Katie Wagner of KWSM: “No one is going to tell you that you’re doing a good job”

No one is going to tell you that you’re doing a good job. As CEO, you don’t have a boss who can give you feedback about how you’re doing. It’s hard to find external guidance for how to improve, but for me it’s been even more challenging that there’s no one to praise you or celebrate […]

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No one is going to tell you that you’re doing a good job.

As CEO, you don’t have a boss who can give you feedback about how you’re doing. It’s hard to find external guidance for how to improve, but for me it’s been even more challenging that there’s no one to praise you or celebrate with you when you’re doing a good job. You have to find that pride and motivation within yourself. That’s one reason that it’s been so important for me to regularly step away from my company — so that I can reflect on all the things I’ve accomplished.


As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Wagner.

Katie is the CEO and Founder of KWSM: a digital marketing agency. KWSM is a full-service digital agency specializing in content creation, social media management, digital advertising, videography, website design and SEO. Clients include Mitsubishi, Anthem Blue Cross, F45 Fitness Studios, Rakuten, Caesar’s Entertainment, and small to mid-sized companies across the country. The agency has offices in Orange Country, CA, San Diego, CA, Atlanta, GA and Las Vegas, NV.

Before starting KWSM, Katie spent 15 years as a television and radio journalist, working for news outlets including ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN & National Public Radio.

Katie lives in San Diego, CA with her husband and their 5 rescue dogs.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was working as a television journalist when social media started to gain popularity. We realized that people weren’t watching the 5 o’clock news the way they used to because they could get headlines on Facebook and Twitter and see videos on YouTube. It became part of my job to use these new channels regularly and try to engage our audience there. As more consumers embraced social media, I realized that business owners would need to understand how to tell their story there, and I could use the skills I learned as a journalist to help them. When I left my TV job, I thought I would become a consultant and had no idea I was building an agency.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Because my entire career had been in TV news, I had never run a company or been anyone’s boss before. I wasn’t well versed in how to find and hire the right people. The agency was growing quickly, and I needed to expand our staff in order to meet client demand. I ended up making some really poor choices. Once, while I was away on vacation, my team of 4 employees conspired to each take time off while I was gone, and cover for each other. (Ironically, I found out because they posted pictures of their trips on social media!) I knew I could no longer trust them and had to fire the whole team on the same day. I thought it would be the end of the agency, but my clients understood and trusted me to continue to serve them while I hired a new team. After that, I took hiring and training a lot more seriously, and learned that not everyone who accepts a job will be loyal to the company.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I was really inspired by my clients’ faith in me and the agency. I had worked hard to build relationships with them, and I was transparent with them about what had happened. They trusted me to recover quickly and keep moving forward — and that gave me the confidence that I could do it. I knew a lot about digital marketing, but I still had a lot to learn about building a company. I accepted that challenge and did everything I could to educate myself about management and leadership.

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

Today, I have a team of more than 35 employees that I trust and respect. Over the years we have refined our hiring process to include a personality test that tells us much more than what’s on a candidate’s resume. We’ve put strong core values in place for the agency, and we hire based on those traits, and not just on job qualifications. I can teach people the skills they need to excel at digital marketing, but I can’t teach them loyalty, integrity and to be a team player. At the end of the day, those qualities are what allow us to build a strong staff and do our best work for clients. I’ve also learned to be a much better boss and leader, and I’m grateful for the self-development that owning the agency has made possible.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started the company in 2010, I named it Katie Wagner Social Media, Inc. I really believed I would just be a consultant and teach business owners how to use social media. That ended up being short-sighted, and as the agency grew it didn’t feel right to use my name in the title of the company. The work we do is made possible by a team of people — and I could never accomplish alone what we are capable of together. Also, we now do so much more than social media! So, in 2018, we rebranded as KWSM. As the agency continued to grow, clients didn’t have as much interaction with me because they were well taken care of by the team. One day, the team was onboarding a new client and I happened to walk by the conference room. I wanted to introduce myself and thank him for choosing the agency, so I popped in and stuck out my hand and said “Hi, I’m Katie. Thanks for being here.” The client looked very confused — he had no idea that I was the CEO! It was embarrassing at the time, but I also know it’s a sign of the strong company we’ve built and the fact that clients no longer hire us because of a connection to me, they hire us because of the work we produce and the relationships they build with every person on the team. Today we tell people the initials stand for Know Why Stories Matter!

