Hype and hustle at Gary Vaynerchuk’s NFT conference
Wyclef Jean is trying his best to get the crowd hyped. He’s making his way through some of the biggest hits of his career — “Hips Don’t Lie,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song” — while blue and green lights sweep across the stadium. But it’s not exactly a wild crowd. Some people stay seated. Others stand still, silently recording the stage. To the side, people take turns tossing bean bags into cornhole boards on top of a carpet of fake grass.
Then, it’s like a switch has been flipped. The crowd suddenly erupts in cheers and screams. Phones shoot into the air at rapid speed. People who had otherwise been near-motionless crane their necks, clamoring to see the stage. One man jumps up on top of a folding chair, loses his balance and falls, then scrambles back up for a better view.
Jean had shouted out the Fugees repeatedly over the course of the night — had Lauryn Hill just come out? Had TLC made it after all, following a last-minute cancellation?
The audience, there in theory for a weekend of panels and talks about crypto, NFTs, and business, was instead going wild at the emergence of a nondescript middle-aged man wearing a flat brim hat, beige hoodie, jeans, and sneakers. Most people likely wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from the average sales floor employee selling streetwear at a Zumiez store. But over the course of the four-day conference, as celebrities, influencers, and a new class of tech oligarchs came and went, it was clear the big names — and the conversations they would lead — were just a sideshow. The crowd was here for him.
Gary Vaynerchuk has sold a lot of things. His origin story typically begins with his experience selling wine at his father’s New Jersey liquor store, and later, making wine-tasting YouTube videos back when that felt new and exciting. He’s written several books, invested in tech companies, leads an advertising agency (VaynerMedia), co-founded a sports agency (VaynerSports), and launched his own wine company.
But mostly Vaynerchuk — who goes by GaryVee online — vies for your attention through an unyielding stream of in-your-face, motivational content that promises the secrets to a better life. Vaynerchuk peddles a particular kind of rise-and-grind, how-to-win-at-life positivity that has become so ubiquitous online that it feels part of the very fabric of social media influencing. Falling somewhere between a Tony Robbins-esque self-help coach and a brash company executive, Vaynerchuk’s persona is like an inspirational poster you might find on a wall of an elementary school, but with profanities: “FUCK IT, JUST BE YOU.”
Logan Cudlip, a 21-year-old college student, has been following Vaynerchuk online since he was around 16 years old. Vaynerchuk became a father figure in his life, Cudlip says, after his grandfather died when he was a teenager. The incessant stream of forceful encouragement via videos eventually became a comfort.
“I was just in a dark place and I was spending a lot of time on my phone alone,” Cudlip says. “It was just like, having this voice there every single day, 10 times a day, pumping out all this content constantly, reminding me, ‘You got this. Do it. Look at me.’”
Vaynerchuk’s come-up is also inextricable from making money, and specifically, finding shortcuts to make more money more efficiently. Many people know him as the guy who goes to garage sales, talks people down a few dollars, and, while walking away with mugs and toys and electronics, boasts about how much he can resell the items for on eBay. The blending of self-help and profit is what gets you video titles like, “The Secret to Making More Money is to Stop Chasing it,” and “When a Millionaire Gets Excited About Making $5.” Internalize Vaynerchuk’s ethos, the content seems to promise, and you’ll ascend above the struggles and daily grind that’s making you unhappy.
In May 2021, Vaynerchuk had a new proposition for his followers: he’d spent hours hand-drawing dozens of animals as part of a new NFT collection he was calling VeeFriends. The simplistic, almost childlike creations came with a compelling offer to fans. Buy an NFT, and you’d get access to Gary. For a select few, that might mean the chance to have dinner with Vaynerchuk or participate in coaching sessions. And all holders of the more than 10,000 tokens would get to attend three annual conferences called VeeCon.
Vaynerchuk has called his NFT collection a “culmination of his life’s work,” and in many ways, VeeCon and VeeFriends feel like GaryVee in his final form. A 10,000-person conference would put to the test every skill and relationship Vaynerchuk has honed: a network of celebrities and influencers to call upon, his knack for selling just about anything, and a promise to his fans to deliver what he called “the best conference of all time.”
