Understanding LinkedIn Business Model

In the post titled, ‘Understanding Business Model Fundamentals’, we learnt why do we need to understand business models and how to visually represent a business model using the ‘Business Model Canvas’. In this post, we will try to understand LinkedIn business model using the Canvas.

LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network. As of 31st March 2012, LinkedIn had 161 million members in over 200 countries. LinkedIn helps the professionals stay connected with each other by creating and managing a professional identity and building a professional network. LinkedIn has implemented a Multi-sided Platform, which offers different solutions to different categories of users.

LinkedIn provides the following categories of solutions to its network members for free: An ability to manage professional identity using tools such as Profile and Profile Stats; An ability to build and manage professional networks using tools such as LinkedIn Connections, Invitations, and Introductions; Access to knowledge and insights using tools such as LinkedIn Groups, Network Updates, News, Answers etc.

LinkedIn is a good example of a Freemium business model. While the core offering is free for its network members, premium offering comes for a price. The premium offering includes tools such as LinkedIn InMails and Profile Stats Pro. The users can upgrade from a basic account type to Business, Business Plus, or Executive account types. The premium account types provide access to the premium offerings.

LinkedIn platform induces the same-side network effects among its members. This helps in growing the network through word-of-mouth or connection-request-emails. As the average number of member connections grows, the strength of the network improves. The more the network becomes strong, the more attractive it becomes to the users on the other sides of the platform. The users on the other sides of the platform include Recruiters, Marketers & Advertisers, and Developers.

LinkedIn offers LinkedIn Corporate Solutions, LinkedIn Jobs, and Subscription products to the Recruiters. LinkedIn Recruiter is their flagship hiring solution to find, contact, and hire candidates. Self-service postings help recruiters to post and manage job opportunities. LinkedIn Referral engine helps organizations leverage their employees network to find qualified candidates. LinkedIn provides job recommendations to its members over Job You May Be Interested In (JYMBII) section of a member home page. LinkedIn offers Talent Basic, Talent Finder, and Talent Pro as subscription products to recruiters and hiring managers. LinkedIn offers Job Seeker family of products – Job Seeker Basic, Job Seeker, and Job Seeker Plus – to its members to stand out to recruiters and hiring managers.

LinkedIn marketing solutions enable marketers and advertisers to reach their target audience. LinkedIn Ads is their self-service product to target advertisements to specific members based on their profile information. Advertisers can setup and manage multiple campaigns and continuously monitor clicks, impressions, click-through rates, and average cost-per-click. LinkedIn Ads for Enterprise product targets larger advertisers that receive dedicated account management and get access to additional marketing solutions such as Display Ads, Custom Groups, Sponsorships, Whitepapers, and Recommendation Ads.

LinkedIn provides a set of open APIs and embeddable Widgets to the developer community. These APIs and Widgets provide access to the content in the LinkedIn database and help the developers build third-party applications leveraging LinkedIn data.

LinkedIn revenues come from 3 key revenue streams: Hiring Solutions, Marketing Solutions, and Premium Subscriptions. For CY 2011, these 3 streams represented 50%, 30%, and 20% of total revenues of $522 Million. LinkedIn sells Hiring and Marketing solutions through field sales organization and through their website. The Premium subscriptions are primarily sold online. Field Sales organization comprises of direct sales force, agencies, and resellers. While online channel is characterized by lower average selling prices, the offline channel is characterized by longer sales cycle, higher average selling prices, and longer contract terms. During CY 2011, Field sales contributed 55% of the total sales, whereas online channel contributed 45% of the total sales.

LinkedIn business model can be represented over the business model canvas as follows. Click the image to see it on Full Screen.

As discussed earlier, LinkedIn drives almost half of its revenues from Hiring solutions. Here, LinkedIn competes with established online recruiting companies such as Monster+HotJobs, Careerbuilder, and Indeed.com, talent management companies such as Taleo, and traditional recruiting firms. Then, there are companies new to the recruiting industry such as BranchOut, which offers a Facebook application for finding jobs and recruiting employees. In a span of less than 2 years since its launch in July 2010, BranchOut has grown into largest professional networking application on Facebook with over 25 million registered users and 400 million professional profiles. With over 3 million jobs, it operates the largest job board on Facebook.

