Liz Gannes

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Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann’s Lesson for Start-Ups: Go Your Own Way

Telling people how to create and run their own Internet start-up is a booming mini-industry. But here’s Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann’s advice: “Don’t take too much advice.”

“Most people generalize whatever they did, and say that was the strategy that made it work,” Silbermann said. In reality, there’s very little way of knowing how various factors contributed to success or failure.

In an interview with Hunch co-founder and investor Chris Dixon at SXSW today, it was remarkable how often the conversation hit upon ways that Pinterest bucked Silicon Valley’s conventional wisdom. And yet, these days the visual social curation service is one of the fastest-growing and most influential of start-ups.

Silbermann is in some ways a stereotypical start-up founder. He moved to Silicon Valley because he wanted to be a part of the excitement (in fact, he says one of his inspirations was reading about Kevin Rose and Digg on TechCrunch). He worked at Google before starting a company. He’s a soft-spoken young guy who’d obviously be more comfortable working on his product than speaking to a large audience.

Still, on many important decisions, Silbermann and Pinterest zigged where others zagged.

Timeless Beauty (not a skin-care product, promise)

Pinterest was hard for investors to understand at first (these days, they’d cut off a limb for equity) because it deviated from the trends of the moment. “When we first started, people were obsessed with this idea of real time, and everything was real-time text feeds,” Silbermann said.

Pinterest, on the other hand, isn’t about speed or dense information. “To me, [Pinterest's image-dominated] boards are a very human way of looking at the world,” Silbermann said. By contrast, “You never see a tweet older than 48 hours, unless it’s ironic. I wanted to create a service that’s a bit timeless.”

Pinterest’s big idea is “helping people discover things that they didn’t know they wanted,” Silbermann said, so beauty and simplicity are its highest product goals.

Cult of the Engineer

Or here’s a more personal example. Engineering is the hallowed skill and occupation of Silicon Valley. Silbermann is not an engineer, so at Google he worked in online sales and operations.

“I left, not because I didn’t love the company, but because of my particular background, it would have been really hard to built products,” he said. When he and his co-founders got together, they first worked on iPhone apps with expensive contract developers.

And today, Pinterest’s small team of 20 people is not driven by engineering. The company is split into three divisions: Engineering, design and social — with “social” a combination of quantitative people and community people, who try to understand how and why people use Pinterest, how social groups form and how social norms propagate.

“I kind of think of engineering like the chefs at a restaurant,” Silbermann said. “Nobody’s going to deny chefs are integrally important, but there’s also so many other people who contribute to a great meal.”

Not Knowing When to Quit

Here’s another one. “Fail fast” is a common mantra in Silicon Valley. “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released too late,” says start-up guru Reid Hoffman.

But Pinterest had “literally dozens” of versions of its signature grid layout “that were fully coded and fully styled with production data” before they were released.

Silbermann said, “The hard part about that idea of ‘minimum viable product,’ for me, is you don’t know what ‘minimum’ is, and you don’t know what ‘viable’ is.”

In the early days, Pinterest had “catastrophically small numbers,” Silbermann said. Nine months after launch, the site counted 10,000 users, with few of them active on a daily basis.

Silbermann said he recently picked up Eric Ries’s “The Lean Startup,” and was grateful he didn’t read it at the time, because it might have convinced him to give up at that point.

In fact, he’s not sure why he didn’t quit — probably because he was afraid of embarrassment, and doubted Google would hire him back, Silbermann said.

Myth of the Early Adopter

If there’s one thing people know about Pinterest being different from other Internet start-ups, it’s the site’s success with women and homemakers.

But Silbermann has a more nuanced view of so-called “early adopters.” A decade ago, an early adopter was likely someone with a fast, expensive home Internet connection and a smartphone. But those luxuries are not just reserved for the techie elite anymore.

“Now, everyone that I grew up with in Iowa has Facebook; they often have an iPhone or Android phone; so, to me, it makes sense that people would find these services,” Silbermann said.

Once Pinterest did start growing — it had 16.1 million U.S. uniques in January, having doubled since November — it wasn’t because of celebrity users who brought in growth spurts, as with some other services like Twitter, but rather through networks of people like design bloggers, Silbermann said.

I don’t want to get too cheesy, but one last way Silbermann differs from many other founders? He comes off as incredibly humble, thoughtful and nice.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald