In his short time as managing director of LinkedIn Europe, Ariel Eckstein has overseen the doubling of the company's membership across the continent. He talks about the challenges of hyper-growth, the perfect LinkedIn profile and why he isn't afraid to dress as a superhero.
Arriving at our shoot location, poolside at the boutique Haymarket Hotel in London, Ariel Eckstein, the man tasked with running the European arm of the world's biggest business-related social network doesn't disappoint. "If I had known, I would have brought my trunks," he jokes, to the Director magazine staff and photography crew.
If Eckstein's nervous about the photo shoot he's taking it in his stride. "There's an intimidating level of proximity between your lens and my face," he remarks, obediently responding to our photographer Jay's calls to tilt his head and lift his chin. "Make me look like George Clooney," he quips. Despite the American accent Eckstein is a native of Mexico City, born to an Irish-Italian mother and German father. He was schooled in the US and Spain, and studied diplomacy at university. He joined the dotcom industry after a stint working for the US government but London has been home for five years.
We take the opportunity of a set change to sit down and discuss LinkedIn, set up in 2002 in the living room of co-founder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman and which last year recorded revenues of $522m (£332m), up 115 per cent.
Naturally Eckstein becomes more serious but no less enthusiastic as he talks about the company. "I tell everybody I have the best job in the world because it's something I truly enjoy," he says, passionately describing how, in an increasingly globalised world, businesses need LinkedIn connections and contacts that are truly global. "LinkedIn is the only platform that is able to connect the world's professionals. We have over 150 million members and we are growing at approximately four million per month," he enthuses.
Eckstein says the role of LinkedIn is to help professionals manage their identities, regardless of their level in an organisation or the size of the business. "Your identity is important whether you're a 21-year-old recent graduate or a 40-year-old CEO in terms of how you're found online, and how you communicate your skills, your accomplishments and your aspirations online."
LinkedIn's focus, he says, is on helping members become more productive, from finding a supplier in another country to gaining an insight from a [LinkedIn online] group that they belong to about a particular business issue they are facing. "Those concerns are not bounded by geography but they are more global in terms of your customers, your suppliers, your partners. That's one of the things we do extremely well."
In 2004, long before he took a role at the company, Eckstein saw how building his own LinkedIn profile could help his career. "I'm a believer not only because I'm an executive of the company, I'm a believer because I was a user five years before I even entertained working for the company. I was one of the first 200,000 members, and when I decided I wanted to move in my career it was the first I place I went," he says. "I got value."
And how did he end up working for LinkedIn? "I sent an InMail [the term for LinkedIn's electronic messaging system] to the London office."
He makes it sound so simple but for Eckstein, who had previously served as vice president of business expansion for AOL Europe, his criteria for a new job were working with a product he believed in, inspirational people, and momentum. With LinkedIn, he says, he got all three.
He joined the company as European managing director of hiring solutions. Globally, this division earned LinkedIn $84.9m of its 2011 revenue. "I felt a tremendous affinity in terms of ethics and ambition. The company had found a place in the market that consumers and clients were responding to very positively."
A year ago Eckstein became managing director of LinkedIn EMEA and has overseen rapid growth. "Since I joined the company we've grown from 14 million members in Europe to 30 million, and from 45 million globally to 150 million. I want to ensure everything we do helps to grow that member base."
So what makes a perfect profile? "A photograph is important because without it you're just text," he says. "To be found it's important for us to have data to connect you with people as well as potential employers." But a LinkedIn profile isn't an online CV, he warns. "Don't just talk about things you've done. Include your skills, your capabilities and connect with people."
Eckstein speaks too of the importance, when uploading your address book, of selectively connecting with your professional contacts. "Your social graph is what gives you power in terms of how we are able to suggest groups you need to belong to, and people you may know. You see people you may have worked with 10 years ago but you've lost touch with, because you've built your profile in a thoughtful way."
He talks of how the "democratisation of information" has put more power in the hands of professionals to understand the opportunities available to them. It is now just as important, he says, for companies to think about the information they provide to candidates as to the details candidates offer them.
"Before, you would ask me a lot of questions about my background and all I would know about you is what is in your annual report. Now I know a lot more about you and your company than I have in your past."
The LinkedIn model has helped change the way businesses find new talent, says Eckstein, likening the growth of active sourcing of passive candidates over the last three years to an inkblot advancing through the UK and Europe. "The active recruitment of passive candidates is not a fad it's an absolute secular trend," he says. "It's not always the case that the best talent is looking. In a lot of cases the best talent is very happy doing a job in their current position."
