Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Everyday I pinch myself and still can't believe this is my life. It wasn’t always this way. I grew up with a single waitress mom living very poor. I worked incredibly hard since age 16 using my first Taco Bell paycheck from my first job as capital to build upon. Somehow with lots of hard work and a pinch of luck, I began living my dream and building my vision.
I’m Chris Wizner and I’m founder and CEO of Vivid Candi, Inc., a full-service digital tech agency based on the beach in Malibu, California for over 22 years running marketing campaigns and websites for top brands, celebrities, and even the occasional billionaire. It’s surreal to me how amazing the experiences running this agency have been. Everyday is a vivid adventure of entrepreneurship.
Our agency has been a pioneer in digital marketing and websites since digital agencies began. Our main two services are marketing and website design. We specialize in higher-end clientele and give them X factor out-of-the-box quality ideas.
We have a team of the most versatile and creative marketing ninjas that can take any marketing campaign or website from start to finish with our streamlined in-house process. As a measure of how much our digital tech agency is making today, let’s measure it by the happiness of myself, the founder, and not just the numbers. I have the biggest smile on my face everyday when I wake up and start work. I literally can’t wait to work.
I usually start the day at my home office in Malibu with a solid dose of espresso and then halfway through the day I walk a mile to our corporate offices. I walk into my office and have the best view of the Malibu Pier anyone could ever ask for. I can see the surf, see lots of people, and dream big here. It’s real and I worked my a$$ off for it and will never stop. I've been thrilled living my wildest dreams every day of my life since age 16 and that is the ultimate measure of success for me.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was an entrepreneur early in life selling tadpoles at school for cash when I was 10 years old in 5th grade. When I was 11 years old I mastered building and fixing computers and began charging $25/hr doing that service for many nearby locals.
When I was 14 years old I hurt my ankle very badly and was stuck at home for 2 weeks out of school. I used that free time to build a fishing club website on Geocities. This was the first time I had ever built a website. That rapidly taught me my foundation for coding HTML and building websites in the future. It’s so weird because I remember telling other kids since elementary school that one day I’d build a computer company. Turned out I was close and it was a digital tech agency that I built.
The “aha” moment in my life was when I was 16 years old working at my 2nd job ever at a company called UBU Products using clarisworks to design stick figure families. It was a husband and wife couple running it and they inspired me so much just watching how they ran their small business. One day I stopped work for a minute and wrote “Don’t wait for things to happen, make them happen” on a sticky note. This one statement alone later changed my life forever.
I realized it was up to me to go from being a poor kid with a single mom waitress to a successful entrepreneur and leader one day. I knew college was never an option simply due to the expense and I had to make my future. Within a day I learned how to open a business and filed my first fictitious statement for my business Vivid Candi. From there, I ran my business part-time on the side while I also worked my job. My bosses were aware that I started my business while working for them. They encouraged it which was amazing and pushed me further. Thanks to them I learned Quickbooks accounting and how to invoice which was a key foundational thing for running a business.
Eventually, they were kind enough to understand when the time came for me to spread my wings and run my company full time. Still, to date, we stay in touch, and not too long ago I had the pleasure of taking them to dinner at Paradise Cove in Malibu. I’m filled with gratitude for their positive role in my entrepreneurial story.
Around age 17 I got connected at the Malibu Chamber of Commerce networking mixer with founding publisher Mia Dinelly of Malibu Magazine which fastly became one of the most popular local magazines. I worked hands-on designing magazine ads for many of their advertisers for years to come. This gave me the fastest crash course of learning graphic design and marketing you can imagine. For me, learning by experience is faster than in any classroom.
At one point, Malibu Magazine and I worked together so well that we shared a small 200 sq ft. office in Malibu together. This was my first real office away from my home office. From there, we moved to a larger office together and shared that another year or so until they grew so much that they moved out into their own separate offices. This left me with the office to bloom into.
Over the years we moved from that office closer and closer to the Malibu Pier until finally in 2020 we had the most amazing office we could dream of looking right at a view of the Malibu Pier and Surfrider Beach. We can see sets of waves and people surfing on them. It’s a dream come true, but a true entrepreneur always thinks of a vision for the future and has a never-ending passion to make things happen.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
At age 18 I began hiring employees to do graphic design, marketing, and website design work. This changed everything so I focused my energy on building a greatly streamlined process for everything including work schedules, project management, human resources, and more. Learning and developing processes allowed me to work smart, not hard. I was able to scale and, around age 23, I had 10+ employees and was making an incredible living doing what I loved to do most.
For websites, I create a 3 phase process of elimination. The first phase was “layout design” where design concepts were prototyped and approved. Once approved, the second phase “Production” began and we’d make a demo. From there the final and third phase was “Finalization” which included a few rounds of revisions and a website launch with client approval.
For marketing campaigns, we also have a smart process that is very flexible to client and market demands. Each month we meet a client and propose a written monthly marketing strategy, proposed advertising media budget, and updated KPI’s (Key performance indicators). Everything we do is transparent, results-driven, and focused on numbers and engagement.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching our agency was certainly a challenge at age 16 with only a $300 Taco Bell paycheck to fund it as capital to begin. At first, I invested in getting a good computer and learning graphic design. After much self-teaching, I began selling the service to neighbors and locals using flyers I designed myself and would walk around at night through commercial business parks.
Slowly but surely I got my first few clients including a mirror company, a sunglass brand and a few realtors. I began literally as a one-man shop doing everything for these clients from start to finish. I ground and hustled hard to start earning a profit in my first year.
As things continued around age 16, I found out about Chamber of Commerce networking events which was a huge key to my future success. Essentially I saw these as free marketing opportunities to meet key decision-makers. People thought because I was young that I wasn’t serious but I always flipped that and turned it to my advantage. After a few networking events, I gained numerous clients including Pepperdine University and Gotcha which were HUGE at that time for me. Things continued to take flight and upon high school graduation, the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce gave me a scholarship for being their youngest member at just age 17.
The business began in an abandoned room of a condemned guest house in Agoura Hills, California on a property that my mother was renting. Certainly humble beginnings and then he moved with me to an apartment we shared in Westlake Village, California for another year.
Around age 18 my mother moved us to a small guest house in Malibu, California which ended up being a life-changing move for me. Malibu ended up adopting me fully and changing my life in the future to come. At first Malibu was incredibly unacceptable to me and it was a nightmare to try and gain access to the businesses there. One day through a Malibu Chamber of Commerce event I was lucky enough to meet the publisher and founder of Malibu Magazine at it’s beginning days. That was one door that opened many doors and allowed me to fastly take the Malibu market as a leading advertising agency. The rest was history from there.
Through the entire launch process, I learned so many lessons, especially since I never got formally educated for any of it. One of my first lessons was to have thick skin and I learned this working with Malibu Magazine’s founder Mia DInelly. She was one tough cookie and she’d keep me up till 2 or 3am some nights making changes to meet their print deadlines. I learned not to take her feedback or stressful moments personally and instead focused on delivering results. All this time later, she’s the amazing woman that graciously gave me a ring to propose to my now wife.
Another lesson that was tough as nails were learning when to fire people. Once you go from a one-man shop to employing people the entire game changes and you have to work smart, not hard while surrounding yourself with talented harmonious people. Many times I waited too long to fire a bad apple. Just like apples, if you have a basket with one bad apple it can actually be contagious and destroy the rest of the apples.
Ultimately the smartest lesson I learned was to ALWAYS KNOW YOUR NUMBERS AND RUN YOUR BUSINESS OFF WORST CASE NUMBERS MAKING THAT SUCCESSFUL. Without proper finances and well-projected business models, it can be impossible to operate and scale a business. If you make the worst-case scenario a good cause, you’ll almost always be pleasantly surprised.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the beginning, Chamber of Commerce networking events were the best way for me to attract new customers that I kept for years to come. At that time that trumped my best efforts using paid print ads in magazines and newspapers, direct mail pieces, and flyers. The web wasn’t even much of an option in the early 2000s to get a new client until around 2005 when that changed dramatically and Google Adwords was born.
Google Adwords in circa 2005-2012 took us from a small local agency to a national agency. On top of that in 2012, we master SEO (search engine optimization) and ranked #1 in the country for 8 months on terms like “web designer”, “web developer” and “web builder”. That supercharged us and in a short period of time, we started landing national-level deals with companies we had previously dreamed of the opportunity of working with. Our team went from 3 people to 25+ people at times during that era of internal marketing.
With all that growth and a consistent sales funnel, we had to hire salespeople since it became a full-time job for multiple people. This allowed us to take full advantage of every opportunity we generated in our marketing efforts and continue to grow. We also broadened our marketing strategy to be well-diversified amongst Google Adwords, PPC, blogging & SEO, press, email marketing, and more. We even got featured on CBS’s Swift Justice as an expert web designer and Bravo’s Relative Success with Tabatha Coffey. All of this combined made us a force to be reckoned with and ultimately led to even more success.
As the business kept growing, so did our strategy. It became about quality long-term relationships and not quantity. We elevated our clientele and got selective. We invested in moments and people and built incredibly strong mutually beneficial relationships with our best clients. Being located just a 5-minute walk from Nobu Malibu (a celebrity restaurant on the beach in Malibu) gave us a huge advantage. We used it to build deeper, more authentic relationships with our clients and created memories there with them that they’d never forget. Nobu essentially became our “Cheers” bar and everyone knew our name everytime we came in and our clients LOVED the experience of coming in with us for a drink and good conversation.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today in 2021 we are accelerating more than ever despite the 2020 pandemic. At first, the pandemic kicked our butt and we lost 76% of our marketing clients in the first week of March 2020. When that happened, we took a major step back and reconsidered our entire business model. Almost immediately we moved everyone on the team to working remotely from home vs physically at our offices.
We rebranded the entire agency as a “Cloud Based Agency” and provided Covid-19 discounts and tailored remote services that were a seamless transition from in-person meetings and work. Overall, the new Vivid Candi was more digitally based than ever before and once that new foundation was put in place we simply ran with it and kept accelerating.
During 2020 and 2021 we had some of the highest gross record sales months in the history of our business in the face of a pandemic. It was truly an amazing chapter of history for us and proved that if you have the right lens, just about any situation (even a Pandemic) can be flipped into an opportunity.
We have always considered ourselves out-of-the-box pioneers in the world of digital agencies. Going forward we are excited to diversify our business and further launch a variety of in-house startups that we incubate and accelerate using all the in-house services and resources at our disposal. We even rebranded at one point from a “Digital Agency” to a “Digital Tech Agency” to infuse the startup concept with digital marketing. One of our startups uses holographic technology to enable anyone to have their holographic self Eulogy. For us, the future holds the opportunity to incubate, accelerate, launch and exit numerous tech startups while still keeping our existing core business as a digital agency. We’re truly excited and everyday is a day filled with passion for making things happen.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’m always learning and always evolving. Over the years there have been so many lessons that were helpful and advantageous. Overall the concept of working smart not hard has been a foundational lesson and advantage. I constantly sought out the amazing talent and surrounded myself with the best of the best I could find. I also mentored, incubated, and accelerated many of our alumni staff from humble beginnings to champion marketers and entrepreneurs. I feel it’s a gift to be able to inspire others.
A great lesson has always been to invest in people and moments. You only live once and you never get time back so make the most of it at each and every opportunity. This is why we go on hikes with our team, drinks at Nobu, surfing at the beach, and even business trips. It has been a true core to our success and ultimately more importantly than success it truly generated happiness.
Happiness after all is just one of these things that is impossible to quantify, yet simultaneously tangible in your own mind. I would never undervalue it so it’s why it’s such an important advantage to us. Making your team and clients happy while creating moments in time with them is truly one of the most advantageous things a business leader can do.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I think the single most impactful tool we have ever used was Google Docs. This began around 2007-2009 when a large software company called Blackline (and now a public company) told us they were gonna require us to use Google Docs and Sheets for project management during their website and graphic design projects with us. At first we were resistant, but once we began using it we saw the huge advantages, impressive efficiency and quality control that came with that. It was such an important change, we never stopped using it and simply kept evolving how we used it.
Another HUGE pivoting change in our business also inspired by Blackline Systems was utilizing the WordPress open source CMS platform for web development. At first, we were hesitant and used paid CMS platforms which were very primitive at that time. They insisted that we develop their website on WordPress and educated us that open source platforms such as that were going to be the future. Turns out they were right and in 2021 today WordPress is essentially the #1 website platform.
Once we learned how to develop on that platform, we never stopped and we became one of the best companies at WordPress web design and later developed hundreds of websites using it.
