Jill King

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Fearless businesswoman

Don’t let her petite stature fool you. Marketing executive and brewery owner Jill King packs a big punch. Whether she’s creating brilliant global campaigns for Big Tech companies or pouring her efforts into marketing Bare Arms Brewing to the locals, this savvy entrepreneur and innovator has a lot to say about starting a business, making power moves, surviving a pandemic, treating employees like family and being fearless.

WACOAN: As someone whose career is all about technology, what are your thoughts about the role it plays in our daily lives right now? I think people are taking a hard look at how very dependent we are on technology, and while there’s so much good, it scares them.

King: I love tech. For 30 years, I have been in tech. I was involved early on in voice over IP, [virtual private networking], which allows us to work securely from anywhere — and without that we would not be working from home. I was an early promoter of cloud technology, artificial intelligence, high performance computing. Some of my clients are curing cancer, mapping the genome, predicting the weather. We are doing so many wonderful things with technology. We are developing pharmaceutical drugs at a rapid pace, for instance, because of technology.

There’s criticism of Big Pharma and Big Tech right now, but without Big Tech, imagine where our lives would be. It’s a very significant part of our lives.
WACOAN: You know a lot about technology, but your main role is promoting those programs and concepts, right?

King: Yes. I’m a marketer. I am not a technologist. I’m not an engineer. My husband’s one. So I pillow talk, but I’m not an engineer. I like to say that I understand ‘Enginese.’ I can translate that into layman’s speak.

I turn that information into ways that people can understand it. I always look at it from the perspective of who my audience is. Who’s going to be reading what I’m writing? If I’m writing for a businessperson, I talk about the business outcomes. If I’m talking to a financial person, I talk about return on investment. If I’m talking to an engineer, I talk about the specs, the features, the benefits.

WACOAN: You’re able to see things from the reader’s or the consumer’s experience, no matter what it is you’re marketing. What about Bare Arms?

King: At Bare Arms, it’s all about the consumer. They want to relax and have a good time. They want to escape their reality. So I tell them how they are going to have fun at Bare Arms.

WACOAN: So which business is your main gig right now, Bare Arms or your marketing firm?

King: My marketing firm is my main gig. We launched in 2015. This is my second agency, and it’s called Yaxx Inc.

My husband’s last name is Yackley. I always joke about his name, but I didn’t take his last name because I had already been well into my career when we married. Everyone knows me as Jill King, so we just joke that it’s my stage name with a ‘wink wink.’

When I was trying to think of a name for the company, I wanted something short and with a domain that is available. I thought, what do we do as communicators? You know, we ‘yack.’ We communicate. We talk. It worked.

WACOAN: You’re pretty new to Waco. How did you get here — and also buy a brewery?

King: November 6 was our third year in Waco. I was born and raised in California. In 2011, I took a job with a startup in Salt Lake City. And, you know, the day we arrived we knew that was not going to be our forever home. We loved it, but it just didn’t suit our kind of lifestyle.

We were not [Latter Day Saints], and if you’re not LDS, it’s really kind of hard to live in Utah because most people’s lives are so absorbed with their families and their church and then work. We just didn’t fit that mold; we didn’t go to their church. And there wasn’t a lot of adult activity that wasn’t family-oriented, and we were becoming empty nesters. So we really were a fish out of water.

But [my husband], Kevin, had the goal of opening up a brewery, and we had put a business plan together to do it in Utah. As we got involved in the regulation and things like that, we realized quickly that it would be very expensive to do it there. And we realized, hey, our son is out of high school. He’d moved out, bought a house. So he’s not coming back.

WACOAN: You realized you were free.

King: Right. Kevin had spent a lot of time in the military here in Texas, and he loved it. So he put Texas on the short list.

I was in Texas to manage some video shoots in San Antonio, Austin and in Waco at Baylor. San Antonio didn’t really fit the bill. Got to Austin, and it was not quite what I wanted as that forever place. Then as I rolled into Waco, I thought, oh my God, it’s beautiful. It’s green. There’s water, hills, trees. Look at all the trees! Then I got on the Baylor campus, and I’m like, this is gorgeous.

Then [later] I had to be in Houston for work, so I said to my husband, let’s take a couple of extra days and visit places we had looked at online. We wanted to buy some land. We spent five or six days here in Waco, and I fell in love with a piece of property in Aquilla. It met all of our criteria, so we ended up buying it. We packed everything up, got rid of the house, and we were here in 60 days.

WACOAN: Wow, it happened fast. Such a big change.

King: We just felt that it was the right place for us, and everything was so easy. We chose Waco because of its beauty and its growing population. And there was only one brewery in town. We knew that the size of the city would be able to support another brewery. We now have five breweries in town, but when we moved to town Bare Arms was the only brewery in town.

WACOAN: How did you go from wanting to start your own brewery to buying Bare Arms?

