In 2009, AJ Vaynerchuk — at age 22 — co-founded VaynerMedia with his brother Gary. As COO of the firm for 7 years, he helped grow the social and digital agency to 1k employees and $100m+ in revenue. Since 2016, AJ has been running VaynerSports, a full-service sports agency.
Our Alex Garcia caught up with AJ to find out lessons from his entrepreneurial journey and what’s next:
How did VaynerMedia differentiate as a new agency?
So, with VaynerMedia, we were really differentiated and it was actually quite simple. It came down to timing and vision. We went into the marketplace and [decided to go all in] on social media as a platform. It sounds obvious in 2020 but — in 2009 — social was a complete afterthought for most agencies.
We went all in and became experts. My brother built a personal brand within the agency and we developed relationships with key executives at all the platforms.
Just being native users ourselves, we developed a level of expertise that surpassed the market. By the time our competition realized that social media was a platform that mattered, we were already 3-4 years ahead of them in terms of best practices, case studies and a client roster.
How were you able to take on the COO role at such a young age?
I was super lucky and fortunate.
First, I had an older brother, best friend, business partner and CEO mentor…all in one. Without my brother, I would have never been able to do what I did.
Second, I’m a big believer that our society views experience in the wrong way. Everybody looks at experience as a defined number based on days, weeks, and years.
So, at 26, I had four years of experience in the agency world. And if you look at that as an apples to apples comparison to my peers and my contemporaries that were also CEOs of ad agencies, I had far less experienced than them.
On the flip side, not all weeks and years are treated equally. At 25, I spent a year managing probably like 40 clients and 300 employees. How is that year the same as somebody who’s maybe the COO of an ad agency at 40 and when they were 25, they reported to their boss who reported to their boss who reported to their boss?
That is not the same “age 25” level of experiences. So the way I look at it is I was four years in, but I had like 25 years of experience.
What was VaynerSports’ differentiation when it launched?
There was a white space in the sports agency world we saw develop. The vast majority of agencies focus on contracts. There’s another (smaller) group that does marketing and off-field endeavors. A few agencies try to bridge those two but — in my opinion — nobody was doing it well.
Another opening we saw is related to investing. While building VaynerMedia, Gary and I did a lot of private investing and early stage venture capital investing. We met quite a few athletes doing this. For example, we shared an investment with Carmelo Anthony.
Within that world, we noticed that the agent was often the athlete’s closest investment advisor even though the vast majority of agents had no experience in that field.
So, yeah, I’d say VaynerSports is differentiated because we bring together those three prongs: contracts, marketing and investing.
What opportunities are you seeing in the sports world?
Well, gaming was obvious for a long time. We wanted to build a solid foundation with the major sports. But, we know dollars follow attention. Just like with social media [back with VaynerMedia], we know the attention is going to gaming. Some of these Twitch audiences are massive.
Ultimately, it was just the right opportunity. With each sport we added — football to baseball to basketball to MMA — it was the right opportunity at the time.
Who’s the most interesting person you know?
My brother [Gary] for sure. In one day, this dude will talk about life to business to Jets football to action figures to sports cards. He’s [probably] gonna start talking about umbrellas tomorrow. Like he’s a very diversified and interesting animal.
What’s the best piece of advice someone ever gave you?
Probably from my mom. It was around the theme of being yourself. I give my mom a ton of credit for instilling confidence in me to just be myself.
I think back to how I carried myself in high school. I wasn’t the most popular kid, but I also didn’t care. I didn’t have friendships to only help my social status. I surrounded myself with people I actually liked.
What’s the best purchase under $100 you made in the past year?
Oh, these Mindfulness Cards from Amazon. It’s like $20. I literally just grab them and
I’m somebody that just gets so consumed by what’s going on. When I’m amidst the craziness, I’ll grab this box and take a card. The cards are categorized: kindness, insight, awareness, curiosity and balance etc.
It helps center me, ground me, gives me some thoughtfulness, and allows me to be a little bit more in tune with my mind and body.