A short while ago my good friend Reid Hoffman asked me to participate in a promotion he was doing for LinkedIn in Germany. The idea was simple -- the 5 individuals in Germany who create the largest LinkedIn networks over a specific period of time will be flown to the Bay Area and given the opportunity to meet with 5 individuals of their choosing out of a list of Silicon Valley schmoozers. The promotion has launched (details translated from German here on Oliver Thylmann's blog) and here is the list of folks from whom the winners may choose:
1. Chad Hurley, Co-Founder YouTube (77)
2. Jimmy Wales, Founder Wikipedia (51)
3. Michael Moritz, Partner Sequoia (23)
4. Caterina Fake, Co-Founder Flickr (171)
5. Peter Thiel, Co-Founder PayPal (100)
6. Dave Sifry, Co-Founder Technorati (237)
7. Gil Penchina, VP International eBay (500+)
8. Kevin Rose, Founder Digg (65)
9. Peter Fenton, Partner Benchmark (58)
10. David Hornik, Partner August Capital (377)
11. Ross Mayfield, Co-Founder SocialText (280)
12. Om Malik, Founder GigaOM (116)
13. Andrew Anker, CEO HotWired (379)
14. Dan Gillmor, Founder Citizen Media (156)
15. Reid Hoffman, CEO and Chairman LinkedIn (500+)
I love the fact that LinkedIn listed the number of connections each of us has on their service. Talk about getting the competitive juices flowing. When I saw that Andrew Anker had two more connections than I did, I immediately ran to LinkedIn and accept three more invitations to connect. Take that Andrew. Now I have 380 connections. I still have a ways to go yet to catch up with Reid and Gil. But beating Andrew is satisfying in and of itself.
Actually, as I looked at the list, I had that same sinking feeling I used to get at recess when we were picking kick ball teams ("Pick me! Pick me!"). Reid has assembled a great group of people. Luckily, because of the way the promotion is structured, we'll never know who would have been picked last. We will, however, know who is in the top third and who isn't. But I have a way to solve that problem -- why don't we have a dinner and have all 15 of us meet with the German contest winners. That way they don't have to choose, I don't have to feel unloved, and I get to hang out with all the great folks on the list (and pretend that I would have been picked anyway).
I suppose at this point a mea culpa is due. I remember talking with Reid back when he started LinkedIn and I was a skeptic. Not about Reid's ability to build a great product but about the overarching value of a business network. I wasn't sure if people would stay engaged. Nor was I sure how valuable facilitating those relationships would be in the long run. I was wrong. It is undeniable that the value of LinkedIn is huge across a whole bunch of constituencies.
For entrepreneurs, LinkedIn is invaluable because it magnifies the business contacts you've made. I often talk with entrepreneurs who are just getting started with their businesses and they ask me, in essence, what to do first. My answer is always the same. Network, network, network. It is important to have a great idea or to build a great product. But it is really difficult to make progress in hiring, PR, financing, sales, etc. without the right set of relationships. So I advise first time entrepreneurs to go out a meet lots of people and try to get them excited about their project. If people are excited about what you are doing, they'll help you out. For example. VCs meet with entrepreneurs because they are introduced by people we trust. So the more people you have to make introductions, the better off you are. LinkedIn not only facilitates those introductions but it amplifies them. Suddenly, not only do you have your own relationships to draw upon, but also the relationships of those contacts. As a result, your network grows exponentially.
As a VC, I have also found LinkedIn quite helpful. While VCs try hard, its just not possible to actually know everyone and know everything. Some of us are better at it than others (or at least a better job of pretending). I fail miserably on both fronts. But if you know the right people who know the right things, you can get away with falling short. I certainly rely upon my friends and the friends of my friends (and sometimes, but pretty rarely, the friends of the friends of my friends) to help me evaluate both entrepreneurs and technology. LinkedIn has grown so large that I can almost always find an expert on a particular technology or someone who's worked with an entrepreneur in the past, both of which are invaluable in the amorphous process that VCs call "due diligence."
So if you are reading this in Germany, now's the time to start connnecting with all your associates on LinkedIn. Not only because you might get the chance to meet some interesting people out here in Silicon Valley. But because LinkedIn is a powerful business tool. And, should you be one of the lucky five who is flown to the Bay Area, Aussuchen Mich! Choose me!