GaryVee Takes Minneapolis
One of the many oddities of our hyperconnected world is that someone can amass 35 million social media followers, write five bestselling books, create doodles that collectors will pay more than $400,000 to own, and yet remain largely unknown to those outside his lane of entrepreneurial evangelism.
Such is Gary Vaynerchuk’s unique brand of fame. “I’m very hot on self-awareness,” says the serial entrepreneur, who Zoomed with TCB from Manhattan, in the back seat of an SUV inching through Midtown traffic to pick up last-minute Christmas gifts.
Multitasking, screen in hand, is a typical state for the man better known to his fans as GaryVee. He built his online persona by talking fast and posting exhaustively about the power of influence and the importance of content. He’s a frenetic 46-year-old dad who dresses like a teen, in a T-shirt and backward baseball cap. He hangs out with hip-hop artists and athletes and has the Marks—Zuckerberg and Cuban—on speed dial. He commands more than $250,000 for his profanity-laced keynote pep talks about success, hard work, and empathetic leadership.
And people listen—because as he’s built his fan base, he’s also built a business empire in media, marketing, and investing. Vaynerchuk’s personal net worth is estimated at $200 million.
Known for his innate sense of where digital culture is headed, Vaynerchuk was an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and Uber. Now he’s all-in on non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which in recent months have gone from obscure digital art to a collectible currency that brands like Taco Bell and Adidas want to figure out how to cash in on. He believes NFTs are the next big internet evolution, likening doubters to the adults who swore a decade ago that they’d never open a Facebook account.
Teens know Vaynerchuk as a TikTok self-help coach. Marketing executives hang on his every LinkedIn post. On Discord—the next social media platform you’ll soon regret overlooking—he engages with a community of 270,000 blockchain believers to share tips and lessons about NFTs. But to the manager of a downtown Minneapolis hotel that’s holding a block of rooms for the exclusive conference Vaynerchuk will bring to U.S. Bank Stadium in May, he’s a mystery with an unusual surname.
“I’d never heard of him,” the hotel sales director confessed; it’s the same at three other downtown hotels that are holding rooms. “But I understand the conference is supposed to be a big thing.”
“VeeCon” could be one of the biggest things coming to downtown Minneapolis this year—certainly in terms of national exposure and potential social media hits. Imagine VeeCon as a sort of Ted Talk, X Games, and Comic-Con rolled into one hyped-up three-day event with an eclectic list of headliners that includes Deepak Chopra, Mila Kunis, and superstar influencers Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Logan Paul (ask your kids).
More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the conference from May 19-22, and the vast majority, according to Vaynerchuk’s team, will be visiting the Twin Cities for the first time. Yet it barely registered a local mainstream media mention last September when Vaynerchuk announced VeeCon would debut here.
Meet Minneapolis is working on a plan to support VeeCon, says Courtney Ries, senior vice president of destination branding and strategy for the convention and visitors association. Admittedly, she’s noticed some blank stares when she mentions it. “I think as the event gets closer and the excitement builds, there will be a lot more interest from our local community about why 10,000 people—many of whom are thought leaders and celebrities in their own spaces—are coming to Minneapolis and what they’re doing here. It’s a great window of opportunity for our community to show what’s happening here with startups, with tech, with investments into future industries.”
VeeCon bills itself as the world’s first NFT conference—or, as Vaynerchuk spins it, South by Southwest for the Web 3.0 generation. You can’t buy a ticket; the only way in is to own a VeeFriends NFT, which, at the end of January, were trading for the cryptocurrency equivalent of $36,000 on average.
But Vaynerchuk promises the energy will spill out of U.S. Bank Stadium. “If you’ve got those juices of creativity and entrepreneurship, these might be good days to be in town, be out and about,” he says. “There’s going to be an enormous amount of dinners, gatherings in hotel lobbies, a lot of creative, innovative people out and about.”
Many of them will no doubt be wondering why Vaynerchuk, who lives in New York and has global offices from London to Bangkok, chose Minneapolis for the biggest event of his career to date.
