Ben Silbermann, Pinterest: going global, modestly

Ben Silbermann, Pinterest: going global, modestly

Unassuming co-founder leads expansion as the scrapbook site looks to grow into its $11bn valuation

Ben Silbermann, Pinterest CEO, talks about the company's plans for the future at the Pinterest offices in San Francisco, California, Thursday, March 31, 2016. Thor Swift for the Financial Times©Thor Swift

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann compares the site to Google, where users search for things not people

Ben Silbermann screws up his face as he considers what he could buy now he has been officially declared a billionaire by Forbes.

As Pinterest co-founder and chief executive, he helped create the clean, white online scrapbook where more than 100m users catalogue their desires. The 33-year-old has some 750,000 followers of his pins on subjects including art, recipes and a travel bucket list. But he does not have a “billionaire” pinboard for the life stage that crept up on him as Pinterest became one of the world’s most valuable technology start-ups.


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Sitting in a small meeting room below a poster that reads “Say the hard thing”, he hesitates. “I want to buy a new camera but I haven’t gotten around to it,” he says. “I really love photography . . . I can’t think of anything that’s journalist-worthy or exciting.”

He is not part of the tech scene in San Francisco, but the “guys with young kids scene” — worlds he insists do not overlap. His Pinterest boards map his path to becoming “super grown up”. That journey went from stints as a consultant and at Google, to founding the start-up six years ago, to fathering two young children. His pinned pictures include sleek, wooden designer chairs for his first apartment without roommates, bouquets for his wedding and gifts for his children.

Pinterest’s $11bn valuation, despite being only a year into generating revenue, is the result of it being unashamedly commercial. Unlike with some other Silicon Valley “unicorns”, or highly valued private start-ups, few have questioned whether a platform filled with devoted planners of decorating, camping weekends and celebratory meals would make money. Advertisers clamoured to get on the app before it even began to sell adverts.

But for Mr Silbermann, Pinterest is more than a fancy, interactive shopping list. He is modest enough not to proselytise about an innovation revolution and jet off to see world leaders, unlike some tech entrepreneurs. But he does say Pinterest is changing the world by encouraging people to improve their lives, one everyday activity at a time.

“What would make me really happy five years from now was if [Pinterest] was really this global place where you could access the whole world’s ideas and they were just brought to you, totally personalised to you, every single day.”

What would make me really happy five years from now was if Pinterest was this global place where you could access the whole world’s ideas and they were just brought to you, totally personalised to you, every single day

– Ben Silbermann

Pinterest was founded in 2010 by Mr Silbermann, Evan Sharp, chief creative officer, and Paul Sciarra, who left in 2010. Despite its male founders being keen to create a space for online collections, based on their geeky passions from bugs to design, it gained an early reputation as a social network for women shoppers, and above all else, a wedding emporium, stemming from its first nexus of committed users in Mr Silbermann’s native Midwest. But now about a third of US internet users have Pinterest accounts, according to the Pew Research Center, and it has a small but growing male audience encouraged to follow topics such as “man cave” and “survival skills”.

Pinterest’s next project is going global.

About 45 per cent of its users are outside the US and it has offices in the UK, France, Germany and Brazil. This shift can be seen at the Pinterest headquarters in SoMa, San Francisco’s start-up centre. The large former warehouse is, like the app, a temple to clean, white lines, with sunlight pouring through a swimming pool-sized skylight on to a central communal dining room. Like the pins on Pinterest, the office displays projects made by staff. On a previous visit, a wooden swing built by the legal team hung from the ceiling; this time, a board displays the flags of its five target countries in Lego.

Many social platforms do not target countries, because adoption soars naturally when users recruit their friends to chat. But Pinterest needs to make a concerted effort country by country because people come for content, not conversation. Users want pins in the right language, with projects suitable for the local climate or cuisine and shops they can buy from — and so Pinterest must encourage content providers on to the platform first.

Pinterest has 10 researchers who travel the world trying to understand how people might use the site. Mr Silbermann will embark on a global tour in June, saying he loves to learn about brand “mainstays” in other countries, such as the UK retailer John Lewis.

Pinterest rejects the social network tag, preferring to compare itself to Google: a place where people look for things, not people. “I don’t think the comparison is meant to be in size but rather in the spirit of building a tool that everyone can use to help make their life better,” he says. “Google, I think of as really about retrieving information. Pinterest is really about almost pushing you ideas that you’ve never seen before.”

“Whether it is television or a social network, [advertisers] feel that their ads have to pull people’s attention away because people aren’t there to talk about new ideas,” he says.

The start-up will need to seduce marketers on a larger scale to grow into its valuation. Only 10 minutes’ walk away, Twitter provides a warning of what Pinterest could become if user growth fails to live up to high expectations; its shares are down by two-thirds in the past year. Mr Silbermann takes comfort in the fact Pinterest has followed the latest Silicon Valley trend: to stay private for longer. This means he can focus on improving performance, rather than on how he communicates about expectations.

The venture capital Pinterest has raised — a total of $1.3bn from investors including fund manager Fidelity, Japanese retailer Rakuten and Silicon Valley VC SV Angel — has enabled him to hire smart people that can make products, he says, such as those improving search and computer vision, a way of understanding image data.

Neither he nor Mr Sharp, who went to architecture school, are software engineers and unlike many technology companies, Pinterest does not prioritise engineering above all else. If Mr Silbermann evangelises about anything, it is knitting — and not the woolly kind. “One of the values of the company is ‘knitting’ and the premise of it is that if you bring really diverse disciplines together, you can produce something better.” Pinterest employs a star engineer who wanted to be a cartoonist, a “world class” design team and former journalists.

This week, the company, including the nascent international teams, will gather in San Francisco for the annual “KnitCon”. Last year, employees gave classes on wine-tasting, writing screenplays and amateur locksmithery.

Mr Silbermann’s eyes light up as he talks about the event, excited to be at the back of the class learning, rather than in the uncomfortable position of preaching to the company from the front. “I don’t know, I feel like I talk to the company too much,” he says.

The angel investor

Ron Conway, a prolific angel investor in Silicon Valley, has worked closely with Ben Silbermann for years, considering him “one of the top 10 greatest tech founders on the earth right now”. “Ben had to build the culture of Pinterest, which somewhat represents him, a much more humble, understated kind of culture, a thoughtful culture,” he says.

“If you contrast Pinterest [with] Twitter, for example, Twitter is known for having a drama a day. There is no drama at Pinterest.”

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