King: We had several properties that we looked at for the brewery, and for one reason or another they just didn’t work out. I started thinking maybe it’s not meant to be. But in November, we got a call — and I really believe things happen for a reason. It was the folks from Bare Arms, and they wanted to meet us at Cricket’s. Sure enough, they asked if we wanted to acquire Bare Arms.

WACOAN: How did they know you would be interested?

King: When we came to town, we walked right in to Bare Arms and said we love you guys. We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and we are here to make craft beers. We are not your competition. We are not your enemy. We need to work together against the Buds, the Coors Lights so that we can compete against them.

We made it known that we were here in town to open a brewery. We talked to the chamber. We joined the Baylor Club. I joined Women of Waco, and I told people we are here to open a brewery.

WACOAN: So, they knew you’d be good and faithful owners.

King: We did not want to see the first brewery in town, Waco’s oldest brewery, go by the wayside. And so we felt that, OK, we’ll buy, not built from scratch, and we’ll save an icon. So we did. We launched on January 1 almost a year ago.

WACOAN: And no one had any idea what was coming.

King: Right. So we spent January and February renovating, and we totally redid the taproom. It’s beautiful, and we’re all super excited. We are starting to see all these people return. Business is starting to climb. We’re thinking, oh yeah, we made the right decision. Then boom, COVID hits, and we’re closed down for seven months.

WACOAN: It’s a huge question, but how have you survived?

King: Well, I’m very fortunate that Yaxx is doing so well because Yaxx did 100% of the investment in the brewery, so that’s us personally. I’m the sole owner of Yaxx.

WACOAN: How many employees work for you at Yaxx?

King: I have eight employees, and they live all over the United States.

We probably grew 30% this year. I can’t keep up with demand right now. It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.

WACOAN: So, Bare Arms had to be closed because you don’t serve food there.

King: There was no food. I mean, we could sell growlers to-go, but we lost 90% of our revenue because all the restaurants were closed or to a capacity of 25%, so they were not buying any beer, or very little of it. We were still supporting them wherever they needed it and selling growlers to-go.

WACOAN: My husband was getting those, I can tell you that.

King: Everyone was, and we are so grateful to our community for just coming by and buying beer. But you know, we’re just like, wow what a punch in the gut. We looked back at our original business plan. We said, you know what, we were going to be in the red for 18 months when we were going to start from scratch. So we’re in this for the long haul. We want to be a fixture here in Waco. We are Wacoans, truly. That’s how we feel.

But we got really focused. Not that we weren’t before, but you know. We paid all of our employees the entire time because they’re just like family. We said, if you want to go get unemployment you can — you might make more money — but our staff, our bartenders actually probably made more money than they would have on unemployment because of the generosity of our customer base. Their tips were astronomical, wow. People would come in and buy a couple growlers and then tip 100%. Massive generosity. We were hugely grateful, and we kept our staff employed.

We pay our bartenders $8 an hour plus tips. So, they don’t have to go out and work a bunch of places. I’m just like, there’s a quality of life that needs to happen, and we’re family and so we’re going to treat you like family and vice versa. We just take care of each other.

WACOAN: How did you develop that family philosophy of business?

King: Hiring is tough. It is really expensive, as well, because you’ve got to train them and get them up to speed. It’s taxing on a corporation. Staffing is the biggest challenge, and when you have a lot of turnover, it’s really tough on your business. So I treat our staff the way I would want to be treated. I’ve had jobs where I have had horrible bosses. I don’t want to be that person. We also have a business to run, and so it is a balance.

WACOAN: And do you run Yaxx the same way?

King: Oh, yeah. Yaxx has more longevity. My graphic designer, we’ve been together since 1997. I’ve taken him from company to company, wherever I’ve either worked or owned my own. My director of marketing I’ve known since he was 10. I mentored him through his MBA. Then I ended up hiring his wife, and she is amazing.

WACOAN: Tell me about Yaxx’s clients. Who are they and what type of companies do you serve?

King: Yaxx works with all high-tech companies. We will work with startups to Fortune 100. Three of the five Big Tech companies are my clients. We do a lot of client proposals and things like that. We are under very, very strict [nondisclosure agreements], so I can’t talk a lot about my clients.

WACOAN: Tell me what it is you do for Big Tech companies now.

King: We work with the marketing aspect so, basically, we create sales tools for them. We really support the sales teams. We might create a brochure that they would use to then sell services to a certain market. We create websites, and they might be little microsites that are targeting a certain person, a certain group of people. We would create a microsite that communicates a directed message. So we’re really about target marketing to them.

We might do social media campaigns, like paid Google search campaigns that are directed to only maybe 20 or 30 people within a specific organization. How crazy is that? We get that specific, and we’re spending money just to market to your person because we know that the deal size is like $30 million.

WACOAN: I think the average person has no idea this is going on behind the scenes.

