Most Innovative Companies: LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman on Network Intelligence

In this exclusive interview for our Most Innovative Companies series, Reid Hoffman talks about college students, the different types of networks, and the future of LinkedIn.

Reid Hoffman of LinkedInAnya Kamenetz: We're looking at a graph of your personal social network, with clusters from various jobs, investments you've made, companies where you're on the board--what are we seeing and why does it matter to you?

Reid Hoffman: I think about networks in three angles: outbound, inbound, and the atmosphere around you.

Outbound, when I go, all right, I need to learn more about this new kind of open source pattern, or what's going on with media online, or what are interesting new marketplaces or startup entrepreneurs or productivity software--when you need expertise, knowledge, or access to resources. How do you know who are the right people to reach, and how do you reach out to them, and get introduced through your network?

So 30 minutes ago I was meeting with Martin Luther King III. I got on my computer and searched my 2400 contacts for experts in social media with nonprofit experience, who'd be willing to work with the Martin Luther King Center.

Inbound, the network helps you distinguish signal from noise. The reason I invested in Flickr was an entrepreneur didn't just walk up to me cold when I was giving a speech. He reached out and got a referral first. So unlike my normal, "Hey, love to talk to you but I gotta go," I'm, like, well wait for me and we'll go grab a cup of coffee.

Or take yourself as a journalist: which ideas, sources, leads do you pay attention to? They come in to you through information and referral.

Inbound is also about establishing a brand or presence, making yourself findable. I know that people find me on LinkedIn for example, not just because of LinkedIn, but because I'm on the board of Zynga. Part of being intelligent is presenting your brand. There are millions of people out there and you don't know what they're looking for.

And what about "atmospheric"?

What you do atmospherically--say you're vetting an idea. I have an idea about a new pattern of venture capital. I start pinging people in my network, getting network intelligence and referrals. As I get the feedback from people I begin to re-hone the idea, to get it to something crisp and useful. This is part of how I think entrepreneurs navigate the compressed time frames and uncertainties--they have to get very good at this. You begin trying to do the sonar pulse. And the pings you get back are useful pieces of information.

Are you developing LinkedIn features to take advantage of these uses of the network?

We have a Groups feature that I use, where you can have various conversations in threads. Various universities have alumni groups. There are groups of small business owners looking to learn more about guerrilla marking and advertising. And we have a product called Answers. You throw a question up into the network and as you begin to collect answers you see how each answerer is related to you on your network. So you can say: This person looks like they know what they're talking about, let me follow up with them.

Your network as a CEO and VC is presumably exceptionally valuable. But what's the value of LinkedIn to a 21-year-old undergrad?

One of the challenges in networking is everybody thinks it’s making cold calls to strangers. Actually, it's the people who already have strong trust relationships with you, who know you're dedicated, smart, a team player, who can help you. Even college students have professors, family friends, alumni of their college. Your network is the people who want to help you, and you want to help them, and that's really powerful.

What's happened is that since most of your college kids have been in very structured environments, they don't realize that what's really essential is the network. They're like, oh, my friends, they don't know anybody. The actual answer is they might.

Read more about LinkedIn or the rest of the Most Innovative Companies, 2011.

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