Life Is Good, Listen to People, and More Takeaways from Bert Jacobs at MassChallenge

10/25/11Follow @gthuang

Life is not good when you lose your notes from one of the best keynotes you’ve seen in a while. In fact, life kind of sucks. Nevertheless, I will recount my top five takeaways from Bert Jacobs, the co-founder and CEO of Life Is Good, the Boston-based apparel maker and retail brand. He spoke at last night’s MassChallenge awards gala, wearing a T-shirt and cap, and throwing Frisbees into the audience over great distances.

Maybe it’s better that I don’t have my notes to fall back on. Jacobs said a lot of entertaining, inspiring stuff over the course of the story of his company, but what I can remember now is ultimately what will stick with me (and others, I imagine):

1. “Life was good” even when Jacobs and his brother (and co-founder) John were living out of a van for weeks at a time, hawking T-shirts on the road. That was in the early ‘90s. Life was good because they were pursuing their dream and believed in what they were doing, despite the hardships and not selling much.

2. “People will give you the answers if you listen.” The Jacobs brothers went with their signature stick-figure smiley “Jake” design (see image above) in 1994 after it resonated with a bunch of their friends. The design turned out to have incredibly broad commercial appeal. So listen to people, don’t just talk all the time, he said. The best ideas will usually come from other people.

3. “Do what’s in your heart.” That sounds obvious, but it can be hard when you’re worried about getting customers and making money every day. Jacobs found that organizing benefit events for children and worthy causes have come back to help his company a hundred-fold.

4. “All our culture needs is a little leadership and an opportunity.” Life Is Good exists in part to counteract what Jacobs sees as rampant negativity in popular culture and the media (who, us?). He wants the brand to stand for all that is positive and optimistic in the world. And really, that’s why he is so inspiring to the startup community and especially to entrepreneurs, who must believe in their business against all odds.

5. “We do what we like, and we like what we do.” This is pretty much the motto of Life Is Good. The company has grown to $100 million in annual revenue and has no plans to go public or be acquired, Jacobs said. Rather, the firm is trying to go global, take risks in new product areas, and become a billion-dollar business. (Though Jacobs said, “I don’t even know what 100 million is. After my brother and I got new mountain bikes, we didn’t know what to do.”)

Overall, a really fun talk, and perfect for the evening. A broader theme I’ve been noticing is that entrepreneurs never know what they’re doing from the start. Really, nobody knows. The successful ones figure it out over time, with a little help. But each journey is different. So startups, keep fighting out there…

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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