First published in Renegade Collective, March 2014
In a world that often equates work with drudgery, it’s easy to overlook the things that feel like play. But for Johnny Earle, the founder and CEO of Johnny Cupcakes – a left-field T-shirt empire that matches its obsession with pop culture with a reverence for baked goods – real success starts when you begin to pay attention to the moments that light you up.
“When I was nineteen and working in a record shop in Massachusetts, Newbury Comics, I was given all these nicknames by my co-workers,” Earle laughs. “When I was late for work, they called me Johnny Come Lately. And then, out of nowhere they called me Johnny Cupcakes. In response, I made up a couple of T-shirts with cupcakes printed on them as a joke and wore them to work. Strangers would come into the store and ask where they could get those shirts. It made them smile.”
When I meet Earle in the lobby of the Four Seasons, near Sydney’s Circular Quay, it’s clear that his dizzying trajectory has done nothing to dampen this trademark irreverence. Earle’s $US5.2 million dollar company may have attracted a Young Entrepreneur of the Year title from industry bible BusinessWeek but his outfit – jeans and a black hoodie emblazoned with his brand’s signature cupcakes-and-crossbones logo – recalls an ex-metal musician who hoards vintage comics and offbeat product packaging, not someone caught up in the trappings of striking entrepreneurial gold.
But, then, entrepreneurial gold was never the point. “I was just printing T-shirts that poked fun at popular culture, whether it was replacing the Statue of Liberty’s torch with a cupcake or a plane dropping cupcakes instead of bombs.” Earle says. “The brand kept growing, word-of-mouth kept spreading and while my friends were out partying Thursday to Saturday and recovering on Sunday, I spent that time putting 110 percent into my company.”
Earle’s efforts paid off. Although the fledgling business owner had been selling his creations to fans of his metal band from his battered Camry, customer demand meant that it was time to change tack – he set up an online store and transformed his parents’ house into a makeshift stockroom and his loyalists followed suit. Copyrighting his designs and scraping together the funds to attend a Las Vegas trade show saw his market presence grow in leaps and bounds – Earle was inundated with orders from the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy and started taking meetings with dream suppliers such as Macy’s and Urban Outfitters.
“I stopped watching TV, I made the choice not to party or drink,” he says. “It saved me so much time and money – things that you can never get back.”
Earle’s single-mindedness is a childhood affliction. In elementary school, the serial prankster doled out whoopee cushions and candy in between classes and graduated to lemonade stands and yard sales before selling drinks on the beach.
“I would see my parents come home upset from their day jobs and in the back of my head, I told myself that I was going to work for myself and support them one day,” he says. “I grew up with a lot of troublemakers. When my friends sold drugs, I sold candy.”
Newbury Street, a moneyed Boston avenue lined with elegant 19th century townhouses, seems half a world away from Hull, the hometown that accommodated Earle’s early endeavours. But in 2006, the entrepreneur, armed with a $90,000 bank loan and unshakable faith in his product, made the glossy thoroughfare the site of his second flagship store.
“I had opened my first store in a boat garage down the street from my parents and then I opened in the city of Boston,” he recalls. “It was crazy because the rent was insanely high and I had no investors. It was a big risk.”
Earle shouldn’t have worried. The store’s grand opening was met by a 500-strong crowd of fans desperate for limited edition T-shirts that remixed slogans and reinvented images with cartoonish flair – Johnny Cupcakes made 300 percent of his rent in just 24 hours.
“I created all my early designs on my computer,” admits Earle, who’s since opened stores on LA’s Melrose Avenue and London’s Carnaby Street. “I had no formal design training, no business or marketing training – just a lot of things that I was really passionate about.”
Earle’s talent for risk-taking goes beyond the financial. He transforms his stores into vintage bakeries, complete with industrial ovens, baking racks and vanilla-scented air-freshener, seducing customers and toppling retail paradigms in the process. He cut ties with department stores and suppliers, swapping money for exclusivity and control over his brand – he was rewarded with deeper relationships and a worldwide following of fans. And he stuffs his T-shirts in cake mix boxes accompanied with batteries, trading cards or hand-written notes, an investment in customer experience that makes every customer feel like it’s their birthday.
“We’ll put random surprises in every order – so if someone buys a shirt from our website, you might get a Ninja Turtle trading card or maybe an action figure,” he grins, confessing that he’s also been known to treat his fans to ice-cream, via meet-ups organised via social media. “Retailers think that by saving money on that stuff it costs them more in the long run but if I take my advertising budget and invest it into building a one-of-a-kind experience, I won’t even have to advertise – because everyone’s talking about it.”
So, what happens when your addictive brand of playfulness sparks cupcake tattoos across your legions of fans? “Although I was disturbed when I saw the first one, I found out that customers were inspired to quit unhealthy lifestyles or start their own businesses,” he says. “I started listening to people’s stories and realised that there’s meaning behind everything.”