What would you get if you took Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss and Joe Pesci, and mixed them together in a barrel—preferably an oak wine barrel from the old country? You might get Gary Vaynerchuk.

Over the last few years, Gary has transformed himself from manager of his dad’s New Jersey liquor store into a TV personality, cultural phenomenon and the world’s best known “social media sommelier.” His daily web-based wine-tasting shows on WineLibraryTV.com (WLTV) draw audiences of 80,000 and up. He has been featured in
The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Time; appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Mad Money and Nightline; and given keynotes at technology events everywhere. And he’s just getting started. As The Guardian put it, “Gary Vaynerchuk is on his way to becoming the online Oprah.”

The man has boundless energy (that same Guardian article urged readers to go to his web site—“and be prepared for a jet engine in your face.”) and he devotes a good deal of it to being an evangelist for what he calls “social business.”

According to Gary, we’ve slipped over a threshold into an age where authenticity pays, personal passion equals power, and where, when you build brand equity, anything can happen. — J.D.M.

How did you go in a handful of years from your bricks-and-mortar business to having this far-flung following?

All I’ve done is use the tools.

There are tools in place now that have never been in place before. If you asked a businessman in the 1700s, “How in the world did you get your product everywhere?” he’d say, “By ship.” If you asked that question in the 1990s, the answer would be, “We used FedEx.” Today, it’s social media.

A few years ago there was no Twitter, Face-book or Ustream, no blogs and social networks to help you build product brand or personal brand equity.

The next wave of products—whether it’s vitamin water, a new rapper, sneakers or the newest hairstyle—are going to be built through this Internet world.

It could be something Perez Hilton says on his blog, or something a very heavily-followed Twitter person Twitters out, that’s really going to spark what I call Word of Mouth 2.0.

What do you mean by “word of mouth 2.0”?

The way information travels has radically changed.

The fundamental difference between building a brand in 2008 and building a brand in 2004 is cost. It used to cost money to build awareness. You had to buy billboards and radio time and hire expensive PR people to get you press.

But now the Internet has changed the playing field dramatically by creating a situation where you don’t have to pay to play. You have to pay with your time, not your wallet. And that’s been a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you were born with silver spoon or not, you’re in the mix. It’s a very powerful thing.

How do you arrive at a “personal brand”?

Your personal brand is just your personality—only because of the way the game is structured, now you have the ability to monetize that. Ten years ago, if you were a very funny person with quick wit and a political view, you had to be discovered. Today, with a little savvy, that same person can attract advertisers right from home with a blog or video blog, because you’ve got eyeballs, and once there’s eyeballs, you’re in the mix.

So, how did I get from my bricks-and-mortar New Jersey storefront to where I am now? Two things: content and community.

Content, because you have to start with something. You can’t just go, “Hey, be my friend!” You’ve got to give people something to wrap their head around. For me, that’s my take on wine and business.

Then, I just leveraged the tools to stay in touch with my community, like Ustream, Twitter and Facebook.

Wine is the ultimate elite, you’ve-got-to-be-in-the-know thing, and you’ve transformed it so that suddenly, it’s accessible to anyone.

That’s the power of what you can do with a lot of hard work and these social media tools. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a little bit of a showman, and I’m willing to work eighteen hours a day.

You’ve got to have storytelling ability. I think that’s a very powerful and very underestimated skill today. If you have the ability to tell a story or a long-winded joke, you can position that same skill into talking about the subject you’re most passionate about—and then leverage that with the social-media tools.

Do that, and you’re well on your way to creating something fascinating.

Did you have a big learning curve with all these social media? Or did you just have a knack for technology?

I’m actually not a tech guy at all.

Way too many people think you need to be a techie to leverage things like Twitter and Facebook, and they want to hire a techie to do it for them. That is absolutely insane. No one is less technical than me. I hardly used a computer at all until I was 21.

I adapted to it quickly, not because I’m technically inclined, but because I’m an entrepreneur and a marketer, and it was obvious to me how powerful these tools were.

The first day I saw Twitter, people around me were going, “This is stupid,” and I’m like, “This is brilliant!”

I’m extremely social and a very big fan of people, and I think that has served me well.

I’ve read that you personally answer all the hundreds of emails and wine questions that come to your site.

