Interview with serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk, host of Wine Library TV, has turned the American wine industry on its head. Oliver Lindberg talks to him to find out how Ze Frank changed his life, why he still answers every email and what else he has up his sleeve

This article originally appeared in issue 197 of .net magazine in 2010. Photography by Joe Branston

Gary Vaynerchuk’s on a mission to interact with every person on Earth. With more than 850,000 followers on Twitter, 33,000 fans on Facebook and around 90,000 viewers for every episode of his web video show Wine Library TV, he’s not doing badly. At the Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in London, he’s surrounded by numerous so-called ‘Vaynicas’, who go crazy when he gives them a branded wristband. And he loves every minute of it. Unbelievably, the director of operations at wine retail store Wine Library in Springfield, New Jersey, still answers every single email he receives.

“I used to respond within three days,” he says, when .net catches up with him at the end of FOWA. “But now the volume is so substantial, the messages build up in my inbox and I just systematically beat them down. Why do I do it? Because I think caring is the game! People always say ‘oh, that’s just customer service’ when I speak at corporations — but they don’t get it. That’s the game that we now live, because every consumer has a much bigger voice.

“If you were to have a tremendous experience at a restaurant three years ago, you’d maybe tell your parents and a friend, right? Three people. And today, with the way we’re all connected, it only takes one tweet, one Yelp review and that restaurant feels 40–60 times what they would have felt from you years ago. That’s powerful. And I’m flattered! See, I don’t take it for granted that people want to videotape me or take pictures or clap for me. It’s an insane feeling and so taken for granted by people in all spaces. I just really like people.”

Humble beginnings

Having emigrated from the USSR when he was just three years old, Vaynerchuk took over his parents’ liquor store in 1998, renamed it Wine Library and turned it into a $40million (£24million) business on a national scale. Then, in 2005, his two lead developers were watching video blogger Ze Frank in the office at lunchtime. “I knew from the first minute of Ze Frank I ever watched that I wanted to be a video blogger. I saw it as a new platform that was going to take on television, and great for brand building. I’m obsessed by and focused on brand. I felt online video was going to enable me to brand myself — first in the wine space and then in the business space.”

Wine Library TV, aka The Thunder Show, a low-budget regular video blog of wine tastings hosted from Vaynerchuk’s office above the store, was a slow burner. But thanks to his unconventional and hyperactive approach, he steadily built up a loyal fan base. To date, he’s recorded more than 760 episodes, appeared on numerous high-profile TV shows (he got Conan O’Brien to lick a rock and chew a sock to train his palate) and is a sought-after speaker in the business world. He’s a firm believer in hard work and stresses that more than anything, success requires patience.

“I hustled every day for 18 months before Wine Library TV clicked, but it was patience that won,” he says. “I came to FOWA in ’07 and sat in a workshop. Nobody knew who I was, but Chris Messina and Tara Hunt recognised I had the chops and suggested to Ryan Carson I should do a workshop one day. But I still had to go home and make more things happen and hustle.”

And it worked. Although Wine Library stopped releasing sales figures in 2005, Vaynerchuk says the video show has had quite an effect on the business – and it’s still growing. He’s not an analytics guy, though. “The companies that try to understand the return on investment to their social engagement don’t get the picture. I mean, of course you have to do that, but if you have the best intentions of the brand and the company, you understand that social media is the biggest marathon we’ve ever run. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to build a brand, it’s a marathon. It’s not trackable.”

When Vaynerchuk records his videos or appears at conferences, he’s not putting on an act. The guy’s just genuinely excited, all the time. Whenever you speak to him, it’s as though he’s on some kind of narcotic. “You have to understand, I know my DNA. I’m very boisterous. A lot of people in America can’t stand my energy. When I come to this side of the world, it gets way too much. My DNA turns off 15–20 per cent of the people the first second they see me. I need to work harder and engage with people for them to really know the person that my parents raised.”

Inevitably, his unique style has aroused the interest of old-school broadcasters. He’s represented by the Creative Artists Agency — which handles the likes of Spielberg and Oprah — but so far all the TV deals he’s been offered have involved him being tied in for five years. It’s not surprising that a man who sees mainstream television as an industry with no future has turned them down.

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He’s also secured a seven-figure 10-book deal with HarperStudio: the first, Crush It!, is out now. In it, he encourages people who hate their job to give it up and follow their passion. “If you hate your job and you’re playing Xbox for three hours a night, I don’t have compassion for you,” he says bluntly. “You’ve got to start somewhere. People always say they don’t have time, but they do! Outside of the few people out there who are single parents and work obscene hours, 99 per cent of the people do have time. They just choose to do recreational things, which is okay, but it’s going to be difficult to change your situation.”

Wine Library remains “a very core principle of his passion” as he puts it, but he’s branching out. He’s the co-creator of Obsessed TV, a web talk show with Samantha Ettus, has launched a T-shirt search engine and is a popular motivational speaker who’s taking his ‘Vayniacs’ on a cruise of wine and business seminars in March. He also runs a brand consulting agency, VaynerMedia, with his brother AJ. Clients include Cadbury’s, the National Hockey League and his beloved American football team, the New York Jets (it’s his ultimate goal to buy them). “It’s a very good cash business,” he says. “When you can charge a monthly retainer of $50,000, you can take those dollars and help companies. Big firms get it. They’re making fortunes off my principles and it’s working for them. I can also parlay those dollars into building some of my own platforms and invest a lot of it in angel projects.”

In 2007, Vaynerchuk bought Cork’d, a wine review site created by Dan Benjamin and Dan Cederholm, but he admits he was “too scattered” and didn’t give it the attention it deserved. The site was even hacked in January, rerouting to a porn page. Now it’s been relaunched with a more social design, integrating Facebook and Twitter. An iPhone app is also in the pipeline that makes use of the iPhone 3.0 push notification system – so if you walk into a US wine retailer, the app will recognise it by GPS and tell you which wines on your Cork’d shopping list are in the store.

Most recently, Vaynerchuk launched discount wine site Cinderella Wine and a Gourmet Library food store, which features a video review of every product. “I’m about to destroy the pricing of gourmet food in America single-handedly,” he exclaims. “The margins are staggering! My favourite cheese is a triple crème cheese from France. It usually costs $14.99, we’re going to sell it for $5.99.”

Whether these ventures will be as successful as Wine Library TV remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: few businessmen have understood the marketing power of the web as well as Vaynerchuk. This is by no means the last we’ve heard of him.

After 1,000 episodes of Wine Library TV, the show was retired in March 2011. He then released his follow-up to Crush It!, The Thank You Economy, followed by Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World, and #AskGaryVee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media, and Self-Awareness. The latter collates and expands upon content from Vaynerchuk’s YouTube series, “The #AskGaryVee Show” that Vaynerchuk began in 2014.

This article originally appeared in issue 197 of .net magazine in 2010. Photography by Joe Branston