Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann on Launching a Successful Business

The following is my rough outline from the 11AM SXSWi session featuring Pinterest Co-Founder and CEO Ben Silbermann. There was lots of great advice on monetization, design, building a successful business, and social communities. And I felt like sharing a few of those things with you today.

The questions covered everything from his job history, to early challenges at Pinterest. There are lots of great learnings here as well.

Job History

  • Started in sales support for Google, working specifically with Adsense.
  • Quit Google to develop iOS applications, before starting Pinterest.


  • The idea came from visiting people’s homes, and seeing “collections” of people’s lives that needed to be shared online
  • Wanted a person’s “board” or collection on Pinterest to be more beautiful as a whole than each image could be individually.


  • Quality was the most important aspect, with meticulous testing done on layouts, contrast, colors, fonts, and how the site would work in different people’s devices.
  • Ben liked to go to bookstores and look at lifestyle magazines, to gauge interest in certain verticals.
  • In a world were buzz dies after 24-48 hours, the Pinterest boards have a timeless elements.

Early Designs at Pinterest as a Startup

Early Months

  • For the first 9 months Pinterest had 10,000 users.
  • Growth happened much slower than they had hoped.
  • Ben personally emailed the first 5,000 users thanking them for signing up, and opening ongoing communication.
  • Up until the middle of last year it was only 5 people working in his apartment.

Interesting Uses

  • Each day people find a use for Pinterest that they would have never thought people would use it for
  • Lot’s of museums have joined lately, to share their art with the world.
  • Travel boards are also new, and people create elaborate travel guides to cities all over the world.
  • Clones have always happened, now they just happen faster and faster with the low barrier to entry of technology.
  • Most of your focus shouldn’t be racing against competition, but against making the greatest product possible.
  • The competition doesn’t come from similar design, layouts, or code, it’s all about the people.

Copyright issues

  • As a company they care about that issue, overall it is part of their culture, and giving value back to each of the users.
  • The mission of the site isn’t to keep people on the site forever; it’s driving traffic out in the world, and driving real actions to build their content.


  • Long-term monetization will have to be something that speaks to the heart of the product itself.
  • Helping people discover things they wouldn’t have found on their own.
  • They have a lot of work to go on the discovery process before they continue with monetization.

Future Innovations

  • Redesigning the profiles on Pinterest, to make your profile very different from what you have on Facebook and Twitter.
  • A visual snapshot of what you are about, and to make it easier to discover new people based on pins
  • Expanding the number of things you can pin to include Vimeo and Netflix.
  • Platform expansion with a common and stable API framework for developers.

Social Community

  • We have to invest in social norms the same way we invest into infrastructure and technology.
  • Getting the right kind of behavior in a social site is important to growing the community in the right direction.
  • Early on they personally reached out to users, to make sure they were cultivating the community correctly and encouraging the right behaviors.
  • They character different kinds of users, because each has it’s purpose in the overall growth of the website.
  • New ways to share are simply new ways to connect with other people; we are always actively seeking out ways to connect in new ways.

Launching a Successful Business

  • Most people generalize whatever they did, and act like that was the strategy that made things work.
  • People will say great founding teams have a certain look and feel, but every company cuts it’s own path.
  • Every company is under a lot of pressure to look and act like the last company that was successful.
  • Be good to the people that you build relationships with along the way. It will become part of your DNA.
  • Identify those people that are passionate about your products from the start, which will be immensely valuable as feedback.


  • Sometimes they overthought problems, as long as you can see failure as one more option that’s off the table; you’re in a good place.
  • Do not be paralyzed by so many options, the best way to find out is to ship, the worst thing that users and customers can say is no.
  • It’s important to have people outside your business that you have good relationships with, don’t get tunnel vision in the way you think about your company.

Closing Remarks

  • Pinterest is still small, 20 team members, 10 joined in the last four months.
  • The team culture is the core of their business; rather than have a figurehead, they want to grow as a team.

Ultimately, I felt like Ben shared things in this session that he probably will not share as much of as CEO of Pinterest as they grow in the future. So, I hope to capture some of that here in case one day they find themselves a much larger company, prepared to IPO or get acquired.

What Duplicate Content in Google’s Index Means to Me

One of the problems facing digital strategists currently is that of duplicate content, and search engine’s like Google are working harder than ever to discourage website owners from publishing it on the web. Duplicate content is just that, content that is a duplicate of something that already exists. If you aren’t familiar with this problem, here’s why you should care.