One hundred percent. A lot of people in the tech world think I’m completely bonkers and are

actually mad at me, because they feel I’m setting the bar for something that’s almost inconceivable or not scalable. But I think that personal one-on-one touch is what’s so important.

Everyone approaches this thing differently. I really respect Tim Ferriss, who wrote The 4-Hour Workweek. But I’m trying to figure out how to squeeze four hours into one hour—if I wrote that book it’d be The 144-Hour Workweek!

That works for me, because I’m an absolute maniac. I know that doesn’t work for everybody. Still, the more you do, the more you’re going to get out. That’s just the bottom line.

It’s not that I don’t believe in outsourcing. I do—but you have to be smart about how you outsource.

For example, I’ve created infrastructure in my original business that allows me not to have to spend much time on a $55-million business. To me, doing that is smarter than outsourcing my email. Outsourcing my email would make me impersonal in an age when I think personal brand is going to carry the day.

You’ve said that today we’re in a gold rush of personal branding. How so?

Because the landscape has fundamentally changed. People haven’t quite wrapped their heads around this yet, but the fundamental rules of building a business have changed.

In the past, there were three entities that did that: print, television and radio. Now there’s a fourth, the Internet. And the difference is, being published and getting heard on the Internet is a zero-cost game. And that is crazy big.

To people who answer, “Yeah, but there’s so much noise and it’s so undifferentiated,” what do you answer? That if you have passion and content, people will find it?

Exactly. The cream rises to the top.

Right now it’s still a fairly small group who understands what’s happening. In another five to seven years, as more people figure this out, it will become much more competitive and much more difficult to establish yourself as a brand or celebrity.

You want to be ahead of the pulse. This is where the world is going. It’s not there yet; the number of people still watching Lost and Grey’s Anatomy is way bigger than those watching the biggest podcast. But it’s only a matter of time.

Pay attention to what twelve-year-olds are doing right now: they have no interest in television.

That’s a fascinating statement.

And that’s the game, because that twelve-year-old is going to be eighteen in a heartbeat.

Look at the demographics of how much time twelve-year-olds spend on their computers or laptops and texting on their cell phones, compared to watching television. These numbers are very scary for the television industry.

The numbers it takes to be a successful cable show today are different than they used to be. Three years ago, if your cable show got a 4.5 rating, you got cancelled. Today, those numbers make you the star of the network. That’s how drastically the numbers are changing.

You’ve said that in 2008, you’ve got to be transparent. Is that because the Internet brings with it a different level of reality and honesty? Or is it a matter of authenticity?

It’s all of those things, because ultimately, everything will be exposed. That’s the truth. Everything will be exposed.

So to be an effective entrepreneur, don’t try to make yourself into somebody—find out who you are and then be that.

One thousand percent. And by the way, that’s exactly what all the true greats do.

Too many people are not strong-minded enough to follow their mind and their soul. They follow what they think society or their parents want them to do.

But anyone can be great. Whoever you are—whether you’re Michael Jordan and you know you love basketball, or Chris Rock and know you love comedy, or if you’re a local dentist or gardener or school teacher or classical music guy—if you find your true calling and are strong enough to follow it, you can become the champion of that space.

Like a wine guy who likes people.

A wine guy who likes people, who also happens to be a social marketing guru, who also happens to be a huge Jets fan, and a connoisseur of 1980’s wrestling, and really enjoys root beer.

Ah … I get it! It’s not just wine, it’s all of you.

Right, it’s the whole person. You want your brand to be your entire DNA, not just how somebody wants to pigeonhole you.

You see that? That’s the difference. That’s what the Internet allows us to do.

If I were on television, whenever I talk about that other stuff, my producers and network boss would be yelling at me to “stay on-brand.” But on the Internet, I can go as sporadic as I want. And if people are turned off by the fact that I talk about other things, then God bless them. I’m willing to shed that baby fat. But I’m betting that more people want me to be me, the whole me.

That’s what the Internet brings us—it brings us a sense of freedom to be our entire personal brand.

When I think of a traditional brand, I think of stripping something down to one or two core qualities: if it’s a VW, it’s small and reliable, period. But you’re saying, go the opposite direction and be every facet.

In the past, they didn’t have a lot of air time to get across their message. If you’re selling a Beetle and you’ve got a 30- or 60-second commercial, are you going to talk about 900 different things? You’ve got to get across the basics.