“When I dreamed of VeeCon,” he says, “I thought, this is going to be in a football stadium.” An avid sports fan, Vaynerchuk’s desire to one day own the New York Jets is widely documented. But he’s already in business with the Vikings.
Don’t doubt Gary>>>
About a year ago, Minnesota Vikings executive vice president Jonathan Wilf got a text at 11 o’clock at night. “Do you know about NFTs?” It was his old pal, Gary Vaynerchuk.
Vaynerchuk’s family’s business, Wine Library, is based in Springfield, New Jersey, just a mile down the road from the Wilf offices. The two families are longtime friends. Jonathan Wilf’s father, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, would shop at the liquor store back when Vaynerchuk worked the sales floor, on his way to growing the business from $3 million in annual sales to $60 million.
Read more from this issue
“I thought, ‘Whoa, conferences are really cool when you do them right and capture a moment in time.’”
“Have you watched any of the Wine Library videos?” asks the younger Wilf. “They’re hilarious. It’s no surprise to me that Gary’s been able to create what he’s created. He’s a down-to-earth guy with a lot of energy. It’s hard for that not to work out.”
When the Wilfs decided to jump into e-sports in 2019, launching Version1, the Eagan-based parent organization to the Minnesota Røkkr and other teams, they recruited Vaynerchuk as an investor and co-owner.
“Gary’s been a guiding light,” says Brett Diamond, chief operating officer of Version1. Vaynerchuk encouraged Diamond and his team to lead with content beyond the competitions. As he pointed out, some of the Røkkr players have bigger social media followings than Vikings athletes do. “He’s an icon in the social media and marketing world,” Diamond says of Vaynerchuk.
Vaynerchuk didn’t wait for Jonathan Wilf to respond to his late-night text before peppering him with 30 links to articles about NFTs.
“I get it. I just don’t buy it quite yet,” Wilf says of NFTs. “But I don’t doubt Gary.”
Vaynerchuk likens NFTs, which can be encrypted with unique data, to smart contracts. He believes that within the next few years, they will replace paper tickets, contracts, and loyalty programs. In early 2021, after a months-long deep dive into NFT research, Vaynerchuk decided to launch a project of his own.
“That’s how I learn,” he says.
Inspired by Disney and “other monumental intellectual properties,” Vaynerchuk sketched characters to represent human traits that he believes “lead to happiness and success.” He came up with 268 hand-drawn doodles for characters such as Positive Porcupine, Caring Camel, and Reliable Rat. The characters are featured on 10,255 tokens that make up the VeeFriends collection. Some tokens come with special perks, like access to Vaynerchuk’s keynotes anywhere in the world. Others come with career coaching from Vaynerchuk himself. Every token grants a three-year access pass to VeeCon.
VeeFriends NFTs sold out in five days when they went on sale last May, with prices starting around $4,300. In October, an original drawing of the Empathetic Elephant fetched $412,000 in a Christie’s auction. VeeFriends NFTs have sold on the secondary market for as much as $503,000. The numbers don’t surprise Vaynerchuk, a lifelong collector of sports memorabilia. But the speed at which values ballooned did catch him off guard. “I didn’t think it would happen this fast, and I am concerned about the gold rush mentality—which is why, by the way, I’m doing the conference. I want there to be something tangible.”
Known for his innate sense of where digital culture is headed, Gary Vaynerchuk was an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and Uber.
Hosting a conference of his own around creativity and entrepreneurship has been a goal since Vaynerchuk first attended South by Southwest in 2008. “I thought, whoa, conferences are really cool when you do them right and capture a moment in time.”
The dream of headlining a conference and the drive to create a blockbuster NFT project converged. “So as I was thinking about NFTs, I thought, what can I do to bring value? What about this other thing I’ve been thinking about forever? I’ll tie in a conference to show you can use an NFT not just as a collectible, but as a ticket.”
