Pinterest is a hid­den uni­corn

Pinterest, Sil­i­con Val­ley’s suc­cess­ful out­sider.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire - ERIN GRIF­FITH

Where on­line so­cial net­work sites such as Face­book and Twit­ter have been com­pro­mised by the scan­dal re­cently, Pinterest is the ex­cep­tion. Its phi­los­o­phy and unique busi­ness model is much less ag­gres­sive than the oth­ers. This has not, how­ever, hin­dered its abil­ity to reach 250 mil­lion users this sum­mer. In­ter­view with Ben Sil­ber­mann, co-founder of Pinterest, Sil­i­con Val­ley out­sider.

San Francisco — Ben Sil­ber­mann does not en­joy be­ing in­ter­viewed. He is not a fan of speak­ing at tech in­dus­try con­fer­ences. 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.

2. That is the case even in the last cou­ple of years, when Pinterest and Sil­ber­mann, its co­founder 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.

3. 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-im­prove- ment 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.

SLOW AP­PROACH

4. 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. 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.

5. And yet de­spite Sil­ber­mann’s ap­proach — or maybe be­cause of it — the com­pany is worth $12.3 bil­lion and growth is ac­cel­er­at­ing. This sum­mer, the com­pany crossed a new mile­stone — 250 mil­lion monthly ac­tive users. The com­pany is on track to top $700 mil­lion in rev­enue this year, a 50 per­cent in­crease over last year, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the com­pany. 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.

‘MEA­SURES TWICE, CUTS ONCE’

6. Tech com­pa­nies usu­ally re­flect the per­son­al­i­ties of their founders. Mark Zucker­berg in­fused Face­book with a “move fast and break things” hacker men­tal­ity. 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. 7. He has tried to in­still that same think­ing at the com­pany. Pinterest val­ues “knit­ting,” a term its em­ploy­ees use to de­scribe col­lab­o­ra­tion among groups. 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.

THE ANTI-UNI­CORN

8. 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.

9. 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. 10. 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. But just as the com­pany be­gan sell­ing ads in 2014, user growth stalled and it was not clear why. Ex­ec­u­tives on Pinterest’s “growth” team pro­posed spend­ing $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. Sil­ber­mann op­posed both. He pre­ferred what he called “qual­ity growth.”

11. 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.”

(Anas­tasiia Sapon/ The New York Times)

Ben Sil­ber­mann, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Pinterest.

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