Ben Silbermann, the Mind Behind Pinterest

by Modis on May 8, 2012

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Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann recently spoke with Hunch founder Chris Dixon at the Austin, Texas conference known as South by Southwest (SXSW). During this interview, Silbermann reflected on the origins of his business, his reasons for doing things the way he has, and hinted at the future of Pinterest.

Silbermann had spent years working in the tech industry, including well-known megacorporation Google, but had never given up on the dream of his own Internet startup. The dream that eventually became Pinterest started when Silbermann was very young, collecting all sorts of things from insects to stamps. Pinterest, he says, is simply an extension of that habit into the digital world: allowing users to create their own “stamp collections” of various items from all around the Web.

During his employment at Google, Silbermann learned not to be afraid to think big and he was exposed to people who designed amazing products. However, he was not an engineer with the company and thus, while he had no shortage of ideas for new products, he was restricted in his capacity to see those ideas to fruition. He resigned from Google and spent a few months soul searching and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. During this period, he reconnected with his college friend Paul Sciarra and began working on iPhone apps, which never really took off.

Pinterest, Silberman says, was exactly the same way in the beginning. Nine months after the site was deployed, fewer than 10,000 users were registered, and many were not using it regularly. The site was advertised by Silbermann directly, e-mailing links to friends, family, and contacts at Google, some of which never deigned to open the e-mails to begin with.

Still, he was undaunted by the lack of momentum. Silbermann refused to admit defeat, citing that he could never convince Google to take him back if his venture had failed. He and Sciarra poured all of their time into making the product work, obsessing over the design right down to the minutiae of profile width and which side of the screen to display it on.

Not everyone appreciated the new look of Pinterest, however, as many users had grown accustomed to the real time feeds and text-based updates common to other forms of social media. Still, the site did begin to catch on but it was a gradual, grassroots movement that brought it to the media’s attention. By June 2011, Silbermann found his own face looking back at him from the tech blogs he had frequented for so long as the man behind the next great thing in social media. Now with over 20 million users, Pinterest’s team of 20 people has added another ten new employees to their ranks in the last four months.

Silbermann said the growth has been both stressful and exciting. “It’s exciting that people care a lot but then you also feel this weight of responsibility. You brought this little thing into the world; you want to see it get better.”

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