Born in 1975 in Belarus, Gary Vaynerchuk moved to the US with his family when he was three, part of the mass emigration of Soviet Jews agreed in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (Salt I). He grew up in Queens, New York, and then New Jersey, where his father owned a liquor store. In 1999, he began managing the store and eventually renamed it The Wine Library; by 2005, he claims, he had taken the turnover from $3m to $60m. In 2006, he started a Wine Library video blog that ran to 1,000 episodes – his high-energy, forthright delivery got him a spot on Decanter’s Power list. In 2009, he founded the digital media agency Vayner Media with his brother, AJ. He has a 10-book deal with HarperCollins US and his first four books have all appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists. The latest is Ask Gary Vee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media & Self-Awareness and is based on his interactions with his 400,000 subscribers on YouTube. Later this year, he will begin filming Planet of the Apps for Apple TV, a talent show with fellow judges Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Will.i.am, where they will judge and mentor tech startups.
Planet of the Apps could make you a lot more famous…
I’m definitely going to be known by a lot of people. It’s incredible, this juxtaposition we’re living in now, where you have people who are famous in the traditional sense of print, radio and television, and people who are famous from the online world – and I think they are going to collide very aggressively over the next decade.
One of the reasons I want to do things like Planet of the Apps, or speak to you right now for that matter, is that, at the end of the day, it’s just about attention – and I’m not that emotional about where I get that attention.
Can you take me back to the mid-1990s, when you were working in your father’s wine shop… how did you spot the opportunity to grow it via the internet?
Right now, we look at the micro internet trends – is Snapchat gonna be big? Is VR gonna happen? But back in 1995/6 we were debating the macro internet – ie, whether the internet itself was a thing?
When I discovered the internet in 1994, to be frank, I just knew immediately that people would buy stuff on it. It’s not much more complicated than that. I decided I needed to launch a website, but I didn’t know anything about computers, let alone the internet, so for the next two years I learned. In 1996, we launched one of the first e-commerce wine businesses and by 1998-99 I’d realised that email was a very powerful driver for the business.
Your Wine Library video blog was popular, but when did you realise you could turn your experience into a digital agency working for blue-chip clients?
In December 2008, a couple of gentlemen from ESPN Disney invited me to speak with them. I walked out of that office with two things: a $5,000 cheque, which blew my mind, and the reminder that I had something and that I was seeing the world clearer, faster, easier than my contemporaries. So I called my brother, who was graduating, and said: “Why not get into the client services industry? Why don’t we learn how the biggest brands in the world think… why they are doing the things we don’t believe in?” And that was the start of Vayner Media.
What do big brands get wrong about social media?
Social media itself is the misconception. Brands think of social media as the smart afterthought – a nice to have, fly-by-night passing thing that they have to appease for AdAge or to make sure they are not out of touch. Social media is just a slang term for the current state of the internet – the websites and apps that people consume on their mobile device. The mobile device is the most important platform in the world: the phone is becoming the television and television is becoming the radio. And Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and so on are the new CBS, NBS, BBC. When you realise that, then all of a sudden there’s nothing more important.
Social media has got a lot of blame for Brexit, the election of Trump – for spreading fake news, legitimising people with extreme views… is that deserved?
I think yes and no. The blame is insane. Once again, the human race enjoys blaming a platform rather than itself. So I don’t think it’s Facebook or Twitter’s fault for fake news; it’s human beings’ fault for becoming headline readers and not taking a minute to do their homework.
A similar thing happened in the 1960 US presidential election. When people watched the debate on television between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Kennedy looked way better, so if you watched it you thought he won, but if you listened to it on the radio you thought that Nixon won.
So technology has always been disrupting democracy?
Social media has been disrupting politics and business; it’s just that the mainstream world hasn’t accepted it yet, the same way it didn’t accept cable or the internet or television…
People are scared of change…
It is pretty fascinating. Humans are very good at holding on to the past… it is an enormous fear of change. When most people see something new they think: “How is this going to hurt me?” and when I see something new I think: “How is this going to help me?” That mentality has been a game-changer for me, and every other entrepreneur, because we’re not scared to fail and we’re not scared to put in work. A lot of people talk about fear of change, but it’s really an enormous fear of extra work or of failing.
You’ve talked before about how we’re taught to work on our weaknesses but not bet on our strengths… why is society like that?
Because there is more money to be made selling against people’s weaknesses.
Is that the kind of selling you do?
It looks like that on a surface level, but I think I don’t sell against weaknesses. And I don’t monetise my audience; it would be easy for me to sell marketing courses, ebooks and mastermind courses, but I do not go there.
My biggest goal is for my clients to not work with me any more, and for my community to stop watching me, so that they can go out and do their thing. I teach them the tools and the viewpoint and they can go do it themselves.
Have you always had unshakeable self?confidence?
Yes, my mother did a good job. I talk with a lot of confidence, but pay attention; I don’t talk about a lot of things, I’m very narrow. I was a very poor student, I was not a star athlete, I’m not the best-looking person of all time, I’m not artistically talented… I’m just a really, really good businessman, I am extremely good with people and I understand them. I triple and quadruple down on that to produce all the things I care about in life.
Do you still recommend that people should quit their jobs unless they truly enjoy them?
That’s the headline, but I never say quit your job unless it is practical. But I am absolutely affected by the 400 trillion to one thing – which is your chance of being born. It’s real to me. I don’t know how people can’t realise they’ve won the ultimate lottery, so why don’t I maximise my happiness while I have my time on Earth?
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