Ben Silbermann is the CEO and visionary cofounder behind Pinterest, which grew from 5,000 users in August 2010 to 17 million this month.
With Instagram off the market following a $1 billion sale to Facebook, Pinterest is now the hot social startup in Silicon Valley. Investors are beating down its door, hoping to fund the company and ride it to a multi-billion dollar exit.
Earlier this year, Silbermann gave the keynote speech at the Alt Summit 2012 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The 45 minute talk was all about how he abandoned his long held plans to become a doctor, founded Pinterest during the recession, survived early failures, and built a company for the long-run.
Silbermann used slides to illustrate his story. We've got them and a few more here.
This is Ben Silbermann, the CEO of Pinterest. He's soft-spoken. He dresses like any old twenty-something living in San Francisco or Brooklyn.
Ben grew up in Iowa. "Most of Iowa looks like this," he says.
He was raised in Des Moines, "which is actually a really really beautiful city."
Both of Ben's parents are doctors. Both of his sisters are too. "I always assumed I was going to be a doctor. I never even thought twice about it."
(These aren't Ben's relations.)
As a kid, Ben looked up to entrepreneurs like George Eastman, Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs.
But he didn't identify with them. "I looked up to them same way I looked up to Michael Jordan."
So Ben stayed on the path to medicine – until his junior year, when he decided to get into "business."
Ben got a job as a consultant. "I didn't know what I was signing up for." He ended up making spreadsheets, like this one "all day."
He got put in the firm's IT group because that's where there were openings. He found himself reading TechCrunch. "I remember had this feeling that this was the story of my time and I was in the wrong place."
The movie "Pirates Of Silicon Valley," about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, inspired him to move west.
Especially this quote from the movie…
Ben loves the Valley. This is his local cafe, Coupa Cafe. "Day and night, people are building products."
He says of moving to the Valley: "being close to people that inspire you is a very good first step."
Ben got a job at Google in customer support, "because I was more excited than the previous applicant."
He told his interviewer: "I really really love the Internet."
His job wasn't very different than his consulting job. He analyzed data and made product design recommendations. Lots of spreadsheets again.
Ben says Google is a "special place," because the cofounders "dream really big."
"There aren't companies that…go take a picture of every street in the world and put it online."
Ben got frustrated because Google wouldn't let him build products. He complained a lot.
Finally his girlfriend said: stop complaining and just go do it.
Ben says: "If you're really lucky in life you have someone to call you out on your own bullshit."
Ben says after quitting Google he felt great, but "A week later, the entire economy collapsed."
Friends who were going to quit and join him were suddenly "drinking free juice at Google and saying 'Oh, how is it out there?"
After quitting, he tried raising money, but it was really hard because rich people were investing in gold.
Ben eventually teamed up with a friend from college who was living in New York, Paul Sciarra.
Paul Sciarra cofounded Pinterest.
Together, they came up with a product called Tote, "a catalogue that was on the phone."
"Everything seemed really hard. We couldn't' get money. Apps had just been released so the approval process was taking months."
This is a calendar full of appointments where Ben was told no by potential investors.
Two things got him through that hard time. 1) He felt like he couldn't go back to Google. 2) He didn't want to let Paul down.
Paul Sciarra cofounded Pinterest.
After finally getting a check from an investor, Ben called investors who'd say no and told them: "You're going to miss out, this is the hot deal." It worked.
After a while, Ben and Paul pivoted away from Tote to Pinterest. "I'd always thought that the things you collect say so much about who you are." Ben says this childhood bug collection is "Pinterest 1.0."
Visiting a friend in New York, Ben met a friend of a friend, Evan Sharp. They talked about Pinterest. "It was like he was the only who understands what [I] was saying."
These are some sketches from Evan's senior thesis…
… The two decided to work together and now Evan Sharp is called a cofounder of Pinterest.
Evan came up with the grid layout for Pinterest, says Ben.
Here are some steps in its evolution…
When Pinterest launched, