As a generation, millennials are often stereotyped by older adults as being lazy and noncommittal. The career of David Yarus, 30, smashes this unfair characterization of everyone born between 1982 and 2004 to smithereens.
A lifelong entrepreneur, David Yarus always has multiple pots on the stove. Founder of JSwipe, a Jewish dating app nicknamed the “Jewish Tinder,” he is also the founder of mllnnl, a digital marketing agency aimed at helping brands target the millennial demographic. I sat down with Yarus to discuss entrepreneurship, millennials, building a professional life around one’s personal passion, and the future of work.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
Yes, I think I was born and bred to be an entrepreneur. My parents really raised me to be one. I didn’t get a traditional allowance when I was little. Instead, I had to sell grapefruits from our tree, wash cars, and do all sorts of different things to earn money. My [entrepreneurial drive] fostered by parents’ upbringing continued organically throughout my life. I never knew specifically what I wanted to do, and in fact, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, but I’ve always followed the intersection of passion and interest and so far it’s been a really fun journey.
What inspired you to start mllnl?
I’ve been doing what I do at mllnnl naturally my whole life. When I was in high school in Miami, I started throwing parties for fun, because I loved bringing friends and other people together in a communal space. This continued during my college years when I threw parties in Boston. Eventually, the parties started getting sponsored and I realized a couple of things. First, I realized that brands have a serious interest in connecting with millennials. These parties turned out to be much more lucrative than was promoting for clubs or other venues trying to get people into a room. So, I recognized there was a major business opportunity here.
The second thing I realized was what I’ve been doing my whole life without even realizing it was called word-of-mouth marketing and brand advocacy marketing, or as it’s now known: ‘influencer marketing.’ I attended an entrepreneurship school called Babson, and while there, I started my first word-of-mouth marketing agency for college students. Mllnnl is simply the newest form of what I’ve been doing for the past 15-20 years, which is marketing to and connecting with fellow millennials. Starting this agency was just the continued progression of following my passion and the expertise that I’ve developed over the course of my professional life.
What do millennials expect from brands?
I hate to use a word that has become so cliche, but the number one thing millennials demand is authenticity. Millennials just want people to be real. They want their friends to be real. They want the brands and businesses they buy from to be real. They have a keen sense of what’s authentic and genuine. When brands are trying too hard, we can easily sniff it out, and it turns us off. We expect the organizations we buy from to care. We also judge their social impact. A lot research shows that millennials are more likely to buy into brands and businesses that do good for the world as well as for their employees and make their products thoughtfully or with eco-friendly processes.
Millennials also demand that brands add value, rather than just try to sell us on something. And we’re really into co-creation — We want things to be hyper-personalized. Millennials want to feel special and unique by personalizing the products we buy. We’re sometimes referred to as the “Starbucks” generation, because we want everything to be tailored to our specific tastes like a caramel macchiato with soy. Another example often given is Nike, which lets you design your own shoe. They allow consumers to personalize everything from the shoe color to the soles so customers can make it uniquely their own. We want to feel heard and we want to collaborate by being part of the process rather than just the endgame you’re marketing to. Ultimately, we want to be thought of as partners with an active role in developing the products and building the businesses we support and care about.
What do you think is the future of marketing?
The future of marketing is adding value. Millennials demand that brands add value to their lives. If you’re an organization that is not adding value, you’re going to get ignored. If you run a Facebook ad that’s just like “buy this now,” no one is going to click or watch it. This is because you’re no longer just competing with your competitors, but you’re also competing with funny cat videos, people’s baby pictures, and with everything else on the internet for the same attention graph.
There’s a finite amount of time in our day and there are ever-growing amounts of content hitting everyone’s feeds. You need to recognize that in order to stand out when the attention span of the average millennial is only 8.42 seconds — just a bit less than that of a goldfish which is 12 seconds — you have literally the time it takes to swipe your thumb down to catch someone’s eye and stand out. Your content needs to grab their attention and be quick, bite-size, and snackable. That’s why short videos often work so well. And it’s all about gaining a share of the social and interest graph. Nothing is one-size-fits-all anymore. Every product, business, and website must be tailored to the user’s specific interests and it must also be given a vote of confidence by others in their social networks before they’ll pay attention.
