SAN FRANCISCO — Ben Silbermann does not enjoy being interviewed. He is not a fan of speaking at tech industry conferences. Nor does he like sitting for glossy magazine portraits. He does not think he should have to explain Pinterest, the web service that allows people to save images to virtual pinboards, to anyone other than those who want to use it.
That is the case even in the past couple of years, when Pinterest and Silbermann, its co-founder and chief executive, could have been shouting the company’s virtues from the rooftops.
Its peers, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have been drowning in toxic harassment, fake news and Russian disinformation campaigns. Critics have denounced social media-induced anxiety and addiction.
Pinterest, by Silbermann’s design, is the opposite: the web’s last bastion of quaint innocence. Having de-emphasized its social media elements years ago, Pinterest aims to be a safe and happy place for inspiration, self-improvement and salted caramel cookie recipes. It also rejects Silicon Valley’s typical unicorn formula of moving fast, breaking things, chasing growth at all costs and bragging about every victory.
But the reserved, slow and steady approach has long frustrated some investors and employees, who believe that it has neutered growth, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who have worked with or for the company. Many of those people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the company’s private affairs.
Matt Novak, a partner at All Blue Capital, said his firm was trying to sell its stake in Pinterest, which the firm acquired on the secondary market, because it had not lived up to its potential.
“If they don’t keep up, they very quickly become prehistoric,” said Novak, who would not disclose the size of his firm’s stake in Pinterest.
And yet despite Silbermann’s approach — or maybe because of it — the company is worth US$12.3 billion and growth is accelerating. And the company has crossed a new milestone — 250 million monthly active users. Those users have pinned 175 billion items on three billion virtual pinboards. The company is on track to top US$700 million in revenue this year, a 50 per cent increase over last year, according to a person familiar with the company. There is wide speculation that it will go public next year.
If Pinterest continues its trajectory, it could change the narrative of what it takes to build a successful company in Silicon Valley, a meaningful feat at a time that the startup world is seeking new templates for leaders. If it does not, it will serve as another example of wasted potential, or worse, a cautionary tale.
“I tell them, ‘You have to tell your story, especially now,” said Scott Belsky, an entrepreneur who was an early investor in Pinterest.
Belsky said, “He is so comfortable being misunderstood and underestimated.”
When Silbermann was asked about his limited public profile in a recent interview, he noted with a hint of exasperation that he was right there, talking to me for this article.
“That’s something!” he said.
‘Measures twice, cuts once’
Tech companies usually reflect the personalities of their founders. Mark Zuckerberg infused Facebook with a “move fast and break things” hacker mentality. Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, pushed a “toe-steppin’” and “hustling” culture at Uber.
Silbermann, 36, grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, in a family of doctors and assumed he would also go to medical school. But his first encounter with high-speed internet, at Yale University in 1999, changed his mind. “You could find your people there and really explore inside yourself,” he said.
He has tried to instill that same thinking at the company. Pinterest values “knitting,” a term its employees use to describe collaboration among groups. “We believe innovation happens when disciplines knit,” the company’s website says.
In the beginning, when Pinterest was desperate to hire engineers as quickly as possible, Silbermann screened potential hires for their values before even considering their technical skills.
Silbermann is someone who “measures twice, cuts once,” said Rick Heitzmann, a managing director at FirstMark Capital and early investor in Pinterest.
“Perfectionist doesn’t overstate it,” said Jeff Jordan, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and a Pinterest board member.
Pinterest’s offices in San Francisco display the sort of cutesy, self-referential bric-a-brac that is common at startups — a giant statue of a pushpin made of Legos, a Pinterest surfboard. But Silbermann’s demeanor is serious and reserved. In conversation, he listens carefully and responds with earnest sincerity, qualifying statements as his own opinion, rather than declaring them as facts.
He also does not focus on Pinterest’s image in the business world. Instead, he dedicates an outsize amount of time to meeting with Pinterest users, going on six tours a year and holding weekly lunches at Pinterest’s offices. That is a meaningful time commitment for the chief executive of a 1,500-person organization.
If Pinterest addresses the needs and desires of its users, he said, “the business will take care of itself.”
