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John McGhee of Webconsuls: “Likeability is more important than productivity”

Likeability is more important than productivity. This was perhaps the most important and most surprising lesson I’ve learned while running a business. Results are definitely important, but how well clients like you is more important. Your likeability level is the lens clients see your performance through. There are many ways performance can be gauged, and […]

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Likeability is more important than productivity. This was perhaps the most important and most surprising lesson I’ve learned while running a business. Results are definitely important, but how well clients like you is more important. Your likeability level is the lens clients see your performance through. There are many ways performance can be gauged, and if you are disliked clients will tend to see things more negatively — while seeing things in a more positive light if they like you.


As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John McGhee, owner of Webconsuls, a digital marketing agency based in Nashville, TN.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I originally got into digital marketing by doing PPC management as a side gig while working as a project engineer for a construction company. My wife worked for a marketing agency and convinced me to try it. I started managing a handful of Google Ads & Bing Ads accounts, and I found I had a knack for it. I eventually was making as much with PPC management as I was doing my full-time job, and I enjoyed it more. However, it was a contractor position with no benefits. My wife and I were expecting our first child at the time, so stability and benefits were important. I was talking to my father about the situation one day and he recommended I try to buy the agency. I was 27 at the time, and had little money, so I thought it was impossible. However, through a series of fortunate events I was able to purchase the agency and have been running and growing it ever since.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

There were two “aha moments” that led to Webconsuls becoming the company it is today. The first was shortly after the recommendation I attempt to buy the company. The probability of it actually happening increased quickly. The previous owners were in their 70s and had started Webconsuls in 1999 as a hobby. The internet became a thing obviously, and their hobby grew into a business. When I offered to buy the company, I learned that they never actually intended to run an agency in their 70s and they were very open to selling. At the same time, I learned about business loans. I had little experience with financing, and when I learned that acquiring the funds was possible, I knew I was going to buy the company.

