Do you ever wonder what a billion dollar idea looks like?
I know. I've seen it. Although it's fair to say it sure as hell didn't look like a billion dollar idea at the time - never mind the mind-boggling $10 billion idea that LinkedIn became today when its shares soared on IPO - a reminder of the dizzying days at the turn of the century when such events were weekly.
In early 2005, as I was in the process of revamping the FT's technology and telecommunications suppelement FTIT, which we relaunched later as FT Digital Business, I went on a day-long tour of Silicon Valley with Richard Waters, then the FT's West Coast Editor (and now its West Coast Managing Editor). I was in search of inspiration and ideas for the new supplement.
It was an amazing and eye-opening day. Within days of Carly Fiorina being fired by HP, we were in the executive suite there interviewing CTO Shane Robison about the company's future. It was sufficiently soon after Fiorina's departure that her name plate was still on the door of her office. I don't recall anything Robison said, except that he said he would not discuss Fiorina, but we also got a tour of the HP museum which was pretty cool as it contained some of the original kit created by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.
We also spent an extraordinary hour in the company of Steve Jurvetson, co-founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of the Valley's leading VC firms. Jurvetson remains the cleverest man I have ever been in a room with. Never before or since have I seen one person hold quite so many ideas and thoughts together in a single conversation; a conversation in which he spoke at about a million miles and hour, and during which Richard and I basically sat back in awe and tried to keep up. Jurvetson led his firm's early backing of Skype, another company that has recently achieved a colossal valuation.
Later in the day we met Symantec CEO John Thompson, then the only African American leading a major tech company. During his time in charge Symantec's annual revenues grew from $632m to $6.2bn. Thompson too was very impressive.
Sandwiched in to the middle of all this was a visit to LinkedIn at a completely nondescript office complex in Palo Alto. I had absolutely no idea what LinkedIn was, but Richard said that the guy we were going to meet - one Reid Hoffman - was worth meeting because having made a ton of money as an executive at PayPal (which was sold to eBay) he had a new business idea that was just getting going, it was a "social network" for business people.
(I had no idea what a social network was either, but at this stage I'm going to defend myself somewhat against questions asking why the FT employed such an ignorant tech editor. I was just getting back into my familiar TMT beat having spent the previous two years working first as the FT's Sports Correspondent and then (when that was shut down) on the UK news desk.)
We were ushered into a first floor office facility that was about the size of a football pitch and contained row after row of empty cubicles. There appeared to be only three or four people in the building, all of whom joined the meeting with us, including another founder Konstantin Guericke. The only part of the building that looked alive in anyway was the kitchen, which had a fussball table and a massive fridge stocked full of "soda" from which we took our pick.
My first thought - and indeed my last when we left LinkedIn - was: Do these people not remember the bursting of the internet bubble? They had a gazillion square feet of prime Valley real estate - with nobody in it - a fussball table and a somewhat vague business idea. It was 1999 all over again! All we reporters needed to do was sit back, watch the cash being squandered and wait to tell the tale of repeated folly.
I had reported on the internet boom for FT.com. Reported on endless IPOs of pre-profit - pre revenue in some cases! - companies being floated for hundreds of millions of dollars and people all over the world getting rich. It was extraordinary. And we all fell for it! Even at the FT, home of a lot of very very clever journalists - present company excepted - most correspondents rode that wave without ever really questioning what was going on with any great rigour. (I remember Phillip Coggan being a notable exception, and I am sure there were others).
I also reported on the bust, which with the benefit of hindsight was a lot more interesting, even if it did decimate the tech presence in the FTSE 100 and effectively kill my interest in my job as IT Correspondent.
And that made a sceptic of me, and closed my mind too quickly. I looked at Reid Hoffman - a somewhat shambling figure - and listened to his very vague thoughts about how he and his colleagues might one day monestise their idea, and I could see no further than history repeating itself.
The other LinkedIn execs around the table were a pretty silent bunch, happy to let Hoffman float his ideas and to expound his theories on this new world of social networks and entrepreneurship in general.
I wish I still had my notes from that conversation, because my memories are now as vague as the LinkedIn business plan seemed to be. But a couple of things do stick in the mind: first that they believed they would be able to charge people premium fees if they added applications, and that if they created a big enough community it would become an essential business tool. Second that if you want to create the next PayPal or Yahoo! you have to be in the game and back your hunches. Some of this stuff would fail, but that was OK. One or two of the ideas will work, and that's enough.
Reid Hoffman's now been in on two of those ideas that have worked and LinkedIn has clearly fulfilled whatever expectations they had for it. Five years on, I still haven't worked out what the value of being a member of LinkedIn is to me. It seems to offer little more than the opportunity to have an additional channel to people I am friends with on Facebook or whose contact details I have in my mobile phone. I appreciate, however, that this is more likely my failing than that of the usefulness of LinkedIn.
Hats off to HOffman and his co-founders for taking the risk, backing that hunch and convincing initial backers to join the project. And congratulations to them and their investors on their success and their incredible new wealth. You have to be in it to win it, and they have won it all.
And I have a memory I recall fondly and still with a sense of wonder, and a far more open mind than I did on that day six years ago.
(In the course of researching for this post, I now understand that LinkedIn was a good deal more developed at the time than I had appreciated during that visit. The company's official history suggests that at the end of 2004 it had 33 employees and 1.6m members - still not enough to fill the Palo Alto barn the company apparently moved in to fully a couple of months later.)
My thanks to @benroome for nudging me to write this piece.