Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons Learned by VaynerMedia

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels first took me to Irvine, CA and next to La Mirada for an awards celebration with Bruce Mulhearn, president/owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties, and the California Properties team where I delivered my “8 Principles of Success” to the crowd. It was an incredible event with more than 350 network agents in attendance and I was inspired by the passion and determination displayed by every single one of them.

Today, I spent most of the late morning and early afternoon in Los Angeles, meeting with our ad agency of record, VaynerMedia.

There’s a lot that can be lauded about the VaynerMedia team—their creativity, their can-do attitude, their fearlessly forward-looking leader, Gary Vaynerchuk—but today, I want to highlight two aspects of the company that are particularly central to our Thoughts on Leadership discussion: history and culture.

The two concepts marry well together. History, as I see it, focuses on the lessons from our past; and culture, in my estimation, is the sociological agriculture we nurture to keep our present mindset vibrant and sustain our future.

So, let’s start with history: If you’ve ever read about Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia, you’ll know his story is one characterized by intense optimism, business savvy and most importantly, hustle. He was raised in Edison, New Jersey and went to college at Mount Ida in Newton, Mass. (Coincidentally, Newton is about a two-hour drive from the town where I was born: Pittsfield, Mass. Maybe this explains the kindred spirit I feel for the innovative entrepreneur!)

Before, during and after college, Gary worked at his father’s liquor store in Springfield, New Jersey. The store was called Shoppers Discount Liquors—eventually renamed Wine Library—and would become the first stepping stone in Gary’s incredible business-building career.

Quickly after starting his job at the store, he decided to turn Shoppers Discount Liquors into a brand. Gary launched the very first wine e-commerce business, WineLibrary.com and used what he knew about Google AdWords—back then, a revolutionary concept—to skyrocket sales. (He grew the shop’s annual revenues from $3 million to $45 million by 2003.)

Long story short, the digital success of WineLibrary.com would be Gary’s first taste of not only the internet’s power to move product but also, as would be the case in the years to come, social media marketing.

In 2009 he launched VaynerMedia with his younger brother, A.J. “I’m excited because this company has completely confused the market,” he told Fortune in 2014. “When I first started it, everyone was like, ‘Oh, Mr. A-lot-of-Twitter-followers thinks he can completely win this world.’ And we’ve not only competed, we will be considered a new standard.”

In fact, four years later and his prediction is right. VaynerMedia currently employs about 800 people and generates more than $100 million in revenue each year.

Part of his success comes from our second point of discussion: culture. Gary calls VaynerMedia a “human-based company” and considers preserving company culture the number one priority. In a blog post written two years ago, he said his culture has been built largely on “people and the relationships I have with them.”

Like a great sports team that has played together for seasons (compared with one that comes together just for an all-star game), you can have the most superstar employees in the world but if they aren’t working cohesively and with a genuine enjoyment for what they do, your culture will suffer.

“Life’s a value exchange,” Gary wrote in his post. “When you care about your employees, it translates into the value you can give back to your company.”

Some of this translates into the physical space of an office, which promotes collaboration and serendipity; VaynerMedia employees enjoy an open floor plan and spend their time in a space flooded with natural light, and decorated by motivational quotes and hashtags (#VMLA). But a lot of it also comes from the intangibles. Gary sits down with every new employee and spends time finding out what they value most in life and work. “When it comes down to it, you need to make sure that each employee is happy with where you are,” he wrote. “When you help make your employees happy, it gives them a reason to be excited to be part of your company.”

So, what’s the message? As leaders, we’re always looking back to learn while simultaneously charging ahead to grow. It’s a perpetual balancing act grounded in authenticity and honesty, and driven by just how much we care about making others’ lives better. Like VaynerMedia, we must take inspiration from the grind and grit of our past then use it to shape a brighter tomorrow. Ultimately, it’s how we’ll achieve our goals and #succeed.

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