How big, you think, is the threat of BranchOut to LinkedIn? In case Facebook decides to acquire BranchOut, then how big the threat can become? On 3 May 2012, LinkedIn announced acquisition of Slideshare, a leading professional content sharing community, for $118 Million. How acquisition of Slideshare is going to help LinkedIn boost its revenue growth and overcome the threat from companies such as BranchOut?

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Comparing Facebook and Google Business Models

In our previous blog posts, we represented the business models of Facebook and Google over the Business Model Canvas. The Canvas diagrams are reproduced below for your convenience. Please click the link to the blog post, if you want to read the details.

Understanding Facebook Business Model

Understanding Google Business Model

In this post, we will attempt to compare the two business models using Gurley’s Test. Please refer to the post ‘Assessing a Business Model Attractiveness’, if you want to understand the 10-point criteria that we will be using to compare Facebook and Google business models.

We will take each of the 10 criteria one-by-one. We will try to give scores to both the companies based on the information available in the public domain and our knowledge/understanding of the companies. In case you think that we are missing some key aspect, please feel free to bring it out in the comments section. We will give 1 point if the criterion is fully satisfied, 0.5 points if it is partially satisfied, and 0 points if it is not satisfied at all.

1. Sustainable Competitive Advantage.

Google is a dominant web search provider with over 66% of search market share. As per Analyst estimates, Google has over a million servers that process over a billion search requests every day. Google has invested billions of dollars in building huge data centers across the globe. The resulting economies of scale and economies of scope provide a sustainable competitive advantage to Google over new market entrants and existing players.

Facebook is a dominant social networking site with over 845 million users at the end of 2011. Facebook aspirations are even high. They aim to connect all global Internet users – more than 2 billion in number. Facebook strategy is to design social products and enter into partnerships that drive engagement levels of these users even further. Facebook has built a multi-sided platform (MSP) with strong network effects. These network effects and Winner-Takes-All (WTA) dynamics of MSPs provide sustainable competitive advantage to Facebook.

Both the companies have very strong Research and Development capabilities and lead the market through Innovative products. It is very difficult for a new company to enter into web search or social networking services market and beat Google or Facebook in these markets. So, we can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

2. Presence of Network Effects.

Though Google search product serves multi-sided markets, it doesn’t induce network effects because it doesn’t enable interactions between the users on the two sides. Online advertisers benefit from having a large base of search users, but it doesn’t lead to network effects. However, with the Android product, Google has been able to create cross-side network effects between mobile users and mobile developers. Google is also betting big on Google+, its social networking service. Google+ claims to have over 100 million users in less than a year. It is yet to be seen how Winner-Take-All (WTA) dynamics will pan out between Google+ and Facebook.

Facebook is benefiting from very strong network effects since its inception. Facebook benefits from the same-side network effects between the Facebook users. Facebook also benefits from the cross-side network effects between the developers and the users.

We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

3. Visibility/Predictability are highly valued.

Both the companies are dependent upon online advertisements for their revenues. Google earns over 96% of its revenue from advertising, whereas Facebook earned 85% of revenue from advertising in 2011. Both the companies have self-serve auction-based Ad products and a “long tail” of customers. This makes modeling or predicting the future revenues of these companies little difficult, as compared to that of product companies.

While both the companies don’t disclose and won’t disclose the following statistics, they can help with some visibility/predictability of their future revenues: How many customers (advertisers) they have? How the number of customers has increased over time? What is the average revenue per customer? What are the revenues from mobile advertising? How they are increasing over time?

As we move more and more from an offline to an online world, both the companies are going to benefit in a big way. We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion because their revenues are not going to go down anytime soon.

