Annie Liao Jones is the founder and CEO of Rock Candy Media, an advertising & marketing agency that is based in Austin, Texas – it has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in Central Texas. Under Annie’s leadership, the full-service content strategy, design, messaging, branding firm, and growth agency went from the ground up to grossing over seven figures a year.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Annie to discuss her journey to entrepreneurship and here’s what went down:
Could you please tell our readers a brief background about yourself and how you started your business? How did you choose the name Rock Candy Media?
I was born in Dallas, Texas but my parents were born in Taiwan and that makes me a dual-citizen of the world. I also lived in Taiwan while my parents finished college in the US from the ages of 1-3. That lead to the company name. I knew I was going to do things my own way from a young age, where I just didn’t think about other options. So instead of dreaming up jobs, because I didn’t dream about the white picket fence either, I dreamed of types of companies. Taiwanese desserts are entirely different because there is only a hint of sweet, and it’s because all the desserts are made from pure sugar which I called ‘rock candy’ as a kid. So it was going to be Rock Candy something. I’m glad it wasn’t Rock Candy Mountain, which apparently is a thing for a lot of people. I have issues with things that just should not be loud, especially if you think we sent someone to the moon: I have an aversion to leaf blowers and motorcycles, but I guess the latter says more about the person and the former is existential – don’t the leaves just come back?
Can you describe your journey to success? When did you start? Did you ever imagine you would become this successful?
By stalking people at Highland Mall in Dallas to see what they bought. I learned a lot about life doing that, and you think I’m joking. And I started working at the mall when I was 16 at a fashion-forward teen girl wear boutique named Judy’s, which is now called Rampage. I imagined I would be much more successful than I am actually. All I want is to wear PJ’s on MY PJ and I’ll call it a day. Oh, and real silk or cashmere ones.
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your business?
I am pickier about who I vet because I can have the best of both worlds: I learn from clients smarter than me in their respective areas, have the time to streamline operations as my focus is solely on my reputation and the work we put out — I’m past the high number of employees and lack of control, it just isn’t me. Acute anxiety does not look good on me. And if I continue hiring smarter people, I’ll evolve as a human and get to that PJ lifestyle faster than you know it.
What social media platforms do you usually use to increase brand awareness?
That is a mixed bag because there is visibility and then there is engagement and then there is sharing.
Visibility: I don’t care about the number of eyeballs, so the number of impressions in media land does not impress me. I care about the quality of those eyeballs and if they have a high word of mouth factor. So when working with a corporation who is starting a new division or who’s division is basically a start-up, I’d go for say CTO’s if it’s data security but I’ll make sure they are CTO’s in an alumni association, golf club, or country club as visibility only counts if your brand build is memorable. Ours is and I know because people will start to type in the company name into google instead of doing a google search.
Engagement: Many social media managers promote a post to get 20 likes but they never realize that they never had to like your page. Now that’s just foolish. And ‘like’ ads are $7 a pop easy. So put out quality content that will get you ranked AND people will want to read and they’ll opt-in on their own. Then you can pay for clicks at a much cheaper rate.
Shares: When is the last time you shared a post? I deem shares from our highly segmented audience builds (for example, the CTO will be segmented by 25-34 and then 45-64) the most quality, and any clicks that come from someone watching a full video (95% or more) to be qualified as a share. That is retargeting gold. So while clicks on Instagram Stories may be harder to get, I prefer that. If it is a CTO, I’d say a Facebook share. That means your content, your brand campaign, is something he is proud to represent and it resonates with him, or he learned from one of your client’s articles that your media relations lead worked his butt off to land.
Does paid advertising work?
It does when it makes sense and when it’s unique. For example, in addition to the usual PPC, if a million people are going to be at a tradeshow the client has always gone to and it’s a ‘must’, then I’ll make sure everyone attending at the respective hotels has a gift in their bag from said client and it’s such a rare ask that I have the negotiation down pat. In terms of sponsored content, earned media is much better.
What is your main tactic to make sure Rock Candy Media stands out?