Though Cudlip is a longtime fan and says Vaynerchuk was his entry into Web3, VeeFriends and VeeCon had been out of reach for him. VeeFriends prices started at 2.5 ETH (around $5,300 at the time), and as a student on a full ride, he says he simply couldn’t afford the asking price.
But when we speak on the phone in May, the week before VeeCon 2022, Cudlip has just hit his own personal jackpot: a VeeFriends holder unable to attend the conference had donated their ticket to Cudlip. He booked an $85 flight to Minneapolis, the site of the first VeeCon, and arranged to stay with a friend in the area.
It’s a dream come true for Cudlip, and attending at all feels like a miracle. (When we spoke, VeeCon tickets on the resale market had dropped in price significantly, from a peak of $3,400 to around $400.) He wants to meet his boss in real life, who will be at VeeCon, and plans to hang out with other attendees who received donated tickets. And of course, he’d like to meet Vaynerchuk.
“I’m literally seeing my life transform before my eyes,” Cudlip says. “And it’s because of Gary’s constant motivation to just like, ‘Go do it. Go try it, don’t give up.’”
VeeCon 2022 is being held at the US Bank Stadium, a sprawling, roughly 70,000-person venue where the Minnesota Vikings play. When I arrive on Friday morning around 8:30AM, it looks comically large for the event — giant screens and speakers are suspended beneath the glass atrium, and the purple stands surrounding the field are almost completely empty. The final attendance tally for the weekend is just under 7,000 people, about a tenth of the venue’s capacity.
VeeCon is branded as a “superconference” focused on business, marketing, community building, and more, but the actual event is arranged more like a music festival. A large stage has been constructed on the field with a sea of folding chairs set up in front, where headlining panels and musical performances will take place. There’s a modest Ferris wheel on one side, food trucks parked along the perimeter, and EDM is blasting. It smells like steak, and smoke machines lining the stage fill the near-empty stadium with a haze that will linger all weekend.
As I wander around the stadium on the first morning, a disorganized mass of people has formed around a merch table, tucked into a corner of the field. A worker yells at the group to get back as the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd elbows and squeezes their way to the front before limited edition apparel sells out. One couple I meet tells me they spent $1,400 between the two of them buying T-shirts, tie-dye hoodies, and other items. I later learn that when the doors opened that morning, a mob of people descended on the merch table, racing down the stadium steps and creating a chaotic and dangerous scene — pandemonium for a physical reminder they attended a metaverse event.
While the main stage is on the field, other attractions — like a “flea market” in tribute to Vaynerchuk’s reselling hustle — are set up throughout hallways on the main entry level, where attendees must climb a huge wall of stairs to reach them. Side stages are tucked into suites and other event spaces so hidden throughout the stadium that they require directions from multiple event staffers, making it feel like you’re in a honeycomb, buzzing around and looking for something to do. Pixelated VeeFriends characters wrap throughout the stadium on digital banners as a persistent reminder of why we’re all here.
The Gary Selfie Station proves to be both the busiest area and the best for people-watching. On any given day during the conference, a long, snaking line of people assembles in preparation for Vaynerchuk, with fans waiting hours to meet him. Vaynerchuk will spend around 16 hours doing selfies, autographs, and meet-and-greets over the course of the conference, meeting people into the night.
The evening before, at an outdoor welcome party hosted by VeeCon organizers at a park outside the stadium, the line to see Vaynerchuk wound around the grassy field, and hoards of onlookers crowded around the tent watching other people get their brief encounter with him. The crowd took selfies with Vaynerchuk in the background smiling arm in arm with someone else; they livestreamed from the side, describing the swarm of people; they attempted to get Vaynerchuk’s attention with tokens of appreciation, like custom sneakers or a photo of a 200-foot portrait of his face drawn on a beach.
The line, fans say, is worth it. In the stadium full of thousands of people from around the world, almost entirely maskless, Vaynerchuk doesn’t shy away from close contact. He gives out tight, prolonged hugs to a stream of thrilled strangers, telling countless people, “I love you.” He listens intently to personal stories of failure, joy, and uncertainty, making eye contact with everyone who comes through. People hand him wine bottles, hats, clothing, trading cards, their own arm, and even a baby to autograph. (Vaynerchuk signed the baby’s shirt.) And after they’ve had their moment with him — captured, of course, via photo or video — fans join the crowd surrounding the selfie area to watch Vaynerchuk do it all over again with someone new.
