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The founders of Life Is Good—a $100 million lifestyle brand known for its T-shirts, hats, and other accessories that share an optimistic message—almost gave it all up when they were down to their last $78. But they kept going.
That backstory of Life Is Good—including the origin of the smiling stick figure named Jake seen on the company’s products—is all part of what company president Lisa Tanzer, J89, shared in a recent conversation. Tanzer emphasizes the importance of knowing what you stand for when it comes to the corporate brand, and she gives essential advice to students and business leaders alike, including the most important lesson she’s learned in her career.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day. Chances are you’re familiar with Life Is Good, the $100 million lifestyle brand known for its T-shirts, hats, and other accessories that share an optimistic message. But do you know about the company’s humble beginnings? The founders almost gave it all up when they had $78 left to their names—but they didn’t. So, what made them keep going?
That backstory of Life Is Good—including the origin of the smiling stick figure named Jake whom you see on the company’s products—is all part of what company president—and Tufts graduate—Lisa Tanzer shared in her recent conversation with Tufts University’s Katie McLeod Strollo. Here, Tanzer emphasizes the importance of knowing what you stand for when it comes to the corporate brand, and she gives essential advice to students and business leaders alike, including the most important lesson she’s learned in her career. Let’s listen in.
KATIE STROLLO: Thank you for joining us today, Lisa. You were appointed president of Life is Good in 2016, and before this, you were the company’s head of marketing. You’ve also served on the board of directors of the Life is Good Kids Foundation for more than twenty years. Can you tell us how Life Is Good started and, specifically, we would love to hear from you the story behind the name: why “Life Is Good”?
LISA TANZER: So, it’s an interesting story. The company was founded by two brothers, Bert and John Jacobs. Right when they graduated from college, they decided that they wanted to make T-shirts. They were artists, and T-shirts seemed like a really accessible vehicle for them. So they printed up T-shirts and they took a van, and they drove up and down the East Coast.
I really think they didn’t want to get real jobs and they wanted to stay in college because they visited a lot of college campuses and tried to sell their t-shirt designs. And they didn’t really have a direction for those designs. They would try different things and as they say in their own words—not mine—they were wildly unsuccessful. After about five years, they were about to give up. They were running out of money, they would sleep in the van most of the time, and then they would go back home maybe every two or three months.
On one road trip back, they were talking about, “We should probably give this up. We have $78 left. We’ve tried for five years.” The conversation turned to the news, “Why is the news so negative? Why is everything that we hear is so negative?” And they said, “Well, what would happen maybe if we made T-shirts that had a more positive message to them?” After these trips, what they would do is they would go home to their apartment. They would draw. They put all their drawings up on the walls, and their friends would come over for a keg party, and they would write little notes about them.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Life Is Good, but one of our main characters is this happy face called Jake. One of the brothers drew Jake, and somebody else wrote the words “Life Is Good” underneath it. When they woke up in the morning—their apartment probably looked like a mess because they had had a huge party—a lot of notes were on the Life Is Good Jake picture that they had up there. Somebody wrote, “Hey, this guy has got it all figured out,” and they said, “Hey, why don’t we print up some shirts that look like this?” They printed up forty-eight shirts with just the Jake face and the words “Life Is Good.” They went to Harvard Square, and they sold them out on the street. They would often go to these street fairs.
What they said happened was that they sold forty-eight shirts in about forty-five minutes. They probably hadn’t sold forty-eight shirts in a month or two months right before, and what they noticed is that people from all walks of life. It didn’t matter what the demographic was—young people, older people, there’s Harley guys, conservative teachers—everybody resonated to this happy-guy face with the words “Life Is Good.” They started to produce more, and then they went up and down the Cape and try to go sell to beach shops and the like. It started to take off.
At first, it was really a celebration of Life is Good in celebrating simple pleasures, but then the brand evolved to be much more than that.
STROLLO: What is it about the spirit of optimism that’s so contagious? What are some examples that you could kind of talk about that you’ve seen with the power behind optimism?
TANZER: It goes back to the founding story of the brand. Like I said, originally it was, “Let’s celebrate this character Jake at the beach. Let’s celebrate him eating ice cream. Let’s celebrate him biking.” The company took off in those days. It grew to about $3 million.