When Vaynerchuk inquired about renting out U.S. Bank Stadium, it was an easy yes. “We’re excited to be along for the ride,” says John Drum, stadium general manager. With a mix of musical performers, artists, speakers, and a heavy emphasis on smaller networking sessions, VeeCon is not a typical event for the stadium, but Drum says his team is mapping out ways to accommodate Vaynerchuk’s wish list. “Imagination is the limit.”
The value of a VeeFriend >>>
“GaryVee has been living in my head rent-free for four years,” says Jeff Schuppe, owner of Schad Tracy Signs, an Inver Grove Heights company. He first heard Vaynerchuk championing entrepreneurship on a podcast and was instantly hooked, he says. He devoured Vaynerchuk’s 2018 bestseller, Crushing It! He started listening to his podcast, The GaryVee Audio Experience, and followed him on all the social platforms.
“For me, as an entrepreneur, understanding the next moves and how to stay relevant in social media is really important,” Schuppe says. He also appreciates Vaynerchuk’s philosophy of leading with kindness. “I truly believe that if you were to ask the janitor at his office, he’d say, ‘Gary treats me like every other individual.’ I try to emulate that in my business—that culture of inclusiveness and empathy. No one is more important. We’re on the same mission and we’re all in it together.”
Schuppe has carefully tracked Vaynerchuk’s journey into NFTs. When VeeFriends went on sale, Schuppe had his hands on the keyboard and his crypto wallet loaded. He bought two tokens at 3 ETH (Ethereum, a cryptocurrency) apiece, which at the time added up to about $18,000. He grabbed two more later that week when prices dipped. They’ve been rising ever since. Schuppe estimates his tokens are currently worth close to $50,000. But that’s only part of the appeal.
Schuppe joined a Discord channel where he communicates regularly with other VeeFriends owners. He says he would have traveled anywhere to attend VeeCon, but since it’s happening in his own backyard, well, “not only am I excited, I networked with the people involved to see if there was any way I could be involved.”
In late 2020, Schuppe invested in a day of virtual group consulting with several other small businesses through the Sasha Group, one of several companies under the VaynerX umbrella. It got him on the same screen with Vaynerchuk, and although he says the advice wasn’t much different from the “Get after it!” encouragement GaryVee delivers for free every day on social media, it only made Schuppe eager for more face time.
“For the people attending VeeCon, it will be epic because of Gary’s following and his ability to really be part of this event,” Schuppe says. As for the Twin Cities business community embracing it? “Knowing how dead Minneapolis is right now, I fear for that a little bit.”
The Vikings aren’t Vaynerchuk’s only tie to Minneapolis. Maha Abouelenein, Vaynerchuk’s communications executive and executive host of VeeCon, lives in Wayzata. “I’m excited for people to see Minneapolis and experience the city,” she says. “And I want to engage the community.”
The calls are starting to come in. Schwan’s signed on. The VeeCon team is in talks with other Minnesota businesses, large and small. They’re organizing local food trucks to park outside the event. “I want to make sure local businesses and brands that want to be involved can,” Abouelenein says. And, like the native Minnesotan she is, Abouelenein is intent on making sure Vaynerchuk loves the Twin Cities experience.
“I’ve always loved Minnesota,” Vaynerchuk quips. “It’s home to so many big Fortune 500s—it’s always been on my radar.” He’s also quick to relieve Abouelenein of the pressure to deliver. Vaynerchuk knows that’s on him. “I take on that responsibility. I am Walt Disney in this scenario.”
“I realize how audacious it is to say, ‘I’m going to be the next Walt Disney,’ ” Vaynerchuk quickly adds. “That’s a big, big statement, but I have very serious aspirations that VeeFriends characters will be cultural icons in two, three, four decades. These characters represent things I care about: gratitude, kindness, empathy, also ambition and tenacity. If I can get people to start leaning into patience and empathy, which I think leads to having a happier life, I would be very proud of myself to be in my 90s and look out on the world and say, ‘You know what? I left a little bit of a mark.’ ”