It's happening— can't help it. Gary Vaynerchuk is getting me all worked up. In his spartan office in lower Manhattan, I'm getting the Crush It! religion. "Can I tell you why it's huge?" he asks. "Because it's real. Seriously, I mean, like, I'm getting goose bumps." He holds out his arm, and for a moment I'm actually surveying his flesh for evidence of just how exciting this all is!
But wait—what were we talking about? Oh, right: Per the breathless subtitle of Crush It!, Vaynerchuk's new book, "now is the time to cash in on your passion." The argument of the compact man seated before me—who, with his close-cropped hair and wild-eyed intensity, looks more soccer hooligan than entrepreneurial evangelist—is that, thanks to free social-networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, any schlub can build a huge "personal brand" for himself, with riches, happiness, etc., to follow. Stripped to its essence, the pitch can sound more than a bit late-night-infomercial-ish, except that Vaynerchuk happens to have a little experience in this area. A former teenage stock boy, he transformed the family business, the thoroughly unsexy Shopper's Discount Liquors of Springfield, New Jersey, a strictly local $4-million-a-year purveyor of the hard stuff, into the upscale, $60-million-a-year mail-order enterprise known as the Wine Library. He did it with a little help from Wine Library TV, a low-budget wine-tasting video podcast he launched in February 2006, in which he might rave about an "amaaaaaaazing" Châteauneuf-du-Pape after tossing off color commentary on the New York Jets. In the years since, he's been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, appeared on Conan, and collected Twitter followers by the thousands (he's at 850,000 and counting).
Crush It! was an instant hit (though the publisher spent virtually nothing on marketing, the book debuted on the New York Times Hardcover Advice Best Sellers list at No. 2 thanks to Vaynerchuk's devoted fans), but Merlot drinkers and self-help-book buyers aren't the only ones listening to this guy. Vaynerchuk has parlayed his regular-Joe-turned-wine-mogul shtick into lucrative management-consulting gigs at Fortune 500 companies. In record time, he's joined a growing crew of "new economy" gurus who might, at this very moment, be telling the corporate overlords at your workplace how to do their jobs. Gurus like Timothy Ferriss, whose best-selling treatise on delegation, The 4-Hour Workweek, started as a cult sensation among stressed-out Silicon Valley managers. Or Seth Godin, author of a dozen popular books—from Unleashing the Ideavirus to Tribes—whom you can typically find at an airport on the way to one of his many speaking gigs. Or Laura Day, who wrote the blockbuster Practical Intuition and its various sequels and reportedly collects $10,000-a-month advisory retainer fees from companies like computer-storage conglomerate Seagate and talent agency William Morris Endeavor.
They are the rock stars of the business world, huge draws on book tours and at conferences like South by Southwest. Harvard and Princeton roll out the red carpet for them. Google, Starbucks, Disney, and Nike execs buddy up to them. And their influence among America's Dilbertariat has only grown since the global economy started to wobble, and for good reason: They're experts at telling suits that they're doing everything wrong—a message easy to dismiss in the boom years but deeply resonant circa 2010. They're definitely not your father's guru—think Dale "How to Win Friends & Influence People" Carnegie—but they're selling the same things: hope, passion, self-empowerment, and the idea that maybe, just maybe, you don't have to put up with your stupid job and your stupid boss at the stupid company you work for.
"What I do has to be, on some level, fun." That's what Timothy Ferriss says when I ask why, on his popular website, he digresses so often from his core message about mastering delegation (or "outsourcing your life," as he puts it). A sporty blond guy with a perpetual wry grin on his face—like he knows something you don't—Ferriss has lately been chronicling the three-minute breath-holding experiments he conducted under the tutelage of his pal David Blaine. "I'll put up a blog post," he explains, "because I find it amusing."
He also knows it'll get a rise out of people. When he noisily trumpets all manner of personal triumphs involving, randomly enough, kickboxing championships and tango dancing (he and a partner set a world tango-spin record on Live! with Regis and Kelly), he knows he's branding himself as the time-management expert who does crazy-ass stunts.
