Pinterest Founders, Ben Silberman and Evan Sharp, Pinned Their Hobby Into An Iconic Internet Company
Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp weren't even child prodigies. When they met as adults in their twenties, they discovered that they had a lot more in common. But it was one thing they shared that sparked their inventiveness; visual thinking.
Ben had been a collector right from his childhood days, collecting stamps, butterflies, and even bugs. He might as well have been walking around with a sign on his forehead that said, "certified dork." Evan wasn't any different and when the two of them met at Yale, they hit it off almost immediately.
Their mutual hobby would eventually lead them to create, perhaps inadvertently, one of the world’s biggest catalogue of ideas.
Ben grew up in a family of doctors and naturally, he was expected to follow this trajectory. But he had other plans that would, technically, make him the outlier in his family.
He had "a love affair with the internet," which began at Google where he'd landed his first job and subsequently moved to California. "I wanted to be part of the internet story," he would later say in a CNN interview.
Pinterest: The Idea
From a young age, Ben had often wondered why there wasn't any way to bring your collections online. He understood the fact that the things you collect, even as adults, say a lot about who you are.
Ben and Evan initially began to build a tool for their own use, one that would help them organize their own collections and eccentricities. It was this effort that birthed the idea behind Pinterest. They later began to design a site that would allow people to visually display their collections. Pinterest, they decided, would be all about visual discovery.
But just how different was Pinterest from all other social networks?
Only one word set Pinterest apart; Discovery. Unlike Google, for instance, Pinterest was less about searching and more about discovery which, Ben insisted, meant "finding something unexpectedly."
"Discovery was something that's fundamentally unsolved online," he observed. "With Pinterest, you'll know it when you see it." Ben noted that it was harder discovering things online and much easier searching for things online.
But a few months after launching Pinterest, no one seemed to like their idea, which they had named Pinterest. It had only garnered about 3,000 registered users, many of whom didn’t even use the app every day.
By any standards, 3,000 users wasn’t anything to write home about in the world of social media. In fact, people thought the idea of creating a product to give people inspiration would be incredibly niche.
But Pinterest went on to defy these notions and become a multi-billion dollar valuation company and one of the top social media sites.
Pinterest lets a single (Pinned) product travel through a vast network of interests and passions. It's about 'discover and do' rather than 'search and find.' On Pinterest, the goal was to help users collect inspiration online and then get them to go offline and do those things.
As he began to build his team, Ben had an unusual selection criteria. One of the first engineers to join Pinterest had been originally an art major and a cartoonist who’d switched over to engineering. Ben was convinced that having such a mix of team members helped the company produce better products and better solutions.
In the early days, Ben didn't just hire the most talented engineers. He also screened for values because he wanted a team of engineers that looked at technology as a tool for making people’s lives better. "We wanted engineers that were obsessed with end users' experiences and were also interested in multiple things in their lives," he said.
Feedback and The Making of a Social Network Giant
Ben and Evan founded the company in 2008. But they began developing Pinterest in 2009 and officially launched it in 2010. They never released many of the earlier versions because very few users were excited to try out the early products.
Only a few hundred users tried out Pinterest in those first few months. “Nobody used the first couple of products we built,” Ben later said in an interview. He knew that the company needed a way to collect real, actionable feedback.
Ben decided to personally email its first 5,000 users to sound them out on their experiences with Pinterest. “We wanted to find out where people got tripped out in terms of the design and making it really simple and intuitive,” he explained.
But this wasn’t enough. Ben knew that if you didn't talk to your customer face to face, it would be incredibly difficult to establish where they got tripped up with your product.
To collect more feedback, Ben and his team would head out to a local coffee shop, buy people a cup of coffee and ask them to use the product. They would sit back and watch and whenever the users looked up for help, it was probably a sign that the product wasn't properly designed.￼
As the two founders collected feedback from its early adopters, they began working on improving the UX design. Evan had been working on the design and he brought the now popular grid-based design.
