Growing up, Johnny Earle wanted to be a spy or an ice-cream man, or he wanted to “make sound effects, like the guy from Police Academy,” he said. Growing up, he never dreamed of owning a multimillion dollar clothing line, nor did he dream he’d be voted America’s number one young entrepreneur by Businessweek magazine.
Earle, 26, is “Johnny Cupcakes.” The owner of an incredibly successful clothing company, he lectures at schools and universities across the country on the topic of entrepreneurship - its ups, its downs, and the benefits of working for yourself. Last Thursday, he spoke at UCSB’s I.V. Theater on practical jokes, relationships, and his recipe for success.
He stressed the importance of taking risks and talked about the rewards of following a dream. He shared his story and his business philosophy, and reminded students that with hard work, determination, and attention to detail, they too can be successful entrepreneurs.
Earle never planned to enter the fashion business. But with little education, no investors, and no startup loans, he managed to create the clothing brand that’s attracted a cult-like following. His logo has been tattooed on at least 75 of his customers. His shirts are sold in stores worldwide and he’s clothed Mark Wahlberg, the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, member of the band Gym Class Heroes, and the rapper Murs, among others.
He reminded students Thursday night that commitment and perseverance are central to the art of entrepreneurship. “I don’t drink or do drugs, so when my friends party on the weekends I’ll save a lot of time and money and I’ll just focus on my T-shirts,” he said. “I put all my time and money into my business.”
He shared his personal story in order to prove that entrepreneurship isn’t always glamorous. It involves plenty of risk, but, he said, the returns are invaluable.
As a kid, Earle was innovative, always looking for a way to make a quick buck. He’d sell lemonade on the street, he’d sell his sister’s dolls when she was at school, and in high school he’d sell practical jokes - fart spray, stink bombs, whoopee cushions. He made more money than the school store, and he’d always reinvest that money into purchasing newer and better pranks.
Earle graduated high school in 2000, and joined a metal-hardcore band, On Broken Wings. He was dedicated to touring with his band until, on a whim, he designed a T-shirt depicting the nickname he’d been given by a friend: “Johnny Cupcakes.” And that’s where the story begins.
Fans and passersby were intrigued and started asking questions about Johnny Cupcakes. Was it a bakery? An adult movie store? They wanted to know. They’d ask for shirts and Earle’s orders began to pile up. Soon he was selling his T-shirts out of a beat-up suitcase in the trunk of his car quicker than his band was selling its merchandise.
“Guys thought it was funny, girls thought it was cute,” he said. “So I kept making more, and I kept reinvesting that money into making more shirts.”
He dropped out of college, left the band, broke up with his girlfriend, and quit his job in order to dedicate “110 percent” of his time to designing T-shirts, he said. He started experimenting with new designs, created a Web site and hired his mom and some friends to take care of logistics. He opened a store in Boston, and sold enough T-shirts in one day to pay three months’ rent.
At a Vegas trade show, Earle noticed a few other kids wearing the same sneakers he was wearing. He decided then that he didn’t like wearing the latest fad and instead wanted to keep his style original. He decided then to keep his shirts exclusive and to produce only limited-edition designs.
Even today, Earle hand-numbers some of his shirts, in order to guarantee authenticity and to make his customers “feel special,” he said. He’s consistently turned down offers from chain stores and big-name retailers.
“People like what nobody else has,” he said. “People just appreciate what no one else has and they’re willing to pay a premium for it.”
Thursday night, Earle emphasized that his strategy of re-investing profits into his business is one of the pillars of his success. He reminded students that “you have to spend money to make money” and that building a business is a slow, methodical process.
Earle explained to his listeners that his penchant for detail has also played a big part in his success. He stressed that first impressions are crucial, and that it’s never smart to rush.
“To me it’s more important to have a business that people appreciate and that lasts a little bit longer than making a quick buck,” he said.
And people do appreciate his business. Earle pays attention to the “little things,” he reminded the crowd Thursday night. He prints trivia inside some of his shirts, he sews mini oven-mitts into every shirt, and he takes time to wrap and package each order.
“It’s crazy but I’m doing this because it’s fun - it’s my hobby,” he said. “If I wanted to cut corners and save money, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Earle’s attention to detail is nowhere more evident than in his stores. He’s fashioned his Boston and L.A. spaces to look like real bakeries - he displays T-shirts in curved-glass bakery cases and refrigerators, he’s designed his sizing chart to resemble a nutrition facts label, his employees wear aprons, and he’s hidden vanilla-scented air fresheners throughout. Earle says he’s upset plenty of hungry people that drop into Johnny Cupcakes for a cupcake. But, he adds, even if these people remember his store in a negative light, at least they’ll remember it, and at least they’ll talk about it.
“Some people get really mad, but any time they see a bakery or a cupcake for the rest of their lives they’ll talk about Johnny Cupcakes,” he said. “And the word of mouth is just gonna keep spreading.”
And, as Earle doesn’t advertise, his business depends on this word-of-mouth marketing strategy. He’s worked hard to keep people talking. Before he ships an online order, he’ll throw a toy or a trading card or even a battery into the mix. It’s a funny marketing scheme, but it works.
“As weird as it is, any time that customer sees a battery for the rest of their lives they’re gonna talk about this order they got from Johnny Cupcakes,” he said.
He reminded students Thursday night that if he was able to build a lucrative business around T-shirts and cupcakes, they too can be successful in their endeavors. With hard work, patience, and commitment, anything is possible.
“I just took a lot of risks, put 110 percent into my business and managed my time and money. I tell people all the time that if I can do this with cupcakes, then they can do it with anything,” he said. “T-shirts with cupcakes on them. Seriously. Come on, guys. You can definitely think of something better.”