Pinterest is a hidden unicorn

Un ré­seau so­cial pas comme les autres.

Vocable (Anglais) - - Édito | Sommaire - ERIN GRIFFITH

Si les réseaux so­ciaux en ligne Fa­ce­book et autres Twit­ter ont été fra­gi­li­sés par de nom­breux scan­dales, Pinterest fait, lui, fi­gure de bon élève de la Si­li­con Val­ley. Sa phi­lo­so­phie et son bu­si­ness mo­del, moins agres­sifs que ceux de ses pairs, ne l’ont pas em­pê­ché d’at­teindre les 250 mil­lions d’uti­li­sa­teurs cet été. Ren­contre avec Ben Sil­ber­mann, co-fon­da­teur de Pinterest, l’out­si­der des réseaux so­ciaux.

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-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.

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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