Annie Liao Jones is the founder of Rock Candy Media, an Austin-based full-service advertising agency specializing in areas like branding, digital marketing, design, and earned media. Jones says starting her company was one of the scariest things she’s ever done, ranking alongside having a child. “They both required making ‘heart over head’ leaps,” she said.
Why did you start your business?
I went into my whole life thinking money could buy happiness. I fell into sales and became the top commercial sales rep in Texas at the age of 22. I was making more than any 22-year-old should be making. I had a “movie moment” six years later when I was sitting across from a client in head-to-toe Prada. She was talking about her third divorce. I thought, “If I left this restaurant right now and got run over, I would have a closet full of clothes and cool shoes to show for it.” That same day, I turned in my notice. The transition from sales to digital marketing was very innate because in sales, I had pretty much branded myself.
How did you get the funds to get going?
For the first year, I sold commercial print projects independently to finance the business. I also lucked out in a real estate deal. I snatched up a house when the dot-com crash happened. I bought the best house on the worst street. It became a really trendy part of Austin. The sale of that house in 2009 is what gave me the money to grow that business.
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. I’ve never used credit for the business. Not once. It’s for the same reason why I won’t take investors. I’m a “no strings attached” kind of person.
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Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
The most challenging thing for me is management. In two situations, I’ve tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ve always believed in hiring that if you give me character and work ethic, I can train that person. In two instances, people have had those characteristics, but they just didn’t work out. In hindsight, it’s where I’m the weakest. When my senior team spends a lot of time training, and a person just isn’t retaining it, I have a hard time identifying where skill gaps are. I wish I had a more intuitive feel for that.
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
I let my CFO handle it. My joy is in deal making.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
Yes, most definitely.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Of course! I call B.S. on people who say they have no regrets! I found this retired bookkeeper who ended up costing me $20,000 in taxes because he didn’t change me from a sole proprietorship to an LLC because, in his words, “I’ve never seen a company grow so fast in one year.” For me, it was a major betrayal because he literally did my finances every month and should have had the expertise to do that. This guy was the CFO of three oil and gas companies. So, my No. 1 advice to people starting out is really, really, really choose who handles your money.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
I called on the largest food bank in the country, Capital Area Food Bank. At the time, nobody had an app—they were like uncharted territory. I pitched to them to do an app called “I Feed a Need.” I was working by myself out of my pool house at the time, and I found a development team in Argentina to do the project. Whatever they call “gamification” now, that’s what I was trying to do. I wanted users to be able to take items from a grocery bag on the app and put them in the pantry of food as a donation to Capital Area Food Bank. If I wasn’t young and naïve and fearless to get that done, it wouldn’t have happened.
The launch of the app was so anticlimactic. But, three months after, my Twitter went crazy with every food bank in the country following us. I called Capital Area Food Bank and they were like, “You didn’t see the article?” We had been named the top nonprofit app by Mashable. That was my big win that even got me on the map. I wouldn’t have been able to ramp up as quickly as I did without that. It’s because I kept pushing and asking, “Why not?”
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
I bought my first new car at the age of 39 for my birthday a week ago. The sales guy said, “Promise me you’re going to have fun with this car.” My daughter looked at him and said, “My mom works harder than anyone you know.” That’s the most rewarding thing. As a single mom, my daughter knows she doesn’t have to depend on anyone for anything, but she has to work hard.
What does the future look like for your business?
We are most definitely planning for growth. The biggest milestone was opening our L.A. office on Wilshire Boulevard this year. I always wanted a presence in L.A. because we have a natural fan base there. We’re calling it RCM Labs. We’re putting together this nonprofit sort of thing where writers, artists, whatever, can get representation and get promoted by a real agency. I want to pick one writer, actor, or just a talented person each year who doesn’t have the money to start and just take them to the next level. That’s what the L.A. office is all about.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
If I wanted to start a small business and I did not have the funds, I would advise someone who had, say, $30,000 to put that money in Austin real estate, even if it’s just for three months, and then sell it. Then, you’ll have $90,000 to start a business. I know that’s the normal thing to say, but I grew up in a family where we started from nothing, and the real estate path is the one we took.