I've been a LinkedIn fanboy for a long time (as this ReadWrite post from 2007 testifies), but I've since become disconnected from the mainstream as far as LinkedIn users go. I am not a headhunter, nor do I use LinkedIn to find a job.

I use LinkedIn for business development purposes, to answer the perennial hustler's question: "Who do I know who knows somebody in a company that I want to do business with?"

Reid Hoffman's founding inspiration for LinkedIn was the need for a business development tool to quickly connect with people, which was based on the hustling he had done at PayPal (where he was known as “firefighter in chief”). Along the way, Hoffman discovered the recruiting market, which has powered LinkedIn's growth to date.

LinkedIn is the first significant sales tool since Act!, the original sales contact manager that preceded Salesforce.com and Siebel (now an Oracle property). Salesforce created massive value by taking that contact manager proposition to the cloud, but the functionality was not fundamentally different from Act!, which was launched in 1987 on DOS 1.0 and is still in business (now with HTML5 for mobile and links to Facebook and LinkedIn).

LinkedIn as a contact manager must contend with the market currently dominated by Salesforce, another great company run by another incredibly smart driven entrepreneur. “Don't bet against Marc Benioff” is a message that financial traders and competitors have learned over the years. But both Salesforce and LinkedIn are public companies, closely watched by thousands of investors and HFT bots; it's a veritable clash of the titans.

Cooperating In A Competitive Environment

Of course, LinkedIn and Salesforce still make lovey-dovey noises to each other on occasion. It is the Silicon Valley way of "coopetition"—to proclaim your intense cooperation right up to the moment when you become intense competitors.

But at the end of the day, LinkedIn and Salesforce want to know the answer to one simple question: "Where do you live?" As in, "Which tools do you rely on for work?"

Here are some typical answers from salespeople:

  • "I live in the CRM system, because that is what my sales manager wants me to use."
  • "I live in my email inbox, because I have to keep on top of my to do list and that is where I am told what to do."
  • "I live on my smartphone, because that is what I always have with me when I am visiting customers and it helps me do the social media selling dance efficiently in between meetings."

Of the responses listed above, which salesperson would you want on your team? The masses are still hanging out in CRM and email systems, but the disruption is happening in mobile. No surprise there—mobile is where the early adopters (the A Team of enterprise sales) are experimenting with new ways of working and doing business.

In the mobile experience, it's the details that matter. I noticed there was a tab in LinkedIn's desktop version for its "Contact Info" section that I couldn't find in my LinkedIn iPhone app. To me, LinkedIn messaging is seriously bad—one more inbox to check is hardly progress, so I get the latest email address from LinkedIn and then I use Gmail anyway.

It is wonderful that I finally have a self-updating rolodex—that is a huge score for LinkedIn—but why put me through the hassle of firing up my laptop browser just to do that? That might be OK if I worked in a cubicle and rarely left the office, but outside sales people work outside! I chalked this up to the usual "they don't understand mobile" problem.

Then I saw LinkedIn's "Download Connections" section under the Settings icon on my LinkedIn iPhone app. At first, I thought it was the standard "social media roach motel" (i.e. it wants to suck my contacts into LinkedIn, but not give me anything back). Actually, this "Download Connections" section goes the other way, and that is a big deal. I had to change my privacy settings to allow LinkedIn access to my iPhone address book, but I think it was worth it.

Here is how LinkedIn describes "Download Connections":

We try to match each connection's email address to a contact in your address book. No match? We'll create a brand-new contact. If we do find a match, we'll fill in any blank fields with the latest info from their LinkedIn profile. We'll never touch any fields you've already filled out. Plus, if you edit your contacts at any time, we'll respect your changes and won't update any of the fields you've changed. We’ll automatically keep your iPhone address book up-to-date each time you launch the app.

Well, "Download Connections" worked. My iPhone address book is now up to date. Any change that my contacts make such as job, mobile number, address are now right there where I need it. I am sure LinkedIn has the same synchronization feature with Salesforce and all the other CRM systems, and I am sure all the CRM systems have mobile apps, but who cares? I have my self-updating rolodex right in my iPhone.

That is why the biggest threat to Salesforce in their core CRM market could be LinkedIn. Unlike Facebook, with which it is so often but inappropriately compared, LinkedIn does not rely totally on ads, they also like getting direct subscription revenue. At one level, LinkedIn is a SAAS business.

The Clashing Will Continue Until Morale Improves

In the world of Bring Your Own Everything, the best enterprise sales guys are ready for action from Day One on the job, armed with their synched-up mobile apps for LinkedIn and all the other cloud based services they use.

The vast majority of salespeople today will simply use whatever the company tells them to use and go through a month of onboarding with the enterprise-standard systems before they make a sales call, so these "rainmaker" salespeople are statistically insignificant—but that is always true with disruptive technology used by early adopters.

There is one other tab in LinkedIn's desktop app that could push the company deeper into CRM territory. It is a button marked "Relationship." It has fields that you fill in, just like you do in a CRM system; the data is private to you, like "Notes" or "Reminders" on iOS.

In CRM terms, this "Relationships" tab is very primitive. What is significant is that the motivation to fill in the information has dramatically changed because of the "Download Connections" mobile feature.

LinkedIn has even more cards to play. As ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas describes, LinkedIn is competing with Google, Microsoft and Facebook as a “TrueYou” identity provider. If you are logged in, you can get real-time, in-context data. Linkedn already has Pulse, but honestly, who needs another news reader?

However, a "Pulse" that can be tuned by salespeople to give just the right data on people and companies just before you speak to them? That's a different story.

CRM systems have evolved for decades to have every feature you could imagine. They are classic all-in-one solutions; by comparison, the "Relationship" tab in LinkedIn is pathetically poor. The difference is that the salespeople are motivated to provide data because a) they own it (not the company), b) they get that data where they want it on their smartphone, and c) they get data that is unique to LinkedIn (the connections of their connections). That is why I think that LinkedIn has the advantage here.

Neither LinkedIn nor Salesforce are mobile-native, but LinkedIn is network-native. It is, at its core, a communication service and we only want to manage contacts in order to communicate better. The mobile sales productivity space should be plenty entertaining over the next several years as we watch this clash of the titans play out, but the possibility of an entirely new mobile-native player breaking out into the mainstream is just as exciting as well.