Starting a T-Shirt and Novelty Business

Interview with Johnny Earle, Founder of Johnny Cupcakes

Johnny Earle turned a joke into a multi-million dollar business when he created his Johnny Cupcakes t-shirt. Read his inspirational story here.

Johnny Earle started his business with his mom and sister in his home in 2000.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Johnny Cupcakes sells cupcake themed apparel and accessories.

Johnny, tell me about life before cupcakes.

When I was growing up, I'd always notice my mom being stressed/bummed out about her 9-5 job. Ever since, I've been coming up with little ways to work for myself. Lemonade stands to yard sales, magic tricks at kids birthday parties to selling tricks and pranks in high school.

I used to be a class clown. I'd buy and collect tons of pranks from this one joke shop. I bought so many that the owner gave me a catalog so that I could purchase the pranks wholesale. I'd buy whoopie cushions, trick candy, and itching powder in bulk to make little 'prank packs.' I'd then sell these prank packs to the kids at my high school. One day I sold itching powder to this kid Dan who put it all down his friend's shirt.

After returning back from my suspension, I decided to sell something else... (get your mind out of the gutter!) My new hobby then became selling candy.

I'd take trips to Costco, BJ's, and Walmart to buy candy in bulk. After being the candy man for a little while, my high school almost got me in trouble again for selling far more candy than the school store did since the school stores profits funded all sorts of different school functions.

I found a good college to attend and less than a semester in I decided to take a break from college. I then started up a pin business designing pins, buttons, and badges for bands and businesses. I made random designs and sold them at hardcore shows and various shops. I even had a small crew of kids that would buy them from me wholesale and sell them at their schools."

How did you come up with the idea for the cupcake business?

In addition to the pins, I worked once or twice a week at a silk screening shop as well as a record shop called "Newbury Comics." Almost every day when I went into work, I was given a different, completely random nickname for no reason whatsoever. I guess Johnny is an easy name to throw just about any word at the end of it? 'Johnny Appleseed', 'Johnny Coffeecakes', 'Johnny Cupcakes', 'Johnny Pancakes', etc... While working at the silk screening shop making t-shirts for the metal/hardcore band I use to be in, I thought it would be funny to make a couple random shirts that said 'Johnny Cupcakes' on them for the fun of it. So I did.

Wearing my Johnny Cupcakes t-shirt to work caused quite a commotion. Not only did everyone I work with want a t-shirt but most of the customers wanted one as well! While at work, I'd get heaps of compliments, questions, smiles, and requests for my t-shirt (even from the slightly miserable or quiet regulars!). "What's Johnny Cupcakes?," "Is that a local bakery?," "Is that an adult movie store?," and so on.

Supply and demand! I ordered a couple dozen Johnny Cupcakes shirts and sold out of them the day I took them off the press! One person would tell ten people and ten people would tell one hundred people.

So many random kids would come into Newbury Comics to ask me for these Johnny Cupcakes t-shirts. A couple times a day, nearly every day I'd have to pretend to go to the bathroom so I could sneak out and sell gear out of the rusty, dented trunk of my beat up '89 Toyota Camry.

So I started brainstorming and sketching up lots of different ideas, doodles, designs, etc... I began poking fun at pop culture by replacing familiar icons with cupcakes! Things like a Statue of Liberty holding a cupcake instead of a torch or a jet plane dropping cupcakes instead of bombs. At the time the skull and crossbones thing was all over the place, so I thought it would be funny to replace the skull with a cupcake."

Who did you hire to help you? Bookkeeper, Accountants, Lawyers ...? Would you suggest others do the same?

I think it is really important to know when to delegate. I have a lawyer who works with me on patents and copyright. My Mom handles the finances. My sister is the shipping manager. I always advocate hiring someone who is great at things you just can't do. If you can't design a web site, don't let it stop you! Just get someone who will do it for you.

How is it working with your family?

One of my dreams was to hire my mother and get her out of the job she never liked very much. Having a family business is really important to me and gives me a sense of accomplishment. Of course, family's clash at times but we know each other very well and are very protective of the business.

Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?

I lived and worked at my parent's place in Hull, MA. Working at home was great because it let me save money and had very little overhead while my brand was in its early stages but storage was a big issue working at home. Suddenly I had a massive volume of orders and our entire house was overflowing with stock and shipping materials. Eventually I purchased an additional storage space that ultimately became my warehouse.

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? Has that worked for your business?

Yes. Johnny Cupcakes outsources all of our printing. We receive samples of the products to make sure everything is on par with our exacting standards and then proceed. It's great to leave some things in an expert's hands. As long as we monitor the quality, it ultimately makes things easier and is one less thing to worry about having time to do.

Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?

Absolutely. Johnny Cupcakes is built on social marketing. The business began with natural word of mouth buzz. People saw the brand on tour with my hardcore band and sent them to friends. Even now the Internet blogs at great length about new products, and people continue to spread the gospel creating a fervent fan base that camps out for up to week just to get limited edition products. I also maintain a very personal blog on so I can connect with all my fans.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Follow your passion and do what makes you happy.

Ah, words to live by. Thanks Johnny for taking the time to share your inspirational story with the readers and

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