In 2013, I documented a major milestone: LinkedIn’s 10-year anniversary. At the time, I wrote that the company has achieved a status most startups dream about, becoming a key player in bringing our professional lives online. Indeed, after two decades, LinkedIn has moved beyond being analogous to being the MySpace or Facebook of our professional lives. It’s now an integral part of our economic growth.
With LinkedIn marking another significant achievement, the question now is what lies ahead for the platform and how will it shape its third era. Indications of things to come, such as the integration of creators and artificial intelligence, are already becoming apparent. Can the platform adapt to another shift in the workplace?
Let’s dive into the two major chapters in the company’s history and what awaits it as it starts a new one.
The First Era of LinkedIn: Not Another Facebook
Life was different 20 years ago and the internet was fawning over early social networking entrants. It would be another year before Facebook launched and dominated the personal landscape.
Those interested in professional networking found what they desired in LinkedIn, which reached 1 million users in its first year and 100 million users by its seventh year. Currently, 930 million professionals actively use the platform, and it is expected to eventually reach the same milestone as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, with over 1 billion users.
When LinkedIn was launched, it competed against Monster.com, CareerBuilder, and HotJobs, with a primary emphasis on resumes. Members could search for job listings and connect with friends and strangers, creating virtual networks while maintaining a professional outlook.
As LinkedIn expanded, it introduced additional social features such as news feeds, messaging, and groups. However, it resisted the idea of becoming similar to MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks. While it was developed during the Web 2.0 era, many members strongly opposed any attempts to make LinkedIn resemble its competitors.
A Presidential Endorsement
In 2011, LinkedIn garnered significant attention when it partnered with the White House to hold a town hall-style meeting, which was facilitated by former President Barack Obama. The collaboration took place during the Great Recession and underscored the importance of LinkedIn in assisting individuals in finding employment. This partnership was particularly significant as it highlighted the company’s role in helping people get back to work.
The Obama town hall provided validation for LinkedIn’s Economic Graph, a term first coined by the company’s former Chief Executive Jeff Weiner. The idea is to identify trends in the global economy using data from the platform’s members, companies and schools.
Over time, LinkedIn became a benchmark people used to understand the state of the economy. The company might have taken a victory lap, but what will it do for its next act to remain relevant? Though far surpassing its peers in its first 10 years, new entrants threatened its core offering: job searching.
The Second Era: A More Connected Rolodex
LinkedIn strengthened its ability to facilitate effective networking between its members by acquiring numerous startups, including CardMunch, Connected, Rapportive, Slideshare, and Pulse. It evolved from being merely a resume builder to a personal contact relationship management platform. However, despite its best efforts, few of these features caught on with LinkedIn’s users and were eventually discontinued, retired, or sold off.
At some point, LinkedIn outpaced job search incumbents such as Monster.com, CareerBuilder, and HotJobs. The company had become the proverbial elephant in the room and was now facing competition from new and old rivals who believed the tech giant had lost its edge in connecting people with available job opportunities.
The rise of Glassdoor, ZipRecruiter, SimplyHired, Hired and the resurgence of Indeed illustrates LinkedIn has yet to capture all the market share, and the company needs to be more than a one-trick pony.
The next decade of LinkedIn’s development focused on professional growth, with a concentration on tools and services designed to aid members in learning and connecting with others. One of the platform’s most significant endeavors was the acquisition of Lynda.com, an e-learning company, for $1.5 billion. LinkedIn Learning emerged as one of the company’s most successful integrations, resulting in the retirement of the Lynda.com name.
LinkedIn Learning allowed users to hone their professional skills while also earning credentials to help boost the likelihood of landing future opportunities — all part of the company’s Economic Graph.
In addition, LinkedIn Learning serves as an effective honeypot. During prosperous times, it may experience moderate usage. However, during less favorable circumstances, members are likely to flock to the platform to improve their skills or acquire new ones. LinkedIn has been able to retain people’s attention instead of pushing them to offerings from Coursera, PluralSight, Udemy and edX.
Launching an e-learning program also created ripple effects throughout the tech industry, spurring copycats from Salesforce, Adobe, HubSpot, and others.
LinkedIn Sells to Microsoft
Beyond the bells and whistles continuously added to LinkedIn, the company’s future greatly changed in 2016 when it was acquired by Microsoft for $26 billion. Was this the end of the professional social network? Would it eventually be sunset because its new parent was unable to figure out how to integrate the platform?
Turns out, LinkedIn fans didn’t need to worry since it’s been left largely alone. Five years after the deal, the company surpassed $10 billion in annual revenue. And in its most recent quarterly earnings, Microsoft reported revenue generated from LinkedIn increased 10 percent year-over-year.
Though my analysis of the acquisition may have been slightly off, the transaction was more around the Economic Graph. LinkedIn’s peers are largely consumer in nature, but like Microsoft, LinkedIn targets the professional/workforce setting and this tie-up affords many opportunities for collaboration.
Embracing the Professional (Creator)
In addition to continuing education, LinkedIn introduced features designed to prompt members to maintain contact with their network. While posting updates to the News Feed had been an available option for some time, the company aimed to offer additional choices beyond text-based entries.
LinkedIn has been embracing creator tools in recent years, including livestreaming — both video and audio — blogging, newsletters and other capabilities. It even experimented with producing original content like a TV network.
In 2022, I spoke with two LinkedIn executives who were leading the company’s creator push. They shared insights on why the platform is essential and how it is eager to tell stories about the “world of work.”
LinkedIn’s move towards developing creator tools could be seen as a response to actions taken by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit. However, it’s also true that LinkedIn wanted to keep pace with competitors and provide members with a way to demonstrate their expertise and distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded arena.
The Third Era: A Remote Workforce and Tackling AI
LinkedIn has now entered unexplored territory as it has become the first Web 2.0 company to surpass two decades, and it appears not to have aged at all. But in its third chapter, it will need to contend with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing debate over whether workers should return to their offices or if companies should embrace remote work, and the potential threat of artificial intelligence.
The workforce is in peril with many employees being laid off due to economic circumstances. It’s a scenario LinkedIn’s familiar with — remember the Obama town hall? Is the company prepared to weather this storm and help put people back to work?
But where would these employees work from? In an office? At home permanently? Or a hybrid of the two? This is something professionals ponder about, especially after remote work became popular at the height of the pandemic. It will be worth watching to see what LinkedIn does to improve networking opportunities for those who don’t regularly go into an office. Additionally, as job searching becomes more complex, can the platform scale to meet the needs of those seeking new opportunities?
Finally, how will AI influence the way we network, and how does the workforce adapt to this technological marvel? LinkedIn already uses AI to help members craft messages to hiring managers, optimize profiles, and develop collaborative articles. But even with the good the technology affords, one must wonder what’ll happen when AI replaces a large segment of workers. It won’t be the equivalent of a temporary recession and already many industries are concerned about the impact of deploying AI.
Hopefully, LinkedIn is exploring these trends closely and developing solutions that to mitigate the consequences. After all, these will greatly affect the state of the company’s Economic Graph and even society. Does LinkedIn have what it takes to make it another decade?