Johnny bounced into the ECL in Liverpool after a transatlantic flight and an awful delay, just himself in shorts and flight socks, and a bag which was half-belongings and half-branded goodies which wouldn’t incur import taxes. He took straight to the stage to tell us his story, his way, about making a living from cupcakes without ever cracking an egg.
Johnny’s story starts at school: when he says he was a childhood entrepreneur he’s really not joking. He bought and sold whoopee cushions, and when people tired of those, he traded them for snacks and sold those instead. Every cent was reinvested in more joke products – but not everyone shared his sense of humour, and he de-risked his business by moving into the candy marketplace.
The years went by, Johnny grew up, got in a band, and made merchandise to sell. He spotted a gap in the marketplace for fleece scarves, which he could make great margins on, but then summer came... and he made a t-shirt, to advertise a bakery that didn’t exist.
Johnny Cupcakes, it was called.
It featured a cupcake-and-crossbones logo, it made people laugh, and it made them curious. Curious enough to part with their cash – and every product’s value is clearly defined, and clearly profitable.
Johnny ran with the joke – humour is clearly very important to a man who carries magic tricks in his hand luggage. Embarking on a cycle of reinvestment to grow his business, he designed a whole line of t-shirts, replacing cultural icons with cupcakes for absolutely no reason, and becoming a cult designer in the process.
For most people, that would be enough. A successful business with a range of lines, selling domestically and internationally, is something to be proud of. But for Johnny, the joke wasn’t over yet – and still isn’t today.
Johnny has been named America’s #1 Young Entrepreneur by BusinessWeek, one of the top innovative people in Massachusetts by The Boston Globe and has been recognised four years in a row for making it into the INC 5005000 fastest growing independent companies in America.
There’s a theme of humour throughout the Johnny Cupcakes brand – and a reason that hundreds of people have that brand permanently tattooed onto their bodies. It manages to be an in-joke, but without excluding anyone. It’s not elitist, but it’s extremely intelligent in its humour.
For example: there is a Johnny Cupcakes breakfast t-shirt. But it’s only sold at breakfast time. Show up to one of his t-shirt bakeries at 3pm, and they won’t sell you one. Come back before 10am the next day, and they’ll sell you one that even comes with an actual breakfast. Rules, it seems, are rules.
Internet rumours claim there’s a ‘Where’s Johnny?’ t-shirt, but it’s not in their stores, on their website. Johnny himself says this particular t-shirt does exist, but it’s not for sale. He carries it with him, sometimes, and posts clues to his location on social media. You find him, you get the shirt. You tell your friends, you post on social media... you do his marketing for him. Everybody wins.
They’re big on brand collaboration – working with Hello Kitty, and applying the Johnny Cupcakes treatment to it, secured 250,000 sales in 24 hours. There’s beauty in cross pollination, where someone else's customers find out about you through the use of their own brand.
Post-talk, Johnny is very generous with his time, inviting the crowd to stay back, meet him, chat to him. “Some people wanted me to look at their businesses,” he says, “and for me to give them some ideas. It was really cool that they hung around to do that!”
“I’ve done about a dozen talks in England... it brings out the kid in everyone! I like the job of loosening up people, and getting them excited about things.”
Johnny has made quite a transition into public speaking, and he seems very natural and at home in front of an audience. “I was afraid to do it, was nervous, and I finally went and did it – and it was the worst thing I’d ever done,” he laments. “I said I’d never do it again! But I had so many emails afterwards from people who were inspired, I realised how powerful a good teacher is; one conversation, one experience, can change another person’s life. I started to love it and now I do it as often as possible.”
And for his own advice and inspiration? Johnny was inspired by doing an internship, which created his original ideas. “It’s mostly just looking at the world in cupcake-vision. Grocery shopping, packaging inspires me; I watch old cartoons, and I read about other people’s experiences.”
Though still hands-on, Johnny has felt a little differently in his role in the business as he’s gotten married and moved house in the last few years. “We’ve developed a really good flow... we spent 24 hours solid coming up with two years worth of ideas, as one intensive session, going through the calendars and planning out major events,” he says.
“We are adding in spots for movie references, to make sure every Friday at noon, EST, we release a brand new shirt!” And as we chat about that, Johnny realises that it’s 30 minutes until new release time, and he checks his phone. Just in case.
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