SXSW'12 - 31312 - Pinterest Explained: Q&A with Co-Founder Ben Silbermann

Pinterest Founder, Ben Silbermann, talks to Chris Dixon about the origins and future of the internet's fastest growing start-up




  3. NOTES

  4. What led you to start Pinterest?
    As a kid Ben always loved to collect things, and Pinterest was one of the products that came out of that. HIs parents are doctors, his sisters are doctors. He figured he'd become one too. While he was in med school he had a moment of clarity and realized this was not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. After being aimless for a bit, he started reading TechCrunch, Digg, Kevin Rose, and other tech startups, and he realized he wanted to be a part all the excitement there. He first started working for Google in Ad Operations, and quickly realized there was no place for him in the engineering department. But being around people who worked there was inspiring; it gave him the exposure he needed to meet great product managers and engineers. This was, after all, the only company that was like, "we're making so much money, let's take a picture of every street in the world." Some may say that Google doesn't have innovation in its DNA but look at who came through there and they still make some of the most amazing products.

    What were some of Ben's favorite products?
    Ben has been fascinated by Twitter, Reddit, and Google Answers. He left Google because non-engineers weren't allowed to build products. At that moment he reailized it was time to move on.

    How did you and the team build out Pinterest?
    From the beginning, Ben and his team worked a lot on the design itself. They labored over the display of these collections, knowing that these collections needed to be something the owner could be proud of and  want to share with others. The model needed to be simple: People, Boards, Pins. Ben respected Twitter in being disciplined for finding simple and symmetrical design. They worked through on paper all the features they should have, i.e., if they should have repins. There were dozens of versions of the grid: varied width, profile picture on the left or the right, 13 vs 15, contrast high or low, all with working prototypes. The process wasn't super quantitative but Ben didn't want to send it out until he felt it was worth people's time. 

    Ben took a different approach - he didn't MVP.
    "You don't know what minimum is and you don't know what viable is. The average consumer is incredibly hard to impress. They have beautiful design in their phones and they have Facebook as the pinnacle of social design. You have to show them you're worth their time."

    Ben also emphasized keying in on what is essential to your product, by not compromising too much. Initially, he sent Pinterest to 200 friends and only 100 only opened it up. The numbers were "catastrophic." A few people signed up and they were the ones that kept the team going. 
    Nine months in Pinterest was still under 10,000 users. But Ben and his team kept going because the idea of telling everyone they had failed was too embarrassing. He noted if he had read the now famous Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries, he would have shut down months ago.

    When did things start to look up?
    There were a few instances. He went to a conference in Utah for design bloggers. Many people were interested in inspiration offline and he even created a promotion called Pin it Forward; as a result, they invited people to create pinboards about things they were inspired by and they were given more invites for their friends. More people joined but more importantly the people that joined were proud of what they collected. 

    The team talked a lot to their first 5,000 users and they're still interested and helping now. He has even given his cell phone number out. There were moments though when the site would go down in the middle of the night...but no one noticed. Even though it was a tough beginning, they  felt they were writing their own destiny. Ben says, "It was amazing to do something and call it your own and see it come to life in front of you."

    Pinterest really took off with non-tech folk. What was it like?
    "The Bay is very binary. You're either in Silicon Valley or you aren't. Back in the day you bought expensive internet, you had a smart phone and you have access to computers. To those people who had access to Pinterest early on, they were related to things they loved to do in real life. They would cook recipes, buy furniture and get people offline to do something they loved unlike many products are designed to get people to stay on longer."
    Within six months, their user growth had taken off. As the site grew in popularity they were interested in working on the product more than taking interviews, due to their own shy personalities. Instead of going out and talking about caring, tThey felt responsible for bringing this little thing into the world, and nurturing it to help it grow. He believes everyone who creates something often times has simultaneous feelings of joy and shame because they have no idea what people might think.

    Is Pinterest really just cupcakes and furnitures? What other things have people used it for?
    People use it for "core lifestyle activities." Ben would go to the book store and look for lifestyle magazines, and it was a good proxy for what people were interested in, whether it be cooking or design. It was just a few weeks ago they had their first satire boards around Mitt Romney. They've even had museums join, like the San Francisco MOMA. Travel boards are new. A woman in Spain has used Pinterest to create travel guides to all the places she's been to. Ben says, "Everyday we see a new board we couldn't have imagined someone creating." 

    Why is Pinterest more Board focused than feed focused?
    Everyone was talking about real time, but we like boards and folders because they help make sense of all this chaos. These collections are designed to be timeliness while most real-time news doesn't have any intrinsic value. In general he believes your favorite movie is the same today, tomorrow or next month. "You never see a tweet older than 48 hours, unless it's ironic. I wanted to create a service that's a bit timeless." - Ben

    What makes Pinterest different from clones like Pinspire?
    "Our focus is not on racing against clones, but on making the product beautiful."

    Are there copyright issues?
    Google, Blogger, and Twitter have all had issues with this. Ben said there is a process for taking things down, emailing the people who got an inbound link and even a No Pin Tool. 

    Affiliate links for monetization?
    Monetization has not been a focus for Pinterest. Though, Ben believes long term monetization has to speak to the heart of the product itself such as helping people discover things they didn't know they wanted. The discovery process needs improvement, and Pinterest wants to deliver things that are handpicked for every user. The focus is on growing and nurturing the product. That was the rationale for taking on venture capital to buy freedom and so that they could focus on the product and not monetizing. 

    New features to come?
    Redesigning the profile for Pinterest, which should be up this week. Pinterest wants this to be a snapshot of what the person is all about visually. They also want to make it easier to find people you are influenced by, and expand the number of things you can pin. Pinterest on the iPad is also coming, as it is already on iOS. They want to create an open API and don't have a launch date for it. Ben says, "I want Pinterst to be a really human surface."

    Closing remarks
    Ben says they couldn't have made Pinterest without the help of other open source platforms such as Amazon and Oracle web services to troubleshoot and build the site, but there aren't any Amazon services for community. Engineers are like the chefs at the restaurant but everyone else is just as important. Pinterest has an engineering, design and  social functions (stats, communication, quant/qual and feed it into product features). You see how social norms propagate as it is a hybrid of both people you know and strangers, with its Iterative design. 

    Other advice
    "Don't take too much advice from anyone."
    “Most people generalize whatever they did, and say that was the strategy that made it work."
    "Don't let your engineers tell you that you need a new database."
    "Sometimes you just have to build it to find out. Don't be afraid of failure it's one more option off the table."
    "The team is the most exciting product we are building."