The rising star of the social media world isn’t a giant, well-known corporation, and it isn’t filled with Silicon Valley geeks and celebrities. Instead, it’s Pinterest, a unique platform built by a non-engineer that’s turning people who probably never read TechCrunch or Mashable into loyal early adopters.
A year ago, many expected Google Plus to be the talk of the social media world. Instead, Pinterest, which has been around for two years, has taken off like a rocket in the past six months.
Although Pinterest is still in invite-only mode, it has millions of loyal, enthusiastic users who spend large amounts of time within its platform. Interestingly, it is also used much more heavily by women than men (comScore says 68 percent of the users are female, and they drive 85 percent of the site’s traffic). It’s also raising serious amount of venture money and is valued at an estimated $200 million or more.
Ben Silbermann, an Iowan who cofounded Pinterest, gave a little background on himself and his product and answered questions about what’s next for his company during a talk at the South by Southwest Interactive conference.
Silbermann was a pre-med major but realized he didn’t want to be a doctor, so he left the major and tried to find his way. He said discovering TechCrunch piqued his interest. He went to Google and got a job working on Google’s advertising platforms.
"I thought Google was the coolest place," he said. "People there were so smart. I felt really lucky to be there, even in a small way. There was such a concentration of talent at that company."
He said he learned two things at Google:
* The audacity to think at a huge scale, in a way that you don’t really think about when you’re at a regular job. He cited Google Maps as an example. “They decided they had so much money that they took pictures of every street in the world.”
* Being exposed to people who were building great products.
For inspiration, he watched Twitter, Reddit, Google’s Answers product.
"The reason I left Google was not because I didn’t like that company, but with my background, it would have been hard to build product there" since he’s not an engineer.
He said he always wanted to build a product like Pinterest because he was always a collector (stamps, baseball cards, etc). “These things that you collect say a lot about who you are.”
"I had a bunch of ideas when I first left," he said. "I was literally trying to figure things out. I had a lot of time, and no structure."
He took a run, working with a college friend, to make iPhone apps.
"Eventually we came to that idea I had about collections. It was one of those ideas that I can’t say came from really hard-nosed business analysis, it was just something I wanted to see built."
He said collections, to him, were more than just stamps, etc., but clothing, design, and other “discrete collections.”
"There was nothing on the web that made it easy to show off those kinds of collections," he said.
He said development was really expensive - they were outsourcing development. They had some seed money.
"I think in those early days, we spent a lot more time on the design of the site itself. We really labored over the display of the collections," he said. "I felt the collections had to be something you’re proud of. We spent a lot of time on the actual model of the product."
He said he has respect for Twitter for building a “simple and symmetrical” model for design.
"We were building it for ourselves, really," he said. "We never tried to think about what would work for a million people. We had debates about whether we should have boards, repinning … we worked through those issues."
The grid look was something he said they really labored over - “There were dozens of versions of that that were fully styled. We just felt that if your collections didn’t look awesome, if they weren’t incredibly beautiful, why would anybody spend time on them?”
He said Facebook is the pinnacle of graphic design, Apple is the pinnacle of interactive design and Google is the pinnacle of efficient design.
"The hard part is keying in on what is essential about your project," he said.
He said he mailed it to 200 of his friends. “I think 100 of them opened the email.”
He said they had a “catastrophically small number” of users at first. He said the first few people he emailed were people at Google and friends in Iowa. “There were a few people who used it, and they used it the way we hoped they would. Those few people kept us going for a long time. Nine months in, we were still under 10,000 users.”
He said he only kept going because “the idea of telling everyone we blew it was totally embarrassing. Another part was really believed there was something beautiful that we built. If everyday we were getting a little bit closer, we wouldn’t regret the time we spent.”
So what was the turning point?
He went to a conference for design bloggers in Utah. He said he created a little event there for the designers where they created their own boards. “There was never a celebrity who joined, but what did happen is we started seeing regular percentage growth.”
"People would join, and they’d be really proud of their collections, and they’d invite their friends," he said. Silbermann said he personally wrote the first 5,000 or so users to meet up with them, get their feedback. "I was just so happy that people were using it."
He said the early adopters of Pinterest were not from Silicon Valley or New York, which is the opposite of just about every other popular social media site. “What was really cool about that is the people who were using Pinterest early on, they were using it for hobbies and interests and their real life.”
SIlbermann said a lot of people use it for “core lifestyle activities.” He said he goes to the bookstore and looks at the lifestyle magazines. “There are a lot of magazines on cooking and design.”
He said people are using Pinterest for things they didn’t expect, including everything from a "Fake Mitt Romney" board, which is filled with pictures of yachts to travel boards.
He said when he first started, everyone was “obsessed with the idea of real time, and text. So Pinterest was really hard for a lot of people to understand, especially in Silicon Valley. To me, boards are a real human way of looking into the world.”
On copyright issues, Silbermann said “every Internet service that gets big has questions about copyright.” Silbermann says they have a notification system for copyright violations, and they will take photos down. He said the mission of the site is to drive traffic out. He said Pinterest rolled out a “no-pin” system they rolled that lets people keep their work from being pinned.
"Overall, it’s something that’s really important for us. I spend quite a bit of my time reaching out to people who are concerned about it," he said.
As for making money off the site, Silbermann said “monetization has never been a big focus for us.”
He said he’s still focused on building the discovery engine, and is not focused yet in how to make money on it. “That’s the rationale behind going for venture capital. When you get venture capital, it gives you the freedom to focus on the product.”
Silbermann said in the near term, the profile will be redesigned, “It should go live this week.”
He said he wanted to make the profile different from what you have on Facebook and Twitter. He said they’re also introducing a new way to find new people to follow based on repins.
They are also expanding the number of things you can pin - including content from Vimeo, Hulu and Netflix, and they’re also working to make attribution easier and more clear.
Longer term, they are working on platform expansion. “I can’t wait to be able to use Pinterest on an iPad,” he said. “We have a team working on that.”
Silbermann says the meteoric rise of Pinterest is exciting, but he also feels the weight of responsibility.
"We brought this little product into the world, and I want to see it get better. I look at it every day, and I think about the things I want to make better."