The boss: James Costantini
Life is too good for those two nice Needham brothers, Bert and John Jacobs, who took the pedestrian phrase "life is good" and built it into a brand with $100 million a year in sales, to let some skinny teenager from Weston High School horn in.
The Jacobs brothers got rich, and a bit famous, peddling their feel-good worldview in the form of Jake, the ubiquitous smiling face they have plastered on everything from hats to soccer balls. "Jake's contagious grin, simple as it was, seemed to express everything the Jacobs brothers believed in," Life is good Inc.'s website tells us, recounting the brothers' rags-to-riches story.
Jake, however, is not amused by James Costantini's alternative worldview, which the 17-year-old budding mogul sums up in two words - see below - and is now plastering on hats and T-shirts, just for starters. The kid, who started his senior year at Weston High yesterday, isn't about to be intimidated by Jake, the Jacobs brothers, or their lawyers.
If the Jacobses started their business hawking T-shirts on the streets of Boston, living on peanut butter and jelly, and sleeping in their van, the next generation is more sophisticated - and better capitalized. In addition to his new apparel company, Life Sucks Inc., (or LSI, as my editors prefer), Costantini also runs Roseview Technologies, a computer services company he started two years ago, and RT Investment Advisors, a holding company. He admits his girlfriend is impressed: "She is pretty amazed."
Costantini, LSI's baby-faced chairman and chief executive, is not without help. His father, Vince Costantini, who runs a downtown investment-banking firm, and another investor have largely bankrolled the venture. "I have little to no involvement. It was all his idea," says the elder Costantini. "I just write some of the checks, but not all the checks."
As nice as he is smart, Costantini conceived his parody of Life is good two years ago. He sees his two-word motto not as a statement on life but as a business opportunity. "Celebrating life's little screw ups!" his website says cheerfully. He found an Atlanta designer, 20-year-old Jeremy Heilpern, and hired an intellectual-property law firm in anticipation of a challenge from Life is good. He started selling online in July, and last week was in the Philadelphia area meeting with his manufacturer and checking out a big Life is good retailer.
Yesterday was a tough day to talk. As he wrote me Sunday night: "Tomorrow I start school, and will be in class from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you need to contact me I am always available via e-mail. . . . If am not available my secretary will take a message and I will get back to you at the end of the school day."
Life is good is taking him seriously. In a letter, the company's general counsel says Costantini is violating its trademark and orders him to "immediately cease and desist. . . . Life is good considers this to be a matter of grave importance." Costantini's lawyer calls his products "an obvious parody" protected by law.
The Jacobses have moved aggressively before to protect their trademark. As my colleague Alex Beam reported last year, Life is good settled a lawsuit against the Korean conglomerate LG Electronics, which uses "Life's good" in its ad campaign. It also moved against a company that sells "Life is gay" products, and continues to sell them. "No one owns a smiley face," Mickey Cirello, a company sales representative, says.
Bert Jacobs, 42, and his brother John, 39, have come a long way. "Today, the New England-based brand stays close to its roots, with an emphasis on humor and humility," the company website says. "Through Life is good festivals, positive products, and a steady dose of ping pong, Jake's crew does its best to keep the good vibes flowing."
The brothers would do well to listen to their inner Jake.
Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2902.