5 Life Lessons from 5 Years at VaynerMedia

This week marked my 5th anniversary (or Vaynerversary, as we call it) at a company I love: VaynerMedia. It’s a feat only a handful (no pun intended) of others have achieved to date, and one in which I happen to be quite proud. It reminds me of so much, and all the experiences, lessons and amazing friendships that have come out of it are invaluable.

A photo I took of the VaynerMedia office in Tribeca (Oct, 2010)

As someone who’s about to turn 30 (sigh), 5 years shouldn’t be all that transformative, but time just doesn’t work that way here.

Here, you can hold 6 different job titles in 5 years. You can watch a 20 person team grow into a 500+ one. You can move to 4 separate offices. And you can open 3 new ones (with one on the way). Time isn’t supposed to work that way, right?

I came here in 2010 because I heard Gary V. wanted to build the biggest building in town, and I truly believed he (we) would. I still believe it now.

When you’re lucky enough to be a fly on the wall at a fast-paced company, you undoubtedly pick up some valuable insights and knowledge. In an effort to share some of mine, I’ve written out 5 key things I learned along the way.

These are in no particular order, as I think they’re all super important. You may recognize a few, since some stem from philosophical things I know GV’s spoken about publicly over the years. What can I say? The guy’s quotable…

1. Culture is Crucial

Whether you’re in search of a job at a new company or looking to start your own, culture is the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s the DNA of your organization, and as cliché as it may sound, it is the difference maker.

Sometime between late 2011 and early 2012, we held a company-wide all-hands meeting I will never forget. In it, Gary told us that as the first 100 employees, it was our responsibility to maintain the culture we had established. “I don’t want employee 500 to think this is only about bubble hockey,” he told us. We were young and very much had a work hard, play hard mentality, but work always came first. It was our core competitive advantage at the time (hell, it still is), to simply outwork everybody else.

I don’t remember who won, which probably means he did (Feb, 2012)

When you have a strong culture, you have something to hire against. You start to really notice the types of people who would make a good fit, as well as the people who can help add something new. If you were to ask any employee at Vayner what they like most about their job, nearly 100% would mention the people and/or the culture first, because it’s that powerful.

2. Only the Self-Aware Succeed

What are your strengths? How about your weaknesses? Coming out of college, I always found those to be two of the toughest interview questions, because 1.) I rarely knew the answers to them, and 2.) I just wasn’t great at talking about myself in that — I guess vulnerable — way.

However, no matter what you set out to do in life, it’s important that you can answer them. You need to have good self-awareness.

self-a·ware·ness (noun): conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.

It’s easier to figure out where you want to be when you’re self-aware, and it’s also easier to get there. By knowing and being able to articulate what your strengths are, you can focus more on improving them. To borrow from Madden’s video game scale, it’s better to be a 99 in one or two things than be a 70 across the board.

#AskGaryVee Episode #69 (Feb, 2015)

Today if you were to ask me those two questions, I’d ace them. My strengths: I am a fast learner who also happens to be extremely patient. I’m great at finding shortcuts, I’m a good listener, and I have a tendency to make friends. Nothing seems to bother me. My weaknesses: I am not good at saying no, I suck at finances, I prioritize others over myself always, and I have a tendency to overthink things. Nothing seems to bother me.

Audit yourself, and stop doing shit you hate (or suck at).

3. Become A Student of the Game

Here’s one I think a lot of people need to hear that I first got from Shawn Cheng. Become a student of the game. And no, I’m not referring to the rap game, unless of course that’s your thing. What I mean is that whatever “game” (market) you strive to be in, you need to put in the time and effort necessary to be a real player there.

I’ll use craft beer — a burgeoning passion of mine — as an example. I may have already succeeded in branding myself a “beer expert” among my peers (tasting 900+ unique beers in 5 years will do that), but I’m far from such. In fact, if I ever want to take craft beer any further than a hobby, I need to put in some serious work so I can be a real authority in the space.

Work like being able to name the top 5 up-and-coming breweries in the midwest, offhand. Knowing the top 5 styles of beer you should pair with macaroni and cheese. Knowing the names of the regions that produce the world’s best hops, the names of the hops themselves, which ones the top breweries use, and why.

Once I know those things cold, I can more or less consider myself an expert, but I need to put in the hours first.

The lesson here? No game is worth playing if you don’t intend to win.

4. Work Hard, Work Smart

It is no secret that getting ahead takes effort. One piece of advice I feel sometimes slips through the cracks, though, is that working hard is only part of the equation. Working smart is the other part. Getting ahead takes both.

One of the reasons VaynerMedia has been able to grow as quickly as it has is that we do have an understanding of both. And it’s simple, really. Working smarter leads to uncovering efficiencies in your day-to-day. When you add working harder to the mix, what you get is even more efficiency, or more specifically, the ability to do more, faster. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

I would argue that I actually work less hours now than I did in years 1 and 2, yet am putting out higher quality work and accomplishing way more. That’s because the experience I’ve gained has helped me up the ‘work smarter’ side of the equation to such an extent, I can accomplish more by working equally hard in less time (i.e. 9AM-7PM as opposed to 7AM-9PM).

It’s a delicate balance, but speed is the name of the game.

5. Legacy > Currency

This is something I learned very early on, but didn’t fully understand or appreciate until recently. What it means to me is having perspective.

A senior level manager once told me that I’m very good at seeing the big picture. “You have an uncanny ability to see the forest through the trees,” she told me. And that’s a good quality to have, I think, because too many people are into taking the short gain instead of waiting for the long one.

You only get one life, so aim high. The higher you aim, the longer it might take to reach your goal. But if you’re patient enough, and you make all the right moves (i.e. a lot of what’s noted above), you just might get there.

When you start making decisions based on legacy instead of currency, you’ll find that it can lead to some amazing opportunities. Without even realizing it, I made such a decision in 2010, when I elected to pack up and move to the largest city in the world, to work at a small startup as an unpaid intern.

What is your legacy going to be?

If you found this article insightful, it’d mean the world to me if you hearted it up. I want everyone to read this. :)