If you’ve ever wandered into Johnny Cupcakes T shirt bakery on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, you know there are no cupcakes to be had. Yet the brand successfully operates several other “bakeries,” including stores in Hull, Boston, and Los Angeles, and has amassed over 150,000 likes on Facebook and more than 126,000 followers on Instagram. Hundreds of fans have even permanently tattooed some of the brand’s iconic imagery on their bodies. Not bad for a brand that sells T shirts out of food containers. On Sunday, owner and founder Johnny Earle, a.k.a. “Johnny Cupcakes,” shared some of his recipes for success with an eager crowd of young entrepreneurs at the Loft in Oak Bluffs, in collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force’s Project Next Initiative.
Recently named America’s No. 1 entrepreneur by Businessweek, Mr. Earle’s success has been marked by creative designs, innovative marketing ideas, humor, hard work, and passion. Mr. Earle began his lecture at the Loft by explaining a bit about himself and his entrepreneurial spirit even at a young age, when he resold candy and magic trick supplies to kids in grade school. He drew many similarities between growing up in the beach town of Hull and Martha’s Vineyard, and noted how he made the best of his short summers, selling cold beverages out of a cooler at the beach. Mr. Earle described how he had a hard time learning and focusing, and enlisted in the local charter school, where he could learn more at his own pace. There, he developed another business idea: the school’s first yearbook, which he made a $1,500 profit from in the eighth grade, by taking preorders and a “calculated risk.”
Mr. Earle continued by sharing countless childhood photos and stressing how important his family was to him, so important that he made it his goal to find a way to make a living while getting to enjoy real quality time with his family every day. Today, Johnny’s mother and sister help him with the business full-time, and his carpenter father helped him build out several of his bakeries.
“People talk about being unhappy [in work], but they rarely do anything about it,” said Mr. Earle. He encouraged the young audience to take charge of their future by identifying their strengths and passions and coming up with original, clever ideas to support their business.
The unique idea for his T shirts first developed while he was an intern at a T shirt printing company in Weymouth. By age 19, he was selling T shirts out of the trunk of his car. When a job at a local record store landed him the nickname “Johnny Cupcakes,” he was inspired to slap it on a T shirt. The rest was history. According to the company’s website, he “wore one to work, and the word spread like wildfire. Everyone wanted one!”
A food-themed clothing brand may seem strange, but Mr. Earle stressed that strange is good: It gets people talking, and builds curiosity. “The Apple store doesn’t sell fruit, why should I sell cupcakes?” he asked the audience. The Johnny Cupcakes logo is a cupcake with crossbones, a design he noted could attract both males and females. Over the past several years, the brand has gained increasing popularity with some of his weirder ideas, including an ice cream truck that sold T shirts in ice cream cartons and oversize pushup pop packaging. His next weird idea is a T shirt that incorporates the Johnny Cupcakes logo and the children’s book character Waldo. The only way to score a T shirt will be to literally find Johnny, out and about, by clues he’ll release on social media.
Mr. Earles said, “With a learning disability and little to no startup money, I was able to launch my quirky ideas into a multimillion-dollar, experience-based T shirt brand with clothing stores set up like vintage bakeries.” He was keen to remind the young audience how important it is to surround yourself with ambitious people who can help you grow. Mr. Earle spoke of weeding out those friends and acquaintances who were negative influences, and noted how much time and money he saved by not partying: “I realized how valuable my time was at a young age.”
He’s also realized how important it is to collaborate with other companies, to collectively share one another’s resources and customer base. Over the years, Johnny Cupcakes has launched successful partnerships with recognizable brands like Hello Kitty, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Simpsons. To promote the partnership with the Simpsons, Mr. Earle packaged the T shirts in Simpsons-branded boxes along with other items like socks, sunglasses, and T shirts, which quickly became collectors’ items. His bakeries actually sold cupcakes for one day (featuring Homer Simpson’s iconic doughnut), and a giant Homer Simpson greeted shoppers at the door. “People thrive off new experiences,” said Mr. Earle, so much so that hundreds of his fans have camped for days to welcome a new bakery or await a new T shirt design. “Make people stop in their tracks,” Mr. Earle said. “People have too many options; why will they take a risk with you?”
His focus on the customer experience ensures that his brand will be memorable, and according to Mr. Earle, “good packaging doesn’t get thrown away. It builds anticipation. It’s like Christmas.” A search of the brand on Instagram yields countless posts of customers opening their T shirts and complimenting the packaging. Johnny even goes so far as to slip personal thank-you notes into some of the shipments. “It builds customer loyalty, and they’re easy things to do along the way,” he said.
A business owner will do many things along the way, and embracing failure is necessary — it’s the only way to figure out what works. “I don’t know anything about business. I just tried a bunch of times, failed, and kept going,” said Mr. Earle. While he noted he’s been able to buy his first home and treat his family to a Disney vacation, he ensures it’s not about the money. “Success is being happy doing what you love,” he said. Apparently confusing people at local “bakeries” is just the icing on the cake.