In the future, we’ll see a rise in automation and AI (artificial intelligence), which is already in the early stages of allowing us to streamline everything we do. Eventually, bots will automate everything that community managers and customer service reps are currently doing.
It’s certainly an exciting time to be alive. You started mllnnl and JSwipe almost simultaneously. Was that the plan?
Millnnl had been in the works for years. It was just a matter of figuring out when was the right time to launch, and June of 2014 just happened to be the right time. Both companies were launched together strategically. Mllnnl manages all of the social media promotion, the design, and all of the other marketing efforts for JSwipe so they were important partners from the beginning.
How did you manage to start two separate companies with two separate teams at the same time?
Strong partners and strong communication. I have people on both teams who are experts at what they do and they focus on very distinct pieces of the puzzle. So, when we work together and collaborate on the broader picture, what really makes it work is strong partnership and communication.
Excellent. Did you anticipate the rapid growth that JSwipe has experienced? How have you handled the growth?
Definitely not. I’m still a little bit shocked and pleasantly surprised with the way it all worked out. Initially, I simply thought it would be a fun project. I did not expect the tremendous outpouring of support and interest that we received. The welcome with which it’s been received by the Jewish community has been incredible. I think a swipe-able dating app for the Jewish community was long overdue and luckily everything lined up — right time, right place, right team, and right execution. We were able to get it done in such a way that it made for a user-friendly and fun app that the whole community could rally behind.
In a recent NYTimes article you stated: “I’ve unlocked this alignment of truth in my life where my passion and my profession and my expertise is all the same thing right now.” What would you advise others who want the same thing, but are stuck in jobs they don’t find fulfilling.
I would just say two things. The first thing is: Take the leap. It’s not as scary as it might seem before you get started. For millennials in particular, the whole notion of choosing ‘what you want to do for the rest of your life’ just doesn’t exist. During our parents’ generation, if you were a dentist, you would usually be a dentist for life. That’s all you would do. If you were a lawyer, you were a lawyer for life. If you were an accountant, you were an accountant for life. But the average millennial has had five jobs by the time he or she is 25 years-old. And it doesn’t stop there. They keep on exploring.
Only this year, I realized that I spend the vast majority of my life at work. All day and well into the night. So, the notion of someone not enjoying what they do, baffles me. There’s this concept of the deferred lifestyle that Tim Ferriss talks about where you work, work, work and then you retire and have fun. But by the time you retire, you’re old, you’re not fully mobile, and you’re not fully able to enjoy your retirement. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Now is the time. I want to live and experience now. And I want to be happy and inspired every day when I’m going to the office.
There’s another thing I’ve been thinking about recently. The very notion of ‘work-life balance’ inherently implies that work is a bad thing, which you aren’t passionate or inspired about. And life is seen as this totally separate thing where you can actually be happy, because that’s where you live. But when your work is aligned with your passions and interests, the idea of work-life balance just doesn’t apply, because working is no longer ‘working.’ Instead, work becomes a form of self-expression.
So, I would tell people to ask themselves the following questions: What is your zone of genius and how much time per day do you spend in that zone of genius? What are your gifts or your superpowers? What do you love to do? What’s your highest purpose? What do you like? What inspires you and what are you passionate about? I guarantee you that there is some kind of opportunity for an occupation centered around your gifts, talents, highest purpose, etc. So, ask yourself these questions, be unapologetic and honest with your answers, and have the courage to take the leap. No matter where it ends up, it’s going to be an exciting process. There’s no wrong answer.
Inspiring! What’s next for David Yarus?
There are quite a few things in the works right now. At mllnnl, we’re currently in the process of developing new technology that allows for what we call: Tribe Mapping. Essentially, this technology works to understand networks and influencers within those networks, assisting us in gaining a larger share of the attention and interest graph. At JSwipe we’re getting more involved with JDate now that we’ve merged and become one big, happy family. The merger presents a lot of upside for both dating platforms and I’m excited to be helping JDate find its footing again.
There are also many, many other projects in the works that have to do with tech and lifestyle branding. In addition to all of that, I plan to start taking more trips around the world. I love travelling, experiencing other cultures and ways of life, and seeing how other people live. Travel is an important part of my routine, and I plan to start doing a lot more of it.
Are you an entrepreneur, side-hustler, or freelancer with an interesting story? Let’s connect! Tweet me @ZevGotkin!