One of the people who waited in line to meet Vaynerchuk is Ali Pasqual, and unlike most attendees, it’s easy to pick her out in the crowd. First, she’s a woman. She’s also dressed in a silky purple top, a purple pencil skirt, and a perfectly white cowboy hat with matching boots in a sea of T-shirts and jeans.
The VeeCon crowd is overwhelmingly male — I’d estimate around 90 percent — and appears to largely be between the ages of 25 and 45. (VeeCon organizers told me they did not collect demographic information besides where attendees were traveling from.)
Though most attendees are white, Vaynerchuk fans are more racially diverse than an outsider might suspect, perhaps a testament to the cross-cultural potency of his bootstrapping, hustle ethos, presented as a lifeline that feels viable in a time of immense income inequality between the very rich and everyone else.
Pasqual, who’s from Rhode Island, discovered Vaynerchuk about two and a half years ago when she was trying to leave her full-time job working in the jewelry industry. Other motivational and self-help coaches weren’t doing the trick to help her level up her career. Then Pasqual heard about Vaynerchuk and has been “hooked” ever since — she quit her full-time job and now owns a small jewelry business, and wants to design for the metaverse in the future. Pasqual planned out her VeeCon trip well in advance, making arrangements to have people looking after her daughter while she travels alone for one of the first times in a while.
“I am in like, complete struggle mode right now,” Pasqual says. “But I don’t regret it because I was so miserable.”
While Vaynerchuk himself is the main draw, the VeeFriends NFT series is the catalyst for VeeCon, and the conference is ostensibly meant to bring metaverse believers together. There are standard sights you’d expect from an NFT event — the Bored Ape Yacht Club t-shirts, whispers of what might be airdropped to attendees — but even when it comes to the technology, Vaynerchuk’s influence is irrefutable. Many people I speak to say they learned about NFTs from Gary.
“I bought my VeeFriend basically because he told me to,” Pasqual says. “I was like okay, I trust what he’s saying completely.”
Despite the optimism inside, VeeCon is happening as the crypto market is tanking and real people are losing real money. Exactly a week before the first day of VeeCon, cryptocurrencies lost $200 billion in value in a single day, according to Bloomberg. Over the days prior, the TerraUSD (UST) “stablecoin,” which was supposed to stay at $1 began to crash, sending its corresponding Luna token into a death spiral until it was near-worthless. Weeks later, Ethereum still hasn’t recovered its lost value.
In the lead-up to VeeCon, some of Vaynerchuk’s predictions about the value of his own NFTs proved to be wrong, too. When holders of the original VeeFriends were given their free VeeCon ticket, which is a separate NFT, the artwork for the new token was still a secret. Vaynerchuk hyped up the tokens by suggesting the floor price for tickets would only increase after the art was made public.
“Feel sad for those who sold under 2 [ETH],” Vaynerchuk wrote in late March on Discord, after hearing some owners had let go of their NFT ticket. “Makes me sad that every darn time people underestimate.”
But instead of upping the value, ticket prices went in the opposite direction after art was revealed. Tickets were trading at around 1.7 ETH prior to the unveiling, according to OpenSea, but in just a few days the average price had dropped to 0.6 ETH. Some attendees paid thousands of dollars for their ticket. Others paid a few hundred. And those that weren’t planning on attending but were holding on to a ticket — waiting for the value to crack a ceiling and sell — had to eat the losses.
Most VeeFriends holders I speak to insist personally profiting off of their Vaynerchuk NFTs is not a concern for them. Instead, they’ve come to VeeCon to meet and network with other people, hear from celebrities, and immerse themselves in the language and culture of entrepreneurship and do-or-die positivity.
VeeFriends holders and Vaynerchuk fans have a shared language, and patterns quickly begin to emerge over the course of interviewing dozens of people of different ages, races, and backgrounds. Nobody will admit to buying a VeeFriend to try to make money. Instead, they recite talking points that are common among NFT communities broadly, but also some that can be traced back to Vaynerchuk directly: Gary always says, “Don’t overextend yourself financially.” The market might be down, but it will bounce back. 99 percent of projects will go to zero. VeeFriends, they’re confident, will be one of the few exceptions.