King: And this is one department within these Big Tech companies. You wonder how someone gets to $4 billion a year. The scale is different. So they’re doing $40 million deals instead of $40 deals. But the fundamentals of marketing still apply whether it’s a small business or Big Tech.

WACOAN: You work with both big and small companies.

King: Yes. If I am working with a startup, I am usually doing marketing for the entire company. For Big Tech, I’m usually working for one little division of the company. If you take something like Facebook, they might have 1,500 advertising agencies that are working for them at once, serving all these little departments. It’s almost like each department is a company within these big organizations. And they all have their own agendas and plans and strategies.

WACOAN: It’s overwhelming to think about, especially for someone who is not on the inside of that.

King: It’s overwhelming, even if you are someone who’s involved. Some of my clients have a half a million employees globally. Just trying to navigate who needs to weigh in on this or who needs to approve that and knowing the ins and outs — that’s how you get successful within an organization like that.

WACOAN: You seem like a very positive person. Is that part of your formula for success?

King: My mother will describe me, from the time I came out of the womb, as very independent. I was like, no leave me alone. I’m going to do it myself.

My dad passed away when I was 15. So it was just me and my mom, and I had to work full time. My mother married my dad when she was 16. She didn’t even have a high school education. She was a mom. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, she raised three beautiful children who are successful, productive members of society. She did her job, and she did it well. But then without my dad and income, she had nothing.

WACOAN: That’s so hard.

King: I was a full-time student and had A/B grades. I was a cheerleader and I worked pretty much full time. I would just burn the candle at both ends.

WACOAN: Where did you work?

King: I had some crazy jobs when I was in high school. My first job I worked at Howard and Phil’s Western Wear. I was 15 years old. I always looked older than I was, and they hired me on the spot. So I’m selling boots, and I’m getting commissions. I’m super excited. I’m doing the cash register, and I’m making my sales. Somehow they didn’t realize that I was only 15 years old, and they’re like, it’s illegal for you to be using the cash register. But they didn’t want to let me go because I was killing it. So, everyone else just rang up my sales for me.

Then I had another job at a place called Clean and Lean. It was a gym, a laundromat and a tanning salon. So you could go do your laundry while you worked out, and you could tan in between loads. It was awesome, and I could walk to work.

WACOAN: You didn’t just need to make money, you wanted to make money. Was that an entrepreneurial spirit developing?

King: Entrepreneur is in my blood, from my grandpas on both sides of my family, my dad. For as long as I can remember, I would help my dad with his business. So entrepreneurship is not scary to me. It’s like, yeah, let’s go start a business. No problem.

WACOAN: What do you think are the most important qualities of someone with that entrepreneur spirit? What do you have inside to just go for it?

King: No fear.

Fearlessness, truly. You just have to jump in with both feet. You can’t do it half-ass. You can quote me on that. It’s all or nothing. You reap what you sow, so if you give it your all, you’ll get back what you put in. Too many people are afraid, and they’re too cautious.

WACOAN: And then they don’t quite ever make it.

King: Yeah, so you just have to jump in with both feet.

WACOAN: Like you jumped to Waco. And then COVID happened. Were you scared when you realized what was happening?

King: Oh heck, yeah. I joked a little bit saying, well, there goes a year off my life. I hope I die earlier because the retirement’s going to run out sooner. But I just hope that it all works out in the end and we look back on this as a blip in our life that we’re just going to compress and we’re going to forget. We’re gonna be smarter because of it.

WACOAN: What have you learned from it so far?

King: You realize what’s important. You realize it’s your friends, your family, and you just hunker down. You’ve got to dig deep, though. This is one of the things that I talked about at the Women of Waco luncheon — digging deep.

Don’t get me wrong. There were some dark days. Did I make the right decision? What if we had just not bought the brewery? Then I’m, like, no, these are our dreams. This is what we wanted to do. My husband’s been a brewer for 30 years. He’s been retired for probably eight or so years, and he knew he wanted to do this. So, how could I take that dream from him? This is his dream. So I, as a wife, need to support his dream because he supports mine.

WACOAN: You’re clearly a visionary. What would you tell someone younger about being a visionary, starting a new venture and going for it? Besides fearlessness.

King: You have to have the passion and the drive to tackle being an entrepreneur because it’s not easy. There’s fierce competition. It’s not always glamorous. You’re washing dishes, at Bare Arms for example. It’s not just about making beer and drinking beer. Guess what, the toilets have to be cleaned too. So there are some really unglamorous things that you have to do when you own a business. But if you have a passion for something and you’ve got a drive, go do it. Don’t ever regret.

Jill’s 5 Must-Have Items

1. My vitamin regimen from Joyously Balanced.
2. Jane Iredale PureGloss lip gloss in “Pink Candy.”
3. Purity organic coffee beans, dark roast.
4. A La Maison de Provence, unscented soap bar.
5. Ray-Ban Wayfarers. I own 3 pairs — tortoise, black/pink and black/cream.

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