Reid Hoffman was one of the first people to have the idea that the internet could be used to connect large numbers of like-minded people together, founding a short-lived social platform called SocialNet in 1997.
After an executive stint at online payments innovator PayPal, Hoffman turned that insight into LinkedIn, which launched in 2002 and has since become the default online venue for job hunting and making professional connections, fetching a price tag of $26.2 billion when it was bought by Microsoft this June.
Hoffman is still the chairman of LinkedIn, and has also become one of the most prolific investors in Silicon Valley, with early bets on big winners like Facebook and Airbnb. He runs an early-stage startup fund for Greylock, a top Silicon Valley VC, serves on the boards of a number of nonprofits like Do Something, and he’s recently been teaching a course at Stanford, “Blitzscaling,” that shows startups how to grow fast.
Hoffman is featured in our inaugural edition of the BI 100: The Creators, which celebrates business leaders who create many types of value in society. We interviewed him via email prior to the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal to learn more about his view of entrepreneurship, capitalism, and the future:
Matt Rosoff: I’ve seen you quoted as saying you wanted to make a big impact on the world. Explain what that meant to you when you graduated from Stanford, and how your position evolved to encompass entrepreneurship.
Reid Hoffman: As a child, I wondered often: “Why are we? What is the meaning of life?” These questions made me realise that life is what has meaning — not just individual lives, but all of our lives. Coming out of Stanford, I hoped to contribute to these questions as an academic and a public intellectual: to write essays and books about who we are and who we should be, both as individuals and a society. Then, at Oxford, I realised that being an academic conflicted with being a public intellectual: writing books on scholarship for dozens of people vs. writing books for society.
On reflection, I realised that I could focus on software instead of books, business instead of the academy, and products informed by theories instead of just theories. With the change of focus, I could move from writing scholarship that dozens might read, to books that thousands might read, to software that millions to billions might use. Thus, I could help enable better meaning of life for many people at scale.
PayPal was disruptive, it was democratizing, and it had universal appeal.
Rosoff: PayPal was outsized in its later influence in Silicon Valley — it spawned a lot of great entrepreneurs and operators. Why? What was special about it?
Hoffman: Even by Silicon Valley standards, PayPal’s vision was massively ambitious. We described PayPal on our company t-shirts as “the global payment operating system.” We wanted to build a 21st century payments system that went beyond the credit cards, merchant terminals, and ATM infrastructure that the finance industry’s established players had built. We wanted to create a service that would let people exchange money as easily as the internet was letting them exchange information. PayPal was disruptive, it was democratizing, and it had universal appeal. It gave power to millions and millions of individuals and reduced monopolist control from nations, banks, and other huge corporations. Our experience with PayPal showed us how to think big and how to keep massive ambition for impact. As the PayPal experience was very fast — about four years — we all graduated with experience, resources, ambition, and youth. Thus, a number of us went on to create Yelp, YouTube, Yammer, and LinkedIn.
Rosoff: What did you personally learn at PayPal about impact that you’ve been able to carry forward?
Hoffman: At PayPal, we had a window of opportunity — to scale up a new digital payments system on a global level before huge companies with far more resources and experience in the payments industry truly understood what was possible. So we learned to move boldly, decisively, and fast. At PayPal, we helped pioneer the idea that growth is the foundation for an internet company. The faster we got to scale, the stronger we created network effects, the more enduring business that we created.
Another thing few people realise is that PayPal centrally depended on the power of networks. By 2001, we had a pretty big fraud problem, where international crime rings were using stolen credit card numbers to make payments to dummy accounts, and leaving us on the hook for these charges after withdrawing the money. But because all these transactions were happening on a single networked platform, we could map how all the different accounts were interacting with each other. So we were able to develop a fraud-monitoring system that identified the various patterns that were associated with fraud, and in time we got very good at preventing fraudulent transactions.
And that was a key personal lesson to learn: a network of identities, communications, and transactions can be a platform for a number of applications. In PayPal, we had payment but also identity and anti-fraud. When you build a platform that creates all kinds of relationships and enables a huge number of interactions of one kind or another, the data that it generates ends up creating all kinds of strategic advantages. You see that in many of our post-PayPal businesses: Linkedin, Youtube, Yelp, Affirm, etc.