Stay five years ahead. Don’t study your own industry trends; I never read those because I have to emote things. I read memoirs, I read client industry trends as the start-ups that make it, especially today when the landscape changes at five times the speed in one calendar year alone. I also like to remind myself and clients to never think you are infallible. I admire the head of GoPro and how he said early success can make you more prone to fail later. That stuck with me. We were in danger one time as a company and I literally just emailed our Managing Partner to change out an industry page background to a different image to test it out, and every month we review the most engaging content and go with who we targeted, and what resonated with them, to change out a client’s site. A website should never be ‘done’. It should evolve with you. It is your calling card, your reputation, what you stand for whether you like it or not. You should like it because you have control over it. I think the attitude founders have that never separated themselves from what they love to do is to try to make sure they can remain independent of any channel as possible. And that is the power of branding. For hospitality the enemy isn’t another hotel, the true enemy is a hotel booking site who is taking 30% of each head in each bed.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
We only know one model: direct marketing of the digital kind. We have never been just in one industry. We started heavily b2b, had big years in e-comm and I always wanted a mix of both because we grow them where they are now as a hybrid of both. Direct to consumer is the same concept when applied to business that is a product, service, or distribution.
How does Rock Candy Media stand out from the rest of the other agencies out there in your niche?
I just keep my head down and give a lot of sh*t. So I try to hire for the self-taught (they have less of a fear of the unknown and will get their hands dirty to figure things out on their own) and not look at the competitors. My focus has always been on what I would want if I were a client from an agency. And I respect our clients – some of them can afford me when I couldn’t in the life cycle of my business, but all of them share one thing: We are an investment and they have to know we value their time and will always ask why they made a decision because success lies in collaboration. If it is important to them, it’s damn important to me.
What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months?
To let go of a lot more pieces of the pie I have no control over.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from (or something you’d do differently)?
The one I try to block out is that in my first year I made so much that I got punished for not forming an LLC to the tune of $20K in taxes. I hope my then CFO does not read this.
What have you learned in the process of becoming successful that others can learn from?
Just be yourself, and the respect you want will give you the most satisfaction. The second you start caring what other people think is the second you become a commodity.
What new business would you love to start?
Well, you are going to find out soon ladies and gentlemen. This lady knows how to keep secrets believe it or not. Also, if I could live another life it would be floral arrangements. Or someone who makes perfumes all day. All my memories are scent-driven.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were just getting started, what would you do differently?
Not a damn thing because the stories I have to tell crack me up when I remember them in my own head. There is nothing better than living a life that you can find humor in.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were first making a name for yourself, what advice would you give yourself?
This sounds really stupid, but I had a peer/mentor who said, “Annie you run so deep you do not do yourself justice in meetings dressing so casually.” At first, I was pissed but then I clarified with him that it was about respect. When I show up, my style is all my own and I am very much about textiles and “the closet overfloweth” as that is how I show to the world what mood I am that day. It’s art you can wear each day. I needed to ‘show up’ with some respect to client meetings and it took a lot of balls to tell me that and I’m pretty sure it backed up what I was saying with more authority. It sounds silly but it was a game-changer.
Do you have any favorite business-related or personal development related books that you can recommend to other entrepreneurs?
No, but there are profiles of founders by the best journalists and writers out there in Wired, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. For personal development, I learn from the words of the authors who have lived BIG, so I am huge into memoirs and seeing through another’s’ lens. I read all the time, 24-7, and usually have three books going at once. Right now I just have two: Val Kilmer’s memoir and a book Obama recommended called “Maid” that is changing my mind on what it means to be poor in America.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
To wear nice clothes in my closet with tags still on them. They not only disgusted me but they helped me with showing up, as mentioned earlier.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
Do it before you accumulate ‘stuff’ and ‘big things’. Do it when you have nothing to lose and never stop making fun of yourself. Stay humble or you won’t learn sh*t. Surround yourself with smarter people. Be wary of ‘yes’ people, but keep the ones that support you and know you around as well. And with success comes haters, and I wish I could prepare you for that but it ties into not giving a f*ck what others think or else you’ll fail. Don’t let people you don’t know bring you down.
Tell us about your fashion style as an executive?
Definitely polished with an edge. I like good tailoring and solids but I like one thing to be a little ‘off” whether it’s my shoe color or earrings. And my Managing Partner & Art Director, Kelsie Singleton always compliments the most expensive thing I’m wearing – it is a true talent I’m telling you.
We hear you might have one of the biggest shoe collections in Texas, and your coworkers call you the “Imelda Marcos of Category Marketing” how do you store and keep track of all those shoes?
If guys have a man cave, well girls should be able to shop their own shoes damn it! I think the Bang & Olufsen television sound systems and plasma TV’s equal out to the same anyways.