The children are seizing the means of production.
Childhood stories, once constructed, recorded, and carefully curated by the adults now circumvent the gatekeepers and are circulated at large by children themselves. The chronicling of our lives and the expression of social identity today through photos, videos, reels, blogs, newsletters, and memes start at an earlier age than ever before. The young have grabbed their own narrative by the horns.
And to this mentos, the internet added coke.
Direct access to an audience through the internet accelerated our evolution of social identity. Today, the avenues of expression are limited only by our imaginations. Our actively constructed presentations of self vary in expression from TikTok to Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Twitch... pick a platform.
For young creators, artists, publishers, and even brands, an audience and an influence that is built over time often exist in siloes on these platforms. And although we’ve started sculpting our narratives, identities, and social capital earlier than the generations before us, our identities are fragmented across media, formats, and platforms.
The confluence of these trends introduced a need to bridge our identities across platforms and become the new social layer on the internet. Careful observers would have seen this paradigm shift coming.
Alex and Anthony Zaccaria and their friend, Nick Humphreys were careful observers.
Meet their brainchild, and the internet’s unified social identity layer: Linktree.
Born Out Of Passionate Frustration 😡
There’s no R&D that can beat the firsthand knowledge that comes from solving a problem that you personally face. Like Qwilr, Krisp, Slack, and many others before them, Linktree is a true testament to the success that can come from building to eliminate a problem that annoys the living daylights out of you.
Unlike most startups that start out as founders determined to build a unicorn - Linktree was born out of pure serendipity, virality, and passionate frustration.
To get to the genesis of Linktree, we must rewind back in time.
The fortuitous roots of the billion-dollar co. were laid by the Zaccaria family - Italian immigrants running a music business in Melbourne, Australia.
As is typical of Italian family businesses, there was a natural, implicit element of the sons: Alex and Anthony joining the business and carrying the legacy forward. Both spent their time managing DJs, bands, and other musicians, but also organizing the sickest parties in town.
”I was living the life,” says Alex reminiscing the good ol’ days.
It was at this time that the brothers started a boutique digital agency for the Music and Entertainment industry - after recognizing that a lot of musicians would rather spend time honing their craft than figure out how to market themselves. To expand the creative operations of their firm, they roped in their mate, Nick Humphreys, a designer, and the official “Creative Guy.”
Enter the three-man boy band music agency; Bolster. 🔥
While promoting major music festivals and running end-to-end marketing for artists - they faced a recurring problem quite unique to the creator economy. Instagram allowed only one #LinkInBio and they were quite simply getting sick of having to change the link in bio every time they posted.
Inspired by their grandfather who often talked about how he came to Australia with just a toolbox and $5 who always taught them that “If you’ve gotta fix something, you’ve got to do it yourself. No one’s gonna do it for you” -
They decided to take matters into their own hands and solve this rather recrudescent pain-in-the-neck problem.
Little did they know, that this would birth a creator economy revolution and lead to a $1.3Bn rocketship, largely catapulted by organic product-led growth 🙌🏼
MVP = Minimum Viral Product ⬆️
The Zaccaria brothers truly embody the principle "Done is better than perfect.”
Today, their website messaging is simple: Everything you are. In one simple link.
And that’s exactly what the first version of Linktree did.
A simply landing page that could host multiple links.
Users could easily pop the link to their page in their “bio” and simply re-direct different use-cases with a simple Link-In-Bio call-to-action.
Made in under six hours 🤯 by a developer they’d commissioned, the v1 was quickly sent to their friends and clients in the music industry. Having built a solid distribution of major artists and music festivals through their agency, it was easy for them to get early adopters through their own networks.
Having to endlessly update their single bio links, and often forgetting to do so meant unengaged users and inefficient traffic. Bolster understood this problem better than anybody else.
Linktree allowed you to get around these limitations and engage your audience across your entire online ecosystem and redirect them through one entry-point: the lowest path to conversion.
“We saw the real estate of the bio being that place where it was the consistency across all of the channels,” - Nick Humphreys, Creative Director at Linktree
With Instagram feed changing from chronology-based to algorithm-based, people were seeing days’ old content, so the ‘link in bio’ call to action in posts was likely irrelevant by the time the audience saw it. This meant Linktree had come to the creators’ rescue at the perfect time and further helped the company pick up organic growth.
At first, we would wake up to two new users and then suddenly twenty. - Zaccaria brothers
About a week later, the night before Alex and Anthony’s sister’s wedding, unbeknownst to them a passionate user uploaded Linktree on Product Hunt.
Upvotes galore, Linktree quickly climbed the ranks to #4 as the “Product of the Day.” More than 3,000 users signed up overnight, almost crashing their server.
What’s more? Alicia Keys’ digital manager discovered Linktree on Product Hunt and became the first-ever celebrity to sign up.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Bootstrapping powered by Celebrity Evangelists🕺🏻
Linktree remained bootstrapped and cash-flow positive for four years, and only raised their first-ever round in 2020.
So, how did they survive grow for four years without any external funding?
The answer: Celebrity Evangelists.