Rosoff: You founded a social network, SocialNet, in the 1990s, well before Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster. Then again with LinkedIn. Why were you drawn to that kind of business? What’s interesting about it?
Hoffman: SocialNet emerged from those questions I mentioned earlier that have always compelled me. What is a meaningful life, and what kinds of social systems enable it?
Broadly, the meaning of life comes from how we interact with each other. The internet can reconfigure space, so that the right people are always next to each other. The internet was this new medium where anyone could be a publisher, so what did that mean? What kinds of information would people want to publish about themselves? Traditionally, publishers had often built communities of interest around specific topics. But that didn’t mean all the people who were subscribing to Golf Magazine could easily find each other. But the internet made that possible.
Broadly, the meaning of life comes from how we interact with each other.
The theory behind SocialNet was that the web wasn’t just a place where traditional publishers could distribute content more efficiently, or where readers would just have more opportunities to comment on stories that professional writers had written. The web was a place where millions and millions of people would create their own media identities, share information about themselves, and look for opportunities to connect with each other in ways that could truly enhance their lives. Socialnet also started with a particular set of key relationships in human life: dating, work, social, and living (roommates).
LinkedIn then focused on one deep aspect of life: work. Especially in its early days, a lot of people just thought of it as a place to post your resume when you were looking for a job. In reality, it was an identity platform for professionals, a place where you shared information about yourself so you could be found and find others, and thus develop connections and relationships that would enrich your professional life in all sorts of different ways. Your identity and network became the platform to amplify your professional life overall, to connect you with opportunity and success.
Rosoff: Does LinkedIn have a larger mission than providing shareholder returns? What is it? And how does a company balance the need to provide profits and shareholder returns with larger missions?
Hoffman: This question implies a tension between “a larger mission” and “shareholder returns.” I disagree; instead, I see a synergy. First and foremost, our mission is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce, by building the world’s best platform for sharing professional identity, finding job opportunities, learning more about specific companies and industries, and developing new skills. And because our larger mission has led to a product that brings hundreds of millions of users serious economic value, we’re able to monetise it in ways that generate strong returns for our shareholders as well. Mission reinforces shareholder return; business model reinforces mission.
Rosoff: How have you taken the lessons you learned at both PayPal and LinkedIn and applied them to your investment decisions?
Hoffman: Because of my experiences with PayPal and LinkedIn, I look for ideas that can solve a need for hundreds of millions of people. While achieving scale fast was also a priority for both these companies, there were also strong long-term visions informing them from the very start. At LinkedIn, for example, you couldn’t directly research companies or take online classes in the early years. But the founding vision of Linkedin did include these ideas and others not yet implemented. So I look for that too. Does the founder have both the bias to action that you need to get a product to market quickly, and also a persuasive vision for where the company and the market in general will be five years or even ten years out? Does success transform people’s lives and industries at scale?
Rosoff: One hundred years from now, will life be better for most people than it is today? How so? What could go wrong?
Hoffman: We’re still in the very early years of a massively transformative era, the beginning of what I call the Networked Age. The great news is that networks create compounding feedback loops that amplify the frequency, velocity, and reach of human communication and exchange. And that’s the bad news too. The Arab Spring and ISIS are both products of the Networked Age.
On the plus side, I believe that networks and the flows of capital, talent, and information they enable are going to make life more prosperous and more meaningful for billions of people. On the potential downside, we should ask what kinds of strain does that put on the planet and on society? As global standards of living rise because of increased interconnectivity, we’re going to need more energy, more food, more global cooperation. Can we manage it? I’m optimistic. If you look at long-term trends, we’re less violent than we were 100 years ago, more educated, and perhaps surprisingly, more tolerant of diversity.
Of course, we’re also going to be adding a lot of new elements into the mix, very quickly. Artificial Intelligence. Genome editing. If we think carefully about all the different pathways that are now emerging, I think we can ultimately navigate to a much better place. But the actual contours of that world are all but impossible to predict. If you think about how we went from the early web’s “coffee cams” and dancing-baby animations to Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, Bitcoin, and countless other unforeseen services and technologies in less than 20 years, it seems impossible to predict specifics for 2116. Comparing the last 100 years to the next 100, however, it seems nearly certain that we will make a number of inventions and changes that will be magic and radically new.