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

From the very beginning, I’ve been committed to building a company with strong values and a people-first focus. When I started the agency a decade ago, digital was a new field, and there was a very low barrier to entry. Anyone who had a Facebook page could be an ‘expert.’ I was determined that we would be genuinely knowledgeable and helpful to our clients, and always treat them fairly. We work in an industry that sometimes takes advantage of the fact that digital is a foreign language to most clients, or charges companies more for services just because they have money. I don’t want to be that kind of agency. Internally, we are guided by the phrase ‘Integrity. Always.’ and I’m very proud of that. One way that’s shown up recently is that when the pandemic happened, we decided to let any client that was struggling out of their contract. I didn’t want to add to the financial stress and uncertainty that so many business owners were facing. We released 20 clients in the first few weeks of the pandemic, and many of them have come back now that things have become a bit more predictable.

I’ve also worked to maintain integrity with my staff over the years. I try to make decisions for the company we will be 5 years from now, not the company we are today. That means, from day one, team members were employees instead of contractors. (Because I knew that as the agency grew, providing good salaries and benefits would be important for attracting the kind of people we wanted to work with.) It’s unusual for an agency to have full-time, salaried employees instead of freelancers and contractors, but I believe that we do our best work because we all work together every day, and don’t assemble piecemeal teams — pulling in people only when we need them. Our cohesiveness is important for the work we do, and I am proud that we were able to honor those commitments to all our employees throughout the pandemic and didn’t lay anyone off.

Doing the right thing is hard sometimes and I’m sure we could have grown faster or made more money if we had cut corners, but I feel good about the company we’ve built.

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

One of the best things I’ve done for both the company, and my own energy level, is carve out time to step away. Every 6 months I take 3 weeks off to work on strategic planning. This allows me to focus on the big picture and fine-tune our systems and processes — but it also gives me the opportunity to remove myself from the day-to-day duties of my job and remember why I started the agency and reflect on how far we’ve come and the good work we are doing. I always go back to work with a renewed sense of drive.

I also think it’s important as a leader to set boundaries. Digital is not a 9–5 job. The tools we use are ‘always on’ and we often work outside of regular hours. It’s easy to be pulled in a lot of different directions — either a client or a team member will always need you for something. I try to schedule white space in my calendar so I can focus on important projects and initiatives for the company, instead of responding to everyone else’s needs all the time. Otherwise, some of the most important work I do will be tackled at night or on the weekend, when I’m less productive. It’s hard to say ‘no’ sometimes, but it actually improves my team’s problem-solving abilities and boosts their confidence.

Also, for me, it’s been very important to continue my own education. As the world changes, leadership also changes and being the best CEO for my agency means continuing to learn new tactics, and constantly evaluate my own strengths and weaknesses. Knowing that I have the tools I need to perform well keeps me invigorated.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

When I retired from TV, I had been married to my husband for a year, but we lived in different states because of our jobs. When I moved to be with him, I knew I wanted to help business owners use the new digital tools, but I didn’t know what that would look like. Stephen was the one who pushed me to start a company. He believed that I could do it and supported me every step of the way. In fact, about a year after I started the agency, he quit his job to become KWSM’s Director of Operations! We’ve now worked together for more than 10 years, and I could not have built the agency without him. When he first joined the company, I offered to make him a partner. However, he reminded me that there could only be one chief decision-maker and that was me. He joined as an employee instead. His trust in me as not only a colleague, but as a boss, still helps me find strength on the tough days.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At the agency, the majority of our staff is female, and many of them are in the millennial generation. My personal sense of purpose and fulfillment comes from training, mentoring and promoting these young women in the workplace. I teach an in-house leadership program for members of our team and helping them navigate their career paths and become the leaders of tomorrow is one of the most important parts of my job.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Starting and leading my company has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, but also one of the most difficult. I have learned a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses, what’s important to me, and how I want to contribute in the world. I don’t know if there’s any list that would have prepared me for this journey, but here are some of the things I wish I had known:

1.) Finding a peer group should be a top priority.