Athena Cauley-Yu, who runs a stationery shop in Bath, England, is a rare attendee who is direct about purchasing a VeeFriend with the intention of flipping it for more money. When I find Cauley-Yu, she’s sitting alone in front of the main stage, wearing an intricate headpiece made of cardboard that looks like a bug. She’s covered in red, black, and yellow spandex and has attached a sheer, glimmering strip of fabric to her wrists, resembling wings.
“I’m Hot Shit Hornet,” she says, referencing the name of one of her VeeFriend characters. VeeFriends was her first NFT, and she resisted the urge months ago to sell one when the value peaked at $80,000. Now, Cauley-Yu is too attached to her digital drawing to let it go — she tells me she’d almost rather see it be worthless than spike in value, lest the temptation to sell gets the best of her.
“There’s pride and peacocking in having a VeeFriend,” Cauley-Yu says. “I love Gary anyway, so it’s nice being close to him [through VeeFriends].”
Most of the celebrities who Vaynerchuk has tapped to speak at VeeCon — Snoop Dogg, Eva Longoria, Mila Kunis, Liam Payne, and more — have launched NFT projects or have made crypto part of their brand identity.
Panels are snappy 25-minute blocks and range in topics from “Getting Really Famous Really Fast” to “Empowering Women in Web3.” Attendees are at least mostly attentive, especially for big names like Pharell and Logan Paul, who an organizer tells me is the speaker who seems to elicit the biggest response, besides Vaynerchuk. The conversations have some practical advice mixed in, but often feel more like motivational rallies, with vague calls to “build in bear markets” and “change the world.”
The headlining performer on Saturday evening is Miguel, who — surprise! — has just announced his own involvement with a Web3 company. Besides the occasional shoutout to Vaynerchuk, crypto, and NFTs, it’s like any other concert. In the roped-off area for press and other audience members with special access, men around me are being a little bit ruder than they perhaps normally are, angling to get a better view of the stage.
At one point, Miguel begins a call and response during one of his songs for the women in the crowd: “Ladies only, say, ‘I wanna fuck all night,’” he says in earnest. From where I’m standing, it’s dead quiet.
All of Vaynerchuk’s work serves this same purpose: to create the perception that the distance between himself and his followers is razor-thin; that he’s here with you, right now, speaking your language. To do this, he pulls from what seems like a bottomless well of himself that would test the patience and endurance of celebrities much more famous than him.
“My favorite thing so far is actually just watching Gary interact with everybody that’s standing in line and standing and waiting for hours,” says attendee Wade Turner. “Just to genuinely and authentically connect with people one on one has been pretty inspiring.”
Vaynerchuk is recorded at all times, and a gaggle of videographers, photographers, and associates orbit around him, capturing his every move: Gary walking, Gary waving, Gary taking interviews, Gary talking with his family. It’s often easier to spot the entourage that surrounds Vaynerchuk than it is him — just follow the cluster of buzzing associates, and you’ll find Gary in the middle. The footage isn’t just for the sake of documenting the conference — it will be reused (and reused, and reused) for future content. In fact, within hours of VeeCon’s kickoff, videos are already trickling out.
The first thing I notice, sitting down with Vaynerchuk during VeeCon, is that he is much quieter than his on-camera persona — at times, he’s almost whispering. Stripped of a giant stage and screaming fans, he is welcoming and warm, yet decisive and unrelenting, as if he’s working to convince everyone in the room of what he’s saying, including himself.
We are in a private area behind the main stage, and a crew of people is hovering around us: associates, videographers, people peering down at their phones, doing some very urgent job. He softly brushes his knuckles against my hand several times during our chat as he emphasizes points about the blockchain, intellectual property, and VeeFriends.
“For me with VeeFriends, I’m not a technologist,” Vaynerchuk says. “I’m not here trying to build tech stacks or new blockchains or lower gas fees. I’m trying to use the current technology as a catalyst to building out impact.”
The impact in question, Vaynerchuk told press at an earlier lunch, was to make the world a better place. VeeFriends are named after human traits Vaynerchuk values: “Tenacious Turkey,” “Joyous Jellyfish,” “Fuck You Monday Mole.” The business plan, as far as I can tell, is to give his characters the Disney treatment — merchandise, board games, children’s books — and use them to encourage people to be less shitty.
