Running a small business today is a very different challenge from a decade ago.
Free or low-priced services such as Google Inc.'s online office productivity tools, Skype's long-distance and video-conferencing applications and Dropbox's file-sharing and synchronization technology all help small firms leverage the Web to punch above their weight class.
These tools perform specific tasks. But what about less well defined services, such as social networking? A platform of interacting communities can be a powerful asset, but it requires some creativity to figure out the best way to make it work for you.
When Lauren Friese decided in 2007 to start TalentEgg.ca, a career site based out of Toronto for students and recent graduates, she not only faced the challenge of getting a new business off the ground but also the added impediment of not knowing many people in the sector.
She turned to LinkedIn Corp., which bills itself as the world's largest professional networking site. Based in Mountain View, Calif., the seven-year-old firm boasts 42 million unique, registered users, a 200-per-cent increase from a year earlier. It is one of the main social networking destinations where people emphasize work experience and employment histories rather than music tastes and weekend home videos.
The joke a couple of years ago was that you would never find a date on LinkedIn, but you might find a job. Today, job hunting is still a major feature of the site. In fact, the company charges companies $195 (U.S.) to advertise a position for three months, and it counts some major Canadian businesses among its clients, including the Royal Bank of Canada. But LinkedIn executives have figured out that to survive and prosper they need to use their valuable community data for much more than just linking people to their next employer.
The first service Ms. Friese tapped was LinkedIn's Answers application, which lets members post queries to the community. One of the things she wanted to know was how to choose the most appropriate customer relationship management (CRM) software.
"CRM is such a confusing marketplace," she says. But she received informed guidance from other LinkedIn members. "You can right away figure out the quality of the answers you're getting by checking on peoples' backgrounds."
Then she began looking through the community for sales leads, targeting certain groups, such as universities, and searching for recruitment specialists. The technology allowed her to pinpoint the right people to approach inside numerous organizations. "Big companies can pay thousands and thousands of dollars to get that kind of information," she said.
She credits LinkedIn, as well as other online services, for helping her get her business off the ground. "I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but I'm a risk-averse entrepreneur. All these resources, low-cost or no-cost, were key to my confidence."
One of LinkedIn's earliest members was Arvind Rajan, whom the company went on to recruit and now counts as its vice-president of international business. What makes the service valuable for businesses, he says, is that everything users do on the site is linked to their professional brand. "People are careful about what they say. They're not frivolous."
Because content is not anonymous on LinkedIn, there is a greater sense of responsibility and accountability than on other parts of the Web. Members want to showcase their knowledge and that results in thoughtful responses to questions floated by members, and in some cases answers lead to new contacts and even consulting projects and jobs, he says.
LinkedIn is rapidly trying to create new applications that tap this community and keep the company sufficiently differentiated from larger social networking sites, primarily Facebook. These efforts include building mobile tools for the platform, which can now run on Apple Inc.'s iPhones, Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerrys and Palm Inc.'s Pre smart phones.
Last fall, LinkedIn took a leaf out of Apple's playbook and opened its technology to third party software developers to begin creating applications.
The company also stepped up its partnership efforts. An arrangement with Twitter, for example, lets LinkedIn members amplify their posts by connecting them to a Twitter feed and conversely tie their posts on Twitter to their LinkedIn accounts. And the latest version of Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook program, released last week, includes the ability to hover over names in e-mail addresses and see their LinkedIn profiles.
Two years ago, LinkedIn created a company profiles feature, which provided some data about organizations to which members were connected. Last month it expanded that service to give a bigger read on corporate events. If a firm suddenly starts hiring and many of the recruits update their profiles accordingly, then a member following that company on LinkedIn would see the trend. Similarly, if a company suffers a mass exodus of staff, the news might emerge quickly on LinkedIn.
Giving members a way to gather business insight into their industry is one of the latest efforts at LinkedIn. The company is working on plans to bring more collaborative features to the platform, Mr. Rajan says.