Even in tough times when companies aren't hiring Eckstein advises they get ahead by building talent pipelines. "Map out the talent, find out who are the best engineers or financial directors, so that when you do have an opportunity, you've built a relationship with them, you've connected, and it is not a cold start."
LinkedIn's biggest challenges are related to its success. "We are in a hyper-growth environment. When I joined the London office almost two-and-a-half years ago we were 22 people. We are now over 400 people in nine offices in eight countries in Europe."
Eckstein's priority when he took over the role was to ensure continuity and remain relevant to the European member base. Offices have opened in Paris, Stockholm and Munich with LinkedIn released in several languages including Czech, Romanian and Turkish.
It has meant ensuring that the company is not only hiring quickly but also recruiting extremely well, bringing in top talent and giving them the tools and the on-boarding to be successful. "We've spent a tremendous amount of time making sure we do that correctly because if we misstep there we won't serve members
or clients well."
For a company with personnel and bases across so many territories LinkedIn works hard, says Eckstein, to create a strong culture. "It is the most value-driven organisation I've been part of in my life in terms of whether you're in Mountain View [LinkedIn's headquarters in California], Dublin, London or Paris. If we have a disagreement I pick up the phone and talk to you about it. I don't send you an email, copying in your boss and my boss."
It is, he says, all about making sure people understand they are trying to create a "different" organisation, and he steps in firmly if things go awry.
To gain maximum exposure to his staff and clients Eckstein travels to three European offices a week, catching early flights from Heathrow and trying to return that evening to see his wife Kerri and two children.
The LinkedIn product might be virtual but Eckstein says it's important not to lose sight of getting together physically. For non-facing meetings, LinkedIn promotes video-conferencing over audio-conferencing. "If I can't touch you I can see you – and I can see that you're not doing your email while talking to me, and I'm not doing my email. [It's about] making sure there's respect for everybody's time."
Despite being headquartered in the US, the drive to think global comes from the top. "It's the realisation at the Jeff [Weiner, chief executive] and Reid level that a tremendous amount of growth will come from outside of the US and particularly from Europe," he says.
Global sales meetings are held at midday London time when it's early in California and late in Asia, a rarity for a US organisation. "It is the company that has made the most progress in going from a primarily US-centric view to a global view. We can build global products with local sensitivity. Whether it's the language, the way we roll them out or how we market them."
For a company built around networking, LinkedIn practises what it preaches, working hard on employee development. "We focus very much on transformation. We believe – and this is led by our CEO – that we have the ability to transform the world, help transform our company and help transform individuals."
Eckstein mentors 10 employees, mostly junior but some at director level, and normally outside his own areas of expertise such as finance or sales. "My goal is to help them build choices and options so they can have the ability to transform what they do."
He's not afraid to show off his super-human side either, dressing up in costume to hand out staff awards at the company's annual get-together. "The first year I was LinkedIn Man and I wore a very large 'In'[logo] across my chest. Last year myself and my boss in the United States, Mike Gamson, dressed up as twin Buzz Lightyears [from the movie Toy Story]. It helps the team see you in a different light."
Building that team, he says, is one of his proudest achievements. "From the breadth and depth of the management all the way down to our junior hirers. They are committed, energetic, they love what they do and they're getting results.
"The second is the expansion of the network and our physical presence in Europe. And the third is our ability to contribute to the company's growth."
Eckstein says his priorities are to continue doing what LinkedIn does well. "Not letting hyper-growth become an obstacle but thriving on the opportunities it creates to bring the best people in. Serving our members, understanding them better and making sure information continues to flow into our product teams so we build products that are useful. And making sure that markets in which we've opened are on the right path so our businesses become significant operations."
With time pressing on, Eckstein steps in front of the camera for more photos, so we turn to lighter matters. He talks affectionately about jogging in Richmond where he lives, his passion for football – he supports Liverpool and Barcelona – and his love of living in Britain.
"But however hard I've tried to become a cricket fan, the brevity of a baseball game beats out the beauty of a Test match," he laughs.
And to think I was just about to compliment him on how well his diplomatic studies had served him...
Ariel Eckstein will be a guest speaker at the IoD Annual Convention at the Indig02 in the 02 Arena on Wednesday 25 April. For tickets, visit www.annualconvention.iod.com