4. Customer lock-in/High Switching costs.

Both the companies are focused on Lifetime Value (LTV) of the customers. Both the companies are trying to lock-in users with their data in form of emails, photos, videos, documents, and blogs. Google has over 350 million users using Gmail. Over 250 million photos get uploaded on Facebook everyday. Over 4 million businesses use Google Apps for Business. Over 4 billion videos are streamed on Youtube everyday. Facebook has over 100 billion friendships. Both the companies have achieved data lock-in with their users. We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

5. Gross Margin Levels.

Facebook has higher gross margins than Google. In fact, they are amongst the highest in the Technology Industry. Google gross margins have been improving over years. They also provide enough room for high operating and net margins. We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

6. Marginal Profitability calculation.

To check whether higher revenues are translating into higher profit margins, we can compare the revenue growth with the operating profit growth. Higher operating profit growth would mean higher marginal profitability.

Over last 5 years, Google operating margins have remained between 30-35% range. For Facebook, operating margins were negative during 2007-08, reached a peak of 52% in 2010, and then declined to 47% in 2011. Google’s revenues and operating income grew at same pace at 23% CAGR from 2007 to 2011. For Facebook, it is not possible to calculate CAGR number because its operating income was negative during 2007-08. However, Facebook operating margins are very healthy and are higher than Google. We can give 0.5 points to both the companies on this criterion.

7. Customer concentration.

Both Facebook and Google have a “long tail” of customers. Both of them are not dependent upon any single customer for their revenues. Both of them have implemented self-serve auction-based Ad products. This makes customers “price accepters” than “price demanders”.

Though Zynga accounted for 12% of Facebook revenues in 2011, Facebook revenues are not highly dependent on Zynga. Moreover, Zynga also needs Facebook for its revenues. Both of them are into a long-term relationship. For Google, no single customer or group of affiliated customers contributed more than 10% of revenue during last 3 years.

We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

8. Major partner dependencies.

To increase the engagement levels of its users, Facebook has partnered with content companies such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Washington Post providing online movies, TV shows, music, and news respectively. However, Facebook is not dependent on any single partner.

Google has partnered with content companies that are referred to as Google Network members. Google helps Advertisers extend their Ad campaigns to these Network member websites through its Adsense product. Google shares Ad revenues with these websites in turn. Google gets nearly 30% of its Advertising revenues from the member websites. In addition to the Adsense arrangements, Google has product distribution partners to bring traffic to Google websites. The traffic acquisition costs from distribution partners represent 10-12% of the total cost of revenues. However, Google is not dependent on any single partner for its revenues or traffic acquisition.

We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

9. Organic vs Heavy Marketing spend.

Both the companies are very well known Global Brands. Both the companies serve multiple audiences: Users, Advertisers, and Developers. So, both companies run different marketing programs for different audiences to achieve different marketing objectives. Both the companies spent nearly 12% of the total revenues on Marketing and Sales in the year 2011. We can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion.

10. Growth.

Facebook revenues grew from $153 million in 2007 to $3.7 billion in 2011 at a 4-year CAGR of 122%. Google revenues grew from $16.5 billion in 2007 to $37.9 billion in 2011 at a 4-year CAGR of 23%. During 2007, Facebook revenues were 1% of Google revenues. During 2011, Facebook revenues were 10% of Google revenues.

Clearly, Facebook has grown much faster than Google over last 5 years. However, if we take a look back into Google’s early years, its numbers were better than Facebook numbers today. Google was founded in September 1998. Facebook was founded in February 2004. In its 4th year of operations, in 2001, Google revenues were $86 million. By 2005, Google revenue reached $6.1 billion at a 4-year CAGR of 190%.

Whether we consider the base effect or not, Google’s current CAGR of 23% is also a pretty good number as compared to the Industry. So, we can give 1 point to both the companies on this criterion as well.

Summing up,

If we sum all the points up, we will see that both the companies scored 9.5 of 10. The scores are represented over the Canvas as follows:

We believe that both the companies are very promising. Both of them have a big mission that they are after. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. These missions are driving scale and innovation in these two companies. The global online advertising market is big and will expand further. These two players are in a good position to capitalize on the global opportunities.

What is your opinion of using this approach to compare the business models of two companies? Does the reasoning help you in judging which company has a superior business model? It is not meant to be an investment guide. But, using the 10-point criteria, you can achieve a better understanding of a company’s business model.

Additional Reading

 

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