09/05/2012 06:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What You See Is What You Get

Pessimism is destructive. Realism lacks imagination. Optimism inspires and opens doors.

My brother John and I began selling tee shirts on the streets of Boston in 1989. We had good days and bad. By September of 1994 we were down to $78 between us, but we had a big idea. After a conversation about how the media tends to focus on what's wrong with the world rather than what's right, we decided to create a Superhero whose superpowers would not come from extraordinary physical attributes or his ability to fly, but from his optimistic disposition. We called him Jake, and we placed him on a tee-shirt with three simple words: It worked! Jake saved our fledgling business, The Life is good Company became a lifestyle apparel brand, and our lives were changed forever. Eighteen years later, people still like reminders that it's ok to enjoy life, so we're still doin' our thing. And people still have a soft spot for a superhero who wears flip flops, rides his bike, loves his dog, and plays guitar, so Jake's still doin' his thing too.

The Life is good Company, like most businesses in America, was badly hurt by The Great Recession. In 2008 we peaked at $117 million in sales. In 2009 we shrank to $98 million. The ugly trend continued in 2010 at $88 million. For a company who had experienced nothing but robust growth for fourteen years, this abrupt decline in revenues and profitability caused trauma. Trauma causes fear. Fear causes worry. Reading the papers, we weren't just worried about our company, we were worried about America and the world economy. In 2010, with over 200 salaried employees, it seemed clear that we needed layoffs because we were overbuilt. Then we caught ourselves. If the company built on the power of optimism couldn't do our part to keep and create jobs in America, who could?! How could we just crumble and look Jake in the eye? We couldn't. We didn't.

We held onto 100 percent of our people. We have started to thrive and grow again, and most importantly, we are now hiring!

Here are five tips to join us in putting America back to work:

1. Organizational Health is Number One. Business owners and leaders of struggling companies will almost always look to new technology, new marketing strategies, and personnel changes before looking at their own unhealthy behaviors as the root of their problems. At Life is good, in the heart of the recession, we created a task force of employees whose job was to critique the professional behaviors and practices of the six owners of Life is good (my brother and I have formed a partnership with four of the other leaders at Life is good.) Simply put, we shut up, listened, and ate some humble pie. It turned out that from the top down at our organization we were creating lots of internal confusion, a lack of alignment on overarching strategies, and a culture where people felt underappreciated and frustrated. We didn't mean to do this, but we were guilty. Instead of cutting our people, we have spent the last 18 months cutting dysfunctional behavior from our organization. The results so far are amazing! We are more open and honest with each other, more respectful of each other, more unified as a team, and more productive by far. Employees are excited to come to work again, morale is back up, and our financial performance is getting healthy again too.

2. A Clear Long Term Vision is a Catalyst For Creative Energy and Immediate Action. It was hard to know where to start because everything around looked dismal and scary. We decided to pick our heads up and paint a beautiful picture for inspiration. The picture we painted was 2021, a ten-year brand vision from 2011. We asked questions like, "What are we trying to do with our lives? What do we want to look like in ten years? We imagined a community of fifty million optimists who would see us as a constant source of good vibes -- as the hub of optimism. We imagined all the positive impact that would have on America. We had fun with it too. Then we asked each Business Unit at Life is good (Wholesale, Retail, and E-comm) to create their own vision that would ladder up to our beautiful painting of 2021. Before we knew it, folks were meeting about user-generated content for video from elderly homes, awards for the most optimistic teachers in the country, and second grade art contests asking "What makes life good for you?" We're no experts on macro-economics or the labor market, but we know a sense of humor never hurts. Since times are tough for so many, and most can't go out for lunch or dinner as often as they used to, we created a tee-shirt graphic of a Peanut butter and Jelly sandwich that says, "You complete me." In lean times we need to be grateful for what we have, and we need to recognize that sometimes the little things in life are the big things. Things don't look so scary to us anymore, and we have begun paving the way to 2021.

