SXSW Interactive: day five (Pinterest’s perfect)

Soft-spoken Ben Silbermann is the juxtaposition of the hard-driving, excitedly fast talking startup entrepreneur. Initially he and two of his friends built Pinterest for themselves, Silbermann said during the “Pinterest Explained” session at South by Southwest (SXSW). At the time of its inception hoped others would like Pinterest and even come to see it as “beautiful.” However, he seemed genuinely delighted and as surprised as anyone that Pinterest has become such a huge hit.

Interviewed by Christopher Dixon, CEO of Hunch, a provider of decision-making engines, Silbermann described Pinterest’s success as “stressful and exciting. Exciting that people care a lot, but I also feel the weight of responsibility. I mean, you brought this product into the world and you want to see it get better.”

Silbermann’s background, as he narrated it, was not steeped in technology. He came from a family of doctors and was himself a pre-med Junior in college when he had second thoughts about going into medicine and began reading the blog TechCrunch. He moved to California after graduating college in 2003 and “cajoled my way into Google,” joining the company in sales and operations support.

Silbermann first thought about building a product at Google, but knew his lack of an engineering background meant that opportunity was likely out of reach. He left and, with a friend, developed iPhone apps, which Silbermann said was fun and exciting if not profitable. As his savings dwindled, Silbermann and his friend brainstormed possible products and services they might create.

In 2009, they finally decided upon the product they’d build: Pinterest, which arose from Silbermann’s childhood passion collecting.

While the media has described Pinterest as an overnight success, the service was first introduced to a group of around 200 of Silbermann’s friends, who received an email describing the service and asking if they would be willing to test it. “100 opened the email,” Silbermann said. “We had catastrophically small numbers. The first group were my Google friends and then to my friends in Iowa, where I grew up. A few people used it the way we hoped they would.”

Though Silbermann’s friends liked Pinterest, the adoption rate was initially abysmal. Silbermann thought about quitting – lots of people asked why he kept moving forward on the project. “The idea of telling everyone we blew it was so embarrassing,” he said. “We believe [Pinterest] was something we could build and be really proud of.”

There was no big “turning point” moment for the company. Silbermann and his friends focused on creating a “beautiful” site, not a monetized one – which continues to be the plan for the immediate future. Adoption growth was organic. Early on people used Pinterest for their hobbies and personal life. It was gratifying, said Silbermann, to take an offline activity and move it online to share with others.

Now, however, world-class museums use Pinterest to share collections globally. Echoing a visual-style fake Twitter account, someone has put up a fake Mitt Romney collection of expensive yachts.

Investors weren’t too interested in Pinterest in the beginning. Timing was a problem, Silbermann explained. Everybody focused on real-time, instant feeds and Twitter had just become popular. By contrast, Silbermann’s concept was precisely the opposite. He wanted to create something timeless. “If you love a book now, chances are you’ll still love it 40 minutes from now,” he joked.

Up until last year Pinterest consisted of “five or six of us in an apartment” The company currently employs 20 people and he’s turned his attention lately to growth. “The team is the most important thing we’re building,” Silbermann says.

As for the future, the company will internationalize the site – users around the globe already use Pinterest – and plans are underway to open up Pinterest to more platforms. Silbermann, for his part, will continue focusing on what is most important to the Pinterest community: creating a beautiful product where users are proud to show their collections.

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