Pinterest a unicorn, doesn’t act like it
But its slow, steady tactics frustrate some investors, employees.
SAN FRANCISCO — Ben Silbermann does not enjoy being interviewed. He is not a fan of speaking at tech industry conferences. Nor does he like sitting for glossy magazine portraits. 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.
That is the case even in the past couple of years, when Pinterest and Silbermann, its co-founder 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.
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.
But the reserved, slow and steady approach has frustrated some investors and employees, who say that it has neutered growth, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who have worked with or for the company. Many of those people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the company’s private affairs.
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, who would not disclose the size of his firm’s stake
And yet despite Silbermann’s approach — or maybe because of it — the company is worth $12.3 billion, and growth is accelerating. This month, the company has crossed a new milestone: 250 million monthly active users. Those users have pinned 175 billion items on 3 billion virtual pinboards. 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. There is wide speculation that it will go public next year.
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. If it does not, it will serve as another example of wasted potential, or worse, a cautionary tale.
“I tell them, ‘You have to tell your story, especially now,’” said Scott Belsky, an entrepreneur who was an early investor in Pinterest.
‘Measures twice, cuts once’
Tech companies usually reflect the personalities of their founders. Mark Zuckerberg infused Facebook with a “move fast and break things” hacker mentality. Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, pushed a “toe-steppin’” and “hustling” culture at Uber.
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.
He has tried to instill that same thinking at the company. Pinterest values “knitting,” a term its employees use to describe collaboration among groups. “We believe innovation happens when disciplines knit,” the company’s website says.
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.
“Perfectionist doesn’t overstate it,” said Jeff Jordan, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and a Pinterest board member.
The company’s growth exploded by 2011, a year after its service went live, spawning countless copycats 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 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. “You can draw a direct line from those interests to a commercial opportunity or retail category,” said Andrew Lipsman, an analyst at eMarketer.
But just as the company began selling ads in 2014, user growth stalled, and it was not clear why, according to multiple people familiar with the company. The company disagreed that growth had stalled, arguing that it had “slightly slowed.”
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, similar to YouTube’s premium content program.
Silbermann opposed both, according to people familiar with the decision. He preferred what he called “quality growth.”
“There’s a natural rate at which you can scale a company that’s healthy,” Silbermann said. So Pinterest stuck to its knitting.
Picking up the pace
Investors and former executives say Pinterest has rallied in the past year under a new chief operating officer, Francoise Brougher, and a new head of sales, Jon Kaplan, both formerly of Google.
Pinterest’s founders “have this look in their eye like this is working now,” said Belsky, the early investor.
The company is even trying to raise its profile a little bit, hiring a new chief marketing officer and coming up with a new marketing plan to emphasize the service’s benefits. Brougher said she, like Silbermann, prefers to underpromise and overdeliver. “But that doesn’t always work well in the tech world,” she said.
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.”
Amazon in 2016 was granted a patent for a system to transport humans, enclosed in a cage and on top of a robotic trolley, for work in areas full of other automated robots.
Ben Silbermann is CEO of Pinterest, which has rejected Silicon Valley’s aggressive, hype-driven way of doing business.