By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis
I had the pleasure of welcoming one of the co-founders of LinkedIn, now its CTO, Jean-Luc Vaillant, on a panel on social media for business organized by the French-American Chamber of Commerce that I moderated. I had little to do, as I had remarkable panelists: Kelly Graham from Cisco, Ken Kaplan from Intel, William Gaultier from e-Storm and Harry McCraken from Technologizer. Jean-Luc was the tech guru of the group. Vibrant, crisp, and guess what? just as business-savvy as everybody else – for he is one of these die-hard engineers for whom building things that work for people is a must.
Although the phrase “social media” did not exist in 1996 (it was coined in 2004 by Chris Shipley), Jean-Luc’s Vaillant’s life in this country is all about social media and social networking. He came from France to the Silicon Valley thanks to a job posting on a newsgroup (comp.lang.c++.thread) that specialized in parallel programming in C++. Although job postings were unwelcome in this tiny world of hyper-techies, somebody from Fujitsu was desperate enough to find an engineer with a strong experience in Solaris, C++, parallel computing, and highly scalable system to take the risk of upsetting the community. This was Jean-Luc’s good fortune, as he was wondering how to come to the US, where he had only spent six months as an intern at Bell Labs. He was hired over the phone and obtained his visa. On November 1, 1996, a date that he still cherishes, he landed in San Francisco with his kids, his wife, and his luggage to join a fascinating project, WorldsAway, a new species of online service and one of the first virtual worlds, “part chat room, part adventure game, part puppet show, part simulation,” which Robert Rossney described extensively for a Wired June 1996 article called Metaworlds. A fabulous experience. “Who doesn’t dream of creating a whole new world?” he likes to say. This was also the beginning of a long-lasting relationship with Reid Hoffman, who was the general manager and product manager for WorldsAway. who left to start Socialnet.com during the Summer of 1997 – Jean-Luc joined him in May 1998.
“I came for a great project, WorldsAway. But the whole thing fizzled away. There was a big problem with the business model, and ultimately, it wasn’t my thing to work for an established company. As soon as I set foot in the Valley, I felt that I had to be part of what this place was really about, new entrepreneurial endeavors. So I joined Socialnet.com enthusiastically.” The company was eventually acquired by Match.com, but it expanded Jean-Luc’s experience in a big way. The focus wasn’t to be part of a newsgroup as he had been, nor was it about building a virtual community as in WorldsAway, it was about matching people to one another, facilitating their ability to connect. To this day he is still proud of the matching engine (“still the best dating matching system IMHO” he writes on his LinkedIn profile) that he built with his team. Incidentally, he also met three of the additional co-founders of LinkedIn, Allen Blue, Yan Pujante, and Chris Saccheri.
“Once an engineer, always an engineer.” Jean-Luc continued to expand his understanding of the social Web. It was not enough to have people connect optimally, maybe they could also share objects. This took him to join Spotlife, which offered a stored video service within Yahoo Mail to bring personal video broadcasting to the masses, and ultimately Logitech (which acquired Spotlife). He became the technical manager for Quicksend, a photo sharing service and took charge of the IM Companion product, a P2P video application for instant messaging. But as extraordinary as Logitech had become under the guidance of Guerrino de Luca, the call for more entrepreneurship was stronger than job security, even if the family had welcomed a third child in 2000. So in 2002, after working for five companies in seven years at an unabated pace, he joined the gang of buddies that was to start LinkedIn.
As he tells it: “We were brainstorming on what our next startup would be and around the Summer of 2002, Reid pinged me on a new idea. The idea was to create a company around the Internet consumer without having to get a crazy amount of funding to acquire members. At the time there were companies like Hot or Not with a traffic explosion, but they had no way to monetize. Between us all we had an amazing experience on all the aspects of viral marketing on Internet as well as the social networking power of the Web. So we created a prototype. In the beginning it was supposed to be a sort of week-end hobby. But very quickly, Reid felt that there were other companies in our space. We were faced with the risk that somebody would be first on the market. Ryze.com was founded late 2001 by Adrian Scott to help people leverage their business networks. Plaxo launched in November 2002. We had to get serious and we did. We all decided to leave our day job. The company was launched in December 2002 and by March 2003 the core team was in place.” The rest is history. LinkedIn is the most valuable business social network, and potentially, a critical platform for any consistent business-driven social media strategy. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc remains incredibly simple and I am impressed to see how open he was to the questions or suggestions of numerous budding entrepreneurs sitting in the room where I moderated my panel.