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My 2020: The family confectionary business finding sweet success online

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Trent Innes

Nov 12, 2020

In this series, we uncover honest personal accounts of the heartbreaks, trials and triumphs that have made up 2020. By charting the full scope of the small business experience, together we stand to come back stronger than ever.

You used to spot Sticky thanks to the crowds. On any given day, there would be a group of customers standing transfixed by the store’s counter at Sydney’s The Rocks, watching as the resident candy makers sculpt up to 16kg of shimmering molten sugar into seemingly impossible shapes.

A family business led by partners David King and Rachel Turner, the Sticky team has been embracing traditional techniques to make thoroughly modern sweets for nearly two decades. You’ll find their signature rock candy branded with everything from hyper-coloured fruits, to the Harbour Bridge, and personalised messages.

But, in March this year, the crowds stopped coming to The Rocks. With the devastating summer bushfires having already deterred visitors, the arrival of the pandemic all but closed the popular tourist destination down. Not only were Sticky’s visitors gone, but within the space of a week the weddings and corporate events that accounted for 70% of their business were cancelled.

Co-owner David explains, “We suddenly went from being at full capacity to nothing at all. Revenue literally went to zero. I was walking around in circles saying, ‘That’s it. That’s 18 years of effort you put into building this business and now it’s gone.”

Looking online and going live to the world

Amidst the mounting panic, David and Rachel were determined not to become paralysed. Instead, they took stock and considered how to keep their business alive. With Sticky’s entire income paused indefinitely due to shifting lockdown restrictions, they decided to look online.

David explains, “Our bookkeeper Cindy Drew helped us navigate JobKeeper and business stimulus assistance, so that we could spend our time making sweets and brainstorming how to boost our online sales. The support that she’s offered us has been nothing short of extraordinary.”

With respective backgrounds in law and genetics, David and Rachel had no experience in the world of candy making before launching Sticky (luckily they’ve had Cindy on hand to help with all things business for nearly 20 years). So, when faced with their biggest challenge yet – and with nothing left to lose – they decided to draw on that same willingness to try something new.

”With people unable to watch our candy makers in action, we threw a Hail Mary pass and decided to give live streaming a go.”

It started with a handful of viewers tuning in to Instagram and Facebook to see the Sticky team creating their signature rock candy and explaining the science behind the molten magic. Then, steadily, the numbers began to climb. In the space of a couple of months, their videos began drawing up to half a million views from around the world. 

Spinning a story and connecting with customers

Things really took off, however, when David and Rachel’s 17-year-old daughter Annabelle decided they should take advantage of TikTok (David, of course, asked, “What’s TikTok?”). That was five months ago. Now, the business has a staggering 2.8m followers (their most popular TikTok to date has had over 40m views, and some posts have been shared by the likes of Snoop Dogg).

“At one point, we had so much traffic coming to our website from our social platforms that it actually broke down. The tidal wave of interest is like nothing we could have imagined – we sell out within ten minutes each time we restock. We’ve had to hire new staff to keep up with the demand and are looking for a new space so we can expand our production levels and deal with the logistics of becoming an exporter”, says David.

When asked why he thinks Sticky’s feeds have captured imaginations across the globe, he says: “The way we create our candy is kind of mesmerising. But beyond that, in a time of so much social, economic, and political upheaval, our content is whimsical, fun and easy to watch.”

In David’s opinion, the key to their social success ultimately comes down to taking their audience on a journey that has charted the course of the pandemic. “Those who’ve been following us from the beginning have experienced an entire narrative that started with the business facing bankruptcy in a world rocked by COVID-19 and evolved into the thriving Sticky of today. It’s partly about the process itself, but equally about revealing the personalities and story behind the brand. We couldn’t have done it without our team.”

“Thanks to social media, people all over the world are embracing us as their local candy shop. We created a special closed Facebook group, Sticky Friends, for fans to come together as a community (now with almost 10k members and growing) – something that has been especially valuable during lockdown. We always respond to comments, show our support for our customers as human beings, and actively engage with topical issues from climate change to race relations and mental health.”

Exploring new avenues and embracing digital

Sticky’s social media presence has translated into a massive increase in sales by opening the business up to an all-new audience. While they currently only deliver to Australia, the US, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand, they’re working on shifting this in line with their increasing follower count. Plans for international expansion are on the cards, and even though Sydneysiders have started trickling back to The Rocks, the team has no intention of halting their online content. Far from it. 

They’re not alone. Drawing from a survey of 1,000 small businesses in early June, Xero’s Rebuilding Australia report revealed that 60% of the businesses that thrived during the initial stages of the pandemic expected to invest in technology over the following three months. 

By rethinking how they do things in the digital space, the Sticky team has unlocked new ideas and systems that will endure long after the crisis ends. In David’s words, “We’re proof that with the right digital tools, a small business can take on the big guys.”

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