LinkedIn founders wanted to make the world a better place

LinkedIn may seem like just a website for social and professional networking, but co-founder Allen Blue said it was started with economic empowerment in mind.

Mr Blue, who was in Singapore last month as part of a whirlwind Asian tour that included Beijing and Bangalore, recounted his first meeting in 1997 with co-founder Reid Hoffman, who had been introduced to him by a mutual friend.

He said they talked for four hours, fixated on the question of "if you were going to try to make the world a better place, how would you do it?"

The answer was to help people scale the economic ladder by helping them get access to jobs.

"We both agreed that the best possible way was to make an economic difference for people. If you could help make people richer, more capable of paying their bills, sending their kids to college, that'd be the best way to make the world a better place," said Mr Blue.

"The easiest lever to pull on... is the economic lever. Political levers are hard and there are always people against certain political changes. Economic development benefits everyone."

The co-founders are well on their way to the goal of economic empowerment, given that LinkedIn can lay claim to revolutionising the way people hunt for jobs and how companies recruit staff.

The company has the world's largest online professional network today, with more than 433 million members in over 200 countries and territories. There are more than six million jobs advertised on LinkedIn.

According to a survey by recruiting software company Jobvite, 87 per cent of recruiters in the United States used LinkedIn as a recruiting tool.

Little wonder then that the company attracted the attention of tech titan Microsoft, which recently acquired the firm for US$26.2 billion (S$35.2 billion) in one of tech's biggest deals.

There have been mixed reactions to the blockbuster deal, with some analysts seeing complementary strengths while others criticised what they perceived as an inflated purchase price and LinkedIn's slower user growth.

The Straits Times asked Mr Blue about the crash in the company's stock price in February this year. Its shares closed down 43.6 per cent on Feb 5, one day after its fourth- quarter results were announced.

The price fall caused several brokerages to downgrade the stock, citing its "lower growth profile". Mr Blue declined to talk about the stock price, but refuted claims about stalling growth.

He cited the potential of a chain of new products: its e-learning platform Lynda; Elevate, an employee engagement application; and Lookup, a communications product.

"We are seeing substantial growth this year in how people are using our products to connect with each other. Our mobile app has vastly accelerated the way people are messaging each other. We are seeing growth everywhere right now."

The company makes its money mainly from three revenue streams: marketing solutions, premium subscriptions and talent solutions, which makes up the lion's share. Revenue for the first quarter this year increased 35 per cent compared with last year, coming in at US$861 million.

But it has not always been smooth sailing for one of the world's most successful start-ups. The first few years in scaling up were the most challenging years, said Mr Blue.

In its early days, LinkedIn was across the hall from Friendster, then the hottest social networking website. He said LinkedIn did not experience the same kind of growth initially as Friendster.

"We were a little jealous, but we knew we were building a different kind of thing. That difference has been very valuable to us, it's what makes us different from social networks like WeChat and Facebook."

Mr Blue said Asia will be one of the main drivers of growth.

Asia makes up roughly a quarter of LinkedIn's total user base, growing to 92 million in the first quarter of this year, more than double the number three years ago.

Singapore is the Asia-Pacific headquarters and the location of the company's first data centre outside the US. There are approximately a million LinkedIn users here.

Mr Blue said the firm has started on market-specific development in Asia. "In China we have a team on the ground working on a Chinese professional network, Chitu, which is being developed by Chinese entrepreneurs but connected to LinkedIn."

LinkedIn is also making a big push to increase its membership base among students and young professionals.

Mr Blue added that the company has its eye on India's young workers: "In India... we worked on a project called placements for these young professionals, also known as freshers, and it's a way of us interacting with professionals at the beginning of their careers, to help them find recruiters and companies they want to work for."

Mr Blue has two tips for Singaporean companies facing a labour shortage."If you're a small business, don't just search, search and reach out to people connected with your workforce... People want to work with great people, and those are frequently people they know.

"The second reason why people choose to work at certain companies is that they believe in what your company does.

"That's a reason to use LinkedIn company pages to talk about what your company does, and what missions people will be on when they work for your company. Those components of your culture are key to hiring."

This article was first published on Jul 04, 2016.
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