The links that do it all, and the scrappy startups that power them

The link-in-bio side hustles are moving to full-time

If you want to learn more about an influencer, there’s one place you always know to look: that link in bio.

These singular, powerful links blanket the internet through companies like Carrd, Linktree, and Bio.fm. “We see Linktree used on pretty much every social platform… on email signatures and business cards, and then across Medium, and Spotify, and Pinterest, and TikTok, and Twitter,” says Alex Zaccaria, Linktree’s CEO. The service has “just completely replace[d] the mobile website.”

The idea of a “link in bio,” or a link that does it all, has been growing since 2013, but Google Trends show their search history surging this past year. The link in bio was born out of the limitations set by major social networks, like Instagram and TikTok, that prevent users from including clickable links on their posts and only allow for a single link in profiles.

Originally, that one link might point people to a new video, some merch, or a sponsor. But increasingly, it points to a bare-bones website that can send you anywhere: other social accounts, subscription services, or information about a cause.

“There was this huge gap for people who didn’t need all that complexity [of sites like Squarespace], they just needed that first 80-90 percent of the use case, which is: ‘I just need a site with links to all my crap,’” says AJ, the founder and CEO of Carrd, who prefers to go only by his initials.

These companies all offer a micro-website for free, but they come with limitations, like only being able to link to a few places. The idea is to push people to subscribe to a paid product for a monthly fee, giving them access to features like advanced analytics, the ability to add unlimited links, and to get rid of the companies’ branding. The premium memberships are usually cheap, ranging from $19 a year to $10 a month.

Most of these companies’ founders started out with simple ambitions — make it easier to launch a basic website to support their own side hustles. But the past six months have made these services dramatically more popular; the pandemic left millions of people jobless and having to market themselves, and activists began looking for a way to get the word out about resources for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Linktree, maybe the most recognizable name in the link-in-bio space, says it counted 3 million users last November, reached 5 million in May, and is now approaching 8 million. The team saw 80,000 sign-ups over the past three months linked to Black Lives Matter. Carrd now runs 1 million sites. It found especially viral success, AJ says, from the Black Lives Matter movement, and after Kim Kardashian West shared a Carrd website that linked to resources for supporters.

Although the founders of these companies clearly saw a need, they didn’t necessarily expect business to accelerate the way it did — not that anyone necessarily foresaw a 2020 pandemic and how its effects would ripple into the link-in-bio world. AJ and Moe Miller, one of the founders of bio.fm, both started their companies as side projects. AJ says Carrd slowly monopolized his life until it became his full-time job.

“I didn’t set out for it to be a business to pay for my house or pay other people to work on it or anything; it was just literally a side hustle, but then apparently there’s a market for this type of thing, and then it just takes off from there,” AJ says. “It’s like the frog in a boiling pot, like you don’t realize it until you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, it’s 1,000 degrees in here.’”

AJ brought his business partner onto Carrd full-time to help keep the operation running while he codes the product. He also hired one person to help with site moderation if and when he eventually needs to address problematic content. (For now, he only occasionally deals with takedown requests related to copyright.) He’ll need to employ more mods soon, he says.

The tiny teams and limited upfront cash need was only possible because the links market themselves — the service’s name is right in the link — allowing the businesses to grow on their own, says Bio.fm’s Miller. “If you score a couple of influencers, and you’ve got their link on their profile, you basically are covered.”

This is to say, a link-in-bio business can be as hands-off as for Miller, with Bio.fm being a side gig, or as full-time as for Zaccaria, who employs a team of 41 people to keep Linktree running.

Although they’ve all found success in a tough year, their achievements could easily be put at risk. One technical change on any of the platforms, by allowing people to link to various things from their page, could destroy these services, says AJ.

“If Instagram didn’t limit [you to] only one link in your bio then probably none of [our businesses] would exist,” says Miller. “But here we are.”