“I’m very happy as a human being. I want more people to be happy,” he tells me. “I think that there are some tried and true traits that we’ve really gone away from. I have huge ambition to have VeeFriends be a catalyst for civility.”
Unlike the Bored Ape Yacht Club project, which grants character usage rights to holders of the NFT, Vaynerchuk retains the rights to his VeeFriends characters. The value of a VeeFriend is that it’s tied to the conference this year and the next two annual events, as well as the more exclusive opportunities like dinner or coaching sessions with Vaynerchuk — a new way to monetize and systematize his relationship with followers.
The high-profile nature of VeeFriends and VeeCon — Vaynerchuk estimates he’s made around $100 million in revenue in the first 15 months and says conference spending is in “the high seven figures” — has ripple effects across his other ventures.
“I think that Gary’s brand has a tremendous halo effect on VaynerMedia and thus VaynerNFT, really giving him the permission to launch so many new different companies,” Avery Akkineni, president of VaynerNFT, told me later.
I ask Vaynerchuk what accountability looks like in the space. Brands, celebrities, and other crypto hype people are convincing a segment of the public that their digital assets have inherent value, even as projects fall off, floor prices tank, and the scams keep coming.
“Accountability is the most important trait on this earth,” he says. But he emphasizes that it goes both ways, for the NFT creators and the customers.
“Tomorrow, any brand on Earth can add value to the token they issued last year. … If you’re a Fortune 500 brand, you’re not going to let a project sit in limbo so that the audience, journalists, social media, can shit on you. You’re going to provide value to it if you’re halfway smart.”
And as for the people who buy NFTs? You should be in this for the long haul.
“Somebody’s accountability on holding the token: don’t sell it,” Vaynerchuk says.
Vaynerchuk has created a perch for himself within the NFT space where he can be both a cautionary voice and the ultimate booster. He repeats the mantra that 99 percent of NFT projects will go to zero, for example, and that the community is in greed and gold rush mode. He also assures ordinary people — college students, small business owners, moms, veterans — that this technology will change their lives forever, and that this is what it feels like to be in on the future early.
At the press junket the day before, I asked Vaynerchuk what made VeeFriends any different from the tidal wave of NFT projects vying for attention. “Great question,” he said, and took a beat before responding.
By Sunday, the final day of VeeCon, the stadium crowd has fallen into a comfortable rhythm. The smoke machines roar on, making my eyes bloodshot, and attendees trickle in at their leisure and wait in a coffee line that stretches down the hallway. On the main stage, Snoop Dogg closes out the programming to a full audience, cracking jokes to a crowd emboldened by a weekend of reassurances that Web3’s takeover is inevitable. Finally, Vaynerchuk emerges one last time to send off the thousands he’s brought together.
In a wandering, sermon-like 20-minute speech, Vaynerchuk leads the crowd through cheers for everything from being happy to NFT education to, in an impassioned segment, the intent behind actions. “Let there be no confusion for this community. My intent for all of you is always and forever going to be phenomenal,” Vaynerchuk says.
The crowd erupts in cheers and whistles when Vaynerchuk promises he’ll bring them along for the ride.
Including fans in his journey often means telling them exactly what he’s doing. In September 2016, Vaynerchuk uploaded a video explaining how he’d execute on a bold claim he’d recently made: that he could earn $100,000 a year selling rocks on the street to people who don’t know him. Step one, he says, is to set up shop in an upper-middle-class neighborhood.
“I would try to market myself as somebody who is creative on top of a rock. I wouldn’t try to sell you a rock because that wouldn’t work.” He goes on: “I would doodle and create on top of rocks and try to sell them.”
Suddenly the rock becomes something more, via marketing, celebrity endorsements, and the patience to let the scheme percolate for a couple of years.
“The doodling on top of them constitutes as art and that becomes agnostic, and then marketing can take over,” Vaynerchuk says. “And then all I need to do is have Leonardo DiCaprio take a picture on his Instagram that he’s bought this rock because it’s art. And then it’s game over. It’s just high school arbitrage. All of it is.”
He would likely make around $36,000 profit in the first year, he warns — but by year two? $100,000, easily.
Vaynerchuk, it turns out, was only partially right. In fact, he’s made much, much more.