Users weren't generally excited about the new design when it first came out in 2010, especially since most social sites at the time had focused on text-based designs where users uploaded and interacted with content in text format. But Pinterest stood by its unique design and soon enough, the grid-based design became quite popular with users.
When Pinterest launched its iOS app in March 2011, the number of users shot up almost immediately. It was the company's first major growth spike in users and it received many more users that it had expected.
This spike in growth got the attention of the mainstream media. In August, 2011, TIME magazine included Pinterest in a feature dubbed "50 Websites That Make The Web Great." The number of users spiked as the publicity attracted millions of new users. By the end of 2011, Pinterest had become one of the top ten largest social media sites, attracting more than 10 million unique users each month.
The fact that the earliest versions of Pinterest attracted only a few hundred users didn't quite excite potential investors. Ben and Evan were not n-engineers and many investors opted to pass on any deal to fund the company.
But the two founders pressed on and decided to maintain their original vision. They had become obsessive about the product and they focused almost exclusively on the users' experiences. As some investors remained wary of Pinterest’s prospects, others were sold on Ben's vision.
First came a rather quiet $10 million Series A investment from Bessemer Venture Partners in early 2011. It gave the company a $40 million pre-money valuation. A few months later, Pinterest confirmed that it had closed another round of funding worth $27 million, with reports indicating that its valuation had ballooned to nearly $200 million.
In May 2012, Japanese online retail giant Rakuten announced that it would be leading a $100 million investment in Pinterest. Other participating investors in the deal included Bessemer Venture Partners, First Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, and a number of other angel investors.
The investment provided Pinterest with the capital to improve its service offering and grow its global community. It also stamped a $1.5 billion valuation on the company and initiated a strategic partnership with Rakuten that ensured a foot in the door of the Japanese market and Rakuten's 17 other global markets.
Ben knew that the company's growth momentum would require more funding. But Pinterest still hadn't shown any proof of its money-making ability and therefore, the company wouldn’t ideally excite investors.
However, In October 2013, Pinterest announced that it had won another round of equity funding worth $225 million. The deal, led by Fidelity Investment, more than doubled the company’s valuation to $3.8 billion, making it one of the most valuable private consumer internet companies.
Ben suddenly felt enormous pressure to justify the company's valuation.
From Passion to Profits
Only 31 years old at the time, Ben soaked in the pressure to justify Pinterest’s rapid growth which, by 2014, included 224 employees and more than $500 million in venture funding.
In early 2014, Ben announced that Pinterest would be generating its first revenue in the same year. The company was going to charge advertisers to promote their goods and services to the millions of hobbyists, vacationers, and do-it-yourselfers who were already using the site. Analysts estimated that ads on the site could generate as high as $500 million by 2016.
Many Silicon Valley companies seem to be keen on metrics and data collected from their users. But Ben and Evan stuck with their original vision of turning Pinterest into a source of inspiration for people all over the world. Instead, they relentlessly focused on user experiences to improve the site. This kind of approach, they believed, would ultimately create value for all stakeholders.
By Early 2017, around 150 million users had created more than a billion boards and collected 75 billion-plus Pins. Half of those users were outside the US. Pinterest had overtaken micro-blogging site Tumblr to become one of the top 10 largest social network services.
Over the years, Ben has largely avoided the press. In early 2019, Pinterest quietly filed for an IPO and officially went public on April 18 at a $10 billion valuation. It heralded a major milestone for the internet company that had largely stuck to its original vision and making improvements along the way.
Ben was still in his late twenties when he founded Pinterest. But he believed that technology is a tool and not an end in itself, and that it should serve and enhance people's lives. "It would be a sad world if people spent all their time immersed in technology rather than have that technology enhance their lives offline," he said in an interview.
While the company struggled to communicate exactly what it was in the early days, it has made it clear that it isn't a social network. Like many people, Pinterest is visual. It's easier for people to point to something that they like than to try to describe it in detailed words, a fact that makes Pinterest a standout internet company.
Ben's word of advice for entrepreneurs who want to create something new is that they should get comfortable with making mistakes. "There's really no other way," he says. "If you are not making mistakes then you are probably not trying anything new."