The Man Behind The Johnny Cupcakes Brand Shares With Us The Secrets of His Success.
By Heather Abbott on Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 5:33 PM
Meet Johnny Earle. He's kind of an awesome guy, even if most people know him by another name.
Those people call him Johnny Cupcakes.
It's a name he exploits on his own, for sure. It is, after all, the name of his limited edition T-shirt company, which is family-run, fully independent and quite the success story.
That story starts back in the year 2000. While working for a screen-printer, Earle was just messing around some in the shop when he took the "Johnny Cupcakes" nickname he'd been called a couple of times, illustrated it into a cupcake-and-crossbones design and screen-printed himself a shirt.
It wasn't long before he was inundated with requests from friends for their own copies of the shirt design. Everything else just kind of took flight from there.
While on tour with his then band, On Broken Wings, Earle would sling T-shirts from the trunk of his '89 Toyota Camry. Eventually, though, he parted ways with the band and quit his day job. The Johnny Cupcakes brand demanded that kind of time and attention. And, by 2007, he was a multi-millionaire.
That's a weird title for Earle to wear, though. He was always a bit of a prankster growing up. In school, he sold prankster packs (things like whoopee cushions and fake cockroaches purchased wholesale) to other students. Later, he outsold the school candy store with his own sweet sales.
So, when you get down to it, perhaps the millionaire role the recently turned 30-year-old is currently playing is just his greatest prank of all. Because here's the thing: There exists a contingent of prospective Johnny Cupcakes customers that walk into his stores excitedly only to walk out disappointed. These patrons are usually looking for fluffy, no-carb, no-sugar cupcakes -- Earle's own advertisements imply as much. But, instead, these people find a shop filled with apparel and accessories.
If they take the time to let the surprise wash over them, they usually find something else pretty special, though. If nothing else, Earle's customer relationships and attention to detail are remarkable. Sure, his brand tricks people on a regular basis -- but that's just because his branding is so on-point. From vanilla-scented stores to sprinkles in his product boxes, the Johnny Cupcakes brand is not only cohesive, but interactive. It's a rewarding and emotional experience.
And, as part of that experience, Earle is currently taking his brand on his second road tour to better interact with his fans. That tour, called the Coffin Tour, hits Dallas on Sunday, October 21, at the Henderson Avenue We Are 1976 location.
It's free to attend, you can meet Earle in person and, in addition to super limited edition T-shirts on deck at each stop, there will also be cupcakes.
In anticipation of this upcoming stop, we reached out to Earle to learn a little more about his background, his brand and his business philosophies.
How many people do you employ with Johnny Cupcakes these days?
I've been able to employ my family. My mom, my dad, my sister, my cousins, my friends. I've got about 50 employees now.
How is it, working with friends and family?
It's been really good! Everyone cares about it just as much as me. I hired my mom on as my CFO. She was able to eventually quit that job in the city that used to take a lot of time from her hanging with the family. For me to be able to hire my own mom, that's been one of my biggest personal accomplishments. My sister, after she graduated college, she came on board to do all our human resources. My dad helps out building the stores. I couldn't ask for anything else.
Tell us a little about your brick-and-mortar stores.
Every Johnny Cupcakes shop is set up like an old fashioned bakery. We display all of our shirts inside of refrigerators, ovens. You buy a shirt and they come in food boxes. The stores even smell like vanilla frosting because we hide vanilla-scented car fresheners. We do trick a lot of people. We trick hungry people every single day. Our advertisements say "Zero carb! Zero fat! Zero sugar!" and it's true. It's all fiber, it's all 100 percent cotton. I have a store in my hometown, which is outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I have a store inside of Boston, Massachusetts, on Newbury Street. I have a store in Los Angeles, California, on Melrose Avenue. And I have a store in London on Carnegie Street.
You've done some work now with Nickelodeon and Hello Kitty. How has it been working with these other brands?
Nickelodeon is something I grew up on. I used to skip school dances to stay home and catch Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Ren & Stimpy. It's been a dream to some day work with Nickelodeon. Our customers were excited about it; we gave out cups of cereal to go along with the Saturday morning cartoon theme. Working with Hello Kitty was wonderful, and we're doing another collaboration with them this October. We've done some stuff with Warner Bros, Looney Toons and, every now and then, we do things with smaller brands as well. It's a good way to mix things up and expose yourself to new customers, as well as exposing another company to our customers, so you sort of cross-pollinate and help each other out. It's a good thing.
Would you say that doing these collaborations is a more appropriate way for Johnny Cupcakes to open itself up to new customers and a new demographic -- as oppose to doing wholesale with Urban Outfitters, for example?