You’re going to be presented with people wanting to sell, co-brand, and white label duplicate content. You will have more than enough chances to host duplicate content on your website, and at least a few people will tell you that you can get away with it. Here’s why I think that in 2011, I’d limit the amount of time and money invested in content already found elsewhere on the web.

For a moment let’s say you aren’t starting up a website, but that you are starting a local library in your community. Let’s call this library Google, and say that it contains books that summarize all the world’s information.

You finish construction of your beautiful library and find that you’re missing one critical piece to the puzzle, books! You have all this empty space, hundreds of shelves just waiting to be filled with everything from encyclopedias to sports almanacs.

So you begin searching for books, looking everywhere you can find them. In the beginning your focus is filling every shelve with a book, so you aren’t as picky with what you grab. Donated books, used books, and maybe even multiple books focusing on the same topic will do for now.

You finally fill your library to the brim, and people begin to come looking for information on what is relevant to them. As word gets out your library becomes popular, and people begin using your building as a trusted source for information. A few years go by and people begin requesting books that you don’t have, and often people want a newer edition.

Now your task becomes not just filling up the library with books, but making sure those books are of high quality for all your customers. You begin tossing out old books in favor of new ones, and making sure that you only keep the most popular books on hand for people.

After awhile you begin noticing that you have multiple copies of some books. In your haste to fill up those shelves you grabbed 3 volumes of the same encyclopedia, as well as six copies of the exact same 1988 sports almanacs.

Rather than keep that stuff around, you decide on the best copy to keep on hand, and throw away the rest. Space is now at a premium in your library, and it’s pointless to keep around multiple copies when usually 1 or 2 at most will keep your customers happy.

Fast forward a few years more and you’re library is becoming one of the most popular places in the world! People come from all around the globe just to read your books and use your information for research. Now authors have taken notice too, and famous publishers and authors from around the world line up at your office hoping that you will include their books in your library.

But now you can afford to be picky, you can afford to reject more and more books each day. Space is limited, but you are still open to adding new books to your index, as long as they are worth it to your customers!

Google built a library, and now it’s the largest in the world. It’s also the most important one in the world to be listed in, and that means they can afford to be picky. Would you have two copies of the exact same book in your library? I don’t think I would either. Can you blame them?

3 Reasons to Add Community to Your Playbook

There is a reason why Facebook recently added “Q&A” to their website. There is a reason why Twitter has built an entire business model off user generated tweets. UGC (User Generated Content) is powerful, and it does more than most will ever realize. There are people all over the world mindlessly plugging away writing blog entry after blog entry trying to generate traffic to their website.

Then there are those of us, myself included, thinking tirelessly about ways to get users to generate that content and traffic for free. Throughout my career I have learned one thing. Instead of working so hard at research, writing, and gathering data, why not put consumers to work for you?

With that in mind here are three reasons why your next website craves user generated content, and why it will succeed much easier (and faster) if you plan on incorporating it from the start.

Trending Topics

You can read and monitor tweet deck all you want, but nobody knows what’s trending faster than millions of people worldwide. Instead of actively trying to figure out what’s hot and what’s not, why not allow people to post trending topics in your niche?

For example a huge mobile sms scam hit the web a few months back, and luckily for me I have a website that targets scams just like that. Right as millions of sms messages were hitting cell phones worldwide, a user was generating a detailed description of the scam on one of my websites.

Guess what? As thousands searched for that scam in the days to come I already had the article. Thousands of hits in mere hours and I didn’t have to pay a dime for it. The research was free, the content was free, and the approach was completely passive on my part!

Free Content

Paying for content is overrated, just ask facebook. They have convinced the whole world to be their personal band of content writers, constantly writing and promoting the facebook brand worldwide. This is the benefit of creating a community and watching it grow.

Then they took it one step further, turning users into freelance photographers and videographers, uploading rich media content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Why would you pay for content writers when you can just find somebody’s emotional hot button and get them to write for you for free?

Call it whatever you want, but people are willing to contribute to something they are passionate about, just look at any message board or forum on the web.

Consumer Intelligence

This is the last reason, but is in my opinion the most powerful one of them all. What’s more valuable than content or revenue? It’s the ability to predict the next big thing to hit the web, and that comes from consumer intelligence. Learn what people need, and you have your next project.

