I read a fascinating blog post yesterday by  venture capitalist Hunter Walk musing how (or indeed if) there might be some way to compete with LinkedIn. In addition to Walk’s insights, the post attracted a number of comments from other venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Apparently, taking on LinkedIn is a growing topic of discussion, at least in Silicon Valley.

The post discusses a number of different approaches:

·        Vertical Markets – could one create a better version of LinkedIn for specific vertical markets? The post doesn’t dismiss this as a potentially viable approach, but does correctly note that simply imitating LinkedIn isn’t likely to work.

·        Project Focus – LinkedIn is designed around the traditional resume and with that comes the expectation of fixed employment at specific companies for fixed periods of time. There are some who are speculating that the growing “gig economy” is creating a need for individuals to showcase what they’ve worked on as opposed to where they have worked. I would argue that Houzz, the wildly successful site for architects and designers to display their projects, is in effect a vertical and project-focused version of LinkedIn, optimized for a specific market and its way of doing business.

·        Data Verification – All the information on LinkedIn is user generated. That used to be considered a feature; now some are suggesting it’s a bug. My question here is how many people want/need verified data badly enough to justify ripping up the existing LinkedIn model?

·        Public and Private Data Control. There are some who suggest that there is room for a LinkedIn competitor that gives users more control over who sees their personal details, presumably at a fairly granular level. This is an interesting concept, but how much more personal information would people put online if they had more control? This new service would quickly start to bleed into Twitter and Facebook. That might sound like a big opportunity, but to me it sounds like a big mess, raising issues about separation of one’s business and personal life that I don’t think anyone has figured out yet.

·        Transactional. I’m a huge fan of B2B marketplaces, but the notion of essentially putting a “buy” button on people’s resumes strikes me as a limited opportunity. There are a very limited number of jobs where the work is project-based and people are hired strictly based on their skillsets. In addition, I think if you opt for this model, you necessarily have to fold in the data verification model as well because trust becomes paramount.

These are all interesting concepts, but they all come with issues. The biggest opportunity (and exposure) for LinkedIn is that it exists outside of workflow. If your job doesn’t involve hiring people, you likely don’t interact with LinkedIn too frequently. But what I’ve realized over time is that LinkedIn has become my Rolodex. If this is true for lots of other people (and I suspect it is), then LinkedIn needs to focus on better email integration and even more importantly, a light contact management capability. Why should I use a separate CRM system (which more likely than not is sucking limited data in from LinkedIn already), when I could keep all my contact notes in one central place in the cloud? This, by the way, is something that LinkedIn could sell as a subscription service.

Right now, all of this is just talk and conjecture, but it’s useful to note that in many respects, LinkedIn is no different from most other commercial data products.

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