Totally. When you sell your products to another store, depending on your brand, some of the magic gets lost. You have no control how somebody is going to represent your brand, your product, the customer service. That's always been important for me. From the beginning, I decided to turn down offers from Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom, Macy's, Barney's, Hot Topic -- the list goes on. I know how I felt when I started seeing some of my favorite brands being sold through all of these stores, and I'm happy for them that they can grow, but, like I said, some of the magic gets lost. The brand doesn't become as special over time. My way isn't the right way; this is just what has worked for me. I have decided to make that decision and come up with other fun ways, like opening stores or hosting events or collaborating with other cool brands. There's millions of ways to do it and no way is the right way or the wrong way. It's completely different for everybody. For my brand, it's very important to protect the longevity and the experience of it.
It seems like doing these tours also gives you another way to advertise, to share with your customers and to put even more detail into your brand.
I figured there are all these customers, supporters, and fans all over the U.S., and I figured it'd be a good experience for them and for us to drive around the U.S. and open a one-day Johnny Cupcakes store. Almost every state, every city, and bring the experience to them and through these events, not only do they have fun, but we get to introduce these customers to other customers.
I've seen people meet their best friends and even significant others through the brand. This tour, we'll have a Halloween twist and be selling spooky-themed T-shirts and partnering with other businesses. It will be a blast.
On your Suitcase Tour, you stopped at We Are 1976 in Dallas. What brought you to them as a location and what brings you back to them on this second tour?
Just the energy alone. It's run by a bunch of positive people and everything that they curate and represent, from hosting little workshops to the products that they sell to the way that they do business is very unique and very endearing. I fell in love with We Are 1976 the second I found out about them, and I reached out. We like to do these with as many small businesses as we can, because we want to introduce my whole world of customers to these really cool projects, people and businesses. So we decided to do it at We Are 1976, and it was a great turnout. They were great hosts and they told me that it was one of their favorite memories. They were very thankful and I thought we'd do it again there. I've got a really good feeling about it.
How in the world do you do all of this? Traveling from stop to stop on your tour, state to state. Tops, you have maybe a few days between your travel stops. Then you get to your location and the party is already set up, the line of people are there waiting for you, and you spend the whole night visiting with fans. You try to meet every customer that comes through. Where does your energy come from?
I'm just very passionate and thankful for this brand and everyone around it. I wouldn't sell it for all the money in the world.
I want to meet everyone who supports my brand, even if I have to stay out late and have no voice. I just really appreciate everyone's support. If you do something you love, it doesn't feel like work. I'll do this as long as I can. I am also able to travel and to have these super fun successful events because we have very supportive customers. I have an amazing team. I wouldn't be able to bring my brand this far without all of my amazing teammates, employees, family and friends. We all work together every day and try to figure out and conquer the little challenges, and it's great. I am very excited to see what the future holds. We have a lot of fun things up our sleeves.
When you'e on tour, you sometimes stay overnight with families, friends or fans. How do you go about trusting somebody and stay with them?
It's always a big risk. We've stayed at a lot of different people's houses. You never know what it's going to be like when you get in there. You don't know who these people are, but a lot of times they'll be friends of friends, friends of the host or the host of the tour stop. We might try to get some more hotels so we don't have to worry about using up all of the hot water. There's going to be seven of us this tour. It is a really scary risk, but we've met some really great friends along the way.
Do you plan on opening any new stores soon?
I don't know. I have always wanted to open a store in Japan or Canada. Every now and then, I think about New York, too. But right now I am focused on tightening up all the little bits of our business and working on doing more pop-up shops.
They're fun and it's like a nice, big celebration. There's a lot less risk and responsibilities. We've done a pop-up shop in Hawaii, Martha's Vineyard, and almost every state. We're going to keep doing those and mixing it up.
What about the book you are compiling? When do you expect to have it released?
So, I just released a brand book that is an introduction to the Johnny Cupcakes brand. That is available on our website and in our stores. However, right now, I am still working on a business book. I keep changing the direction I want to take it in, so I am not rushing with it. I don't have a set date, but when I do, I'll be posting up more information on Twitter and Facebook.
For the young entrepreneurs or striving-to-be startups and people reading this interview, do you have any advice or any big things they should consider before launching a brand or small business?
Make sure you're passionate about what you're doing and that you're doing it for the right reasons. Real success is being happy doing what you love. Try to have at least 12 things that separate your business from everybody else. Twelve things that make you original. Twelve things that a completely random person would want to talk about. Give people an infinite amount of ammunition to talk about. If you put all your money and your time into your business as opposed to putting it into advertising, if you put it into your business and create a cool, unique idea, then people will do the advertising for you. They'll talk about it. So, make sure that whatever you're doing, it's separate from everyone else.
People start T-shirt brands every day -- there's so many. But it's very rare for there to be some that stick out and are successful. Same with restaurants and music and magazines and everything. Whatever your passion is, whatever business you want to start, it has to be original. Even after you get those 12 things that separate you from everyone else, you don't want to get too comfortable. You still want to keep reinventing yourself. It's very, very important. The best way for the word to get out there is word of mouth. And make sure you're having fun.
Johnny Cupcakes visits We Are 1976 on Sunday, October 21.