In Guru Nation, obnoxious trumps obscure any day. And in a way, the P.T. Barnum-esque antics of Ferriss and his cohorts aren't that different from the sort Carnegie—who changed his name from Carnegey so people would think he was related to the robber-baron Carnegies—had up his sleeve. Vaynerchuk talks of one day owning the Jets and typically punctuates his on-camera wine-tasting sessions by spitting into a metal bucket emblazoned with the team's logo.
Though Vaynerchuk and Ferriss have entrepreneurial backgrounds, business experience is hardly a prerequisite for contemporary guruhood. Intuition proponent Laura Day is (seriously) a psychic. Malcolm "Tipping Point" Gladwell, who put forth a similar trust-your-gut message in his book Blink and commands $50,000 and up to speak at business conferences, has spent most of his career as a staff writer at The New Yorker. And Lewis Howes played wide receiver in the Arena Football League—until a mangled wrist put his right arm in a cast for six months.
"I was on a couch—I went from one sister's house to my brother's house," says Howes of the unlikely genesis of his gurudom two years ago. "It was basically survivor mode. All I had was a laptop, clothes, and a couch. I spent about six to eight hours a day for six months learning about Linkedin and online marketing." That led to a seeming insta-career as a social-media consultant—one that produced a book (LinkedWorking) got him mainstream media coverage from BusinessWeek and Fast Company, and gave him the juice to launch a website and host conferences aimed at helping sports agents and marketers to network. Turns out that "Show me the money!" guys across the country were keen on finding new ways to interact.
The new-economy gurus, of course, are all about networking—and jockeying for position with one another. "I'm like a younger Gary V. or Tim Ferriss," says Howes. Dan Schawbel, a clean-cut, baby-faced go-getter—imagine Alex P. Keaton reincarnated as David Archuleta—who markets himself as the personal-branding expert for Gen Y, put, yes, Gary Vaynerchuk on the cover of his Personal Branding magazine. And though Schawbel is the author of Me 2.0—new-economy guruhood, oddly enough, always seems to require a dead-tree book—he can't recommend other books because, he says, he rarely cracks them open: "I get all my content from the Web. I skim like 500 to 1,000 blogs a day." Vaynerchuk likewise insists that "I've never read a business book in my life." Not even the tome written by the guy who was kind enough to give him a gushing blurb for Crush It!, Tim Ferriss? "I've never read one sentence of Tim's," Vaynerchuk says. "Not one." Still, that doesn't stop him from endorsing Ferriss: "I respect guys like him to no end, because if you're able to build something, you're able to build something."
As tempting as it is to dismiss these men as self-promoting blowhards, you'd be foolish to do it, because they are articulating some fundamental truths about the sweeping changes wrought by technology in recent years. Seth Godin, who founded an online-marketing company that he sold to Yahoo! in 1998 for $30 million, can sound apocalyptic and power-to-the-people utopian about it all. A bald Mr. Clean type with an almost scholarly demeanor, he's given to launching into big-picture soliloquies. "For 150 years," he says, "the key structural element of our society was that people who owned machines, the means of production, had all the power. But the means of production is now a laptop. I'm not saying that everyone needs to be an entrepreneur. What I'm saying is that the winners are the ones who are indispensable. How do you become indispensable? You do something unique with systems that belong to you as opposed to being a slave to somebody else's system."
It's an appealing message—who isn't anti-slavery? And it hints at why all these gurus tend to balk at being labeled gurus, even as they hustle to broaden their own guruhood. "Any company that hires me is crazy," says Laura Day of her get-in-touch-with-your-intuition consultancy, "because you can train your janitor to do this. You can." Of course, it may just be a brutal truth of human nature that even the most open-minded among us are more likely to trust a high-priced consultant than Carl the custodian.
The genius of the Guru Nation theology is that it's pointedly grassroots: Subscribe to the faith and you have your choice of a priest or a rabbi who will teach you how to become your own Almighty Creator.
You can do this all on your own! You can! You really can!
But first, buy my book.