Pinterest has always confounded Silicon Valley insiders. Its first users were not teenagers — the typical early adopters of digital services — but Midwestern women. And Silbermann and his co-founder, Evan Sharp, were not engineers, a prerequisite for many venture capital investors.
“From the beginning, this company did things differently from how most storybook Silicon Valley companies have operated,” said Jeremy Levine, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, Pinterest’s largest shareholder.
The company’s growth exploded by 2011, just a year after its service went live, spawning countless copycats — for families, for music, for pornography, for Lady Gaga fans — and clones in every major country. It seemed possible that Pinterest could be as successful as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube — maybe even Google. The market for social media advertising was still young and up for grabs. A Forbes cover story about Pinterest declared, “Move over, Zuck.”
The business case was simple and powerful: It was a shopping mall disguised as a mood board that held its users’ aspirations, unearthing pure and unfiltered commercial desire. “You can draw a direct line from those interests to a commercial opportunity or retail category,” said Andrew Lipsman, an analyst at eMarketer.
But just as the company began selling ads in 2014, user growth stalled and it was not clear why, according to multiple people familiar with the company. The company disagreed that growth had stalled, arguing that it had “slightly slowed.”
Executives on Pinterest’s “growth” team proposed spending US$50 million a year to acquire users through marketing, a common tactic for web companies. Other executives argued that the company should court celebrities and pay influencers to share content on Pinterest, similar to YouTube’s premium content program.
Silbermann opposed both, according to people familiar with the decision. He preferred what he called “quality growth.”
“There’s a natural rate at which you can scale a company that’s healthy,” Silbermann said. So Pinterest stuck to its knitting.
Not everyone was sold on the message. Even by the standards of startups, where employee turnover is common, the number of executives leaving Pinterest has been notable in recent years. Since 2015, the company lost people who ran media partnerships, operations, finance, growth, engineering, brand, product, tech partnerships, marketing, corporate development, communications and customer strategy, along with its general counsel and president. Jamie Favazza, a Pinterest spokeswoman, said, “Turnover is natural at high-growth startups, but we’ve built a strong team of leaders for the long-term.”
Some former executives argue that the company should have hired salespeople faster. Several ex-employees say morale would have been better if Pinterest had taken big swings on hypeworthy cutting-edge tech, like Snap’s camera-embedded sunglasses, introduced in 2016.
But those glasses, called Spectacles, became a costly punchline. And unlike most of its money-losing startup peers, Pinterest, with US$1.5 billion in venture backing, has flirted with breaking even in recent quarters, according to the company.
What Pinterest’s critics identify as negatives (conservative decision-making, less urgency, squandered opportunities), its supporters cite as positives (bullets dodged, wasted time avoided).
As a result, conversations about Pinterest tend to raise fundamental questions about the nature of success in Silicon Valley.
“I want to believe that more thoughtful, slower growth is better,” said Tracy Chou, a former Pinterest engineer. “But the examples that are very visible seem to suggest that really aggressive growth wins, at least in the near term.”
Picking up the pace
Investors and former executives say Pinterest has rallied in the past year under a new chief operating officer, Francoise Brougher, and a new head of sales, Jon Kaplan, both formerly of Google.
Pinterest’s founders “have this look in their eye like this is working now,” said Belsky, the early investor.
The company has accelerated growth in users, up 27 per cent over last year. More than half of all users now come from international markets. That change happened after the company realized it needed to promote local content, not what was popular in the United States, to new users in each region. (British users did not respond to American Crock-Pot recipes, it turns out.)
Revenue growth is also picking up, which Kaplan attributed to having the right measurement data to show brands that ads on Pinterest are effective. The company has hired more salespeople, introduced more ad options and refocused on small- and medium-size advertisers. It is preparing to start selling ads in non-English speaking countries, starting with France.
The company is even trying to raise its profile a little bit, hiring a new chief marketing officer and coming up with a new marketing plan to emphasize the service’s benefits. Brougher said she, like Silbermann, prefers to underpromise and overdeliver. “But that doesn’t always work well in the tech world,” she said.
Silbermann said, “In technology, people are very, very fast to declare something a winner or loser, like, ‘That’ll never work,’ or ‘That’ll take over the world.’ The truth is always somewhere in between.”