Instead of trying to market your product to consumers, intelligence allows you to create your next product based on a need. You are basically guaranteed demand and revenue from the get go, anything after that is just a sweet bonus. People start businesses all the time hoping there is a need for them, why not gather the foresight ahead of time to all but bank on that next start up.

User generated content, much like trending topics, always assure that you are feeling the pulse of consumers. While the rest of the world is throwing darts at a board, you can bet on sure things.

The Benefits of Social Media for Local Businesses

In the last few years, social media has exploded into our lives in a way that it would have been almost impossible to predict even a decade ago. If Facebook were a country it would be the third most populated country in the world, coming in above the United States with a staggering 400 million users as of 2011.

Growth of Facebook Users Over Time

Recently, television adverts have started to feature “Find us on Facebook” badges directing people to their company Facebook page, and there is no doubting social media’s ability to get more people involved with your company, building brand awareness and loyalty in the process.

But if you are a small business owner, just how relevant is social media going to be to your company and how can you best utilize it in your company?

Small Businesses

Social Media was one of the buzz words for small businesses in 2010, and it stands to reason that 2011 will be much the same. Still, you shouldn’t have a social media campaign just to have one. Over and over people think that having a Facebook or a twitter account is their gateway to thousands of new visitors.

Then after awhile they give up thinking that they just don’t get “social media”. The bottom line is that some markets just don’t need social media. Did I just commit blasphemy? Everybody needs a facebook fan page right?

I would say that every small and local business needs to be involved in social, but from a reputation management standpoint. For some markets Facebook isn’t going to make or break your business, but it will sure help your customers connect with you if they have a problem.

Using social media to learn about local customers

I love the ability to use twitter to keep people updated on recent happenings, but I definitely don’t expect it to be my main source of traffic. If you have a product that is viral or revolutionary, by all means tweet it and watch social at it’s best. But for most of the people I work with that just isn’t the case.

They are in a competitive market, and are just looking for more ways to get new customers. For that I’d say Google is still your best source of traffic.

Accurate Expectations

The problem with most social platforms is they tend to be a replacement to the web. Don’t believe me? Create a facebook fan page for a website and watch how many people leave that fan page to interact on the website.

The majority of consumers on facebook are comfortable with it, and see no reason to leave to do their commenting, liking, and sharing. After all can you blame them? Is there anything they can do on your website that they can’t also do on facebook?Benefits of social media authority for local businesses

Well I can think of a few things like purchasing products, downloading software, and reading articles. But those are very specific things that all need to be taken into consideration before you dive head first into social media.

The most important thing you can do before going into any Social Media campaign is to drop all your unreasonable expectations.

Simply creating a Facebook Fan page will not skyrocket your business into the stratosphere overnight.

Creating buzz in an already noisy space can be challenging at times. High expectations can lead to discouragement early on, at a time when you should be allowing yourself a learning curve. Any form of digital marketing, including Social, takes a substantial investment in time and energy.

Building Awareness

Build Brand Awareness Through Community
Brand awareness is a great benefit of a good Social Media strategy. Whether you are marketing to 1 or 1 million, you need to convey a message and work to create a community around it. That is why Facebook makes it so easy to advertise in small increments to build your brand.

Facebook Estimated Reach

The biggest mistake people make early on with Facebook is to constantly blast out there message, without engaging their target community at large. Key players in your niche are actively seeking out fresh content, if you build it they will come.

Don’t assume you have to be “in your face” for people to notice you. Authentic social communities stand out in a world of copy cats and spam.

Learning from Consumers

While everybody else is out there gunning for thousands of fans and followers, you can be quietly gathering the next million dollar idea. Consumer intelligence is everywhere, but all businesses seem to notice are the actual consumers.

Learning about social media marketing

You might only have a core group of 100 fans on Facebook, but what does that sample size tell you about the whole? Watch for trends, segments, and techniques that drive better bottom line results. You’ll begin to see how key members of a community can really move the needle for you.

Don’t be afraid to launch side projects, and always be testing. Forget about gold for a second, those who have the data make the rules.

Social Media is a great tool to have in your digital marketing arsenal, but it’s not an end all be all solution. Give yourself time to learn, and don’t be too disappointed when your first tweet doesn’t go viral overnight.

There are lots of people out there just like you, and some have been doing this a lot longer. The great thing is that Social Media is still free to use and relatively easy to understand.

So drop the expectations, work toward building a community, and gather consumer intelligence.