Founded by brothers Alex and Anthony Zaccaria and friend Nick Humphreys in 2016, social media unicorn Linktree recently raised $110m to help it become a global leader in the creator economy. 

    Aussie tech scale-up Linktree became famous for solving Instagram’s “link in bio” problem six years ago, making it easier for brands, celebrities and creators to get more clicks from their followers — and monetise them. Now it’s investing some of its $110 million venture capital funding into exploiting new technologies designed to democratise the commercial internet. “We’re building for a future where most people will come to monetise some aspect of their time, identity, knowledge and skills online,” says Alex Zaccaria, co-founder of Linktree with his brother Anthony and their friend Nick Humphries.

    Emerging technology offers exciting promise in this space. “Directors should be thinking about this, too,” he says.

    Bolstering brands online

    Although there isn’t a sure-fire way to become “online famous”, many of the top online brands and personalities tend to be very good at one thing — they make it easier for audiences to click. The Zaccaria brothers and Humphreys had launched Bolster, a digital media agency, in Melbourne’s Collingwood, in 2015. The idea was to help music and entertainment brands’ social media clicks — and make money from them.

    “That business grew pretty quickly, although part of our challenge was that the online ecosystem is wildly fragmented,” says Anthony Zaccaria. “Artists don’t own the value chain. You have various stakeholders, including record labels and promoters, wanting to drive traffic to where they have vested interests and can take commissions. Everyone wants clicks, so we had to update content multiple times a day across so many online accounts.”

    According to Statista, in 2014, the average social media user had 4.8 accounts. Now it’s 8.5. So as Bolster grew, it had to help clients capture attention and sales across even more online presences.

    “About a year in, we paid a developer to make a very quick MVP (minimum viable product) that unified all those links via a single Linktree landing page in the [social media] user’s bio,” says Anthony. “Really, it was just to solve a pain point for ourselves. We weren’t planning to build a unicorn company and attract venture capital.”

    Viral growth

    Instagram only allows users a single clickable link in their bios, not in captions or comments. The official line is that Instagram wants to prevent spam. But celebrities, influencers and brands were tired of directing followers to a frequently updated “link in bio”, so when a short Linktree link appeared on musician Alicia Keys’ profile in late 2016, the secret of a workaround was out.

    “It blew up on the eve of our sister’s wedding,” remembers Anthony. “Before, we had maybe 30 or 40 sign-ups a day, with promoters like Splendour in the Grass and artists like Flume. Immediately after Alicia Keys used Linktree, it went to thousands of sign-ups a day — a big validation.”

    Linktree now claims 25 million-plus users, including brands such as TikTok and Red Bull, and global celebrities such as actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and singer Selena Gomez.

    Strategic decisions that drove growth

    Humphreys and the Zaccaria brothers still have Bolster in the same building as Linktree’s Collingwood HQ, although they’ve stepped back and now serve as advisers and directors. Focusing more on Linktree was logical, notes Alex. “We’ve been on a rocket ship of growth, from four million users to more than 25 million in just over two years. There are billions of internet users, and trillions of dollars of value in the internet economy that can be unlocked with Linktree.”

    Anthony credits this accelerated growth to an early decision to hire senior people, as Linktree was almost a victim of its early success. “In the early days, we’d crash quite a lot, so we needed to fix that. Even before we raised money, we invested in senior folks to help us scale.”

    Running the business with a remote-first mindset was another smart early decision, explains Alex, and tools like Slack and Zoom help teams work “asynchronously” across time zones. If people can’t make a meeting, they can watch Zoom recordings and continue the conversation via Slack and shared documents. “We acknowledge people’s best work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone,” he says. “We also create rituals around celebrating successes on Slack and over Zoom — not only to show appreciation to those who are going above and beyond, but also to set examples for excellence that we can all work towards.”

    “In hindsight, our remote-first way of working made scaling the business through COVID-19 pretty easy,” adds Anthony.

    Remote working also suits some VCs, helping Linktree attract investors from Australia, the US and the UK during the pandemic for a total of US$165.7m across three funding rounds. This level of funding cemented Linktree as “one of the new tech unicorns” (billion-dollar business), says Anthony, quickly adding the plan wasn’t just to be a “unicorn” — the bigger picture is to lead the creator economy.

    To speed those plans, Linktree went on a hiring spree after its March 2022 funding round, including headhunting Michael Olson from live- streaming platform Twitch to become president of US operations. “He’s had a lot of experience in tech businesses — from Microsoft Xbox and LinkedIn to [music platform] Pandora,” says Anthony. “He brings a level of expertise and confidence for fast growth we haven’t seen before.”

