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How Pinterest Grew From the Ashes of the Great Recession

The story of a company dedicated to providing value.


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Spreeha Dutta

3 years ago | 7 min read

Pinterest: The brand whose mission is to get you OFFLINE so that you can do the things you want to do.

The Great Recession was a period marked by a sharp decline in economic activity, beginning in December 2007 and lasting officially until June 2009 but its hangover lingered long after.

However, this isn’t a story about how debilitating an effect the Great Recession had. It is a story of the persistence and resilience of a brand aimed at making a difference. It is the story of a man who would never take ‘No’ for an answer.

Pinterest went from having traffic of only 200 users in the first 4 months to become the third-largest social network in the US within 2 years from its launch.

More interesting facts about Pinterest attached at the end of this blog (Source: eMarketer)
More interesting facts about Pinterest attached at the end of this blog (Source: eMarketer)

The Story of Ben Silbermann

Born in a family of all doctors, Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest had always assumed that he too would become a doctor someday.

Growing up, he had always looked up to entrepreneurs like George Eastman(founder of Kodak), Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs but never thought he had anything in common with any of them. He had never questioned his calling.

He, in fact, was so excited to become a doctor that he went to college and started pursuing medicine.

It was when he was in his junior year that one day he suddenly felt that medicine was not the path he wanted to pursue. He wanted to do business.

A few months later he found himself in Washington DC at a consulting job making financial models. He remembers having worked much harder than his pay grade at that job.

He soon moved to Silicon Valley, California, and as he been quoted to have said, “If you want to be an actor. move to LA. If you want to be an entrepreneur, move to Silicon Valley.

Because there, the people you surround yourself with are often doing the things that you hope to do most.

Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest
Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest

There he got a job doing customer support at Google. It was at Google that he learned how to dream really big. He saw Google live by that principle more than he had seen any other company do.

It made him view technology in a very different light, as an instrument through which a person could have a much bigger impact than himself.

Though he was surrounded by technical inspirations, he was also frustrated because he too wanted to build products but didn’t have the required technical background.

The Great Recession Strikes

He soon left his job at Google and only a week after that, the entire economy collapsed. He was left devastated. The friends who had said would join him later were skeptical to leave their safe jobs because of the downturn of the economy.

It was the toughest time for him. He was working all alone. The funding environment was very hard to hit, the investors had lost a lot of money and weren’t keen on investing their money on an internet entrepreneur.

He then collaborated with a friend from his college and together they were trying to build a product, though both of them didn’t have engineering backgrounds.

They were taking money out of their savings to build an app called Tote which would go on to fail soon.

He had talked to every single investor in Silicon Valley, had gone to meetups and conferences where every single person in the room had said ‘No’ to him. But his commitment got him through it.

At that time, there were two things motivating him:
1. He had told all his friends and family that he was leaving his job, a job that he really wanted, to go and build a product.
2. He didn’t want to let down his co-founder Paul, who too had left his job to support Ben in his startup.
– as stated by Ben Silbermann in the keynote address at Alt Summit

More interesting facts about Pinterest have been attached at the end of this post
More interesting facts about Pinterest have been attached at the end of this post

Silbermann let go of Tote which wasn’t really working out and started working on another product that he always wanted to build, which would eventually go on to be Pinterest.

The founders kept pitching their idea to people, kept getting rejected but still kept following up. And that’s how Pinterest raised its first set of money.

“I think people succeed because they don’t stop and eventually something breaks.”
- Ben Silbermann

The Birth of Pinterest

Ben had always been a fan of collecting, be it insects or stamps. He thought you get to know a lot about a person by his collections.

For example, when you got to someone’s house and see his books, it gives you an insight into how the person might be.

He felt nothing about collections was online. It was at that time he met his third co-founder Evan Sharp in New York. Evan was in grad school pursuing architecture. Evan was really interested in the idea of Pinterest and joined Ben and Paul.

While building, there were numerous things pertaining to the app that they needed to start working on and were unable to figure out which of them to start with.

Evan asked them, “What’s the one thing that is most important?” They decided it was the grid system that Pinterest has where all images or pins would be laid out.

