AIB Featured Business Leader – Ben Silbermann
Pinterest is a creative and inspiring corner of the Internet – a visual bookmarking tool that helps you discover and save creative ideas. One of its most popular pinners, with eight million followers, is a woman named Jane Wang. She pins recipes, pictures of cute animals and photos of her home town of Iowa. So far so ordinary, except that her son, Ben Silbermann, is the CEO and co-founder of Pinterest. He’s worth $100M, and is known as the Clark Kent of the start-up scene; a mild-mannered guy who used his product to plan his own wedding.
Born in 1982 in Des Moines, Iowa, Silbermann spent his childhood collecting things from insects to stamps. “What you collect says so much about who you are”, said Silbermann in a keynote speech, and those simple collections, redolent of an old fashioned small-town boyhood, say a lot about him. Silberman is soft-spoken and modest, without the oversized ego so often on display from Silicon Valley start-ups. An accomplished cellist and debater, his path to start-up fame was a circuitous one.
He originally intended to become a doctor, like both of his parents and his two elder sisters before him. While attending Theodore Roosevelt High School, Silbermann was also admitted into the prestigious Research Science Institute at MIT, a competitive program designed for high school seniors. He graduated in 1999 and headed straight to Yale, enrolling in pre-med before changing course, majoring in political science and graduating in 2003.
Although Silbermann was never a coder, he was a history buff, intensely interested in human stories, and he became obsessed by the tech start-up world. “It felt like this was the story of my time” he told Fortune in 2012, “and I just wanted to be close to it”. He took a job at Google, while his girlfriend (now wife) became a Facebook recruiter. But while he credits Google with helping him to dream big, he didn’t have an engineering degree, and felt that he would never have the right credibility to progress in the company. Accordingly, he took a leap of faith, and in 2008 left Google to try out some start-up ideas with his college friend Paul Sciarra. The first attempt – a shopping app named Tote – wasn’t a success, but the two weren’t daunted. Drawing on his love of collections, and combining forces with a designer friend, Evan Sharp, they came up with the tool that would let people curate their own collections, online. Silbermann’s wife coined the name Pinterest, and the team were set.
The idea might have come in 2008, but Pinterest wasn’t launched until March 2010. Times were lean in 2008, and start-up funding was thin on the ground for partnerships without an IT degree between them. The three launched the site by emailing friends and family and urging them to try it. As a new format in a world taken up with the live-time feeds of Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest was slow to catch on. Any early gains were the result of relentless, personal word-of-mouth marketing, with Silberman contacting each of the first five thousand users to get their feedback on the site one-on-one. Growth was so slow that the only reason they didn’t give up in that first tough year was because “The idea of telling everyone we blew was so embarrassing!”.
One of the things that makes Silbermann and Pinterest unusual in the tech-startup world is that Pinterest has only recently started to investigate a revenue model. Until 2014 it didn’t sell advertising – now, ‘Promoted Pins’ allow companies to pay for their Pins to get more recognition. Very recently on 3 November 2015, Pinterest introduced the Pinterest Shop, an online storefront which allows users to buy products directly from the Pinned pages. Most of Pinterest’s value comes from its potential, and Silbermann has consistently chosen slow expansion and careful curation of advertisements over large revenue windfalls.
That’s a characteristic decision by a man who doesn’t lust after untold wealth. Although his personal fortune is estimated at $100M, he lives in a rented two bedroom apartment with his wife and young son Max. “My life”, he tells The Guardian, “…I don’t know that it’s conventionally glamorous. I drop my kid at daycare in the morning and then go to the office”.
Just an ordinary guy going about an ordinary day, except that he’s sitting on a goldmine. For Ben Silbermann, the best is likely yet to come.
What do you think?
Are you an avid Pinterest user or a fan of Silbermann’s start-up journey? With such a long career ahead of him, we are sure we will continue to see impressive things from Ben and Pinterest.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Guardian; Ben Silbermann Keynote Address at Alt Summit; Fortune; Business Insider; Investopia; Forbes
Image Credit: Fast Company