A Conversation with Gary Vaynerchuk

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Let me tell you a dirty little secret… Every business is a marketing business, they always have been and always will be.

I’m not talking here about marketing in the academic sense, but rather in the gritty, real sense that businesses have to embrace.  To be truly successful– you, your entire team, and all your stakeholders, need a deep understanding of who you are as a business, what your real value is to your customer, what your market is and how you authentically project that.

As Will.I.Am told me, “‘Brand,’ is what journalists and industry-people say… we say culture movement.  As artists we say culture! Movement! And analysts say brand.  I don’t know what a brand is, but I know what a freakin’ movement is…. if you want to know what a culture-movement is, remember that Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t stand up and say, ‘here’s our brand!’ – he created a movement.”

The era of hyper-connected businesses, and hyper-connected customers has created an environment where competition, growth, and opportunity are fierce and real-time.

The best entrepreneurs therefore have to add ‘marketer’ to their almost endless list of required areas of expertise.

To learn more about marketing, branding and entrepreneurship I caught up with one of the of the world’s leading marketing experts, Gary Vaynerchuk, who has built his career by being exactly where consumer attention is going next.

Just out of college, Gary grew his family wine business from a $3M to a $60M business in just five years. Now, he runs VaynerMedia, one of the world’s hottest digital agencies. Along the way, Gary became a prolific angel investor and venture capitalist, investing in companies including Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Venmo and co-founding the VaynerRSE fund.

In addition to running digital agency VaynerMedia, Gary also serves as CEO of holding company VaynerX, which houses VaynerMedia and The Gallery, a new publishing company Gary started after acquiring leading women’s lifestyle property PureWow in January 2017, with his business partners at RSE Ventures. Gary also serves as a partner in athlete representation agency VaynerSports and restaurant reservations app Resy.

Q: What does it take to be an entrepreneur?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] To be an entrepreneur, you need a love for process and to be comfortable with adversity.

If you love process and you’re comfortable with adversity, and if you love the journey over the fruits and riches of that journey- then you have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is on a pedestal; everyone wants to be one.  Here’s the truth, it sucks.  Entrepreneurship is hard and almost everyone loses.

You genuinely have to like getting beat-up.  You genuinely have to like conflict.  You genuinely have to have an enormous amount of patience.  This is what it takes to be an entrepreneur and not just play at it.

Q: What are your views on startup culture?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] it’s fun to be an entrepreneur right now; you raise a lot of money, and you burn it- that’s why startups have time to go to 17 conferences and to host 44 networking dinners.  These are things I still don’t do even though people tell me I’ve ‘made it.’

I’ll do these things once in a while, networking is powerful.  It’s a piece of the equation, but a 1-4% piece of the equation not a 50% piece.

We have a lot of 23-27 year olds, raising a lot of money, and running around saying ‘I’m the CEO of this, it’s really cool!’ they’re not working on their product or business, they’re playing at being entrepreneurs.

Q: What are your views on the gurus and mentors in the startup industry?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] This is a gold-rush, and these consultants and mentors are part of the group of second and third tier businesses wrapped around primary booming industry.  A decade ago, it was real-estate experts.

To be frank.  I don’t feel bad for the startups who end up blowing money on mentors and consultants, 90% of them should be working at a company- not startup founders.  They are in the gold-rush themselves, and I don’t have a whole lot of empathy for them choosing the wrong mentors.  It’s the blind leading the blind.

Q: When did you decide to develop your personal brand as an entrepreneur?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] Good attention is very valuable.

People don’t like the term ‘personal brand,’ and when I wrote the book Crush It I talked a lot about this subject and people sniggered and said it was about vanity, ego and those things.

In 2017 unlike 2007 when I was yelling about this stuff, people now understand that personal brands are leverage.  When you have people’s attention, and especially if they think you have value, you can do amazing things.

When I launched Vayner Sports to my community- I didn’t want anything from them! But the fact that I announced it, and the fact that I had a community meant that there was a lot of activation.  Because of the relationship I have with my community, they didn’t come and pitch me.  Yes, thousands asked for jobs, but a lot of them said, ‘hey, meet this coach, meet this agent’ they provided value to me.

Having attention as an entrepreneur is the ultimate business development tool, and business development is the backbone of any great business- it’s important.

At a young age, I knew that being ‘out there’ was important, but first I thought I had to pay my dues and build a business to have something to stand on.  When I felt I was ahead of a lot of people- I thought it would be good to have the legacy and narrative to provide value back to the community.

It’s amazing to meet people who have power and great businesses who say they’ve built that on the back of being inspired by my insights.  I brought these people value at the highest level early in their careers and we’re now doing business together.

I help people to win, can you imagine how good that feels?  This is true 1+1=3 – very few people have the talent, patience, humility, gratitude and empathy to allow them to be the best version of an entrepreneur.  This is my narrative, my legacy and something I’m getting better at every day.

I’m a purebred entrepreneur.  I think there’s a lot of fake entrepreneurship around right now because people think it’s cool.

Q: How do you create a personal brand as an entrepreneur?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] In a world where everyone gets to play in social media, we’re about to realise that the vast majority of people aren’t’ good enough.

