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Johnny's "Cupcakes" are a Boston Craze

by Jenny Halper

John Earle
Name: John Earle
Company: Johnny Cupcakes
Title: Owner/Founder
Industry: Apparel
Year founded: 2001
Type of company: Clothing
Location: 279 Newbury Street
Number of employees: 12

The first thing you notice upon entering Johnny Cupcakes is that it actually smells like cupcakes. But peer into a bakery case full of cupcake-and-crossbones sweatshirts, open a refrigerator stuffed with "make love not cupcakes" tees, search the downtown Boston store from 1000-pound dough machine to vintage stove, and such cakes are nowhere to be found.

"Evil, evil, evil," said one potential buyer, lured in by a frosting craving and finding only cotton. But a few grumpy sweet-teeth notwithstanding, eighty percent of hungry customers end up leaving with something to wear. And even if designer clothing - or "unique, limited, wearable art" - isn't your cup of tea, if you live in Boston you either know who Johnny is or think you do. His name is just that catchy, his clothes are just that fun, and his word-of-mouth advertising scheme is just that ingenious.

"It's impossible to look in the store and see that it's not a bakery," says Johnny - age: 24, real name: John Earle - who started the company when he was nineteen and describes its rocketing rise as something of a fluke.

Early Beginnings

When John Earle was a kid, he knew he didn't want to have a boss. "I used to want to be the guy on Police Academy who did sound effects all the time," Johnny says. True to his inner prankster, he started coming up with ways to work for himself.

You have to spend money to make money and, as early as junior high, Johnny was purchasing pranks wholesale and packaging them with his trademark ingenuity. When this almost got him expelled - itching powder sent an allergic classmate to the ER - Johnny switched his business to candy and outsold the school store.

Simple? It might sound that way. But packaging "has always been a big deal," and Johnny's approach - dressing up his Newbury Street store like a bakery, costuming his employees in aprons, wrapping sold apparel in custom tissue paper, and throwing in fun extras like candy and trading cards are just a few of the brilliant marketing techniques that have made his store one of the hottest tourist traps in Boston.

His innovation is philanthropic, too: upcoming designs include a breast cancer cupcake shirt and a global warming-warning that features a cupcake-shaped earth?melting. The young entrepreneur has donated shirts to organizations including Hurricane Katrina Relief, D.A.R.E., Lakota Kidz, and other charities.

He's also been featured on NPR and invited to speak in business classes at schools like Babson and Northeastern - ironic, considering Johnny dropped out of college after two weeks.

"Word of mouth is the best advertising."

The business was born less than a year later. Johnny was singing in a band called "On Broken Wings" while working part time in Boston's Newbury Comics and a silkscreen store. He "thought it would be funny to make a couple of random shirts" with his nickname. Not only did people who saw them like them, they wanted them.

Johnny was soon lugging t-shirts in the back of his car and running to the "bathroom" to sell to customers who lined up outside of Newbury Comics. They told friends who told friends who told friends. "Word of mouth is the best advertising," says Johnny. "I wish I didn't advertise in a couple of magazines I advertised in. I could have spent that money on something else."

The Travel Technique

"On Broken Wings" scored a record label in 2001 and Johnny took his t-shirts on the road. Sometimes pulling all-nighters and sometimes rising at the crack of dawn, he pitched his product to stores across the country. He also sold t-shirts before shows, developing a following called "the cupcake cult." Massive demand led, in 2002, to Johnny's online store, which was so successful that he decided to leave "On Broken Wings" and focus "110%" of his energy on cupcakes.

His first stop as a burgeoning entrepreneur was a fashion trade show in Las Vegas.

"I was really hesitant to do (the first trade show) because it cost a lot of money," says Johnny, who ended up shelling out big bucks for a booth and attracting the attention of stores in Japan, Italy, and Australia. But as his database grew, he realized widespread selling might be initially lucrative but eventually unrewarding.

"As much as I wanted my shirts to be seen all over the world, I decided it would be best if I made the products harder to get by keeping them in a few cute stores."

"People like owning clothing that's limited, that's rare," Johnny says, "that's what set me apart."

He soon opened headquarters in Hull, Massachusetts, where he refurbished an abandoned boat house not far from his childhood home. There, he decided to limit the availability of his t-shirts, all of which are made in the US for reasons of ethics and efficiency ("it costs more, but it's worth it.") This meant hand-numbering products and turning down trade show offers from potential cash cows like Urban Outfitters.

"People like owning clothing that's limited, that's rare," Johnny says, "that's what set me apart."

A Family Affair

Running a business should be busy, busy, busy, and he is. Johnny gets hundreds of emails a week and spends the bulk of his time responding - as well as filling notebooks with new designs, developing ideas with artists, and overseeing the web store. He also plans special events and stops by the Newbury Street store when he can find a spare hour.

"I realized that even if I opened a store and didn't sell one t-shirt for a month, the internet store would support the business."

"I never would have thought I'd have a store on Newbury Street," Johnny says, alluding to the locale's upscale, exclusive atmosphere. "But the online store kept growing, I thought about everything, and I realized that even if I opened a store and didn't sell one t-shirt for a month, the internet store would support the business."

What did it take to set up the store? Just the help of Dad?and a couple of all-nighters spent building, painting, butting down wooden floors, arranging giant dough machines and vintage refrigerators, and hiding vanilla-scented air freshener. And the help of Mom, who was able to quit her job to work as Johnny's bookkeeper and trade-marker.

She also makes the occasional cupcake for special store events - including an upcoming pirate celebration to launch Johnny's new pirate line, which includes t-shirts emblazoned with treasure chests full of cupcakes.

If you want to see Johnny and company decked out as pirates, expect to be among 600 or so members of the cupcake cult, many of whom drove from destinations as far as Toronto for the Newbury Street store's May 2006 unveiling. They waited in a line that wound around the corner, and came back again for a zombie cupcake celebration in October.
Johnny Cupcakes
Johnny Cupcakes
Johnny Cupcakes
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