’s wrong?” he related. His brother’s answer was an illustration of a smiling face along with three words: Life is good. The brothers created 48 T-shirts sporting the logo and sold them all within 45 minutes, and a business was born.

It wasn’t long before Jake was eating ice cream, riding mountain bikes and hiking, and sales soared. In 1994, sales hit $87,000 and, by 2000, the company had reached $3 million. “And we still hadn’t written a business plan,” Jacobs said. In 2008, the most recent figures reported, volume was $118 million. The key, Jacobs said, is that Jake “celebrates life” and “takes pleasure in the simplest things.”

Although the formula was set, when the terrorist attacks of 2001 hit, Jacobs said that for the first time, “the ‘Life is good’ message was questioned.” A meeting was called and an employee in the shipping department suggested the company run a national fund-raising event. So, a T-shirt was created with a simple American flag illustration with all the proceeds — $207,000 in 60 days — going to the United Way.

Since then, Life is good has embraced the charitable side of its business and has committed to helping children in need. So far, more than $4 million has been raised at festivals around the country and through donations.

Jacobs told NRF attendees that there were several lessons he could impart based on his company’s success. “It’s OK to ask questions,” he said, noting the youngest people in the company often have the best ideas. “It’s OK not to know where you’re going.”

He also recommended business executives simplify their lives and everyone take one hour a day to “unplug” from all the distractions that rule them. “It’s like rebooting your system.” He said to take some tasks off the plate and concentrate on doing the remaining things better.

Jacobs also said instead of blaming others for financial misfortune, “focus on solutions — anybody can complain.”

He said success will come from being innovative and retailers need to find ways to “stop people on the street” by providing some sort of entertainment to their potential customers.

“Celebrate the good things you’ve done,” he concluded. “You’ll be a better leader that way.”

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