SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Sometimes all it takes to start a new business is ingenuity and some sugar sprinkles. One young entrepreneur in Boston has just opened up a store on the hip and high-rent Newbury Street called Johnny Cupcakes. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: At just 24 years old, Johnny Cupcakes is still as much a prankster as he is an entrepreneur. He's the guy who made his first buck selling whoopee cushions in junior high. So when it came time to open his store on Newbury Street, Johnny set it up like a well-laid trap, planting a giant dough machine in the window and filling the store with glass bakery cases and stainless steel cooling racks that you can see from the outside.
MEGAN BAILEY: Is this a store just for cupcakes?
SMITH: We think so, but come inside, like college students Megan Bailey and Joanna Chow did, and you'll find not even a crumb.
BAILEY: Oh wait, clothes? Not food? I'm confused.
SMITH: Around the store, baker's racks are filled instead with brightly-colored t-shirts, each with a cupcake where you'd least expect it. There's the Statue of Liberty holding a cupcake on top of her torch, Marilyn Monroe with a tiny cupcake for a mole, and the signature cupcake and crossbones, like you see on Johnny himself, who's standing at the back of the store hardly able to contain his amusement.
JOHN EARL: It's so - it's so fun, people watching and the questions they ask. I just watch their reactions.
SMITH: Though what's even funnier is how John Earl, this musician and artist who dropped out of college after two weeks, is now on Boston's most fashionable strip selling these t-shirts he made as a joke after a friend nicknamed him Johnny Cupcakes.
Johnny says he started selling first to friends from the back of his car, then to strangers who found on the Internet, and other musicians he met on tour. When a few of his shirts showed up on MTV and VH1, Johnny Cupcakes was officially hot. And when word spread online that he was opening in Boston, more than 500 people lined up around the block to get in.
EARL: It's just got this big, really big cult following that just keeps growing and growing. And they'll buy like almost one of everything. And people, every time I'm here, people are asking to get their picture taken with me. They'll ask for my autograph. It's just word of mouth that's - it's unbelievable.
SMITH: It's what they call in the business viral marketing.
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NANCY KANE: If we go to Google, 368,000 entries for Johnny Cupcakes. That's a virus that's spreading fast.
SMITH: Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Kane says Johnny Cupcakes represents the new frontier of marketing and brand creation.
KANE: There are no people out there sharing photos of Trident gum. All right. Four out of five dentists surveyed, that's the old model. This is the new, and this is very different.
SIMON: Can I see this shirt right here, the robot one?
SMITH: As his business comes out from the underground and takes its place among the Gaps and Burberrys of Newbury Street, Johnny is trying to maintain his cachet by making limited edition tees. His numbered shirts go for up to $70 a piece, and so far they're selling like hotcakes to shoppers like Lauren Jones and Leia Rappaport(ph).
Unidentified Woman #2 (unintelligible)
Unidentified Woman #3: Of this one, yeah. It makes it way cooler.
Unidentified Woman #2: Definitely.
SMITH: But cupcakes? The new black? Even Johnny is amazed at how people have bought into this cupcake thing, and how many want to see his designs as more than they really are.
EARLE: People come in and they're like, I don't get it. And there's nothing really to get about it. It's just a cupcake. It is what it is.
SMITH: It kind of makes you wonder if Johnny's story isn't a little bit like the Emperor's New Clothes. Is he on Newbury Street because he's so big, or is he getting so big because he's on Newbury Street?
GLENN KAPLUS: Isn't almost everything that way? Until you've done it, you're really faking it until you make it.
SMITH: Babson College Business Professor Glenn Kaplus had Johnny come guest lecture to his students about his brazen opening on Newbury Street and how it's building up his buzz and his brand.
KAPLUS: You know, you got to shake your head and think, wow, this is just amazing. But it starts with saying, you know, listen, I have the chutzpa to put this on a shirt and say it's something. This isn't just soap, or whatever. You know, you're struck by that.
SMITH: In a way, Johnny says, it's the ultimate prank. It's one thing to fool people into thinking you're a bakery, like when the Health Department showed up last month to inspect his ovens, but it's quite another trick to make hundreds of thousands of people believe that they've simply got to have what you're selling.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
SIMON: Johnny Cupcakes shares his do's and don't's for starting your own business on NPR.org.