The “fragmented industry” of musicians and celebrities alike are often left to their own devices with no one to guide them through the complicated world of the internet. Zaccaria brothers & Humphreys understood this and helped them curate, nurture, build and monetize their online ecosystem.
An artist could now move their fans from any platform to another, or to their latest streaming album, their merchandise shop, upcoming concert tickets, you name it. While a website was what was traditionally used, it was sub-optimal at best and led to massive user-drop off and loss of interest, at worst.
And celebrities recognized this problem far too well. After Alicia Keys, Selena Gomez, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jessica Alba followed suit. Seeing their contemporaries solve the cumbersome link-in-bio conundrum with this simple yet elegant solution, many more signed up. All organically.
Linktree now had the likes of Eminem, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Killers, Chrissy Teigen, and big brands like HBO, Shopify, and RedBull as evangelists all at the cost of zero. With celebrity-fuelled discovery, many macro and micro-influencers followed. Each of these signups led to millions of other users signing up leading to a flywheel growth.
Even today, 64% of the sign-ups are users who have just seen Linktree on someone’s profile.
Linktree never spent a dime on paid marketing, well past ~4Mn users. They simply owned the “Link In Bio” real estate for all creators, thus creating their own category, albeit unintentionally.
The Reckoning ⚡️
An ingenious solution for everyone looking to own their online presence; Linktree founders slowly started seeing merit in their product.
One very strong yet unexpected PMF indicator came in 2018, when Instagram banned Linktree flagging it as “breaking community standards” and as spam. Followed by customer complaints, the founders put out a post explaining the reason why the links weren’t working.
More than 41,000 users rallied and raised the concern to Instagram. Instagram soon lifted the ban and issued an apology. With a new lease of life, the rise and rise of Linktree was truly a spectacle. Thousands across the world would sign up organically monthly daily.
2 million users and several use-cases later, Linktree was finally registered as a separate entity. A late epiphany and a mistake, the founders admit, in hindsight.
As soon as they decided to solely focus all their time and energy on building Linktree, they reached out to their most valuable customers first. Alex spoke directly with Alicia Keys’ manager asking her what else they could do for her.
“This should have happened a lot earlier” admits Alex in a recent interview speaking about their late reckoning.
None of them had product management experience, and perhaps this was their greatest blessing-in-disguise. Not bound by PM frameworks, jargon, and long meetings in board rooms, the Zaccaria brothers used a simple ProductBoard to internally capture feature requests directly from their users. They would then prioritize these and create a simple roll-out and onboarding plan.
Some of the recurring features were customizations, analytics, and better attribution.
Realizing that they’d have to invest in building these capabilities, it was now time to monetize. 💰
Linktree launches Premium Tier 💸
"Never taking value away from free and always adding value to pro." - Alex Zaccaria, Co-founder, and CEO, Linktree.
Beyond democratizing online presence and solving the fragmentation across tools (read: TikTok, LinkedIn, Patreon, Spotify, website, and a lot more), the core of the platform’s ethos has been to empower creators in every way possible.
Launched in 2019, Linktree PRO is the Zaccaria brothers’ foray into building for their creators’ wildest online ambitions.
The first version of LinkedIn PRO would help creators analyze user behavior with the ability to track metrics like clicks, views, CTR, capturing email, etc - in other words, own their customer audience journey
Fuel to the fire was the passion economy that arrived with COVID. Linktree became a cohesive, unified place to connect the dots and the fragmented economy.
Alicia Keys became a pro member, and so did the likes of Selena Gomez, Eminem, and Chef Jamie Oliver. With retention that most startups can only dream of and monetization that came from leading creators across over 250+ categories, investor interest started pouring in.
On the back of 8 million global users, 28,000+ sign-ups per day, and over half a billion visitors to Linktrees in just September 2020; the company announced its first funding round in October 2020.
With a whopping $10.7 million Series A led by Insight Partners and AirTree Ventures and strategic investors including the legends of the startup world: Twenty Minute VC’s Harry Stebbings, Patreon CTO Sam Yam, and Culture Amp CTO Doug English; Linktree was the next big thing in social commerce.
“The product’s elegant simplicity conceals an extraordinary vision to empower creators to seamlessly engage with their fans and monetize their content without friction or middlemen. Linktree’s growth to date has been nothing short of extraordinary” - John Henderson, General Partner at AirTree Ventures
It was now time for phase two: SCALE 📈 AND EXPAND 🙌🏼
End-to-end Creator Solution 🔧
Being product-led from day one, Linktree used the fresh funds to invest in a product and engineering team to ship out fresh features that their users needed the most.
Getting to work, Linktree today started shipping several hot 🔥 requests.
🤝 With the Zapier integration, Linktree PRO users could truly power their links by connecting to thousands of applications and workflows - build automated funnels, remove friction from marketing and comms processes, send Twilio SMS messages, and send updates to Slack, etc.
🔗 Link Icon Library has over 550 icons to make key content stand out, improve accessibility and elevate links with features like “Spotlight” and more.
