The Resurgence of LinkedIn

In the wake of LinkedIn’s announcement of reaching 100 million members, I’ve been impressed with the resurgence they have had in the past year. I thought I would showcase some of the recent product innovation from LinkedIn as well as cultural shifts we’ve seen from within the company that have contributed to this growth.

Product Innovation
For the longest time LinkedIn’s product pace has always been overshadowed by the more nimble Facebook, which has constantly been pushing the envelope both on the speed and shape of innovation. While I won’t try to argue that LinkedIn has caught up, we’ve certainly seen it pick up the pace in the past year as well as start to get comfortable in its own skin, understanding exactly where it provides unique value that Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks cannot.

The latest example of this is LinkedIn Today, a social news product for professionals, that automatically builds a daily digest of the top news you’ll likely be interested in based on how it’s trending amongst your professional network. Even despite a product like Flipboard already existing, you can see how LinkedIn Today provides unique value targeted at professionals and aspires to be more on par with a next generation Wall Street Journal.

LinkedIn also realized that much of it’s value is for sales, business development, and hiring managers seeking out specific contacts that can help them achieve their goals. To that end, we saw the redesign last year of search to supported Faceted Search, a much smarter way of filtering your search results to find exactly who you may be looking for. This search mechanism differs significantly from the keyword-centric Google Search, name-centric Facebook search, and recommendations-centric Twitter results. Instead it’s precisely optimized for what LinkedIn users are doing - narrowing their results down to find candidates for the task at hand.

Beyond that, LinkedIn invested heavily in bringing the LinkedIn experience to you, with revamped iPhone and Blackberry apps as well as a new Android app. These apps provide full profile information on the go for both people in your network as well as new folks you may have just met. They are also complete with Bump-style business-card replacement functionality, enabling you to add a LinkedIn contact on the go.

This is just a taste of some of the new products LinkedIn has developed or enhanced in the past year, with many other little feature improvements throughout.

InDays
Beyond this product innovation, we’ve also seen some important cultural shifts inside LinkedIn. One of the most exciting is an initiative spearheaded by Adam Nash called InDays. Every month employees are encouraged to spend one day working on projects outside of their core responsibilities. Alongside InDay LinkedIn also throws a Hackday contest to showcase the best applications that come out of these internal projects. They started posting these internal projects publicly through a separate LinkedIn Labs site. There is some resemblance to Google’s 20% time, though the time dedicated to these efforts at LinkedIn remains fairly minimal.

The kinds of applications that have come out of InDays have typically shown the robustness, power, and richness of the unique dataset that LinkedIn has. For example, the analytics team at LinkedIn developed InMaps, a stunning way of visualizing your connection graph, complete with clustering of your contacts into similar groups. I found clusters of folks from my previous employer Microsoft, colleagues from my alma mater at The University of Pennsylvania, as well as a cluster of fellow silicon valley entrepreneurs. It’s amazing how they were able to deduce these purely on connection data.

Another great application was The Year in Review, which visualized all the contacts within your network that had changed jobs. LinkedIn ended up sending this out as a email marketing campaign to all of it’s users. It’s interesting to see how many of your colleagues have changed jobs as there are always surprises in there that you didn’t even realize.

I’m sure this culture of encouraging innovative ideas from it’s own employees has boosted employee morale as well as given user’s access to functionality that traditionally wouldn’t be on their roadmap. I’m excited to watch these efforts continue.

App Platform
While LinkedIn has been fairly slow to encourage third party developers to leverage their rich data set in their own apps, we are finally seeing this start to change. LinkedIn has been investing more resources in their API platform as of late, recently releasing OAuth 2.0 endpoints as well as a full-featured Javascript API.

Developers are also starting to leverage the API in more ways in their own applications. Cubeduel created a fun hot-or-not style contest for your co-workers, Bump leveraged it to enable sharing of LinkedIn data on meeting folks, and popular calendaring apps Timebridge and Tungle.me provide further details on meeting attendees. My own relationship managemant application Connected uses the LinkedIn API extensively to provide full work history details on all of your contacts.

This renewed energy behind the API will allow developers to take advantage of their rich dataset in functionality beyond what LinkedIn is likely to provide.

Acquisitions
LinkedIn has traditionally been absent from the acquisition scene unlike many of it’s similarly sized tech brethren. However, that all changed this past year when LinkedIn made not only it’s first acquisition, but a total of three.

The first acquisition was mSpoke in August 2010. mSpoke developed content recommendation technology which was presumably leveraged for a variety of recommendation scenarios throughout LinkedIn’s product. LinkedIn quickly followed this up with the acquisition of ChoiceVendor in September 2010. ChoiceVendor offered ratings and reviews for B2B service providers. And most recently, LinkedIn acquired CardMunch in January 2011. CardMunch makes it easy to convert a business card into a digital contact record simply by photographing a business card via your iPhone and having it automatically transcribed by humans for accuracy.

All these acquisitions have been predominantly talent acquisitions for small dollar amounts, but great ways to inject young talent into the fold.


All the recent changes within LinkedIn are clearly in preparation for their upcoming IPO, which they publicly announced their intention to do so in January. I hope this more aggressive LinkedIn continues along these lines, as I truly believe they are sitting on a goldmine of data which they have only scratched the surface on it’s possibilities.
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