Being the CEO can be a lonely job. When you’re having a bad day or facing big decision, there’s no one on your staff that you can talk things over with. Being a good leader means reassuring your staff that everything is OK, and their jobs are stable, and that means you don’t complain to them or put your decisions on their shoulders.

I’ve found that it’s very helpful to have a group of peers — leaders at other companies — that I can confide in and look to for advice. About 5 years into my role as CEO, I joined a Vistage peer group, and that made a huge difference in feeling less alone and having resources for improving my leadership. No matter what the industry, many of the challenges CEOs face are the same, and I could not have built the company I have today without the friendship and support of my Vistage peers.

2.) No one is going to tell you that you’re doing a good job.

As CEO, you don’t have a boss who can give you feedback about how you’re doing. It’s hard to find external guidance for how to improve, but for me it’s been even more challenging that there’s no one to praise you or celebrate with you when you’re doing a good job. You have to find that pride and motivation within yourself. That’s one reason that it’s been so important for me to regularly step away from my company — so that I can reflect on all the things I’ve accomplished.

3.) The learning curve is steep, and continuous. Be ready.

Running a company will force you to use every skill you have and develop new ones very quickly. When I started the agency, I knew about digital marketing. But I had to quickly learn about hiring and people management, finances and balance sheets, sales, contracts, negotiating real estate, and numerous other aspects of running an organization. It can be exhausting and sometimes feel like you can’t get on top of everything. Because the world is always changing, and we always have new clients and team members, I am constantly learning and refining my skills as the business grows and evolves. Whether it’s tackling an interpersonal communication challenge I haven’t faced before, or implementing a new HR law, there are new problems to solve daily.

4.) This will be the hardest work you have ever done.

People sometimes say they want to own a business because of the freedom it provides — they envision doing only the work they love, working when they want to, and taking plenty of time off to spend with family and friends. That may be true if you’re a solopreneur, but when building a company, I find that this is the biggest myth of entrepreneurship. I work harder and longer hours now than at any point in my career. There is also added pressure on me to do good work and make wise decisions because dozens of families rely on their loved ones having stable jobs at the agency. This responsibility, coupled with the loneliness and constant learning mentioned in #1 and #3, makes the role of CEO the most challenging position I have ever held. It’s also the most rewarding — but that sense of accomplishment is earned through a lot of hard work. When you have a job, success is about your output on a daily basis. As the leader of the company, your focus is on long-term results, and success is about what happens over time. When the days get stressful, it can be hard to maintain that focus on the future.

5.) People and relationships are more important than systems or the work you produce.

I used to think that the agency would grow if we had the right systems and processes to keep things running smoothly, and we produced the best work in our field. While those things matter, I’ve learned that the true heart of a business is the people that work there, and the people that hire you. The relationships I have with my staff and clients are fuel for agency growth, and at the end of the day, how you treat people is the most important aspect of success. If you have mutual trust and respect with a client or an employee, it’s easy for them to forgive you when a mistake is made and keep moving forward. But no amount of outstanding work will make someone want to join your team or hire your company if they don’t believe you are operating with integrity.

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. 🙂

I would like to see more resilience training in the workplace. As I mentioned, I work with a lot of younger team members and they haven’t yet learned how to care for their own energy levels and rebound after tough times. I see a lot of people quit their jobs and look for something new the first time things get stressful or difficult, because they think it will never change. I would love to see more transparent conversations in the workplace around stress and workload — and more training about how to recognize your own emotional needs and take steps to meet them, instead of pushing through because you feel like that’s what’s expected. We hear a lot about burnout, but that’s simply the result of depleting your energy stores and not feeling like you have anything left to give. Burnout is a serious condition, but it isn’t permanent or irreversible. I think better communication and leadership around these issues could build a workforce that is able to recognize the signs of depleted energy sooner and take steps so that burnout is avoided.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I would love to connect and continue the conversation on any of these channels:

https://www.facebook.com/kwsmteam
https://www.linkedin.com/company/1873511
https://www.linkedin.com/in/kwsocialmedia/
https://www.instagram.com/kwsmteam/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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