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 Socialnet. Within a few months of eBay’s acquisition of PayPal in late 2002, he assembled the initial team of employees and backers at LinkedIn, including two former colleagues from Socialnet, one former colleague from Fujitsu, and two investors from the now-famous “PayPal Mafia,” Peter Thiel and Keith Rabois. In fact, there’s a handy chart of PayPal alumni on page 159; by staying connected and investing in one another’s ventures, this group has generated an enormous wave of innovation at Web 2.0-era leaders like 500 Startups, Kiva.org, Slide, Square, Sequoia Capital, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, Yammer, Yelp, and YouTube. “Start your own mafia,” Hoffman advises. “When you are the creator and central node of a group, it’s like having a courtside seat at a basketball game: you won’t miss a thing.”

The longest section of the book, by far, is the chapter on networking and relationships. This is where Hoffman really geeks out about Dunbar’s Number, Stanley Milgram, the sociology of “weak ties” (those with people you don’t know all that well, but who nonetheless can end up referring you to the best job opportunities), and why you can exploit your third-degree connections on LinkedIn but not your fourth-degree connections. (For an introduction to go well, everyone in a chain needs to know someone at the beginning or the end of the chain.) To optimize the chances of coming across great career opportunities, Hoffman writes, you need to cultivate deep relationships with a small group of trusted peers, and at the same time maintain more casual information-sharing relationships with a broad network of acquaintances. The weak ties are important because your closest friends, by definition, travel in the same circles with you—it’s only people outside those circles who will be able to alert you to the out-of-left-field opportunities. “The best professional network is both narrow/deep (strong connections) and wide/shallow (bridge ties),” Hoffman says.

Reid Hoffman

Again, Hoffman is a walking demonstration of the principles he’s espousing. On the strong-connection side, I’ll bet you didn’t know that Hoffman was a college friend of Peter Thiel (that’s how he ended up at PayPal after Socialnet), or that it was Hoffman who referred Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker to Thiel for Facebook’s first big financing. On the weak side, Hoffman reveals in the book that he gets about 50 investment pitches a day from entrepreneurs, but only pays attention to the ones that come by way of his extended network. “I have never funded a company directly from a cold solicitation and my guess is I never will,” he writes.

There you have it: If you want Greylock (where Hoffman is a partner) to invest in your company, you’d better find someone who’s a friend of a friend of Hoffman on LinkedIn. Of course, the book is full of other pieces of valuable advice. Here’s one that I like so much that I’ve already implemented it: “Schedule three lunch dates to take place in upcoming weeks: one with a person a few rungs ahead of you in your industry; one with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while; and one with a person from an adjacent industry whose career you admire. Do this even if you aren’t currently facing a pressing career question or challenge.”

Hoffman’s point is that serendipity isn’t totally serendipitous—you need to make room for it. Or as author Steven Johnson puts it: “Chance favors the connected mind.” Don’t read The Start-up of You if you’re just looking for tips on how to be “the CEO of your life”—that analogy is a little forced and a little creepy, as Hoffman seems to realize after a chapter or two. Do read it if you’re looking for ways to to reenergize your own connections.

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

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