LinkedIn: The Missing Manual Worth Reading

I picked up The Start-up of You, the new book published this week by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and journalist-entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, with some trepidation. I feared that the title was intended literally—that this would be one of those dreary business books that spends seven chapters twisting reality to fit its gimmicky metaphor. (I’ve got at least four recent books on my shelf, for example, arguing that business is just a big game.)

By page 8 or so, it was starting to look like my fears were justified. “If you want to seize the new opportunities and meet the challenges of today’s fractured career landscape, you need to think and act like you’re running a start-up: your career,” writes Hoffman. (The book is written in his voice, so I’m just going to say “Hoffman” throughout this review—no disrespect to Casnocha intended.) Hoffman argues that today’s ambitious professionals confront the same kinds of challenges that start-ups do: limited resources, limited time, fierce competition, changing markets. Naturally, then, people working to advance their careers should adopt the same strategies used by today’s most successful startups, such as finding a niche where they can be competitive, collecting lots of business intelligence, adapting to market demands on the fly, leaning heavily on professional relationships, and taking managed risks.

That’s reasonable enough advice, but I don’t think I could have stomached 230 pages of it. A person is manifestly not a startup. And thank goodness for that—imagine building a PowerPoint deck to pitch your parents on why they should pay for your college education, or pushing a new release of your resumé to the production server every six hours, or selling yourself to a corporate acquirer and watching your investors collect 70 percent of your signing bonus.

Fortunately, Hoffman lays the startup metaphor aside fairly early. Once this is out of the way, the book’s true nature emerges. At bottom, The Start-up of You is something much more practical than a manual for making your life ramen-profitable. It’s a guide to the mindset you need to adopt if you want to make successful use of LinkedIn—the professional networking company with more than 100 million members that went public on the NASDAQ exchange last year, making Hoffman a billionaire.

Out of all of LinkedIn’s millions of users, I’ll bet very few understand the social-networking theory that underpins the company’s technology, or how to apply that theory to get the most out of the networks they build on the site. Hoffman is, beyond a doubt, the world’s leading expert on those questions. And while the book isn’t strictly about LinkedIn, Hoffman mentions the company roughly once every five pages. Which isn’t too surprising, I guess, given that there’s a big LinkedIn logo right on the dust jacket. The book really should have been called LinkedIn: The Missing Manual (although O’Reilly Media, the ubiquitous tech publishing house, probably has a trademark on the phrase).

I don’t mean that in a snarky way; I think LinkedIn is an incredibly useful site. I was the 9,743rd person to sign up for the service, back in 2003, and it’s been amazing to watch it evolve into the default location for everyone’s professional resumés and recommendations (which also makes it a paradise for journalists doing background checks on sources). Because of all the sharing that goes on through the site, it’s also a great source of news and ideas: it’s like Facebook without the FarmVille requests and the drunken frat party photos. But it takes some thought and effort to find your way through all of LinkedIn’s features, and to really understand the power of your first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree connections. Set aside a few hours to read The Start-up of You, and you’re guaranteed to come out with some new ideas for using the site.

One of the most interesting stories in the book is about the way Hoffman tapped his own formidable professional network to get LinkedIn off the ground. He’d joined PayPal as executive vice president in 2000 after the failure of his first startup, a dating site called … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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