Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann just gave an interview with Hunch founder Chris Dixon at SXSW. As he took the stage, the audience cheered.
The soft spoken, thoughtful founder hasn’t given many interviews before, but he oozed intelligence; not one word was wasted.
Silbermann spoke about his career before Pinterest. Despite slow initial growth, Silbermann told the crowd why he never gave up on the startup.
As a child, Silbermann enjoyed collecting things, from insects to stamps. “What you collect says so much about who you are,” he mused. Pinterest was built to help people continue their collections online.
Prior to Pinterest, the Iowa native worked for Google but didn’t come from an engineering background. Silbermann’s parents were doctors and he was pre-med in college. During his junior year, Silbermann had a change of heart.
After graduation he took a consulting job in Washington, D.C. He began reading technology blogs and enjoyed learning about what people were building. “I thought, What a funny name for a blog — Tech CRUNCH,” Silbermann recalled. “I would read about things like Digg and Kevin Rose.”
Silbermann said he had to cajole his way into Google. He was hired to design products like display ads.
“I thought Google was the coolest place,” said Silbermann. “People there were so smart and they were all doing these really interesting things. I just felt really lucky to be a a part of it even in a small way.”
Silbermann took two things away from his Google experience: he learned to think big and he was exposed to people who built amazing products.
“Google had the audacity to think at a really big scale,” said Silbermann. “We’re making so much money, let’s take a picture of every street. Like, nobody does that! It was inspiring”
While working for Google, Silbermann had products on his mind. But he wasn’t an engineer there so he felt his ability to create things was restrained.
Silbermann resigned and spent the next few months figuring out his life. “It takes time to figure out how to not go to your job in the morning. All of a sudden you have a lot of time and no structure.”
He connected with a friend from college, Paul Sciarra, and the two began trying a few ideas while watching their personal savings dwindle. They made iPhone apps without much success. “I’ve worked on products where they go down in the middle of the night and no one notices. You get the ‘site down’ notice but it doesn’t matter,” said Silbermann.
Pinterest looked like that in the beginning. After nine months, Silbermann said the site had less than 10,000 users and many weren’t using it daily. “I sent Pinterest to 200 of my friends and I think 100 of them opened the email. It was catastrophically small numbers,” Silbermann said.
“I included a lot of people from Google and California, and I emailed a lot of people from Iowa. The people who started using it used it the way we had hoped. I think those few people kept Pinterest going.”
Silbermann personally contacted the first 5,000 users. He has given many of them his cell phone number and continues to communicate with them.
When asked why he didn’t give up during the tough first year, Silbermann said, “The idea of telling everyone we blew it was so embarrassing. I thought, ‘Google is never going to take me back — they barely hired me the first time!'”
Silbermann and Sciarra put all of their time into making the product work — just work, Silbermann reiterated.
The pair obsessed over Pinterest’s design, from the width of a profile to the side of the screen to display it on. “There’s this simultaneous joy and shame when looking at your own product. You just see all of the things you want to make better,” he said.
“To me boards are a very human way of looking at the world,” said Silbermann, who admitted he sees the world as a series of people’s collections. He even referred to his wife’s closet as a collection of shoes and clothes.
Not everyone loved Pinterest’s grid-like design though. Most of the world was caught up with real time feeds and text when Pinterest launched.
Eventually, the site started to catch on but Silbermann says Pinterest wasn’t an overnight success — no actor signed up and brought in a flood of people.
By June 2011, Pinterest started receiving more media attention. Silbermann found himself opening the blogs he had always read to find his picture there.
Now, Pinterest has 20 million users — or so Dixon said on stage. The team of 20 people hired 10 employees 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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