Mike Isaac

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CEO Ben Silbermann Wants Pinterest to Become Your Platform for Discovery

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Asa Mathat / AllThingsD.com

Discovery — the art of finding things you’re seeking and being presented with things you never knew you wanted — is one tough problem to crack. And it’s not for lack of dozens of companies in Silicon Valley trying to crack it.

Pinterest, the attractive, photo-centric startup home to tens of millions of users, also wants to crack discovery — both online and off — via the company’s most powerful tool: Collections.

“Collecting tells a lot about who you are as a person,” Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann said in a rare interview at our D: All Things Digital conference on Wednesday. “There are millions of people that are basically organizing all of the objects online and on the Web according to the things they are interested about.”

Which, in a nutshell, is what Pinterest is all about. If you haven’t used the product, it’s super simple: Users are prompted to pick and choose photos they’ve collected — either taken themselves or found online — and organize them into different thematic groups. The classic examples are “pinboards” for recipes you want to try, clothes you’d like to buy (or, in my own case, cute animals I want to hug).

That type of offline discovery, coupled with the company’s early rapid growth, is why the retailer communities love the site and its referral traffic, and why the company commanded the massive valuation of $2.5 billion the last time it raised money.

So, in Silbermann’s view at least, each user is “collecting” his or her own offline discovery experience, oriented toward stuff you’d like to see and do in the real world. “For a lot of people, Pinterest is a service about what are the things you want to do in the future,” he said. “What it gives you is a really intuitive and human way to discover things, instead of coming at discovery in a really oblique way.”

silbermann_karaThe key to Pinterest’s growth beyond this simple theory lies in the visual. The site is simple, essentially amounting to a series of well-designed pictures arranged in an attractive, organized manner.

But that visual layout seems to have struck a chord in people, and how we interact with the Web and devices.

“Many things were once very text-based and very popular,” Silbermann said. “But instead of being time-based” — like Facebook or Twitter’s ever-flowing activity streams — “we made it visual.”

Obviously it worked. Not only has the company seen massive growth, but sites across the Web — from Google+ to Facebook to countless others — have aped key elements of Pinterest’s attractive, visually focused layout.

Which Silbermann doesn’t seem too perturbed about (outwardly, at least), but rather as a natural extension of where the Web is going. “I think the Web and media are becoming more visual in general,” he said. And if Silbermann’s theory proves true, Pinterest seems to have arrived at a fairly opportune time.

There is, however, still that whole monetization thing that the company has to tackle. Which, by the way, Pinterest hasn’t solved quite yet — Silbermann freely admitted that the company currently does not make money. Not to mention the challenges of creating and improving the product across the Web and mobile platforms.

Still, Silbermann maintained that he’s not in it for a quick buck, and wants to get monetization — and everything else — right.

“We tried to take a bit more of a long-term perspective,” Silbermann said. “We decided we wanted to try and build a company that would be around.”

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