We had the good fortune of connecting with Katie Wagner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Katie, what habits do you feel play an important role in your life?
For the past 10 years, I have deliberately stepped away from my company twice a year. It started as a one-week break, then two weeks, and now I disappear for an entire three week stretch. During that time, I don’t take phone calls or check emails, I have no contact with our clients, and the team isn’t allowed to tell me anything about what happens at the agency. Instead, I use the time to assess every aspect of my business: our services and how they are delivered, our team and how they are chosen and developed, our marketing plan, branding, and ‘story’ about who we are as an agency, our growth plan and goals for the future. When I return, I give the State of the Company address, where I share all my findings with the team, and talk about our goals and initiatives moving forward. I call this period “vision week” – as it was intended to give me time to think about the direction of the company, but over the years, it’s become a lot more than that. Here are a few things I’ve learned: 1. Even the best systems need to be assessed regularly. Vision week didn’t start because anything was ‘wrong.’ It started because as a new business owner, I was so busy doing things, that I didn’t have time to think about whether we were doing the right things as a company, or in the right way. Now every six months I am assessing and tweaking our processes. It also gives me time to recognize what is going right, and continue to fine tune and improve on it. 2. Making time to think about the big picture is part of the job as CEO. If I don’t hold the vision for my own company, no one else is going to do it. I am steering this ship. If I let myself get too busy to spend strategic time thinking about the next steps, it doesn’t just hurt me. If affects my staff, my clients, my clients’ staff and my clients’ clients. Vision time isn’t frivolous; it’s an essential duty of my job. 3. No one is indispensable. As the CEO, it’s easy to tell myself that I can’t possibly step away for an extended period, because the business will falter. That isn’t ego – it’s just the result of wearing many hats within the company. Vision time is a leap of faith. But it has taught me that my team is capable of running the company, even without me. That’s been a good reminder for all of us. 4. I love my job. Business ownership is hard. Leading a team is hard. Making the right decisions for all the stakeholders sometimes seems impossible. And building the agency over the last decade has required a lot of nights and weekends, and 18-hour days. But stepping away gives me the chance to remember why I am on this journey to begin with. I rediscover my purpose and reconnect with all the things I love about the work we do. I’ve learned that as a business owner it’s important to take time to reflect on what I’ve built. The agency has come a long way from the days when it was just me on my laptop in my spare bedroom. Every time I step away, I come back as a stronger and more effective leader, with a clearer vision for the future.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I started KWSM: a digital marketing agency 10 years ago. We are a full service digital marketing agency that specializes in creating strategies to deliver leads or sales. Half our clients are B2B and half are B2C. They are located all over the country. KWSM has offices in San Diego, CA, Orange County, CA, Atlanta, GA and Las Vegas, NV. One thing that sets us apart from other agencies is that many members of our team are former journalists. (I was a TV anchor for 15 years before I started KWSM.) That means that we are professional storytellers, and we are really good at understanding what’s important about a client’s business and how to tell their story in a way that is engaging to their target audience. I’m also very proud that every member of the KWSM team (40 people) is a full-time, salaried employee. We don’t work with freelancers or contractors, which is unusual in the agency world. However, we think it makes us better at our jobs because we all work together every day as a team. I believe that if I take care of my employees, they will take care of our clients. Building the agency wasn’t easy, but it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done – especially now that the pandemic has hit, and businesses are forced to connect with their customers online. Being in digital marketing during this period is significant, because in many ways we are helping to determine whether our clients make it through this period with their businesses intact. We are helping them survive. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it feels like really important work. It’s also important to me that we provide for 40 team members and their families. I was determined to make it through the pandemic with our team intact, and we have not had any layoffs during this time. (Or at any time in our history.) Knowing that I have built a stable company that provides for both our clients and our staff is my proudest accomplishment.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I live in Ocean Beach, and I absolutely love the community. It’s welcoming and inclusive – and a little bit weird, in a good way. My favorite restaurant in town is the Little Lion. It’s owned by two sisters and the whole place only has about 7 tables. It’s cosy and intimate and the food is amazing. I also love Azucar, a cuban bakery in downtown OB. They have great coffee and breakfast pastries, as well as an assortment of cakes and cookies. When always make a stop there to pick up a treat when headed to a friend’s house for dinner. There are so many amazing places to go hiking in San Diego, but my favorite is Torrey Pines. I love the views – it looks like a postcard around every corner. The Torrey Pines Gliderport is worth a visit. If you’re brave enough to go paragliding, it’s exhilarating. But, even if you just want to watch – the restaurant has great sandwiches and burgers and you have a front row seat for all the gliders taking off and landing. It’s a relaxing place to spend an afternoon. To get out on the water, I usually choose paddle board yoga in Mission Bay (Sunchaser SUP is my go-to) or kayaking in La Jolla to see the caves. It’s also fun to just rent a Duffy Boat with friends and tour around. (I love Aqua Adventures.) Paradise Point is a beautiful resort and they have a locals drop-in rate to attend a yoga class. You can stay all day and use the facilities afterward. It’s a relaxing place to spend a beach or pool day, or grab a drink or a meal at the waterfront restaurant. My husband and I volunteer at a dog rescue called Frosted Faces Foundation in Ramona. They rescue senior dogs from shelters, provide all the necessary vet care, and find them new homes. Every Sunday, volunteers come and take all the dogs hiking to get them out of the rescue for a little exercise and companionship. We have adopted two dogs from Frosted Faces and it is a wonderful organization.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My husband, Stephen, is my biggest supporter and the person in my life who pushes me the hardest. He serves as the VP of Finance and Operations for my agency, and when he joined the company 9 years ago I offered to make him a partner. He declined that offer. Stephen taught me that for the company to run efficiently, there needs to be one leader, and I am that person. He came onboard as an employee, and works under me just like the rest of our team. I admire the strength it takes for him to play that role – and I’m grateful that he believes in me enough to defer to my leadership.