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The Cost of Career Freedom

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Rock Candy Media founder and CEO Annie Liao Jones found her calling through trial, error and overcoming terror. 

By Annie Liao Jones

I think all of it may be due to birth order. As the oldest of three, I was definitely not a good teenager, in any sense of the phrase. But I knew I would turn out OK. There wasn’t a way to convey that to my parents, and I understand that, especially now that I’m a mom to an 8 year old.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. I went to the University of Texas and my degree was in magazine journalism. All my dreams were of working in publishing. Those dreams were dashed when I moved to New York, saw how much (or, for that matter, how little) journalists make, especially starting out, and certainly when everything there is out-of-control expensive.

So, I did the typical American what-am-I-supposed-to-do kind of thing. I got a job in sales, with no prior experience. I knew I had a knack for it, but I had to prove it to myself. My boss definitely took a risk on me, and for that, I will be loyal to his company for life.

Somewhere along the way, things went haywire. I was making more money than I’d ever thought I’d have, but after seven years, I looked around and thought, “I’m way too young to just have my life be like this.” I used to think money would buy me freedom. So, I went for the money. When I had it, I had to learn two things: Money can’t buy happiness and, in fact, money can be a prison. It was an internal debate of sorts, one in which my heart wanted to go one way and my head kept saying, “Who in their right mind would leave a 7-year-old job that brought in over six figures a year?”

I worked hard, so hard to prove to myself that sales was my thing. It was something I naturally excelled in, but I was at the point in life where deep down inside, I knew I had to move on. I couldn’t—and still can’t—live with a “What if?”

When I anxiously quit the sales job and started my marketing-and-advertising company, Rock Candy Media, from my home in 2009, I truly had no plan B. I’m not sure how to explain what it feels like to start your own business other than this: It’s like becoming a parent. Do you know if you have what it takes? How do you know you’ll be a good one? It’s the fear of the unknown. You just know you need to do it so, you jump off that cliff with enough certainty you’ll turn out fine.

Starting a business may have solved my quarter-life crisis, but it came with its own set of challenges and stresses. When I worked as a salesperson for another company, I was hustling for a commission. Now I sell as hard as I can to make sure my employees can pay rent and feed their families. New freedom came with greater responsibility. I have to ensure the livelihood of my clients and my employees. I have to grow the company aggressively to make sure we’re secure under an unexpected downturn.

It can get rocky––sometimes, downright chaotic––but it’s so much more rewarding. I’ve been treated as a fascination for being a female entrepreneur. A prospect once told me I reminded him of his wife, and I’ve been called pushy and bossy in scenarios in which a man would be considered assertive or commanding. It was never my intention to be a great female entrepreneur. I wanted to be a great business owner—period.

Now Rock Candy Media is more than fine. We have a real office, great clients and an unrestrained attitude. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing when I was 22 years old, but it’s an almost perfect reflection of who I’ve become through it all.

I didn’t do it myself. Achieving your own ambitions is almost never a solo pursuit, and a good team is always stronger than the sum of its parts. I try to hire people smarter than me and people who do what I cannot. I think that has been the secret to our success.

My journey is hardly over. My challenges are not overcome. I certainly don’t have things figured out. And if that day ever comes, that’s when I’ll know it’s time for another change.

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