Sweet success

Johnny Earle

Johnny Earle, founder of Johnny Cupcakes, offers startup advice to MIT Sloan students

Johnny Earle, the 30-year-old founder of Johnny Cupcakes, a T-shirt retailer with stores in Boston, Los Angeles and London, spoke to students last month in the Entertainment, Media, and Sports (EMS) club about the out-of-the-box thinking that drives his business.

Earle told students about his success story — starting with his first adventure into the business world back in the eighth grade. In middle school and later high school, Earle sold yearbooks, candy and joke items such as itching powder and whoopee cushions to his classmates. Soon he was making up to $1,000 a week selling “better” candy than was offered in the school’s store. But funds raised from the school’s candy sales supported events, and Earle was asked to shut down his business.

After giving college a brief try, Earle joined a band and worked at Newbury Comics. While there he was given many nicknames, but the one he liked the best was “Johnny Cupcakes.” He put the nickname on a few T-shirts and sold them out of the trunk of his car.

“People kept asking for the shirts,” Earle said. “People like what no one else has. My concept is strange, but strange is good. It gets people talking. Try to have 10 things that make your skills different or unique from everyone else. Think outside of the box.”

Seeking a market for his shirts, Earle began to work full-time on the venture. His unique designs that poke fun of popular culture were a hit. He rented a warehouse in Hull, Mass., and hired his parents and his sister to work for the company. He quickly outgrew the warehouse and took a chance and expanded his business to Boston’s popular Newbury Street.

With little to no advertising, word-of-mouth buzz spread about the grand opening of the store. More than 400 customers showed up on the first day and the company has grown ever since.

“Sometimes it’s less about the product and more about the experience,” Earle said. “Experiences give people memories and then they want to come back to your store. It’s all about how you reinvent yourself.”

To help his brand stand out, Earle had tags made in the shape of oven mitts sewn into his shirts. Online orders are often shipped with fun prizes such as trading cards or candy — all in an effort to get people talking about his brand. His stores have bakery display cases holding his T-shirts and oven doors that intermittently open and send out puffs of steam.

“I’m not always thinking about the bottom line, which can be dangerous sometimes. I’m thinking about the experiences and the details,” Earle said. “Sometimes you don’t get taught about that stuff as much as you should. At the end of the day, it’s these things that separate your brand, your ideas, and your business from everyone else.”

Throughout his talk, Earle sprinkled in pieces of career advice for students. Basic tips like having a firm handshake, looking people in the eye, having a business card that stands out and working at as many internships as possible, were just a few of the suggestions he offered.

“Utilize the resources here on campus,” Earle said. “Network with the people around you. You never know who is going to be a future business partner or customer. Learn from someone else’s mistakes. Hopefully, that’s what you’re doing right now … learning from my past 12-20 years of mistakes.”

True to his word, Earle made his talk unique. He left small bags with prizes under all the seats in the classroom. Johnny Cupcakes stickers, buttons, candy and coupons had everyone smiling, laughing and talking … about his brand.

Topics: Business, Business and management, Business development, Clubs and activities, Marketing, Special events and guest speakers, Startups, Students, Graduate, postdoctoral

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