But the Internet doesn’t charge you for time. The cost of telling the whole story is zero. You can spend the rest of your life building your entire personal brand.

You’ve said, “There is never a bad time when you have brand equity.”

That’s true.

That’s especially poignant right now. How does brand equity help us navigate through this bad time?

During the Great Depression, the people who made money were actors. Why? Because the things people spent money on were makeup, the carnival, and the movies. When times are tight, we like to spend money on entertainment and escape.

Here’s what that tells me, as a content provider: people are going to live vicariously through my wine-tasting.

What’s more, a lot of companies want to hear about this business model right now, because it doesn’t cost them any money.

This becomes a very powerful message during a slow economic time. Hey McDonald’s, you want to launch a new cheeseburger? Don’t spend

millions on print and TV and radio. Let me show you how to build brand equity through the Internet—it’s very powerful, very cost-effective, and very timely.

I see this economic crisis forcing many companies to look deeper into the world of social media.

As an individual networker, do I focus on leveraging my company’s brand, which is what most of us are used to doing, or should I also try to build my own personal brand?

You need to build your own personal brand as well. If you’re Jerry Thompson, independent rep for So-and-So Company, then call yourself JerryThompsonNetworker.com.

Instead of holding back your secrets of success and protecting them as if they’re the family jewels, go talk about them on your personal video blog. That will attract other people in that space to come and learn.

If you want to keep living purely on the commissions you’re making, God bless you. But there’s a lot more money out there for you if you become the king or queen of this entire space, because suddenly you’re getting paid speaking fees and you start showing up on Donny Deutsch.

The trick is, you’ve got to be willing to share that wealth of content.

Get transparent.

That’s it. Nobody wants to give away their secret sauce. I say, give it away!

A lawyer asked me to help him build his personal brand. I said, “Give away all of your advice.”

He says, “But that’s what I charge for!”

I go, “Exactly.”

“But I bill $300 an hour to explain this!”

I go, “Uh huh.”

That’s how you build brand equity. You’ve got to give away the good stuff.

Say he does that: he starts giving away his great stuff on a video blog and building his lawyer brand. How does that work for him? Where does it go next?

There’s only so much specific information you can put out there. Every case is different. Maybe he talked about divorce, but he didn’t mention the situation where you shared a business with your husband that your brother-in-law also owned 13 percent of, and so forth.

So what happens next is, he starts getting clients.

Ultimately, every individual situation is so specific that even if you give away the farm, there’s still the sheep, the cows and the pigs. As a lawyer, you could talk about every type of case you understand, and there would still be eight million people out there with eight million situations you haven’t quite covered.

And they’re going to feel much more comfortable coming to you because of how much you were willing to give away for free.

Plus, you become a test study for everyone else.

That’s your “gold rush” point.

Exactly. People are going to be writing about social media over the next thirty-six months. Who are the poster boys going to be?

I’ve never had a conversation with Seth Godin in my life, but clearly, I must be doing a good enough job and creating enough buzz that people like Seth are talking about me. [Before our interview, I told Gary that he was mentioned in Seth’s new book Tribes, which Gary hadn’t seen yet—Ed.] Professors in college are citing me as an example, and my name gets brought up at virtually every tech conference.

My point being that if you get into this right now, you will make a name for yourself. If you race to be the best, no matter what your subject matter is, you’ll become the poster boy for whatever it is you do. Which only builds further into your myth, legend and personal brand.

And that’s what you’re looking to build: buzz, excitement and people being interested in what you’re doing.

It’s about staying very true to yourself and your DNA, and then recognizing that the tools are out there.

What’s next for you? What do you suppose you’ll be doing, say, in five years?

I have no idea. One of the most important things in running a business is being very responsive. To make a set plan of what you’re going to do in five years, I think that just hurts you.

I think having an overall, global kind of vision makes sense, because then you know where you’re going. For me, I have a vision of buying the New York Jets. So I know I need $2 or $3 billion to make that happen. But to worry about the details within that is very dangerous, because it keeps you closed to new opportunities.

Five years ago, did I ever think I was going to become a social media marketing guru? Five years ago, there was no such thing as social media—it didn’t exist!

You’ve got to keep your eyes wide open, stay open to the simplicity of what is genuinely important, and be ready to act in the face of opportunity.