Aatif Awan, Vice President (Growth, International & Data Products) at LinkedIn, came to The Nest I/O as a guest speaker for a talk titled, “How LinkedIn Built a Community of Half a Billion”. He told us how he made the journey from a small town in Punjab to LinkedIn. He also shared key insights on how to approach growth strategy, especially from the point of view of a startup. Here are the highlights from the event.
From Lodhran to LinkedIn.
“I grew up in Lodhran. I went to Cadet College Hasan Abdal and then on to GIKI to study Computer Engineering. I did my Master’s in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
While I was studying, I used to think I was going to become a software engineer. It was a technical field and I always enjoyed building stuff myself.
But something interesting happened when Microsoft came to campus for their recruitment drive. I was giving an interview for a software engineer internship. Within 10-15 min the interviewer asks me if I had thought of the Product Manager role. I asked him what the Product Manager role is. Remember, this was back in 2004 so Product Management wasn’t as big as it is now.
I ended up working for Microsoft as a Project Manager and that’s been my role for most of my career. I like working on a wide breadth of projects and I enjoy thinking about the strategy, the product and the user. Although I worked on a variety of products at Microsoft, I realized working on Consumer Products was my passion. In 2011, I saw that the San Francisco Bay Area was the place to explore exciting opportunities in that field. I ended up joining LinkedIn and I think that’s where I found my groove.
When I joined, LinkedIn had 100 million members at that time. They had not gone public. I saw LinkedIn grow to half a billion members. I led the Microsoft and LinkedIn product integration project. I helped LinkedIn expand internationally. And I am lucky to have been there to experience that journey.”
You can’t just build a product and expect growth to happen.
“From 2003 to 2007, LinkedIn focused on Product Market fit. We built growth into the product from the very start. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder, and his team invited influential business people and VCs from the Bay Area to LinkedIn. And when people saw all these influencers signing up, they soon followed. This virality was very important for us in the initial years.
Another thing that we focused on for early growth was using SEO to increase LinkedIn’s visibility. You have to understand that before 2003, it was not common for people to have their professional profile displayed publicly. But with LinkedIn we made it such that when you google a person’s name, their LinkedIn profile was often the first thing that you saw.”
How LinkedIn’s growth strategy evolved over time.
“From 2008 to 2011, something that we changed from our initial years was setting up a cross-functional team which was dedicated towards growth. It was very important that this team be cross-functional. Because growth is not just marketing. Growth is not just data science. Growth is not just product management. It’s a combination of all of these fields.”
Ignore the hype about ‘growth hacks’ and ‘tactics’.
“Just because a tactic worked for someone, it doesn’t mean it’ll work for you too. Instead, think in terms of first principles. Because principles is more important than strategy and strategy is more important than short-term tactics.”
How is your growth strategy related to your vision?
“One example of such a principle is that growth is about accelerating the realization of your vision. It’s not about moving a metric up and to the right. At LinkedIn our vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. Our growth team is focused on making that happen by connecting people, companies, jobs and schools. That’s why we abandoned number of signups as our metric in favor of quality of signups.”
Establish a North Star metric.
“You should measure every metric, but be sure to pick one North Star metric and make it a true measure of the success of your business. Around 2012, we changed up the definition of a key metric. Before, we used to focus on the number of sign-ups. But what if people only signed up once and didn’t use LinkedIn again? So we changed the definition of this key metric to name it quality signups, which looked at the level of engagement that a signup would have over its lifetime.
This is a key learning for people in tech startups. It’s very important to set targets that are aligned with your vision. Otherwise you’ll be chasing after goals that will take you away from where you wanted to end up.”
Diversify your growth strategy.
“A growth strategy should not rely solely on one particular growth channel. We used SEO as well as getting our personal contacts to sign up. Investing in multiple scalable growth channels multiplies your odds of success.”
Before identifying what growth channel to use, you should identify your users’ behavior patterns.
“If people are searching online for the solution that your product offers, then go for SEO and SEM.
If your existing customers are sharing your product through word of mouth, then use virality and referrals.
If your product will benefit from having a larger number of users i.e. it is a community product, then use virality.
If your target users are already on another platform, then think about partnerships and integration.
If your users have a high customer lifetime value (CLT), then think about paid acquisitions.”
Identify the key drivers of your growth channel.
“Once you’ve identified the growth channel to use, the next focus should be on identifying the drivers of this growth channel. For example, for virality, LinkedIn looked at drivers such as how many contacts does a current user invite to LinkedIn on average? Once you’ve got a list of drivers down, you can get creative and use different methods and campaigns to drive growth through that particular channel.”
A/B Testing –Always Be Testing.
“The next principle I want to talk about is A/B Testing or as I call it, Always Be Testing. The more you experiment, the faster you learn and innovate. Experimenting can resolve long-disputed strategy questions and break down long-held myths. For our SEO strategy, A/B testing helped LinkedIn optimize that growth channel. Also remember that over time, as your user demographics change, it might be useful to rerun old tests to see if the results change. This could be a great source for key insights.”
How to hire people for your growth team
“A key strategy that helped LinkedIn was hiring the right people for our growth team. The ideal profile for a potential hire in the field of growth should be someone who is analytical, someone who is curious and someone who is not afraid to ask why. I also look for an ability to get things done. What I don’t particularly look for is prior experience in the field of growth. If a person has an inquisitive mind, then that person is suited to thinking about how to grow your company.”
Unfold your own myth.
“I want to share a story of an inspiring husband-wife team of Waqas and Sidra who have overcome every disadvantage you can imagine. They grew up in Okara, a small town. They didn’t go to the best schools. They came from humble backgrounds and didn’t have a lot of money. And they had to face a lot of opposition from their families. Yet despite all this they ended up as the Founders of Markhor, which went on to become the first company to be accepted into the Y Combinator directly from Pakistan.
These guys have now launched their second startup, Atoms, a shoe company, which got great traction even while being in pre-launch. I am very excited to be on the board for this exciting new venture.
The reason I share their story is because I think we should all set high goals for ourselves and learn to dream big. Final thought that I would leave you all with is a quote by Rumi: Don’t be satisfied with stories and how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”