A lot of that is the fault of publications like TechCrunch: We get excited about new things. If it’s exploding like Groupon, all the better. But we even go nuts over things like Foursquare or Quora that have pretty muted user-bases. That’s what being evangelists and early adopters is all about. We tend not to write about all the apps that launch and go nowhere, with good reason: If we’re doing our job well, we probably thought they sucked to begin with.
But the bigger disservice we do is not writing enough about the boring companies who work every day to build something that becomes huge, giving the impression that starting a business is easy in the Valley. That somehow people wake up with an idea, and roll out of bed onto a pile of venture capital, press and adoration. A lot of times the companies we should be writing about more than we do are admittedly boring infrastructure or enterprise software names. But there’s a category of consumer names that should be sexy, but for whatever reason don’t get the hype.
I’ve always thought of Yelp in this category. Local plays like Foursquare and Groupon have always gotten more attention. Another one is Pandora. Spotify has gotten far more attention, despite Pandora pulling off what almost no other music startup has– surviving the full-barrel onslaught of the record labels. But the king of them all for the Web 2.0 crowd is LinkedIn.
You could understand if LinkedIn was just paling next to Facebook. I mean, who doesn’t? Facebook is one of those once-a-decade phenomenons. But LinkedIn started out as the less-sexy social network next to Friendster. And then it graduated to the also-ran next to MySpace. It has officially trounced both now that its IPO has priced at $45 a share, or $4 billion-plus valuation– the highest valuation for an Internet company debut since Google.
More than ten years ago, Reid Hoffman– LinkedIn’s founder– was one of the first people to believe in the comeback of the consumer Internet, investing in a host of startups, but putting the bulk of his money, personal brand, time and firepower behind LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is one of the only social networks that survived from the first social media frenzy. That’s quite an accomplishment when you think about it. Hoffman wasn’t exactly up against entrepreneurial slouches. All the big Valley venture capital guns were behind Friendster. Mark centerfold-of-Vanity-Fair-this-month Pincus was behind Tribe. And Sean You-Know-What’s-Cool? Parker was behind Plaxo.
One of the reasons LinkedIn outlasted that early generation of social networks was that it was boring and practical. In the early days of social networking, the only reason anyone could think to use these sites was for dating. But Hoffman knew that would always be a customer acquisition headache: Either a dating site solves your problem and you stop using it, or it doesn’t and you stop using it. LinkedIn on the other hand would be this thing in the background you would need your entire career.
You could argue the flaw with LinkedIn was the rational strategy that saved it worked too well. For many people, it became an indispensable tool for certain moments of professional panic, but not something you used daily or even monthly. I’ve always compared it to a AAA card, a comparison that visibly annoys Hoffman and usually results in suggestions of other ways I should be using it. But back in 2007, even he admitted the site’s biggest flaw was they weren’t giving people enough to do.
When the Web 2.0 craze took off in 2006 or so, Hoffman’s star soared, but shockingly it wasn’t really because of LinkedIn. It was his angel portfolio that got the bulk of media attention. That includes out-performers like Facebook, but also stars that shined bright and burned out like Digg and Six Apart. Ever the gracious interviewee, Hoffman would answer questions about the sexier companies, but always be sure to work in a LinkedIn plug. A favorite was regularly betting me an expensive dinner at the restaurant of my choice if LinkedIn couldn’t help me do a certain aspect of my job as a reporter better.
Hoffman wasn’t in his early twenties or a college dropout, and he’d be the first to admit he wasn’t a natural CEO. He’s said in previous interviews that he has a hard time firing people quickly enough– a skill that Mark Zuckerberg has excelled at. He’s left the CEO chair several times, only to come back when other candidates haven’t worked out. But even though he could easily throw out that old cop-out of “I’m just the guy who starts stuff; I’m not the CEO type” and wash his hands of the company, Hoffman cared about LinkedIn too much to ever be very far even when insanely sexier jobs were his for the taking. Even now in his role at Greylock, he spends the bulk of his time working on LinkedIn.
And yet, given all this, it’s LinkedIn that is the first social network to go public, the first multi-billion Web 2.0 IPO. It’s more than double the exit of sexy YouTube. And, in a rare case of startup justice, his day-in, day-out work building the social network no one ever wanted to get excited about has paid him handsomely: Netting him a boost of nearly $1 billion to his net worth. Few entrepreneurs who’ve spent a decade building a company get that kind of personal return, because few personally invest so much of their own cash along the journey.
Hoffman can’t comment on any of this of course. I haven’t talked to him in weeks. These are all my observations after ten years of interviewing him about LinkedIn, watching him shake his head at the unfairness of the hype cycle and keep slogging away at building LinkedIn regardless. Hoffman should be the role model for entrepreneurs star-struck by the seeming glamour and ease of Silicon Valley’s consumer Internet world. He’s the living incarnation of the reality of the Valley: It may be easier than ever to start a product, but building a company is just as hard as its ever been.
As for the brain-dead commentators wondering if LinkedIn’s IPO represents a bubble, somewhere Hoffman has to be laughing and shaking his head again. What part of spending a decade of building a business with more than 100 million users that no one hyped, that represents one of the few large-scale working examples of a freemium business model screams “BUBBLE” to you people? These are the same people that said Google was wildly overvalued when it priced at under $100 a share.
As most people with common sense have argued, we’re not in an Internet bubble now, because the soaring valuations are mostly contained within the frothy insider ecosystem. Secondary markets are starting to change that, but so far, there are exactly two $1 billion + Web 2.0 exits that I can count: YouTube and LinkedIn. Maybe you count a few more. It depends on your definition of “Web 2.0.” I count it as the wave of consumer Web social media companies started with the Friendster explosion. Some could count Skype (twice,) but I’d argue Skype is more of a sandwich generation company. But even if your definition is more generous, I bet you can count them on one hand. Five or fewer isn’t a bubble.
There’s exactly one aspect of Silicon Valley right now that I will concede does feel like 1999: It’s easy to start a company. Stupidly easy. And entrepreneurs like Hoffman are the antithesis of that archetype not a symptom of it.