Pinterest Statistics from 2019 (from a study ‘Is Pinterest still popular in 2019?’)
Pinterest Statistics from 2019 (from a study ‘Is Pinterest still popular in 2019?’)

Ben attributes the perfection of the grid to Evan who got it right to every last detail. There were 50 versions of the grid before they finally zeroed down on one.

Evan and all the designers that Pinterest has subsequently hired are known to do their iterations at full resolution.

When Pinterest was finally ready to be shown to the world, Ben sent it over to his friends in California and nobody got it.

But the motto of the Pinterest founders was, “Make one thing perfect. It doesn’t mean to hold onto an idea forever. But it means if something is really important, you cannot be compromising in the quality of its execution.”

Pinterest had 200 odd users in the first 4 months. They comprised —
1. Silbermann’s friends and family
2. People from a conference Silbermann had attended in Utah to talk about his product
3. The participants of a ‘Pin It Forward’ program that Pinterest had organized.

People soon started using Pinterest to make collections of different things from the food they liked to one woman making a collection of tour guides of every city that she had ever visited.

The office that Pinterest was initially operating out of was a small house. Once the site started getting a little traction, the feeling of urgency that they have to execute at a really high level at all times overtook the Pinterest team.

“The motto we worked by is ‘Move fast and break things’. Because technology is like highlandry. There can only be one. First place takes all. And second place takes very little value.”
- Ben Silbermann, Founder of Pinterest

So what is Pinterest? In Ben Silbermann’s words….

  1. It is the place to plan the most important projects in your life.
  2. Pinterest is the most beautiful place to discover the things you love. It is a technological service to make you feel closer to the things you care about.
  3. Pinterest is a team of people who want to build something bigger than themselves.

To give you an idea about the wide range of use cases people started using Pinterest for, there were projects about cancer awareness on Pinterest. A jewelry maker used it to store all his future designs.

A woman used it to blog about the 1 new thing she tried out every day. In fact, Silbermann himself planned his wedding on Pinterest.

Who does Pinterest hire?

Team Pinterest now has a diverse team of people comprising those who earlier built crafted products in Google and Apple and then there are also those who are working for the very first time.

Pinterest hires people from different backgrounds and experiences who can approach the same problems together with different perspectives to solve them effectively.

“There are so many sites that will come out that are gonna look, feel and do the same things Pinterest does. But what makes Pinterest special isn’t the grid or the backend server or the graphics. Its that fact that when people create pinboards, they put a part of themselves inside it and you end up connecting with them in a way that’s different.”
- Ben Silbermann, Founder of Pinterest.
January 2020 Statistics (Source: Google)
January 2020 Statistics (Source: Google)

Some Facts About Pinterest That You May Not Have Known— (As reported in Wikipedia)

  1. Nine months after the launch, the website had 10,000 users. Silbermann said he personally wrote to the site’s first 5,000 users offering his personal phone number and even meeting with some of its users.
  2. Pinterest after its launch in early 2010 became the third largest social network in the United States in March 2012, behind Facebook and Twitter.
  3. As of 2019, Pinterest is the fourth largest social network in the USA behind Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
  4. On August 10, 2011, Time magazine listed Pinterest in its “50 Best Websites of 2011” article.
  5. After a year of its launch, the site became one of the top 10 largest social network services, according to Hitwise data, with 11 million total visits per week. The next month, it drove more referral traffic to retailers than LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+.
  6. A study carried out by Wolfgang Digital found that site traffic originating from Pinterest Business pages was more engaged with users spending time up to five times longer on the site.
  7. In one case study of a fashion website, users visiting from Pinterest spent $180 compared to $85 spent from users coming from Facebook.
  8. As stated by Salesforce.com, Pinterest has become a key part of corporate digital marketing strategies.
  9. According to a study by Converto, in April 2012, Pinterest drove more social media-originated e-commerce sales than Facebook or Twitter.
  10. Pinterest has more female users than male users.

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Spreeha Dutta

Navigating my way through life's beautiful stories!


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