But something happened: people were starting to write them letters. People would write letters who were facing adversity. There were two young brothers. They were eleven. They wrote a letter to Bert and John. One was born blind and one was born without a leg, and they said, “Hey, we wear your shirts every day. We wear them as a celebration to remind us of all the good things we have in the world.” Or they would get a lot of letters from people who were fighting cancer and who would wear Life Is Good to all of their chemo appointments, just to remind them how positive thinking can change their perspective on a day. I think that’s the answer to the question there.
It’s contagious because if you’re using it, you can overcome and look at things a lot differently. You can either focus on the bad or focus on the good. Optimism provides people with the tools that they need to focus on the good no matter what they’re facing, and that is contagious. I think when you’re around somebody who’s optimistic or hear someone’s story who is facing a setback who’s using optimism, you want to embrace more of that yourself. What started as simple pleasures for Life Is Good has really grown into a mission-driven company, which is about spreading the power of optimism.
STROLLO: I actually noticed that you use the #thisisoptimism to help elicit photos and moments from your followers who you call the Good Vibe Tribe. You’re getting people sharing—it looks like from around the world—photos of them wearing Life Is Good T-shirts and other accessories and talking about these moments that are impacting them in a positive way. Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the #thisisoptimism hashtag, why you chose that to tie that in with the Life Is Good brand, and is it working?
TANZER: It goes back to those early stories that I was telling you about. Those two brothers, for example, their names are Nick and Alex. They got the letter from them—I’m going to guess that was probably before 2000. Life Is Good itself was about five years old. What happened was in 2015, we did a road trip. It was our twentieth anniversary. We upgraded the van that they used to live in; we got an Airstream. We went across the country to raise money to help kids, but more importantly, we went back and met a lot of the people who have written us letters over the years, and we started to film their stories.
We had never shared these letters. Before those letters were in a drawer, you know, “Business is tough”—all these kind of things—“let’s read to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.” We started to publicly share the stories, videos, or blog posts from a lot of people that we’ve met. What we found was when we did that other people wanted to share their stories: “Maybe my story can help somebody else.” And that’s how the #thisisoptimism came about. These people are the faces of optimism. They are optimism. Listen to what they’ve done. Listen to how they’ve overcome illnesses, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs.
A young girl wrote us a letter saying, “I saw the story about the two brothers who were younger and had disabilities. I was burned in a fire. I have third-degree burns all over my body. I don’t know a lot of other kids, but I’m sure they’re out there who have this. I want to talk to them.” #Thisisoptimism is a statement of, these are the people who are doing it and people want to belong, too. That’s why it’s called the Good Vibe Tribe; they want to belong to the tribe. A simple way of wearing a Life Is Good shirt or hashtagging a picture says, “I believe in this philosophy, and I want to share a little bit about it.”
STROLLO: With other business leaders in mind, I’d love to talk a little bit more about the importance of successful branding. Considering the effectiveness of this company’s name, when you talk to people looking to start their own company, what are your tips, especially in today’s mobile and social media-focused world?
TANZER: First of all, branding is you need to know what you stand for. Life Is Good, it’s really clear what we stand for. We’re standing for the power of optimism. We don’t waver from that in anything that we do. You have to make it simple for the consumer to understand your value proposition. But, for us, successful branding is making your customers your marketing. The stories of other people, the things people share—they’re marketing for us. They’re saying that they’re loyal, and it’s a lot more authentic coming from people who use the brand than it is coming from us saying, “Hey, listen, this is how you should be optimistic, and this is what you should do, and here are the life lessons”—if you can make your consumers or your customers, depending what segment you’re in, into the advocates for your brand.
STROLLO: Can you tell us a little bit more about your work with the Life Is Good Kids Foundation? You have been on the board of directors for more than twenty years, and you were one of the founding directors. What type of work does the foundation do specifically, and what will it be doing as it moves into the future?
TANZER: Yeah. I’ll back up the story a little bit from when I graduated from Tufts because it will help you understand how the Life Is Good Kids Foundation came to be. A friend of mine from high school started a nonprofit called Project Joy. Project Joy was a local organization that was helping homeless kids find self-esteem and feel good about themselves through the use of play. At the same time that he was starting that, I became his first board member, honestly, because he legally needed a board, and I had a job, so I decided to help him out.
