The Ideas That Won’t Beat LinkedIn (& Some Which Might)

How would someone compete with LinkedIn? At Homebrew we see a number of startups that are directly or indirectly competing with LinkedIn by trying to carve away part of their user base/functionality or driving towards a vision of the future faster than LNKD can. Our focus on the Bottom Up Economy means we’re very interested in marketplaces, platforms and products which empower individual professionals, so we’ve had the chance to engage with these founders over the past year.

Charles Hudson of SoftTech VC wrote recently about competing with LinkedIn – it’s a great post. I agree with Charles’ basic statement that you don’t compete by trying to unbundle their feature set. In general beating an incumbent in a network-effect business is difficult if you’re doing just a piece of their feature set (unless it’s an area the LargeCo has interpreted dramatically differently and incorrect). You also rarely win by taking them on in their battleground – ie who will be LinkedIn 2.0? Probably LinkedIn. You need to be your own 1.0 first or there’s no way I’m going to rebuild my professional graph somewhere else.

There are three types of startups in this area where I’ve had trouble getting religion:

  • “LinkedIn for Mobile” -> yes, mobile and tablets are areas that LinkedIn still struggles on user experience but the pitches often rely upon mostly cosmetic or gesture-based interaction reinventions, not insights which might fundamentally make use of the sensors, ubiquity and other unique properties of these devices.
  • “LinkedIn for (vertical X)” -> turns out there are competitors that have backed into variations of this – I’m thinking Behance/Dribble in the design space – but if you start out mimicking LinkedIn you lose.
  • “LinkedIn with Prettier UI” -> people understand LinkedIn and recruiters have built out their workflows. Pretty doesn’t matter as much. As has suggested, their goal is to be a different identity system, not just LinkedIn with a hero image.

That said, what are the areas of professional network/identity which interest me and where I think LinkedIn could be more vulnerable to competition?

  • IMDB for Projects: LinkedIn doesn’t do well when presenting non-linear, non-corporate work histories. The realities of work for many people these days is overlapping jobs and project collaborations instead of single employers. It also lacks the ability to structure what your contribution was to a larger effort. For example, creating the “credits” for a popular mobile app. If I’m a UX designer, what I really want to show you is my project role across the apps I’ve worked on, not necessarily lead with “Senior Designers – Disney Interactive.” That’s old way of thinking and it would take LinkedIn a while to move to this new thinking, if they ever could.
  • Verified Info (vs Self-Declared): LinkedIn is 100% self-declared resume by candidates. Hold aside the skill endorsements, which still feels broken to me – for at least high end candidates I totally ignore them. Everything else is me talking about myself. But yet there’s much more quantitative and verifiable data out there now. There are startups helping recruiters pull Github scores and other proxies for professional accomplishment or reputation. Tension exists in this area – I want to maintain ownership of my resume so as to present the best look possible but a new LinkedIn-like professional people search service emerge that mixes self-declared data with verified info? Or goes the full verified route but is important enough to companies and recruiters that it becomes where they look first to source candidates?
  • Private & Public: One of the hardest product attributes to change in motion is public vs private data. Just ask Facebook. LinkedIn, now 10+ years old, functions in a largely public space. Would there be a new way of thinking about how data is revealed selectively based on permissions, relationships, etc that LinkedIn would find difficult to fast follow but which would appeal to candidates and employers alike?
  • Transactional: I’ve been pitched a number of different “LinkedIn + 99Designs/oDesk” projects. Entrepreneurs who believe the way to build the next high quality professional network is to make people hirable directly from their portfolio/resume. That workers will want to maintain a high quality score, actively engage/message through this platform about work and ultimately book jobs through it. Most of the approaches here I’ve seen aren’t convincing enough for us to invest but I’m not ruling it out. Seems like a different space than LinkedIn has focused on and I can imagine internal tension if they tried to shift from current business model to one that’s more transaction based (always good to attack an incumbents business model, not just feature set).

Anyway, Charles’ post got me thinking especially with regards to the LinkedIn API, which seems today to be giving away more than it gets them. Homebrew’s interested in entrepreneurs thinking about these opportunities or commenters who want to go deeper on discussing whether LinkedIn is assailable in the near future.

(disclosure: I’m in the LinkedIn Influencer program so I blog via their site often, including likely this blog post #ironic)

2 thoughts on “The Ideas That Won’t Beat LinkedIn (& Some Which Might)

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