The Real Influencer: How Gary Vaynerchuk Became The Pied Piper Of Digital Hustle

By Adam Baidawi
09 January 2019
Influencers, Gary Vaynerchuk
The 43-year-old American is a different kind of influencer – not measured by follower counts or likes, but his ability to get (just about) anything done.

There are a lot of ways you might have stumbled upon Gary Vaynerchuk, the American entrepreneur; his operation was designed that way.

Perhaps you’ve built a side business, ambitious or humble, and taken an internet deep-dive on the essentials of content marketing. Maybe you’ve fallen into a wormhole of productivity and motivation videos on YouTube. Either way, Vaynerchuk has built a system that makes him as easy to find as he is impossible to ignore.

Rising to niche prominence as a wine YouTuber, Vaynerchuk was part of the first wave of those who realised that the internet would grow to harness far more than disparate news sites and rudimentary blogs. Around 2008, he and his brother launched VaynerMedia, a digital agency for blue-chip clients. They targeted businesses who, while flush with handsome budgets, were still yet to wrap their heads around how to transition their marketing away from traditional mediums and onto platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, which demanded ever-changing strategies.

But you mightn’t know Vaynerchuk in that context. While scaling VaynerMedia to revenues of over $150 million, Vaynerchuk has also transformed into a digital deity of hustle, building a captive social media audience of over 6 million. However, rather than flogging link-in-bio products or spacing-out sponsored posts, Vaynerchuk trades on business and productivity content, fashioning himself into a sort of swear-laden Tony Robbins for the new age of work. Each day, across a bevvy of platforms, he’ll post 60-second jolts of inspiration for an audience of entrepreneurs-in-training.

At any hour of the day, you can swipe onto Vaynerchuk’s online presence – dubbed Gary Vee – and find, say, a selfie video of him, exhausted, in the back of a taxi, talking about the importance of dismissing armchair critics. It’s as intimate as life advice can be, only it’s disseminated to millions of people at a time.

Here’s where Vaynerchuk distinguishes himself from the modern social media influencer: He asks little of his audience, other than unwavering grit and hustle in their own lives. Aside from a few New York Times Bestseller books, Vaynerchuk doesn’t really monetise his tribe. That’s not the play. No, this is about social proof – a credibility play. Because his most valuable audience might be the least digitally engaged.

Where many would have simply shopped around a book and a $595 course, Vaynerchuk has taken the longer road, one that moves him out of the realm of PDFs and video seminars, and into rooms with Fortune 500 companies who are interested in his marketing savvy. And what more epitomises influence in business than having the ears of clients like Unilever and Toyota?

“I’ve built brand and infrastructure around myself…allowing myself to make an impact in business, or anything else that I’m interested in, in perpetuity,” says Vaynerchuk. “In practical terms, a lot of people have an awareness of who I am, and what I’ve done, which gives me reputational leverage.”

When Vaynerchuk started vlogging in May 2006, he did so in the dark. YouTube was still just, well, YouTube – a shadow of the $160 billion entity it was valued at by Morgan Stanley earlier this year. The poorly-lit, one-shot video was Vaynerchuk’s first foray into content marketing. It performed as well as you’d expect.

Gary Vaynerchuk

“I didn’t see success for 18 months. There was nothing going on.”

But there was enough progress to encourage him to continue – an extra comment here, a thankful email there.

“I had a blind belief in the thesis. I just believed, and so it wasn’t very difficult to stay the course. I knew that it was going to take a long time for the internet to manifest itself, but I was willing to play it out. Back then, there was no million views, there was no million followers. I was just grateful for what I was getting,” says Vaynerchuk. “I think a lot of people aren’t grateful for the building process. I enjoy the process more. I like the beginning.”

Many will insist that reputational leverage is social media’s greatest tool: the ability to craft a digital identity that’s exponentially more powerful than a CV, reference or portfolio. But building such a presence also comes a steady stream of doubters, of critics, of haters. As Vaynerchuk has scaled his platform, these voices have become louder, though he suggests that he doesn’t take any more notice of them.

“People think that I’m an influencer – what does he do? Is he a speaker? What’s really going on? – [but] from the day I graduated college, to this minute that we’re speaking, I’ve been the CEO or operating person of two businesses, every day of my life,” says Vaynerchuk. “I built a company from 3 to 60 million, and another company from 0 to 170 million, with no cash infusion or funding. I’m an operator, but it’s disguised by my personality.”

Vaynerchuk’s motivational content – all glorification of grind, hustle and never-say-die attitude – is the subject of more than a few eye-rolls from detractors, but, for many, he’s become a new-age mentor: not always available, sure, but always there.