We’ve never had to quantify this before because there were people in-place to filter the people America got to see, and most were qualified to some level.  We only ever saw a curated 0.00001% of the entrepreneurial population in TV on the radio and in magazines- why? Because humans curated the other 99.999% out of the conversation.

Now we have an ecosystem where everyone gets out there and says they’re great. The vast majority are not going to be great at what they pontificate to be great at, and we’re going to watch them fail right in front of our eyes.

Q: What are the key negotiation strategies startups need to learn?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] In any negotiation, your aim is to get value while providing value for the other side.  You have to read the tea-leaves of the market!  The supply and demand of value-exchange is one of the most important things you need to judge.

Startup culture was so hot 2 or 3 years ago, that you could get an $8 million valuation on any idea if you had the right network- it was crazy! That’s come down to about $4 million for a lot of things, and even that’s crazy in my opinion.

When Vayner Media first started out as a startup, I was asking people for $5,000 a month as a retainer- now that’s close to $80-120,000 a month.  At the time, I didn’t have the leverage (as people didn’t value social media as much) so I had to come down to where the market was.

I’m not worried about judging or social commentating on the inflation of entrepreneurship and startup culture because the market always corrects it.  We will have a crash and a correction.

I don’t need to convince anyone with my words, actions are always the more interesting part of the game.

Q: How can being self-aware help entrepreneurs?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] I’ve always been pretty self-aware, and that really helped me succeed in my early days.

Being self-aware means talking to yourself quite a bit, and being honest with yourself.

As I put myself ‘out there.’ I’ve had to be more sensitive and more self-aware because of the negatives that come with it- vanity, ego, and all those things.

Because I’m self-aware of how people may perceive me, and because I try and be in tune with some of those vain, simplistic, and raw needs… I’m pushing even harder on my ‘noble’ characteristics to balance the vanity, selfishness and lowest common denominator characteristics.

For me acknowledging the fact that I love when people take a selfie with me, I realise I have a sense of responsibility to give even more back to my community to have that luxury.

Q: What causes startups to fail?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] In today’s climate, and over the past 5-7 years, people have been building financial arbitrage machines not actual companies.

Most people’s behaviour is more predicated towards raising the next round of financing rather than building towards a profitable company.

I’m not worried about business.  Unlike politics, education and the unions it works itself out.  We’re going to have a massive crash and 90% of the people will go back to working at Bank of America, Chase, GE and companies like that- and the people who are good enough will continue to build businesses.

Q: What are your views on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility)?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] CSR does not help with me (as a buyer), why? Because I’m cynical about it now, I don’t believe it.  After the success of Toms Shoes, every 23 year old told me they’re starting an umbrella company and giving an umbrella to the people that need it in the Amazon.  CSR has clearly become a tactic.

Every strategy of every company and human being should come from a truth.   I didn’t have a CSR strategy when I started Wine Library or Vayner Media, but the wealth creation allowed me to give back to the world in the way that Lizzie and I want to.

I don’t like anything that’s done to cover-up true intentions, and I believe an ungodly amount of CSR are just make-up to the ambition of the organisation financially.

Q: What do you look for as an investor?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] Key to my investment decision is the entrepreneur, the jockey, the pilot, the person running the show….

Do I like them? Do I like their behaviour? Have they had experience? Have they had exits before? Have I been very impressed with their decision making in the past 12-24 months?

I also prefer to invest a little later, not when it’s still a ‘back of a napkin’ idea.  I want to see a working business.

You know what matters most to me? Do I really, genuinely, believe in the thesis of the business. Do I believe the market they’re trying to fill is a void, vulnerable or emerging during the period they’re navigating in?

The thesis of the business is critical to its success, and to my view of it as an investor.

Q: What has inspired you on your journey?

[Gary Vaynerchuk] I’m the product of two…

My mother’s unbelievable parenting in deploying enormous self-esteem and confidence meant I believed in myself in a way that was blind.  The best entrepreneurs are the most optimistic and completely out of tune with reality right? Why would you do it otherwise.

I was also born with ‘the gift of the gab,’ that storytelling ability.  In my youngest, rawest form- when I was selling baseball cards and lemonade, there was a level of bull*** that I had.  I cared about the sale- nothing else.  There were no consequences as a kid.

My father made me a word-is-bond, word-is-everything, shake a hand and stick to it kinda’ guy.   That combined with blind faith and belief has become an amazing concoction and something I live-off even today.

The best advice I’ve ever got? Your word is bond, your reputation is everything, being someone who is a liar or full of sh** is not worth what you get in return.

I’ve articulated that now to my own community by telling them that how you make your money is more important than how much you make.  I really believe that.

I could be far more wealthy than I am- and that’s weird to say.  However, I want to be far more proud of how I made my money than how much I made.  That requires patience… I know I’m going to get there anyway, so boy is it gonna’ feel good at 70 when I have coffee with a youngster, moulding her future one day, being very proud that she wants my attention- that she wants me to be her Yoda.

The alternative? Make a tonne of money but always be worried that people will one day find out all the sh** you did to make it.

Be proud of how you make your money, and be patient.

Originally Published in British Airways Business Life.

About the Author

Professor Vikas S. Shah is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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