There’s no shortage of blinking display ads and giant billboards telling people what they want, but Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann said there needs to be more progress in helping people discover things that seem “handpicked” for them.
In a conversation with entrepreneur and investor Chris Dixon, at South by Southwest, the (thus far) media shy Silbermann opened up about the ideas behind his popular virtual pinboarding site and the path to its success.
He said he’d always been interested in social products, so after working for Google for a couple of years, he left to create apps with a friend of his. Eventually, they decided to build something around collecting and launched Pinterest in November 2009.
“I was obsessed with this idea that these things that you collect, they just say so much about who you are,” he said. “I can’t say it came from hard-nosed business analysis… It was just something I really want to see built.”
At first, he acknowledged, adoption was slow. In the first nine months, the site only had less than 10,000 users. And many of those people didn’t use Pinterest every day.
But he and his partner pushed on, he said, largely because “the idea of telling everyone we blew it… was just so embarrassing.”
The site now has clearly blown up. (As we learned last month, it’s one of the fastest-growing sites ever.) But Silbermann said Pinterest’s popularity wasn’t the result of any one moment. He said he met a group of design bloggers at a conference who really took to the site and Pinterest organized an online event called “Pin It Forward” in May of 2010. Since then, growth has been consistently strong.
Unlike other popular tech services, such as Twitter and Foursquare, Pinterest didn’t get its first boost from traditional tech early adopters in New York and San Francisco, but from others across the country. But Silbermann said that given the access everyone now has to technology, that makes sense.
“For me, I think that the whole concept of early adoption is a lot different than it used to be,” he said. “Everyone that I grew up with has Facebook and everyone has a phone, that’s often an iPhone… They have access to the same channels.”
Silbermann’s thinking about engineering also runs contrary to the prevailing school of thought in Silicon Valley (or at least among tech giants Google and Facebook).
“I think of [engineers] like the chefs at a restaurant,” he said. “[They’re] important, but all these other people are integral to making a good meal.”
And that non-tech-centered approach extends to the user experience.
“I want Pinterest to be human,” he said. “The Internet’s still so abstract… To me, boards are a very human way of looking at the world.”
They not only save objects for retrieval later on, he said, they put context around the objects.
Pinterest has been working hard to keep up with scale, but Silbermann said that the company soon plans to release redesigned, more “beautiful,” profiles for users that make it easier for people to find each other. He also said that he’s looking forward to new platforms and seeing Pinterest on the iPad.
The company isn’t yet tackling long-term monetization, but when he does, he said it will be something that “speaks to the heart of the product itself – helping people discover things they didn’t know they wanted.”