Annie Liao Jones (@puggist), founder of the full-service advertising firm Rock Candy Media (@RockCandyMedia), is on a mission to shake things up in the advertising world. Her Austin, Texas-based firm, which recently opened a second location in Los Angeles, helps businesses of all walks get noticed on the web. As she notes, that begins with a website that attracts – and keeps – attention.
We asked Jones about her work and her best tips on website development and design for small businesses. Find out which elements a website absolutely must have, why your site should prioritize messaging above all else, and how an effective website can shorten your sales cycle.
Tell us a little about your background and how Rock Candy Media got its start.
I was on the publishing track as a magazine journalism major and had an "accidental job" in sales, selling commercial printing to business owners and CMOs at both small and big Austin-based companies. Before I knew it, I was selling $2 million a year. However, in terms of personal gratification, I knew in the back of my head I wanted to be like my dad and be my own boss. So I challenged myself to not get too comfortable, as I knew the later I did it (took the leap to go on my own) the less likely I was going to.
Through my six- or seven-year sales gig, I learned not everyone wants to go to a job interview every day like I do. Call me sheltered. I look back and am eternally grateful to Dan Brannon at American Printing & Mailing for giving a little unknown twenty-year old like me a chance in sales without prior experience.
You are about to open a second location in Los Angeles, right? How's the growth been treating you and your team?
Yes. The growth has been hard, actually. In terms of any year competing with the year I started Rock Candy Media in 2009, I would have to say 2016 is it. Lack of sleep and management headaches I never had before. We had more good things happen this year, but we also had a lot of HR-type challenges with new hires I never had to experience before. You can say I do not and will never take my senior team for granted. It’s been a lot of extreme highs but enough super lows to balance it all out and keep me humble. Thus is life, right?
In hindsight, I should have a lot more accomplished in terms of business development in regards to RCM West. However, I am aware I’m the hardest on myself. I should have gone into it thinking, “The second or third year after setting up all the right people is the year I’ll be able to even physically meet or re-engage with contacts I made before I opened RCM West.”
Rock Candy Media bills its web development services as "anti-template." Is this a direct response to client troubles with template sites? If so, what did they experience?
That’s correct. Our creative director, Sam Kimelman, came up with that tagline years ago and I immediately knew it was us. It was true to RCM. I know everyone says, "We’re different" or "We have no competitors" – all I know to be true is I never looked at another agency to build RCM. I still keep my head down to this day.
I built RCM based on what I would want as an entrepreneur in terms of an agency. I am still constantly asking myself, "How and where can we add value?" along with "What do I wish an agency could do for me, knowing we all have one thing in common?" And I always go to the number of hours in a day. That part isn’t changing. But RCM can.
I never want to grow to where we can’t be nimble. Our tagline – "the anti-template" – is literally about how custom our creative is, including the websites we build, but mainly it’s an attitude. We don’t want our clients to be like anyone else, but we want them to learn from everyone else. Definitely what Rock Candy Media clients share in common is that they all have an industry-disruptive mindset – they are not scared. I love it.
What are the three most important elements of a business's website?
To me, the most important elements of a business’s website (if I can only choose three) are tactically…
- Call-to-action button and where it’s placed.
- The logo and an immediate feeling you get from the design itself.
- The messaging – what can you say in the least amount of words that is going to get someone to take an action on your site instead of leave it? Where is the urgency?
From your experience, what are some things small-business owners struggle with most when it comes to developing their websites?
I think business owners need to understand that their website is their number-one sales tool. With the right website, where the design and lead generation tools coexist in harmony, you don’t have to solely rely on salespeople making X amount of calls a day. With the right website, your sales cycle should shorten as it gives your sales team the legitimacy they need to A) get a meeting and B) close the sale.
How does a small business benefit from a professionally designed site?
A professionally designed site is crucial to a small business. You have to stay humble. Even if you don’t think you have competitors, you have people going somewhere else no matter what for whatever service or product you are trying to sell. So really to me the question is "When does a professionally designed site not matter?" and my answer is "Never."
Can you give an example of a client that had a disaster-movie website? How did it affect their business? And how did your firm help them correct course?
Yes, I can give an abstract. Most of our clients come referred to us by venture capitalists at this point, so the NDA we’re under is stringent.
We had a client that did not only video production – we’re talking millions of dollars worth of commercials, major action-type stuff – but they also were making strides in AR or augmented reality when no one else was. The type of corporate projects they did blew me away. For example, they recreated the inside of a hospital on the B2B side, and on the B2C side, they had a super-realistic dinosaur environment that made the drive to San Antonio worth it.
Their old site didn’t tell you who they were or what they were about. But shortly after their new website launched, they were invited to the Google campus by Project Tango. Do I personally think they would have been invited otherwise? My answer is no.
Let's say a small-business owner is on a shoestring budget and can't outsource their entire website development. What part of the site would your firm advise they prioritize spending money on?
One word: messaging. In my opinion, anyone can do pretty. It takes a lot to be memorable AND tell the world what you do in three seconds. What is the content that separates you from the others, and does it feel authentic to you? If you "own it" – meaning you feel your entire brand IS YOU – you’re on the right track.
As you probably know from experience, some small businesses forgo a website altogether. Let's hear an argument against relying on social media alone to represent a business online.
I would never advise a client to do social media if they didn’t at least have a landing page with an email capture online. Ever. To me, the reason social media exists is to:
- Show off your personality by driving people to your site with blog content we write for our clients.
- Drive people to your site so they can truly opt in and know what you’re doing.
Social media without a website would be like driving blind to me.
Any other advice you'd like to offer small-business owners about building their site?
Most definitely: The best web designers will give you two to three homepage choices that you literally cannot decide from and you end up picking and choosing elements that feel right to you, but you’re most definitely excited about the process. Before I had the design team I had now, I knew if I got 20 logo options from a designer, I was bound to not like any of them. It was always the designers that gave me two options that excelled – where I couldn’t decide between the two.
Also, build your site in terms of who you want to be, not who you are now. It’s your chance to go all out. It’s your Santa list. Your website is where you don’t want to compromise.
To hear more good advice from other small-business owners, explore our Small Business Spotlight series.
About Annie Liao Jones
In 2009, Annie Liao Jones started Rock Candy Media in her pool house as the sole employee. In 2016, not only has Rock Candy Media grown in size, but Jones also opened her second location in Los Angeles named RCM West.