I interviewed the LinkedIn co-founder on a range of topics, including the power of relationships, his first meeting with tech guru Reid Hoffman, his best career advice, what he tells entrepreneurs, how to become a successful career switcher, the future of work and what he likes on Broadway.
Zack Friedman: Before you co-founded LinkedIn, you were a set designer. What did you learn from working in theater, and how did those experiences prepare you to start LinkedIn?
Allen Blue: In theater, you work on a new show every few weeks. Sometimes they go great, sometimes they don’t, but you have to move on to the next one and do better the next time.
That’s an important lesson in the world of business, but also the world of the internet. You put it out there and learn from your users, and if you’re smart you’re better next time around.
When we launched LinkedIn, there were many things that could have been improved, but we wouldn’t know what really mattered until we got it out there in front of people. As my co-founder Reid Hoffman says, if you’re not embarrassed by your first attempt, you released too late.
Zack Friedman: How did you meet Reid Hoffman?
Allen Blue: A friend of mine, who had gone from theater to tech, introduced me to Reid. It was very much a ‘friend of a friend’ situation. My friend was Reid’s chief of staff and he had been tasked to ‘find someone creative.’
This led to our introduction and my first professional experience with the world of technology.
Zack Friedman: Your first meeting with Reid was a four-hour meeting over Thai food in Mountain View. What did you order, and what did you discuss?
Allen Blue: I don’t recall what I ordered, but I do recall what we discussed.
A huge, wide range of topics – the dinner was as much about learning about each other as talking business. We talked about the value of change, exploring possible ways to make a difference in the world.
What really mattered was to build economic opportunity for everyone across the globe. With the technology just becoming available – the web – we believed we’d be able to build a product that would help individuals get more control over their economic lives, start their own businesses and have more opportunity.
And of course, we talked about books and movies too.
Zack Friedman: How has LinkedIn changed over the years from your initial conception to the business it is today?
Allen Blue: At the beginning of a startup, you have no resources. You rely heavily on your relationships – your network is fundamental.
We originally built LinkedIn as a search product to allow professionals to use that network. If you had a work problem or need, you would go to LinkedIn to find someone who could help solve it.
That is still the fundamental component of LinkedIn today. Your network is a powerful resource, whether you’re starting a company, hiring or selling. But over the years, we appreciated more and more that many professionals haven’t had that small-company experience and aren’t used to the idea of reaching out to their network for help.
We’ve learned a lot about how to make that easier, and when professionals feel comfortable doing it. We’ve also learned a lot about data and how it influences decisions, and how it can be used to create opportunity. We now offer a broader and richer product, but the fundamental core – the network – is still the same.
Zack Friedman: How have strong relationships – like the one you have with Reid – helped foster your career?
Allen Blue: It’s a tremendous gift when a colleague or mentor challenges you to be better. My network has looked out for me, created opportunity for me, and for that I am endlessly grateful.
In turn, I try my best to “pay it forward” and pay it back. It’s a real joy to help others.
I recommend people help the people in their networks freely and without expectation of return, mainly because it’s so rewarding.
I have had huge pleasure working with entrepreneurs, with NGOs, non-profits, with colleagues at LinkedIn, sharing what I have learned along the way to help them be more successful.
Zack Friedman: Speaking of helping others to become more successful, what are your three best pieces of career advice?
Allen Blue: My advice really boils down to one point: use your network.
- Ask someone in your network to help you evaluate any opportunity you are considering. You’re likely close to someone who works there or knows someone who does. Ask them what the company is like, what their workday is like, and so on.
- Find people – colleagues, former classmates, friends-of-friends – who have made a similar transition or hold the role you want to hold. Take them to breakfast and take great notes.
- Ask a few folks close to you in your network to keep their eyes open for opportunities. When they hear about something, you want them to think of you. Not every job is posted publicly.
Zack Friedman: What is your best advice to a startup entrepreneur? How can entrepreneurs build a better business using LinkedIn?
Allen Blue: This also begins with your LinkedIn network. Test your idea with other people before you test it in the field. Choose people who will give you thoughtful, honest and intelligent feedback. Pitch your idea and see what they say.
Second, you’re only going to be able to hire a few folks at the beginning. Figure out what are the one or two key roles you need to hire; maybe for you, the key hire is a Head of Sales. Once you identify this role, use your network to find great candidates.
Finally, when you’re a small company just starting out, you can really only do one thing well. You have to know what that one thing is, and knock it out of the park. In LinkedIn’s case, for instance, that was network growth.
Zack Friedman: If someone wants to take a page from your playbook, how does a career switcher make a successful career switch?
Allen Blue: When you’re making a career switch, especially one as extreme as from theater to tech, the most important thing is to have someone who will help you make the transition once you start your new role.
This could be your boss or a colleague, but it’s usually someone who will see you every day. In my case, it was Reid.
Zack Friedman: When you look across the LinkedIn platform, what insights can you glean on the future of work?
Allen Blue: The short answer is that nobody knows. But we do know that the theme of the future of work is going to be change.
Expect to change companies, roles, tools and careers, and do it more and more frequently. You’ll have to retrain and re-skill, and learn new things all the time. But you’ll also bring your past experiences into new roles, which gives you a chance to stand out as an innovator in each new role.
You’re going to be a student of the work you do for the rest of your life.
We also know that more and more professionals are working independently as contractors, gig workers and freelancers. We are all likely to be an outside contributor at some point – or several points – during our careers.
Finally, if your job isn’t currently a tech job, it will be.
You’ll be working hand-in-hand with computers, code, robots and with artificial intelligence. You’re also going to have access to more data, which will inform your decision-making. These tools will make you better at what you do, but also change what you do.
Zack Friedman: How would you describe the culture at LinkedIn? How have you been able to preserve the LinkedIn culture as well as embrace the Microsoft culture following the acquisition?
Allen Blue: The centerpiece of our culture is our vision and mission, and our vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. This vision is something everyone at LinkedIn has in common.
You’ll always find people who deeply care about their work here because it contributes to the economic transformation we’re trying to make in the world.
That vision has been with us from the beginning, but it was Jeff Weiner joining as CEO who made it the formal core of what we do and how we do it. He also laid out the components of our culture, then set the example for how it should become part of how we work together here at the company.
We and Microsoft are operating independently right now, but the good news is that they have a mission of their own: to help individuals and businesses reach their full potential. And doing your work is a big part of connecting to economic opportunity. That fits perfectly with LinkedIn’s mission and vision, and puts us at the same starting point as we consider how our cultures might come together down the line.
Zack Friedman: What are your favorite types of plays? Any recommendations to see on Broadway now?
Allen Blue: I like lots of plays, but I think comedies, or at least funny dramas, are the best ones to see live and with a big audience. I’ve been lucky enough to see some new plays lately, including two by Rajiv Joseph, Guards at the Taj and Archduke. They are dark and deal with weighty topics – but also hilarious.
For Broadway, my recommendation is to go see anything on Broadway, or at your community theater or a nearby university.
You get to participate in the creation of the show by your laughter and your applause. And of course you are supporting a whole economy of artists, who in return make everyone’s life richer.
Zack Friedman, Contributor