Pinterest's Ben Silbermann on Male Users, Making Money, and Getting Off-Line

The content-sharing site’s co-founder talks about broadening its appeal, the business model, and excessive use

Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek

How are you using Pinterest right now?
I’m like a lot of typical users. I use it to collect recipes. I recently had a kid, so I use it to find activities for the kid. I use it to save gifts for my wife, keep track of things that I might want to buy.

There’s a stereotype that Pinterest is for women.
The majority of our users today are women. But the service has been built as a general service for everyone, and we find that the more you use it, the more personalized it becomes. That was always our intent.

Does the brand speak to women more than men? Is it cool to use if you’re a guy?
Time will tell. Facebook started as a college-centered service, and Twitter started as a tech-oriented thing, and they both generalized.

What would broaden the appeal?
We’re trying to make sure that when you first use Pinterest, you’re not dropped into this big public square, that we help you really key in on what interests you. We also want to get faster at helping you find people that share your point of view. That, to me, is a keystone to making it more broadly appealing.

Why do you think the world needed Pinterest?
As a kid, I always really enjoyed collecting things, and the original motivation was to create a place where you could create these discrete collections, and then share them with other people who had the same hobbies or interests that you did. The things you collect end up saying a lot about who you are and where you’re going in life.

What did you collect?
I collected insects when I was a kid, and my dad has tons of books. He always took pride in his bookshelf. Those were some of the original things.

How does Pinterest make money?
Right now we don’t. But the big-picture assumption of the company is that there is a direct link between the things you pin and the things that you eventually spend money on. In there, we think, lies a model where we can actually make Pinterest more useful. And we can help businesses by bringing in more customers and helping them sell things and connect with people.

I imagine knowing people’s tastes and being able to group them together would be extremely powerful to marketers.
People use Pinterest not only as this place to discover things, but as literally the organizational tool to keep track of them. There’s something really powerful about the idea that we help people kind of get excited about things, but we also help them go take action. Sometimes taking action is finding an activity to do with your kid or making something special for brunch. But sometimes it’s transactional.

How do you commercialize Pinterest without interrupting the community? How do you preserve the experience?
It aligns with the two parts of our mission. Whatever we do, are we helping you genuinely discover things that you’re excited about? And, once you discover those things, are we helping you take action on them? The top user requests that we get are, “Geez, I wish I could just buy that thing.”

Do you guys use Amazon Web Services [Amazon’s cloud computing service]?
We do, for many things.

Considering the scale of the computing power, Pinterest probably couldn’t have existed 10 years ago.
Now without a lot more money.

I have friends that are extremely into Pinterest, and I have to ask: What do you consider is the correct amount of time to spend on Pinterest per day? What would you consider to be excessive?
It sounds weird, but we really want people to get ideas from Pinterest, but to get off-line and go do them, because I think people are pretty smart with their time. I don’t know what your friends are up to, but I hope that Pinterest will be a service that people will look back on, like, “Oh, that made different parts of my life actually richer,” instead of cutting them off from the outside world.

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