From 2003 to 2016, LinkedIn grew from 500,000 users to over 500 million members. VP of growth Aatif Awan shared the three-stage strategy the company followed to explode from also-ran to must-have today at Traction Conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Stage one: Stimulating virality

In the early years from 2003 to 2007, LinkedIn grew from 500,000 to 13 million users. Like all startups, growth is essential and the challenge is obvious: grow or die.

That means something very, very significant.

"In the early days, you don't need a growth team," Awan said. "Everyone is the growth team."

That means the CEO is part of the growth team. The product managers are part of the growth team. The engineers are part of the growth team. Product support -- if it exists -- is part of the growth team. In these early days Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn CEO, invited everyone he knew or met to the product, and so did everyone else.

The second thing to learn from from LinkedIn's early growth?

"Growth has to be built into the product," says Awan.

That's clearly the case at LinkedIn, where the value of your network increases as more and more of your business colleagues connect with you. It also needs to be built into products that are not necessarily primarily social in nature.

Stage two: Systematizing growth

From 2008 to 2011, LinkedIn started investing more in growth. The key: the company started to make it a system, building a team that boosted user numbers 10 times from 14 million to 140 million.

The key: building the right team with the right combinations of talent.

"As you get scale, you need to build a growth team," Awan says. "You need product people and marketers on that team -- you need both -- and you need data scientists and engineers as well."

In addition, the company identified its major growth channels by studying what users were doing and how they were finding the site. Virality and search engine optimization were key ones for LinkedIn, but those key drivers are different for different companies at different times.

In addition, the company expanded beyond the U.S.: a critical growth driver.

"When we added new languages, we'd see growth in that country more than double," Awan said.

Stage three: Use data to ramp up your growth rate

In stage three, LinkedIn got really serious about understand members beyond the acquisition stage.

"We expanded our metrics on acquisition, activation, connections, retention, and resurrection," says Awan. "Also, we added new metrics: quality signups, and engaged quality members."

In other words: it's not just about adding bodies, it's about adding quality users, members, or customers, depending on what your business is and how you monetize.

There was one other key to the third stage, however, and it is a country.

China was huge in driving LinkedIn's growth to 500 million members. But since China is a reef on which many companies' expansion goals have foundered, LinkedIn did business a little different in the middle kingdom.

"When we entered China we realized that China was a very unique situation, with 20% of the world's professionals," Awan says. "So we worked with partners like Alibaba and Tencent ... that was very critical to our success."

What's next, and five keys to success

Awan didn't say a lot about LinkedIn's future growth strategy, but he did give a hint: deep integration into Microsoft's operating system and business productivity tools, like Outlook.

(Microsoft, of course, acquired LinkedIn in 2016 for $26 billion.)

Awan also added five keys to growth success for startup entrepreneurs:

  1. Define one "North Star" metric for success
  2. Good product comes first, growth comes second
  3. Identify growth channels by checking how users are currently finding you
  4. Measure everything and tie it back to your single North Star metric
  5. Hire the right people