This afternoon, I met with a couple of Stanford seniors to advise them on a startup they’ve been developing and targeting towards mid-sized online retailers. I’d expected to spend most of the time talking about their technology and customer development strategy — and we did indeed talk about these things. But we spent most of the time brainstorming whom I knew that could best help them achieve the key milestone of landing a first customer.
Not surprisingly, my first step was to open up my laptop and head straight to LinkedIn (I’m not only a data scientist — I’m also a member!) to see who in my network might be most helpful to them at this critical stage. The students were openly impressed: despite being sharp, energetic, and remarkably business-savvy for a couple of guys not old enough to legally buy beer, they had never seen someone use LinkedIn the way I was doing in front of them — not for hiring or recruiting, but as an exploratory search tool to find useful professional connections.
I started with a search for online retail, then restricted to directors and VPs, narrowing down further to first-degree and second-degree connections. I vetted second-degree connections by looking at my paths to them, determining who would be likely to be most helpful either because they owed me a favor or because they might have their own interest in the startup’s success.
We then browsed through the list of top online retailers, identifying plausible companies for them to target and then looking for my first-degree and second-degree connections not only at those companies but also at other companies in the same space. We spent over an hour fluidly going back and forth between talking and exploring on LinkedIn. In the course of this exploration, we not only produced a list of people to contact, but also arrived at a better understanding of the business strategy.
I’m always happy to help young entrepreneurs who represent the future of our economy, and even happier to do so using the tools my colleagues and I are constantly working to improve. But I’m surprised and a bit disheartened that the methods I used are not common knowledge, especially among people who stand to gain the most benefit from them. Perhaps, as someone who has been using LinkedIn since 2004, I take for granted that people know how to take advantage of it for professional networking. I hope that the company’s increasing visibility will make more people aware that LinkedIn is not *just* the best things that has ever happened to recruiting.
Also, as an HCIR advocate, I’d like to see these kinds of information-seeking tasks receive more attention from researchers and practitioners. I’ve been saying for a while that these and similar tasks that are neglected by the information retrieval community and not adequately addressed by Google . For example, while there has been significant research effort in the area of expert finding, I’d like to see more efforts to improving the interactive process of finding experts and expertise. And not just from LinkedIn!
If you are doing work in this space, I hope you’ll participate in the upcoming HCIR workshop and show off your stuff.
In the meantime, I hope you make the most of LinkedIn, for fun and for profit. As a mentor of mine told me in my first job, it’s “network or not work”.