The last time Johnny Earle made a stop in Omaha was “five or six years ago” when he played a show with his band, On Broken Wings, at the former Ranch Bowl.
At the time, Earle, now better known as Johnny Cupcakes, sold hundreds of his cupcake-themed T-shirts out of suitcases to concert-goers and any store or boutique that would listen to his sales pitch.
This week, Earle, 27, made his second stop in Omaha, delivering a lecture at Creighton University's Harper Center at the invitation of the school's business department. Only this time the T-shirt operation he started nine years ago as a gag to poke fun at pop culture and the “tough guys” wearing skull and crossbones shirts has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar retail business.
During a more than three hour talk and question-and-answer session Thursday night, Earle shared the secrets that produced a successful brand despite no start-up funding and no real business plan. Some of his tips: create an exclusive, desirable product that few other people own; focus on unique branding opportunities, packaging and viral marketing; and take risks.
Earle, a college dropout from Massachusetts who was named the No. 1 entrepreneur by BusinessWeek magazine in 2008, is as much a prankster as businessman.
Because of the name of his stores in Boston, Los Angeles and Hull, Mass., people often come in excited to buy freshly baked cupcakes, Earle said. Once they discover the stores carry T-shirts and other nonfood merchandise, many people become irritated and leave.
But they go home and talk about it, spreading word of the Johnny Cupcakes brand, he said.
A similar situation led to Earle's second visit to Omaha.
Shirley Neary, co-owner of Omaha's Cupcake Island bakery, 1314 S. 119th St., went to an Earle lecture expecting to hear about tricks of the baking trade, not about an exclusive clothing line featuring a cupcake and crossbones logo and sayings like “Make Cupcakes Not War.”
As an entrepreneur, Neary said, she liked what she heard during the lecture and told Anthony Hendrickson, dean of Creighton's College of Business, that Earle's story was one his students should hear.
That's all part of the brand and word-of-mouth viral marketing buzz Earle said he has created through social media. He has a blog on his Web site, www.johnnycupcakes.com, a Facebook fan page and uses Twitter, a popular microblogging tool to share messages of 140 or fewer characters.
But this nontraditional business approach doesn't work for everyone, Earle said. In many cases, having a formal business plan is a good way to launch a company.
“My way isn't the right way. This is just what has worked for my business.”
The brand gathered steam in 2004, Earle said, and he needed to decide whether to sell his product to big chain stores, with the potential of making a lot of money fast, or to keep his brand exclusive.
“I started this to have fun. If I wanted to make some quick money, I would have done that,” Earle said during a telephone interview before Thursday's lecture. “People like what no one else has, and I'd rather have longevity and customers who appreciate my brand.”
So, Earle said, he shredded more than $100,000 worth of orders with retailers such as Macy's, Nordstrom's and Urban Outfitters and proceeded, over the next few years, to open two retail stores in Massachusetts and another in Los Angeles, along with his online shop.
“With my brand I really wanted to make it exclusive, and I wanted everyone to feel special who bought my shirts.”
T-shirt launches, promotional events such as movie showings and holiday gatherings, and Earle's ability to create a palpable demand for his product have created a loyal, “cult-like” following, he said. Customers often stand in lines for hours to buy an in-store exclusive shirt.
People wearing Johnny Cupcakes gear often befriend other fans of the brand, and occasionally relationships evolve, Earle said during the lecture.
“It's like e-harmony for T-shirts,” Earle joked of the online dating Web site, e-harmony.com. “It's T-harmony.”
Earle, who said he once was responsible for everything from design to finances, now focuses on what he does best: coming up with ideas.
“When you're a business owner, it's always a good thing to take a step back and figure out what you're best at. I'm best at coming up with ideas and coming up with innovative ways to grow the brand and keep people on their toes and guessing what's next.”
Johnny Cupcakes has about 30 employees who run the retail stores and handle order fulfillment and shipping. Earle also employs his mother, father and sister.
His mother, Lorraine, handles the company's finances and “crazy headache stuff,” Earle said. His sister, Linsay, manages human relations and customer service and helps plan special events.
Father Michael, is the “handyman,” helping build the interiors of the three retail stores, which feature custom-built countertops, shelving and decor that go along with the company's cupcake and bakery theme.
“I'm proud of being able to employ my family and see them happy,” Earle said.
“They're really happy and motivated that I decided not to sell my stuff to chain stores and do this from the ground up. If someone offered me all the money in the world, I would turn it down. I'm doing this for the fun. That's how it's always going to be.”
Earle's next project, the Johnny Cupcakes Suitcase Tour, is a throwback to his days selling T-shirts from a beat-up 1989 Toyota Camry. Starting in April, Earle will travel throughout North America selling T-shirts from a van parked at bakeries and art galleries.
He also plans to release a line of shirts, in which he collaborated with artists to create new designs, that will help to further extend his brand.
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