LinkedIn: the secret to the online business network's success
With 50 million members, including Richard Branson and Alan Sugar, LinkedIn's success story quietly rivals that of Facebook.
For all the continual media frenzy over Facebook and Twitter, the most remarkable social networking story of all may well be LinkedIn, the global social network for business professionals founded by serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reid Hoffman in December 2002. Last week, a bullish LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner announced its 50 millionth member, stressing that while it took sixteen months for the social network to get its first million members, the most recent million only took 12 days.
While the LinkedIn 50 million may pale in comparison with the Facebook 300 million army, its achievement is quite remarkable when one considers that there are only around 360 million white collar professional people in the entire world (at least according to the latest International Department of Labor numbers). So over 10% of the world’s professionals are already on LinkedIn. And with the social network now signing up a new member every second of every hour of every day, it shouldn’t be too long before the other 90% of the world’s business professionals eventually wind up in the LinkedIn universe.
So can 50 million professionals really be wrong? And what, exactly, is it about LinkedIn that has made it such a hit around the world, attracting business professionals from 200 countries?
According to Kevin Eyres, the London based Managing Director of LinkedIn’s European operation, it’s all about professionals now “taking more responsibility for their own careers.” In the current recession, he explained to me when we spoke on the telephone yesterday, everyone is “thinking like an entrepreneur.” Getting onto LinkedIn allows us to be “proactive” in building our own networks, finding new staff, rebuilding one’s career, “showcasing” skills and, above all perhaps, organizing one’s “reputation”.
Thinking like an entrepreneur is clearly something that the LinkedIn team is doing very impressively. According to Eyres, the business – which in June last year raised a $53 million round of venture capital - has been profitable for the last two years. And unlike the advertising dependant Facebook, LinkedIn has three “roughly equal streams” of revenue: Premium subscriptions, software as a service and advertising.
According to Eyres, some cultures are better than others at thinking like collaborative entrepreneurs. Holland, for example, is “off the charts” – something that Eyres explains in terms of networking being historically “part of the Dutch DNA.” The Danes too excel in this. While for other less advantaged groups in more conservative, inward-looking cultures – such as Italian women – LinkedIn has actually enabled the levelling of the socio-economic playing field.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that major LinkedIn success stories like Holland, Denmark and even India are all cultures in which English is widely spoken. But in European countries in which English is less prevalent, LinkedIn has had less success.
And this is why Eyres has launched German (January 2009), French (November 2008) and Spanish (August 2008) language sites over the last fourteen months.
Even in the United Kingdom, certainly not a culture as rooted in the collaborative network as much as Holland or Denmark, Eyres is excited by LinkedIn’s progress. Over the last six months, he told me, the UK membership had reached a “tipping point” in which the traditionally reticent locals have become more and more comfortable with both promoting themselves and with giving professional recommendations to others.
So why should one be on LinkedIn? I asked Eyres. What would he say to entice the roughly 310 million professionals who still haven’t signed up for the service?
“You aren’t doing your job correctly if you aren’t on it,” Eyres responded. LinkedIn is going to get you ahead by allowing you to get more knowledge, by enabling you to reach out to a network of like-minded professionals, by giving you access to a uniquely collaborative business environment.
Eyres may well be right. The LinkedIn mantra that “relationships matter” has become the central dogma of our social media age. And over the next year – as LinkedIn adds third party applications to its platform and adds an iPhone app and grows its markets in Latin American and Asia – relationships will matter more and more.
In spite of its sometimes clunky interface and cumbersome networking tools, credible business people can no longer afford to avoid LinkedIn. As Eyres reminded me, even Richard Branson and Alan Sugar are on it. Could there be a better reason to get linked in?