In some cases, he takes this a step further. Earlier this year, in the lead-up to his first visit to the Middle East, Vaynerchuk invested in Muslim Girl, a Brooklyn-based publication that seeks to empower and better represent Muslim women in the west.

“When you see raw truth and spark and passion and entrepreneurial tendencies and good emotional intelligence and just grit – there was a good mix of ambition and intuition,” says Vaynerchuk of the website’s founder, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. “I felt like I was the right mentor to be in her corner.”
Really, Vaynerchuk represents the intersection of two schools of internet thought.

On one side, a hustle-obsessed generation of entrepreneurs looking for fuel and inspiration – those who believe that we’re living in the greatest era of opportunity known to mankind, and fully intend on cashing in.

On the other, there’s a cynicism from those who browse feeds of content marketing and see only an updated version of the self-aggrandising info-products from decades past: those designed to present an individual as a guru, to drip-feed advice as a gateway, but to withhold the ultimate solution behind a paid product.

“I’m not a professor trying to sell books. I’m actually in the arena – I’m not in the stands,” says Vaynerchuk. “I’m unbelievably misunderstood by conservative, traditional business people. Their incentives aren’t aligned with me being right. If anybody was thoughtful, they would understand my actions. I would make a heck of a lot more money if I actually was a guru, or a self-brand. I’m leaving enormous economics on the table, every day, to build-out infrastructure to take advantage of my thesis. I’m not tricking GE and Pepsi and Kraft and Chase and Budweiser. They’re not trickable.”

Influencer fraud is, unsurprisingly, on the rise: Earlier this year, Unilever CMO Keith Weed said that his company would stop working with influencers who buy fake followers to bolster the audiences on their accounts. Unilever spends tens of millions of dollars each year on both influencer marketing, and on microinfluencer marketing – which uses influencers with smaller, but more targeted followings. In April, Points North Group, an influencer marketing measurement company, released data that suggested that brands like Ritz-Carlton and Magnum Ice Cream had engaged influencers who had substantial numbers of fake followers.

In a market where a single post can be bought for $100,000, and where businesses are increasingly tapping influencers to become fully-fledged brand ambassadors, transparency and substance are crucial.

For his part, Vaynerchuk says that he never pitches clients by showing-off the success of his own social media channels – businesses are far more practical than that.

“I walk in and I show them a salad dressing or a face wash or a mayonnaise that’s a competitor, and I show them actual business results. This is not me pontificating. I’ve never used myself as an example, because I’m a human being,” he says. “Do you understand how literal these businesses are? I’m not convincing a Fortune 500 to give me money because I’ve grown a big Instagram following. The biggest brands in the world are losing, so they can’t buy into television and print and programmatic banner ads, the way that the establishment wants them to.”

When asked how he persuades those who haven’t yet bought in to the power and cost-efficiency of digital marketing, Vaynerchuk says that he doesn’t bother at all.

“If you are not capable of seeing what’s happened in our society over the last half-decade, in not only business, but politics, societal impact – the naivety of what the internet is, is remarkable,” says Vaynerchuk. “The internet is where life, actually, is lived. The internet is the tail that wags the real world’s dog. The internet is underrated. Still.”

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Gary Vee’s Guide to Having the Best Year of Your Life

Have the talk with someone

“Start by having the conversation that you’ve not been having with the people that are closest to you. I find a lot of advice focuses on fixing the sink instead of addressing the well. My first piece of advice is address the well. Having the best year is predicated on being the happiest and feeling the lightest. Most people are carrying enormous emotional baggage because they have an issue, or resentment, or regret, or angst towards somebody within the inner 10 people of their lives, and they’re holding in that conversation. They’re just not having it.

Once they do, the sheer weight-off-shoulder emotionally is remarkable. It allows people to sleep more, exercise better, eat better, have more fun, try new things. I couldn’t be more passionate about that.

It could be your partner, your boyfriend, your uncle, your best friend, your older brother, a teacher you respect...just have the talk."

Now, listen

“You have to allow results to carry more weight than your opinions. I value the market more than I value more my opinion. If I’m happy and I’m successful and things are working, well then that’s right. But when things fail, it means that my mindset was wrong – I did bite off more than I can chew, I didn’t see that angle. Respect the results.”

Take judgement out of the equation – within reason
“The ability not to judge yourself is an unbelievable strength. I’m never hard on myself. If you’re proud of your intent, you recognise that there’s an enormous amount that you can’t control. But there’s a fine line between not judging yourself and delusion. When people are unhappy with your actions, that’s when you need to take feedback.”

Get uncomfortable
“Do one thing that disproportionately makes you uncomfortable, but that you’re curious about. Action, action, action over everything.”