At the same time that we were doing Project Joy, Life Is Good was starting, and it was starting to get these letters from the people who we talked about—a lot of them young kids who were facing adversity. The founders started to give us money through Project Joy; they wanted to donate some of their profits.
So, over the years, Life Is Good gave Project Joy a significant amount of funding, and then decided, “You know what, we don’t want to be giving money to different organizations. We actually want to do the work ourselves.” This Project Joy—this local organization that had grown nationally by that point, helping kids overcome poverty, violence, and illness—became the Life is Good Kids Foundation.
At that point, the company decided that they would donate 10 percent of their net profits to the Life is Good Kids Foundation. The work that we do is very similar—it’s aligned. We’re helping kids find optimism. We’re helping them find joy through relationships with others, through their caregivers, through their teachers, through their hospital workers if that’s the condition that they’re in. The missions are similar; the delivery is different.
STROLLO: Looking back over the course of your career, you have experience in product marketing and strategy, having worked at several companies, including Hasbro, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Gillette Company. And you’ve also held executive positions in the entertainment, e-commerce, and education sectors. Given everything that you’ve accomplished in your career, what would you say is the most important business lesson you’ve learned so far?
TANZER: To me, it’s don’t be afraid to ask for help. You don’t know all the answers. I had a lot of skills coming into this job, I think, that were really well-suited for the job, and there were definitely things I didn’t know. I had never worked in soft goods; I had never worked in apparel. You come in and if you’re willing to ask people and say, “You know what, I’m not sure I understand this. Can you explain it to me?”
And get your network both in the company and outside of the company to check your ego a little bit and seek to learn and understand. When you do that, I feel like the people around you—maybe the people who work on your team or the people who work throughout the organization—then they’re not afraid to ask for help and not afraid to say, “I don’t know all the answers here.” That saved me a lot of times. I have a lot of people who I can call on, but I also see in our company now that’s the culture that people have, and you make less mistakes that way.
STROLLO: You mentioned Tufts earlier, and you’re a 1989 graduate of the university. I’m sure this advice that you just mentioned will certainly help students, but is there any other advice that you’d like to offer for students who are really thinking hard about how they can get into the job market and start their careers?
TANZER: Yeah, definitely. You can’t go the traditional route. If you want something, you need to really go for what you want. My dad’s friend told me I should do management consulting. I really didn’t know what that was, but it sounded good. He said, “You can learn about a lot of different businesses.”
I applied to two places on campus. They had these case-study interviews that were super-complicated. I did not understand them, and so I wasn’t prepared. And then I was very persistent. Was it Yellow Pages at the time? No Internet. I applied to all the consulting firms that were in the Yellow Pages, and they all rejected me because there were no jobs except for one, which was Coopers & Lybrand, now PricewaterhouseCoopers.
I called that woman every three months. I’m like, “Hey, here I am.” They finally said, “Come in. I don’t think we have a job for you. We can send you back to be an accountant,” and then it occurred to her, “Gosh, we keep one junior researcher on our strategy team. They’re going to need someone; she’s going to business school.” That’s how I got that job. I think if you want something, don’t be overly aggressive, but go for what you want. Make people know you. Network your way in. I think the power of relationships is critical.
I developed a relationship with a recruiter over a course of nine months. I didn’t take her first rejection as a no, so that way, we got to know each other. Then, when an opportunity came up I was top of mind with her. I think you need to develop authentic relationships. Don’t use somebody just because they can help you in the moment, but over the course of your career and the course of your job searches, develop a true connection with people.
STROLLO: What about for young women? What advice can you share with women who are really looking up to you and hoping to become business leaders themselves?
TANZER: My advice to women would be the same as my advice to men, so I don’t think it’s any different. Be yourself. Be courageous. Be curious. Be the person who goes and asks questions or takes on the extra assignment, that really seeks to learn and develop good relationships. Whether you’re male or female, those are the core skills. Now, some women might say, “Oh, I need to act more like a man.” No, just be who you are, and who you are will lead you down that path.
STROLLO: Thank you so much. It really has been such a pleasure speaking with you today, Lisa. We’re very grateful for your time, and we just want to thank you so much.
TANZER: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at [email protected]. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. This episode was edited by Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Tufts Alumni Boston Business Leadership Series. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.