The second “aha moment” came in the training period shortly after acquiring the company. I knew a lot about digital marketing, and a decent amount about business, but I realized something during this time that made a huge difference. Thinking of our client’s businesses as if they were my business accelerated success in performance, ROI, and client relations. That simple thought helped me realize how to become successful with digital marketing.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I faced some hard times pretty quickly after I started running the company. Although I purchased the business, it was totally different company under my leadership than it was before. It really evolved from a collection of a few consultants to an agency. We lost a very large client shortly after buying the agency. It made things tough for a few months, but I never thought about giving up. My drive during this period stemmed from my ability to do the work and my passion for helping businesses grow and succeed.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are great today. The business has grown every year I’ve owned it, and more importantly our client’s businesses have grown. We were able to get to this point by continuing to show up and continuing to learn.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My company stands out by thinking of our client’s businesses as we would our own business. Although not a specific story, there’s one scenario that’s happened many times. When a client’s business is growing, and that growth is attributable to our marketing, they ask how to scale up their digital marketing budget and efforts. If we feel that increased budget would benefit them more by being allocated elsewhere, we tell them that. This means we lose out on revenue, but in the long term the client’s business benefits.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Although it wasn’t a funny mistake at the time, I learned that I could have saved an enormous amount on taxes if the company was structured differently. I changed this after my accountant pointed it out, but in the first year I suffered the consequences of the company being structured the wrong way. The main takeaway from this was to not place confidence in things just because they have been that way for a while. It’s easy to let things ride if they’re working, but many times they can be improved if you take the time to optimize them.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Taking on as much business as possible is the worst advice I’ve received, and it seems to be a very common piece of advice in the business world. The general concern when starting a business is that you get enough work to pay the bills. Over the years I’ve learned just as many businesses fail because they took on too much work. If you take on more than you’re capable of doing, you water down your performance and perceived value, and gain a reputation for doing subpar work. It’s very important to scale maturely and strategically, even if that means turning down work at times.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Charisma, cleverness, and poise. Charisma is important for many reasons. Clients need to be excited about the strategy you present, employees need to be motivated by you, and most importantly you need to be likable. Being clever is important because you’re going to need to strategize every hour of every day. Poise is important because you are going to get in situations where you’re uncomfortable. Whether it’s talking to clients or giving a presentation, you’ll be nervous at some point. Remaining calm in these situations is vital to your success.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Constantly learn new things. This has been instrumental in my success and helps in a variety of ways. It will help you thrive because you stay at the forefront of your industry and can offer you clients the best performance. It also helps avoid burnout by providing some variety in what you do day to day. Lastly, it helps you avoid getting stagnant as a leader. Thinking you know everything about your business is a dangerous game.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Taking on too much too early is the most common mistake I’ve seen over the years. Early on, the fear of not getting enough work is so strong that many CEOs will take on business when they’re not set up to be able to perform that work optimally. Scaling at a steady pace will help avoid this and will help your business avoid being spread too thin.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Financial matters are definitely the most underestimated aspects of running a business. Paying taxes and dues, paying employees, and collecting payments from clients are all tough tasks that seem to be thought of as automatic from an outside perspective. Unless you’re managing any of it, it can seem like these things happen naturally.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. You’ll primarily be running the business. It’s important to know that if you own the business, the majority of your time will be spent running the business instead of producing the product or service you offer. Many people are passionate about their trade, and start a business thinking they’ll be doing the actual work the majority of the time. While you will still perform the work at times, and definitely need to know the ins and outs of your trade, you’ll spend the majority of your time doing general business tasks like accounting, marketing, strategic planning, networking, etc. Starting out, I assumed I’d be doing digital marketing tasks most of the day. I underestimated the amount of time it takes to keep a business running. Luckily, it turns out I thoroughly enjoy the tasks required to run a business.
  2. Likeability is more important than productivity. This was perhaps the most important and most surprising lesson I’ve learned while running a business. Results are definitely important, but how well clients like you is more important. Your likeability level is the lens clients see your performance through. There are many ways performance can be gauged, and if you are disliked clients will tend to see things more negatively — while seeing things in a more positive light if they like you.
  3. Finding good help is hard. This was a lesson that I knew to some degree before, but I was wrong about the reasoning behind it. I assumed this meant there were very few qualified people and that it was difficult to gauge whether they were qualified or not until you hired them. The truth is there are lots of quailed and bright people, and “good help” is entirely dependent on how they fit into your business. There are a myriad of factors that determine whether someone will be a good fit at your company. I’ve learned that finding good help boils down to asking “do the factors that make this person great align with the factors that make the company great”.
  4. You’re always working and always learning. Again, this was something I’d heard before but underestimated. Always really does mean always. Being a business owner will become a big part of your identity. I now see everything from the perspective of a business owner, and am constantly strategizing. My wife is also an executive, and we have to deliberately avoid business talk on dates or they will turn into brainstorming sessions.
  5. Your business life is dependent on your personal life, and vice versa. As a small business owner, there is little separation between your personal life and work life. Your attitude and decisions will dictate how everything in the company performs, and personal factors don’t disappear when you walk in the office. I’ve found that having balance between different aspects of my life helps the business more than any business-specific effort. Being happy, healthy, and a good father/husband/son/friend enables me to perform at work on a level that’s not attainable through business efforts alone.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Teaching underprivileged children how to code. Helping someone rise out of a bad situation no longer requires tens of thousands of dollars to send them to a university. With a 500 dollars laptop and a coding bootcamp, you can do almost anything. This would provide a lot of underprivileged kids a shot at a good career and a way out of their environment. The low cost also means providing that opportunity to more people. This puts kids in a position where they have a shot if they work for it — something most don’t have. Ironically, underprivileged kids are the ideal candidates to be coders. They’ve had to adapt, scrap, and think creatively their whole lives. They’d be naturals.

How can our readers further follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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