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How LinkedIn first raised money (and endured rejection)

May 26, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

LinkedIn went public last week, with investors falling over each other to buy shares at a market cap that now exceeds $9 billion. But it wasn't always so easy for the social network to raise money.

LinkedIn employees in 2004 (Hower is 5th from right), upon hitting 500k users

By Lee Hower, contributor

LinkedIn went public last week. As a shareholder and part of the founding team, I'm obviously pleased with the investor reception it has received. It's a great milestone for the company we started nearly 9 years ago.

A lot of people ask me what it was like raising the Series A venture capital round for LinkedIn (LNKD) back in 2003. Many assume it was a cakewalk, based on the success the company has enjoyed over time and the current stature of our founder Reid Hoffman. We ultimately had a good outcome with our Series A, but I assure you it required some hard work and we faced plenty of skepticism. I thought I'd revisit it and share the story:

First, you have to rewind mentally to early 2003. Google (GOOG) is still a private company (their IPO was Aug 2004). Yahoo (YHOO) is the leading consumer Internet company with Terry Semel as CEO. Silicon Valley is still emerging from the tech bubble and massive downturn of late 2000-2002. The market size for online advertising, e-commerce and web premium services is between one-tenth and one-third of the size it is today. (The entire U.S. online ad market in 2002 was $6 billion, versus $25 billion+ in 2010, and had shrunk year-over-year.)

Salesforce.com (CRM) is a startup with 76,000 subscribers (over 2.1 million today). Apple (AAPL) is gearing up to launch a revolutionary iPod with a touch sensitive wheel instead of a mechanically rotating one, and the thought of Steve Jobs entering the cell phone business is mildly preposterous.

Online social networking is a concept still being evangelized even in Silicon Valley: Friendster is in private beta (wasn't until Oct 2003 it received a Google acquisition offer, which it turned down for a Kleiner/Benchmark round). Facebook doesn't exist, even as a walled-garden college social network (Mark Zuckerberg was in his freshman year at Harvard). There are no social platforms to build on top of... if a social graph is important to what you're doing, you better create one from scratch. It'll be nearly two years before the concept of "Web 2.0" is popularized by Tim O'Reilly (the first Web 2.0 conference happened at the end of 2004).

I also joke with Reid Hoffman that this was back in the days before he was "Reid."

Yes, he was a very successful PayPal exec, but this is his first time as a CEO. And this is long before he was a legendary angel with investments in Facebook, Zynga, etc. (although he already was in Friendster and one or two other companies). If Reid were to start a company today, he'd probably have every VC in America offering to back him, but this wasn't necessarily the case when we started LinkedIn out of his Mountain View apartment at the end of 2002.

Pitching to Sand Hill Road

Ok, now you have the context for early 2003. Reid assembled the founding team, drawing largely from his prior startups, with a few other folks he'd known for a long time. He provided our initial seed funding to launch the website publicly on May 5, 2003. Not long after the product launch, we began the initial conversations with VCs for a Series A round.

Reid and I ran around Sand Hill Road for the next several months. Many of the firms you'd recognize, but a few you might not and a couple we pitched are essentially out of the VC business today. Some groups were intimately familiar with the PayPal story and others were only casual observers.

In total, I think we spoke with at least 25 firms of various types. We pitched the full partnership of six that I can recall, though it's possible I'm missing somebody. It was an interesting mix of reactions. A couple quickly grasped the opportunity we were pursuing and liked our team and concept. One partnership was clearly very divided and a vocal minority of GPs thought consumer Internet companies were a massive waste of time and money. In another, we descended into a debate about our 5-year forecasts (I built the models so I fielded most of these questions), and it became clear they probably weren't the best fit for our Series A round (this group is no longer in the early-stage VC business). And a third firm "pressure tested" (i.e., grilled) Reid to see if he still had entrepreneurial zeal, after already having some success at PayPal. That one didn't end terribly well.

I certainly bear no ill will to the various firms that ultimately passed on us. As a seed-stage VC myself now, I can appreciate how hard it is evaluating companies at the earliest stages of development. Lots of VCs had been burned in the bubble and enthusiasm about consumer Internet companies was very much a contrarian view. LinkedIn's product had only been live for a couple months, we only had tens of thousands of registered users and wouldn't start generating revenue for more than a year after this point. But I can similarly appreciate the enthusaism of the small handful of firms that did express interest in our round. As I'm fond of saying, startup fundraising isn't about convincing skeptics but rather finding true believers.

At the end of the process, which ran into the fall of 2003, we received term sheets from two firms and had a third which expressed interest in participating (but it didn't want to lead the round). The terms and valuation for both offers were comparable and we felt both firms would have made good partners.

For a variety of reasons we ultimately chose Sequoia Capital's term sheet. Kind of ironic, since Sequoia first showed interest pretty late in the deal process (but to their credit moved quickly from there). It was a $4.7 million round which closed in November 2003, and the pre-money valuation was between $10 million and $15 million. So, from start to finish, our fundraise took roughly four to five months.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or more accurately many years of hard work and innovation by a lot of great folks.

Lee Hower (@leehower) was part of the founding team at LinkedIn, serving as director of corporate development from the company's inception through its early growth phases. He currently is a co-founder and general partner at NextView Ventures, a Boston-based investment firm focused on seed stage Internet-enabled businesses. He blogs at AgileVC.

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