Last Thursday evening business owner and entrepreneur Johnny Earle (famously known as Johnny Cupcakes) came to speak at UC Riverside. Around 150 students attended the event to hear Earle tell his personal story of how he began a successful t-shirt business from scratch, as well as give invaluable advice to the audience about starting and running a business.
The evening began with a brief talk by Brian Schroth, one of the creators of the backpack company Givbag. The concept behind the company is that for every backpack sold, a backpack is donated to a student in need. Schroth, a third-year UCR student, was inspired to create Givbag along with friend Harrison Steed during a mission trip to Rwanda, where they recognized a need for backpacks among the schoolchildren. Schroth said that Givbag is still in its beginning stages and their products will hopefully be available at Nordstrom this fall.
Earle came onto the stage amid applause from the audience and he soon began to tell his life story. Growing up, he saw how the stress of commuting and working for someone else affected his mother’s physical and mental well-being. At an early age, Earle knew he wanted to work for himself and do something that made him happy. He had the drive from the beginning; he held lemonade stands, shoveled snow, sold itching powder and his sister’s belongings at yard sales. He was always looking for ways to make money and be his own boss.

Despite odd jobs and unsuccessful pursuits, he said, “I thought of every bad job that I had as a stepping stone to something better.”

After a short stint at the Art Institute of Boston, Earle decided to take a break from school and focus all his energy on working full-time. He saved up money and created a business. “At work, my co-workers would give me random nicknames like Johnny Appleseed and Johnny Cupcakes…I thought it would be funny to put one of these nicknames on a shirt,” he said.

After wearing his shirt to work a few times as a joke, customers and coworkers began asking for their own Johnny Cupcakes t-shirts. He began designing shirts that poked fun at popular culture by replacing recognizable icons with images of cupcakes and sold these t-shirts out of the trunk of his beat up Toyota Camry during his lunch breaks at Newbury Comics.

Eventually, the income he generated from selling his t-shirts surpassed what he was making at his full-time job. He decided to take a risk and quit his job in order to concentrate all of his time and energy into his new business venture.

“Focus. Work now, play later. You have to put 110 percent into your business,” he said. With hard work, frugal management of money and a little creativity, Earle was able to open his first Johnny Cupcakes shop in his hometown of Hull, Massachusetts in 2005. One year later he opened another store in Boston, Massachusetts. Each store is designed to look like a bakery, with ovens, display counters and even vanilla air fresheners placed throughout to pay homage to his name. His company has been growing ever since, and he now has two other “bakeries” located in Los Angeles and London as well as a successful online store.

Despite all of his success, Johnny has remained grounded and generous. He has been able to employ his mother and sister full-time, which he says has been one of his proudest achievements. He also stays in touch with customers through random meet-ups and special events, which he publicizes through the company’s Twitter and Facebook. He also gave a small surprise to the audience by having them reach under their seats to find a bag full of candies, vintage trading cards and Johnny Cupcakes pins. Some audience members even received cash. At the end of the talk, Johnny invited everyone to come meet and talk with him.

“I plan on staying here until I meet each and every one of you,” he said. T-shirts were sold after the event and several people lined up to meet and take pictures with Johnny after his talk.