Really? I Get to Do it Again?
I feel really lucky.
Back in 2007, I was happily employed by Microsoft. I had a great boss, a great team, and worked for a company that, despite getting a few knocks now and then, really was a great company to work for at the time. We had a beautiful office in downtown San Francisco overlooking the Ferry Building. Life was great.
One day I received an “inmail” from a little company called LinkedIn, asking me if I’d be interested in joining the company to run their then-nascent ad sales business. In 2007, LinkedIn had just over 100 employees, about 15 million members, had 1 sales person on the ad sales team, and was gearing up for a huge new product improvement: the ability to add a photo to your profile.
And the social media space was still very formative; MySpace was king of the hill (according to Rupert, they were going to do $1B that year…), and Facebook had only just recently opened up beyond the college market. Twitter may have been around, but no one knew much about it at the time.
Having lived in the Bay Area since 1999, I had often thought that I was missing out on the thrill of working for one of the hot, agile startups that were here in my backyard. But my wife Cindy and I had just welcomed our first child in 2005 and had plans for another, so giving up the great benefits that Microsoft offered and joining a young company was a big decision with a lot of risks.
“Leave Microsoft? But you love Microsoft. Bill Gates doesn’t love Microsoft as much as you do,” Cindy said. But I made the plunge anyway and made the decision to join LinkedIn, feeling that it was somewhat of a “safe risk” - it was in an emerging space that, from my perspective, had a lot of promise. I made a heartbreaking call to my manager and was sad to tell my team that I was leaving, but in my heart, I knew it was the right thing for me.
“Are you moving to Detroit?” my uncle asked.
“Um, no, why?”
“Isn’t that where Lincoln is headquartered?”
“No, not Lincoln, LinkedIn - it’s like MySpace, but for professionals.”
“No…not…those kind of professionals…real professionals! Look, networking has always been important in business, it’s just been inefficient and hard to scale, so…”
During my first few months, I hired some incredibly bright people to build the ad sales business with me, and we spent the first year or so having lots of conversations like the one with my uncle, only now we were having it with big advertisers and agencies - and boy was it fun. We were charting brave new territory in a fledgling yet emerging space called “social media.” I still remember going to analyst briefings and hearing people proclaim that “social media sites will never be a meaningful marketing platform,” and I remember how much fun we had proving them dead wrong.
We had a lot to figure out - who was in charge of buying this stuff? What kind of standards did we need? What’s the right way to package, price and sell this? And while that was happening, it all hit the mainstream, and then things started getting really exciting. Social media started changing the world - literally - as professionals started managing their careers differently, as people connected with friends differently, and people started getting their information in new ways. Big marketers started to take notice. They invited us to come to their company meetings to present to their staffs and asked if they could visit us for the day at our headquarters. They acknowledged that the way they interacted with their customers and employees would never be the same. We hired more and more great people and started seeing some incredible momentum in the business.
I remember thinking to myself, “I’ll probably never have this again. I’ll probably never be lucky enough to play an early part in an emerging, world-changing industry, and will never be lucky enough again to join a company that’s sitting at the epicenter of that change.”
I feel really lucky.
A few months before LinkedIn went public in 2011, I received a call from a recruiter representing a technology company. I wasn’t interested in leaving LinkedIn, for all the reasons I wasn’t interested in leaving Microsoft a few years back, and normally I would politely decline these calls. But this one was different. This call was for a company called Bunchball, a pioneer in the gamification space.
I had heard quite a bit about gamification, the idea of taking the same concepts that engage people in gameplay - progress, status, and rewards - and applying those concepts to non-game experiences. For one, I had seen it work at LinkedIn. The “profile completeness bar” was one of the most powerful drivers of profile completeness at LinkedIn, an incredibly important component of the LinkedIn ecosystem. I had also seen people take great pride in showcasing how many recommendations they had or who they counted among their connections - all a form of status. I had also seen the airlines use it to drive loyalty and the credit card companies leverage it for payment preference.
But I had also seen it at play in things like my daughter’s swim class, where they started awarding stickers after specific skills were mastered to keep kids engaged in between earning their milestone ribbons. And we even used game mechanics to potty-train our youngest. These concepts were real and tapped into basic human needs - but they were horribly underutilized in so many areas, in large part because it’s not easy to technically incorporate point economies, leaderboards, and reward systems into online experiences on your own. But here was a company with a proven, cloud-based technology platform called Nitro that indeed makes it easy to do exactly that, and they had blue-chip customers that were already using it. Imagine the potential if so many of today’s uninspiring experiences that feel like chores - learning, staying healthy, working - were more engaging and rewarding for users, and more productive and efficient for businesses, all because we did a better job at optimizing for human needs.
Could it be? Could it be that I might actually have a shot at once again experiencing the thrill of joining a small but highly successful company that was leading the charge in an emerging space that has the potential to change the world, and get in early when I can make a difference?
I joined Bunchball in early June, just a few weeks after LinkedIn’s IPO and another round of heartbreaking calls to bosses and teammates. That was awful, but again, I knew in my heart that I was now addicted to idea of building businesses from the early stages and getting involved in industries during their formative years.
And what an amazing ride it’s been since then - by far the most fun ride of my career. I’m learning from a group of truly brilliant people, we’re having strategic conversations with the world’s most admired businesses who want to use game mechanics to build better and deeper relationships with customers and employees, and we’re building an industry. And we’re just getting started.
If there’s one thing I learned at LinkedIn, recruiting the best and the brightest is the most important thing a company can do to capitalize on its full potential, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re looking for people who are passionate about making digital experiences better, who are passionate about building a great company, and are passionate about changing the world.
If you’ve never experienced the thrill of getting involved in an early stage company in a transformative industry, you owe it to yourself to jump in now. If you have already experienced it, then you know exactly what I’m talking about - and guess what: you can do it again.
Take a look at our openings and join today.