3. Swing The Bat. At Life is good we sell apparel and accessories to men, women, and children, but we have long said that we're not really an apparel company. "The apparel," we say, "is just a vehicle for important messages." That sounds good, but if we're more than just an apparel company why aren't we making more than just apparel? The answer is because we've just been too conservative with our brand. When you start losing everything, like we did in the recession, you ask yourself simple questions like, "What are we afraid of?" and "What are we waiting for?" After some discussion about this, I penned a brief e-mail to the owner of one of America's largest greeting card companies. I told him we have almost two decades of great tee-shirt designs that might make great greeting cards. He responded promptly and positively, adding that he has a Life is good hat he likes to wear on the weekends. After some meetings, a BBQ and a couple of beers, we are close to signing a great licensing deal. We expanded our horizons by creating many new touch points for our brand. We stayed true to our mission: To Spread The Power of Optimism. And we created new jobs at both their company and ours. Although we're also cautious about moving too fast, we are currently looking for the best chemistry with partners in the Footwear industry, the Pet Products industry, Home, Office Products, Food and Beverage, and more. How can we build our community of optimists through these markets? How many new jobs can we create in these markets? We're even talking to the automotive industry. What would a Life is good Edition car look like?

4. CEO's and Marketing Executives Don't Build Brands, Customers Do. Anyone who's paying attention out there has noticed that for the first time in the history of the world consumers have taken control of businesses. The digital communication tools of the Information Age have empowered consumers. If they don't like you, they can tear your business down. If they do like you, they can build your business up. This means if we know what's good for us, we had better know who our customers are and what they like or don't like about us. Thankfully, LIG has a strong and supportive customer base. They have built our business from the beginning. And it seems as though they have an accurate picture of John, myself and our company. We're not the smartest people in the world, but we have a brand concept that hits home to them, we're fun people, and we've always tried hard to do the right thing. In the process of building our 2021 Vision it became clear to us that our customers probably know more about us than we do about them. So we hired a third party (more Americans going to work) to identify, interview, analyze, and summarize our best customers. They started online, but then traveled the country to find out who loves us and why. They sat at little league games and backyard barbeques. They sat in our customers living rooms and soaked it all in. What did we learn? A lot. We have a far more detailed picture of who are best customers are and how to service them. For example, we now know the four primary emotions those customers associate with our brand. So what do we do with all this information? We spend our resources more efficiently and we target our best existing customers. Why? Because a 5 percent increase in customer loyalty can nearly double our profitability. Because an existing customer is five times more likely to buy from us than a new customer. (Data courtesy of The Cult Branding Company). And because servicing our best customers empowers them to spread the word and find us new customers. As we grow our business by knowing our best customers and servicing them, we will segment into specialized Product Development, Marketing, Sales, and Operational teams that will create more jobs.

5. Make Capitalism the Good Guy. Even more important to a new phase of growth and hiring for Life is good has been our commitment to create a company that blurs the line between for-profit and non-profit (Shhhhhhh... don't tell the government). At Life is good we have a deep-seated belief that businesses for-profit are the most powerful tools for positive social change on earth. Why? Because we have resources, we have built-in communication touch points where we sell our products, and we can make it easy for the masses to help. Of equal importance, if we're authentic and successful with social work that matters to our customers, they will be loyal to us and help to build our businesses. Cause-related Marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility are fine, but today's consumers want and deserve more. If you want your customers to help you make the world a better place, and if you want them to truly join hands with your business, you must integrate the right social work into everything you do. At Life is good, in the middle of the recession, we merged a non-profit (formerly known as Project Joy) into our Kids Foundation and rebranded the new organization as The Life is good Playmakers. This is our accredited 501(c)(3) public charity, whose mission is to help kids overcome poverty, violence and illness. Doing so created several more important jobs. Every year, we donate 10 percent of our annual net profits to Life is good Playmakers. The universal message to our customers is simple: When you do business with Life is good, you help kids in need. now provides a customizable fundraising functionality via Life is good Events. We empower our community of optimists to fundraise all year long, turning kids' birthday parties or Monday Night Football at your neighbor's house into fundraisers for kids who need help. Since implementing the fundraising tools online, our E-comm revenues have increased by 25 percent, which in turn is enabling us to post new open positions in that department. We also throw our own fundraising events, like The Life is good Festival this September 22-23 featuring Dave Mathews. In one weekend we'll raise over $1 million for the kids. Guess what -- we need people to run big events like that. We're spending money, but our customers believe in us and as a result they're loyal to our business. Our dedication to helping kids is important to them and they express that to us over and over. "Keep it up," they say, and "we'll build your business with you."

I take my orders from Jake. He may be skinny, but he carries a big hammer, and his message is loud and clear: Don't knock it, build it.