AJ Vaynerchuck – the seemingly mysterious other half of the VaynerMedia empire – shares his life lessons about launching and scaling the client service business that started with a $80,000 account to turning over 9 figures a year.
Speaking at this year’s CapCon, he uncovers the work ethic he shares with his brother Gary, and his experience of launching VaynerSports compared to VaynerMedia.
We’re pulling back the curtains at VaynerMedia to reveal… AJ Vaynerchuk.
When you think about VaynerMedia, you probably think about Gary Vaynerchuk, aka Gary Vee. What we don’t see or hear from enough is his brother and business partner, AJ Vaynerchuk.
AJ has been with the digital media agency since it started in 2009. He’s the man behind the curtain and is a key player in VaynerMedia’s massive growth and profitability.
In an exclusive sit-down at the Capitalism Conference, we’re learning about AJ Vaynerchuk and how he helped build VaynerMedia before starting his own sports agency, VaynerSports.
Vaynerchuk’s Role at VaynerMedia
Like many entrepreneurs first starting their business, AJ didn’t have just one role. He fulfilled many:
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Chief Operating Officer (COO)
- Client Services
- And even head of Human Resources
He wore many hats and for a good reason. He had a unique ability to spot problems and create systems to prevent them from happening again.
VaynerMedia’s rapid growth left AJ Vaynerchuk feeling burned out. While he loved building a business, VaynerMedia was starting to feel more like school or a job he had to do.
[AJ isn’t alone in turning a burned-out experience into a new opportunity. Suzy Batiz, the founder of Poo-Pourri, shares her experiences of turning a rocky road into success on this episode of the podcast. Give it a listen if you could use some inspiration today.]
He missed the smaller, tight-knit environment
AJ recalls standing in a full elevator and realizing he didn’t even know whether the people around him worked with him. But that’s what happens when your business scales to require more than 500 employees to serve your clients.
His time and energy were spent
AJ had to wear several hats when helping to run VaynerMedia. Naturally, this demanded much of his time, attention, and energy. AJ regrets not spending enough time with his daughter and wife.
That’s when he knew it was time to pass the baton to someone else. Although, the way he left might surprise you.
AJ Left VaynerMedia Without a Plan
AJ is a hardcore planner. Always moving the chess pieces around, Vaynerchuk thinks three steps ahead.
When he left VaynerMedia in May 2016 without securing a new job or opportunity, it was certainly a surprising move. The only folks more shocked than AJ were the flabbergasted people around him.
He reasoned that all he did at VaynerMedia was planning. It was stressful, and he needed to learn how to unwind and ride the current. He needed to create space to breathe.
That’s why he planned an entire year off to figure out what to do next.
But his entrepreneurial itch kicked in after just a few months.
Why AJ Started VaynerSports
Throughout life, AJ has had an intense, burning passion for sports.
With a bit of breathing room in his mind, it didn’t take long for AJ to figure out how to monetize that passion. He founded VaynerSports, a full-service athlete representation agency. As a sports agent, he and his team:
- Negotiate contract terms with the NFL on behalf of the athlete
- Build the athlete’s brand through marketing and endorsements
Revenue is largely performance-based. It’s based on a percentage of the contract the athletes sign with the NFL.
Differentiating VaynerSports from the Competition
There are a lot of cookie-cutter sports agencies pitching the same services. Knowing how important it is to cut through the noise to stand out in a crowded marketplace, AJ capitalized on three guiding principles:
#1: If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say...
Some businesses like to attract clients by bad-mouthing the competition.
The sad part is, sometimes it works.
However, AJ is opposed to this cheap marketing tactic.
Instead, his approach is more positive and client-centric. Instead of comparing his agency to other agencies, he focuses on the athlete. AJ surveys the athlete’s strengths, interests, and background to create a customized game plan.
#2: Build a Brand Off the Field, Too
Unfortunately, a career with the NFL is often short-lived.
AJ understands this and created a unique selling point: brand building off the field. He wants his clients to develop opportunities alongside their NFL career so that they’re prepared for life after the NFL.
#3: Treat Clients as Human Beings First
Too often, small business owners treat parts of their business as cogs in a machine.
This is why so many clients fire their sports agents for minor things, like when their agents send their clients to voicemail too often.
When VaynerSports brings on a new client, he makes every effort to build rapport with his client. They aren’t just parts on an assembly line. They are real people who count on him to prioritize their best interests. AJ knows the value of frequent, honest, open communication as he serves them with the utmost integrity.
AJ Shares His Three Superpowers
AJ has built a track record of success.
A.J. helped grow VaynerMedia to more than $130 million in revenue. He also built VaynerSports, a business in a completely new industry from the ground-up.
How did he do it?
What strengths does he have that you could emulate in your own business practices?
#1: He’s a Problem-Solver
AJ can fulfill multiple roles and do it well was because he was an unbelievably effective problem solver.
He doesn’t just spend his time running around putting fires out. Instead, AJ creates systems that help keep fires from sparking in the first place. He knows that a business is only as strong as its systems. Those systems not only support profitability, but they also make the company easier and more fun to run.
VaynerMedia is a digital marketing agency. Putting the clients’ best interests first is absolutely crucial. Not only is that the most ethical way to serve them, but it’s also the only way to avoid legal trouble in this industry. The clients are high-profile celebrity athletes who need to guard their names, likenesses, and reputations. Long after their physical strength fades, these “assets” are what remain.
AJ recalls a story ripped from the headlines as an example of the delicate nature of these dealings. Back in 2014, actress Katherine Heigl filed a $6 million lawsuit against drug store chain Duane Reade for misusing photos of her for advertising purposes. To avoid fires like this, AJ stays in close communication with his legal team. VaynerSports’ standard operating procedure includes triple-checking that all content and promotions are on-brand and legally safe before publishing.
#2: He’s a Neutral Thinker
AJ is a fantastic problem solver because he reacts calmly to issues rather than freaking out when they appear.
He doesn’t assign negative emotions to them. Instead, he absorbs the facts, processes them, and figures out how to fix the problem or move on.
Too often, we get bogged down in the overwhelm and drama of everyday life in business. If you can train yourself to react dispassionately to an incident, you’ll be better equipped to solve problems.
#3: He Questions the Status Quo
“That’s how we've always done it.”
If that’s the response AJ gets when he asked his staff about a particular process, he knows something needs to change.
Technology has evolved rapidly in just a few decades. Outdated business practices can stunt your growth and profitability.
Don’t take everything as gospel. Rather, question everything. Businesses succeed when you find new and better ways to solve problems
Vaynerchuk’s Final Words
“Don’t be ashamed of your success.”
After all, making money is what helps you take care of yourself and your family. With money, you can buy experiences and create new memories.
You can also design your life the way you want to. It’s your life, and you call the shots.
Also, business is a great teacher. You learn how to be smart, resourceful, and disciplined.
Inspiring The One Percent
Not only is AJ raising the bar for professional athlete representation, but he also uses his influence to support a terrific - and personal - cause. One reason he left his position with VaynerMedia was his battle with Crohn’s Disease. We love how AJ this challenge and aligned himself with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation to help others who deal with these conditions daily. He uses his skill set, marketing expertise, and story to increase awareness of the excellent work the Foundation does.
We loved AJ’s story so much we featured it in the October 2019 issue of The One Percent newsletter. When you join The One Percent, you can read about how he took ownership of this problem and partnered with the Foundation to help them serve people facing this life-altering diagnosis.
The One Percent is a community of capitalists who take ownership of the world’s problems, who create solutions that solve those problems, and who build their businesses and lives around serving people. If you’d thrive by surrounding yourself with entrepreneurs like us, join us!