Digital media guru laments era of “fake entrepreneurship”

Lamenting the rise of “fake entrepreneurship,” wine critic turned author, investor and internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk delivered a funny, provocative critique of today’s overheated startup scene as well as legacy companies that fail to recognize the disruptive potential of innovation.

“I’m fascinated by people’s inability to understand that technology changes culture,” said Vaynerchuk, a Belarussian-American best known for his work in digital marketing and social media, as CEO of New York-based VaynerMedia.

Radio technology was a fitting medium for horse racing, while television fueled the rise of football, he observed. “This notion of holding the past on a pedestal because you understand it or it’s safe is why companies go out of business.”

Vaynerchuk and FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller participated in a fireside chat the morning of May 6 during Transparency19, a three-day freight technology conference taking place this week at the Georgia International Convention Center. An early investor in startups like Uber, Twitter and Facebook, Vaynerchuk trounced today’s young startup executives for being “soft” and warned that the current flood of capital was one college debt default crisis or Chinese tariff away from drying up.

”This is the greatest era of fake entrepreneurship ever,” he said.

Money is fueling the bubble. So is culture.

A previous generation of founders didn’t grow up believing their ideas were worth millions, Vaynerchuck said. “And that is absolutely what the average highly educated 21-year old in college thinks. He or she thinks that whatever idea they come up with they should easily be able to get [millions] for their… (here his voice dripped with mock disdain) Uber of sneakers.”  

Waxing nostalgic, Vaynerchuk said entrepreneurship wasn’t always a celebrity enterprise. “Right now, entrepreneurship is legitimately cool. Which is wild. Being a business man or woman wasn’t cool in 1992. It was Bill Gates – a f***ing nerd.”

So, asked Fuller, how do you distinguish between a fake entrepreneur and a real one?

“I like people who have built real businesses,” Vaynerchuk responded. “I’ve lost money investing when the idea was great, and I would have run it successfully, but I’ve got someone who has never run a business.”

Helicopter parents didn’t escape Vaynerchuk’s critique. Noting that adversity is the foundation of success, Vaynerchuk faulted today’s maternal and paternal influencers for raising a generation of startup founders who can’t tolerate failure.

“This is the generation of eighth-place trophies. We’ve demonized losing to these kids.”

Vaynerchuk said his upbringing in the former Soviet Union was steeped in hardship, and that his ability to power through failure is “fundamentally the reason I’m successful.”

Fuller and Vaynerchuk engaged in some back and forth about how freight companies should leverage technology and digital media to boost their businesses. As carriers balk at adopting new media, truck drivers are using GoPro to broadcast their daily lives to thousands of Twitter or Facebook followers, Fuller said. “You have companies that do a poorer job of communicating their brands than drivers.”

Not only is every business a media company – every person is a media company, Vaynerchuk responded. “You don’t have to do it, but there is a lot of opportunity around it.”

Building a successful business today involves a blending of old school and new school and is ultimately not that complicated, he added. “It’s like Biblical s**t,” Vaynerchuk said.

He urged members of the audience “to spend the next 100 days having phone calls and dinners with customers and listen to what they care about, and then go back to the pad and cook that meal.”

They also need “to go on the Internet, literally type into Google, ‘how to start a podcast for a business-to-business company, how to run Linkedin ads.’”

Social media, Vaynerchuk observed, is simply “a slang term for the current state of the internet.”

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.

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