✉️ With SMS links, creators could build a text subscriber list and intimate them if a webinar went live, if there was a special discount on a concert ticket, or simply engage with them.
📹 With Direct Video Links, Linktree uncluttered the way videos can be embedded into the platform; users could directly view the video on Linktree itself without being redirected to another website. This was a huge value-add to most of their pro users, from YouTubers to Pop stars and brands that showcased explainer videos.
For their data-loving users, Linktree developed improved analytics with Geo Data to see top countries where your users came from, the ability to download views and clicks into CSV, along with an integration with Google Analytics for tracking, and improved UTM attribution.
With ready-to-use templates for all use-cases: Fashion, Music, Entertainment, Health & Fitness, and customizable fonts and background images, Linktree was truly empowering its now 12 million users.
On the back of this, Linktree raised another $45Mn led by Index Ventures and Coatue Management, with participation from returning investors AirTree Ventures and Insight Partners.
Despite now having several link-in-bio competitors: Shorby and Beacons to name a few, Linktree still holds over 88% of the market share. The reason? Their deceptively simple design and category-wide market adoption.
Beyond celebrities, enterprise-wide use-cases are leveraged by the likes of Shopify, Facebook, TikTok, YSL, HBO, and Major League Baseball Teams.
With the fresh funds pouring in, the two focus areas for Linktree were: Social Commerce & Building a world-class Growth Team.
Social Commerce 🤝 Passion Economy
Linktree today, sits at the digital intersection of creator self-expressional and audience action, and each feature and initiative they’ve launched since inception is a testament to this basic tenet.
With a directory of 30+ new Link Apps and integrations, the Marketplace is Linktree’s latest initiative and a way for creators to discover the best way to drive conversions to their unique use-case.
Currently, their ever-expanding roster of integrations and Link Apps includes:
- Music streaming platforms: Spotify, SoundCloud, and Audiomack
- Ecommerce platforms: Shopify and Spring
- Payment platforms: PayPal, Venmo, and Square
- Social media platforms: TikTok, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest
- Video and streaming platforms: Twitch, Vimeo, and YouTube
- Marketing & growth tools: Typeform, Gleam.io, and Community.com
- And more: OpenSea, GoFundMe, Bandsintown, and Cameo
By building a homogenous ecosystem that marries creator identity to better engagement and monetization, Linktree has:
⭐️ Enabled over 1Mn artists to generate almost 100 Mn visits to streaming providers in 2022, 3x more than the previous year
💸 Driven over 1.2Bn clicks to commerce-related websites in 1 year alone (from Mar 21 to Mar 22)
🙌🏼 Over 300% YoY growth in influencers, small businesses, and creators from across verticals signing up on the platform.
None of this astronomical growth would have been possible without ruthless prioritization and a keen pulse on customers’ needs.
Having reached scale, the Zaccaria brothers brought in key hires.
Astronomical Growth 🤩
Jessica Box is Head of Growth at Linktree and oversees everything to do with user acquisition and retention. Growth owns the experiments that optimize for product adoption, retention, engagement, monetization, and the acceleration of growth and adoption of the product.
The global growth team is split three ways at Linktree:
🌱 Product growth - Comprising product squads with metric focus
🧐 Growth insights - Data and analytics teams
🔎 Growth CX - CRO, CRM, and SEO
🇦🇺 Region growth - Country growth managers
Jessica led the team that scaled Linktree’s customer base to over 25M+ in two years, with over a billion visits to Linktree each month.
Growth continues to be a key focus area for Linktree and is scaling the team both in the US and back home in Australia.
⚙️ Flywheels vs. funnels
Linktree uses a flywheel model versus a funnel model where growth is largely driven by existing users referring new users. This referral-cycle fuels the speed of the Linktree flywheel. The more users referred, the faster the flywheel. Although Instagram was the primary source of referrals for Linktree, each new channel represented a new afterburner for the flywheel - boosting new user sign-ups and further referral cycles.
“I think around 50% of our users are referred from existing Linktrees. So the importance of making sure we're product-led and 50% of our signups see the product as part of the reason why they sign up. There's huge strength in that.” - Jessica Box, Head of Growth
As with many PLG companies before them, Linktree is layering in a B2B motion - empowering other businesses to create Linktrees from within their platforms via APIs, etc.
🛣 The Road Ahead:
In March ‘22, Linktree raised US$110 million in funding led by Index Ventures and Coatue at a valuation that put them in the unicorn zipcode - US$1.3 billion.
On the back of a fresh new rebrand that puts creators at the forefront of their business, and money in the bank, Linktree announced that it has “a whole suite of new tools and features set to be released to the market over the coming months.”
“Following findings in our recent 2022 Creator Economy Report on the size of the creator economy – at a huge 200m individuals – Linktree believes the potential of the space has been underestimated to date.” - Alex Zaccaria, CEO
As with other pioneers before them - think the Amazons and Facebooks of the world, the pioneer of the “link-in-bio” industry is at a crossroads where there are signs of an evolution from a product into something even bigger.
This tree is just finding its roots.