    Pitched in 60 seconds

    In 2021 Linktree followed in the steps of other fast-growth tech companies by investing in social impact projects. Linktree’s Passion Fund distributed grants from a pool of US$250,000 to help creators, activists and entrepreneurs take their passion to the next level. Winners included:

    • Jaguar Siembra, an NFP producing content on environmental, social and cultural topics, which also supports indigenous farmers.
    • AsylumConnect, a mobile and web platform designed for LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution.
    • Made By Blitz, a YouTube channel featuring plant-based food recipes and educational content.

    The founding trio are supported in their scale-up plans by an advisory board set up in October 2020. Rebecca Liu-Doyle, MD at repeat investor Insight Partners and ex-McKinsey & Co, joined after the first fundraising round, and Dan Rose, chair of Coatue and formerly with Facebook and Amazon, joined after the second.

    “Growing as fast as we have, there are always discussions around focus and prioritisation,” says Alex. “Rebecca and Dan have a wealth of experience and wisdom to help us see around corners. Having seen so many companies grow and have to readjust strategy due to market conditions or product fit gives them that experience when working with a company like Linktree. We’ve grown from 20 employees to over 200 in less than two years, so a lot of the product roadmap and our day-to- day ways of working needed to be tweaked to align with the growth and direction of the company.”

    Growing pains

    One of those major re-tweaks of Linktree’s strategy was announced in early August 2022, just a few days after our initial interview with Alex Zaccaria. In a post on Linktree’s blog, also shared on LinkedIn, he said the decision to cut Linktree’s workforce by 17 per cent was difficult, but necessary.

    “To meet the needs of our users throughout the past year, we scaled many of our functions, made some big bets and set ambitious hiring targets to meet them. I assumed the favourable economic environment would persist into 2022,” he wrote. “Instead, conditions changed faster than expected and those assumptions I made were wrong. That next phase involves narrowing our focus on our long-term strategy by reducing roles that are no longer aligned with our roadmap.”

    Challenges for tech startups in Australia

    Australian tech startups are struggling to win ground in the war for talent. Although he’s proud his country is home to several tech unicorns already, Anthony Zaccaria has seen many of the same faces in Australia’s small talent pool move from startup to startup. He’d like Australian governments and educational institutions to invest more in developing tech talent locally for future roles especially suited to startups and scale-ups.

    “The roles we need haven’t been around very long, so we’re having to bring people from other parts of the world where there’s a longer history of developing tech talent,” he says. “That’s not made easy by immigration policies or rules for ESOPs (employee share options plans) that cost us huge accountancy and legal fees, either.”

    Diversity is another critical issue in Australia’s tech ecosystem, adds Alex, pointing to Linktree’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies as examples of how organisations can improve workplaces. “To create tech products that truly serve the needs of diverse users, companies need better structures and policies to address imbalances in their workplaces, and ensure people of different backgrounds are supported, respected and celebrated equally,” he says.

    Celebrating success

    Fast-growth companies sometimes lose their edge by focusing too much on the hustle for money while forgetting what made them exciting in the first place, claims Anthony.

    “You want people to feel aligned to the why of what we’re doing,” he says. “Obviously, good benefits and pay are important, although you also want people to feel supported to have fulfilling lives at work and outside it.”

    Flexible work practices, supporting diversity and making it acceptable for people to be offline all help. And celebrating day-to-day achievements — not just the big wins — is vital for keeping the company culture vibrant. Equally, it’s easier for people to buy into change when they’re kept in the loop. “We’ve had a few reorganisations in the past couple of years and so it’s important we bring people on the journey, explaining why we’re making a change and the benefits that are going to happen because of it,” he says.

    Creator economy

    Linktree has seen plenty of competitors come and go since it created the “link-in-bio” category, which gives the founders confidence in their next move — positioning Linktree as a key player in the creator economy. The business is expanding its marketplace where partners can sell tools to help creators grow reach and conversions to sales. In July, it moved its web-based tools to a mobile app, which frequent users have been eager for.

    Alex says the app saves creators and brands time updating and curating all their online presences. It also includes tools for managing subscriptions and tips from followers, sponsored content deals, merchandise sales and other revenue streams. “Beyond just a link-in-bio tool, we’ve become a platform that encompasses many facets of an individual’s digital universe — a home where creators can truly link to everything they are,” he says. “The Linktree app brings our platform directly to where our communities live and provides a seamless way to curate, share and monetise content while on the go. This potential for creators to become micro economies in their own right could be game-changing.”

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