The third major platform change we did in our 22+ years of business was probably the most important one ever. That was Basecamp! Funny just like the above-mentioned, we had a client force us on it. This client was a pharmaceutical marketing consultant named Taft Moore. At first glance we thought it was going to be painful to adopt and use but after less than 5 minutes using it I knew it was something very special. I began running my experiments with it and less than a few weeks later we eventually switched over every key operational system of our company to Basecamp from work schedules to project management and more. It was so powerful we started introducing it to clients and they started adopting it.
The craziest case study introducing Basecamp to an organization had to be the Malibu Chamber of Commerce. When I joined the Board of Directors there in 2017 just a few days later I got bombed by nearly 60 emails in 1 day all disconnected with separate responses. I got frustrated by the inefficiency of that and sent one mass email to the entire board saying I wasn’t gonna read one single email and was going to instead sponsor Basecamp for the Chamber to use for project management, communications, and file sharing.
It was truly marvelous to see this was well received and instantly fruitful for everyone. Instead of hundreds of email disconnects, everyone communicates on one message board in Basecamp. Instead of no project management, everyone is assigned to dos in basecamp. Things got done and the chamber grew faster than ever before. It was such a solid foundation that the chamber has used it ever since for just about every part of their operations for nearly 5 years now. So with everything said, having the right platforms to make your business productive is EVERYTHING.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m probably not your normal person that will say books and podcasts are what influenced me because the truth is I hardly read books and I never listen to podcasts. So what does influence me as an entrepreneur? Truly it’s a “gumball” combination of business mentors over the years, other entrepreneurs, youtube videos, and website articles I google.
My favorite inspirational entrepreneurs are Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezzos, and so on. I admire their constant drive and grand vision so I spend much time following what they do in the news, on social media, and TV. Besides those well-known entrepreneurs, I have been lucky and blessed to have mentors in business since I was 16 and began-- all of which I’m still working with over 22 years later and get amazing advice from.
Anytime I have ever wanted to learn, I turn to Google and self-teach myself with anything I can find that will influence me, and then I immediately crash course myself into it by trying things first hand.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
You’re either a leader or a follower so figure that out first and fast. Once you are sure you’re a leader, put it to the test by dreaming of a vision for your business and taking the next action steps to make it happen. Be ready for a rollercoaster because almost every entrepreneur experiences valleys and peaks on their journey to success.
There’s no greater feeling than being your boss and being in control of your future. You can make anything you dream of happen and it’s worth all the risks to get there. It’s an incredible journey you’re gonna embark on so stay mentally strong and find balance with your personal life. Never let your business life take over and become a “work-a-holic” since you’ll only burn out faster that way. It’s key to find your balance and spend at least a few hours today with your other outside hobbies, interests, and/or activities. For me, I spend 3 hours a day with meditation, surfing, biking, hiking, or other outdoor activities I find. I also make sure to travel often and find new inspiration from amazing places in the world as I work remotely.
Don’t work hard, WORK SMART. Expand your bandwidth instead of working more hours. Always remind yourself about your great passion for your business. If that’s not there, you have no fuel to make it so it’s key you have the most incredible passion and drive for your business. Overall you must be the chief evangelist of your vision and never back down no matter how many people say you can’t do it or throw challenges your way. It’s a gift to be an entrepreneur and a leader and when you make it you should give back and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking to hire and generally always have an eye out for a great Digital Marketing Assistant position which is the best entry into our agency. That position’s tasks involve managing Instagram accounts, influencer outreach, blogging, pay-per-click marketing, and more. It’s a paid position that can be part or full-time as well as virtual from home. Anyone can apply anytime here.
Where can we go to learn more?
Thanks for the very detailed interview! Really fun to remember many memories, find old pictures and think through many of the ingredients of our success. Thanks again!
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help you get started.
Interested in starting your own business? Join Starter Story Premium to get the greatest companion to starting and growing your business:
- Connect + get advice from successful entrepreneurs
- Step by step guides on how to start and grow
- Exclusive and early access to the best case studies on the web
- And much more!
Email, SMS, and more — Klaviyo brings your marketing all together, fueling growth without burning through time and resources.
Deliver more relevant email and text messages — powered by your data. Klaviyo helps you turn one-time buyers into repeat customers with all the power of an enterprise solution and none of the complexity.