Johnny Cupcakes on Entrepreneurship and Making Magic Happen

Johnny Cupcakes is a magician. No really, he used to get paid 20 bucks to do magic tricks at kids' birthday parties. And here's the kicker: That was when he was 8 years old. Proof that John the Magic Boy has always had entrepreneurship in his blood.

You could also consider him a magician because he turned a joke -- making T-shirts with cupcakes on them -- into a multimillion-dollar business. It started out of the trunk of his car, and these days he can draw hundreds of fans to a random location with a single tweet. Want to know how he did it, do you? Well, you're in luck because the "baker" will be spilling the beans, er, batter, when he hits Phoenix this week for two pop-up lectures.

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On Wednesday, September 11, at Phoenix Art Museum and Thursday, September 12 at South Mountain Community College, you can catch Johnny Cupcakes' lecture, "How to Start a Business With Little To No Start-Up Money." During the talks, he'll share his story, his tips, and few resources for starting entrepreneurs.

"You don't have to start a T-shirt brand, but [this lecture] gives people a boost of motivation when they leave," Johnny Cupcakes (whose real name is Johnny Earle) says. "This is my favorite thing to do. I love working and running my brand, but doing this is very emotionally rewarding."

The story of the world's most famous faux-baker starts more than 12 years ago, when 19-year-old Earle was working at a record store. He had taken a break from school and was trying to figure out what to do with his life. As a joke he printed a shirt with cupcakes and crossbones, and to his surprise people started asking questions about where he got it.

By 2001, he was touring with his band, often wearing his own shirts, and selling them out of the trunk of his "beat up '89 Camry." In some cities, he'd even take the shirts to stores and try to sell them.

"But it's not the 1920s," he says. "You can't just kick open a suitcase like I was doing. So, I didn't have a lot of luck."

Then he got smart -- or at least got with the program -- and took his cupacke'd garb to a trade show in Vegas, where for two days he worried if he'd made a huge mistake. He'd left his job, his girlfriend, and his band behind. It was a huge risk, and he needed to make it work.

On the third day of the show he has sold orders to stores all over the world.

Eventually Earle decided "people only like what nobody else has." So he pulled his clothing out of other stores, choosing instead to make Johnny Cupcakes products available only at a small number of boutiques, on his website, and at traveling events. These days the business' identity is still just as unique as its owner's, and Earle is mostly unapologetic about any confusion over what it is that he sells. More than anything else, Earle is about offering memorable experiences.

"Whether people leave my store upset or happy, they all leave with a story to tell," he says.

The retail stores, called "Bakeries," (located in Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and London) are designed to look and smell like, well, real bakeries. They're decked out with vintage ovens, baking sheets and the smell of frosting when you walk inside. The windows even read "zero carbs," "0 fat" and "100% fiber."

"We give a lot of business to the local bakeries," he says. "The only time I feel bad is when an elderly couple comes up the stairs and they have diabetes and they're looking for these sugar free cupcakes..."

He's got plenty of stories to share about his entrepreneurial endeavors. He estimates he started some 20 businesses before Johnny Cupcakes took off. But mostly, what he has to share is his passion for risk-taking and dedication to the idea that failing is one of the best things you can do.

"I've always loved taking risks because that's when the magic happens," Earle says. "If I can do that with something as weird as cupcakes on t shirt, then anyone can do this."

And there are some pretty awesome things in store for Mr. Cupcakes including an official collaboration with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which will be announced later this month. Look forward to posters, sweatshirts, and more. He might even bust out the old-school wooden nunchucks his father made for him.

For now, expect limited edition T-shirts to be available for purchase when he arrives this week. One of the shirts will feature a cupcake and crossbones that look like a cactus (pictured above) and another will have "Chubby Boy" dressed as a scorpion (pictured below).

Tickets for the lecture on Wednesday at the Phoenix Art Museum cost $30 a person and can be purchased online. The event on Thursday at South Mountain Community College is free and open to the public, though priority seating will be given to students. For more information visit the Eventbrite or the South Mountain Community College websites.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria