Johnny Cupcakes founder tells his success story to students

Elana Zaka

Johnny Earle would tell you his way isn’t the right way.

At only 26, however, the founder of cult T-shirt company Johnny Cupcakes is a multimillionaire. The Hull native has two stores thriving in Massachusetts— one on ritzy Newbury Street and one in Hull — and another successful store in Los Angeles. Last week, the entrepreneur shared his story and some business tips with students at Babson College in Wellesley.

“I’ve made a lot of risks to get where I am,” Earle told the standing-room-only crowd at Babson’s Olin Hall on March 11. “I want this thing to last forever.”

Earle, a college dropout, has turned simple T-shirts emblazoned with his signature logo of a cupcake with crossbones underneath it into a successful business. His products are all limited edition, meaning once they are sold out, the company doesn’t reprint them. He credits his success to focus and putting “110 percent” into his business.

“It’s nice to see firsthand someone who’s actually been a successful entrepreneur so young,” Babson College sophomore Erin Campbell said after the lecture. “It reinforced a lot of stuff we learn here at Babson.”

After graduating from high school in 2000, Earle tried a semester of college, but decided it wasn’t for him. While working at Newbury Comics, he started printing T-shirts with cupcakes on them as a whim. By 2004, enough people had expressed interest in the shirts that Earle started going to fashion tradeshows in Las Vegas. Big-name stores such as Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom’s and Barney’s wanted to sell his shirts. He ultimately turned them down to focus on his brand and continue making one-of-a-kind products. Not selling out, as he puts, was a risk, but it was worth it.

“I could’ve made a lot of money real quick,” he told the Babson students. “People appreciated the fact I didn’t sell my soul to make a quick buck.”

During his presentation, Earle frequently interrupted himself with personal stories and jokes. At one point, he told the audience to look under the seats. Students were surprised to find a small plastic bag taped under their seat, complete with a Johnny Cupcakes pin, a mint, a card for his Web site and a trading card for “Saved By The Bell: The College Years.” Earle said he puts random items like candy or trading cards into the shirts he ships.

“I thought he did a good job getting his main point across with humor,” said Jess Pashos, a Babson freshman.

Today, Earle owns three very successful stores, a lot of it due to the detail he spends on his products and marketing. Many people confuse the shops with bakeries, partially because of the name, and it’s something Earle actually encourages. The Newbury Street and Melrose Avenue stores are designed to look like vintage bakeries, complete with employees in aprons and shirts sold in boxes that look like they should hold cookies instead of shirts.

Earle went even more extreme with his Los Angeles store. The Melrose Avenue shop has big doors inside that look like ovens and the checkout counter appears to be a stovetop. Around Halloween, some shirts are sold in a box that purports to be cupcake mix. The top is scratch and sniff, smelling like vanilla. Inside, actual cupcake mix covers the shirt (which is wrapped in a bag for protection).

“If I can do this with cupcakes, I’m sure you guys can do this with anything,” he said.

While Earle may not think his is the right way, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the wrong way.

Elana Zak can be reached at ezak@cnc.com.

Wellesley Townsman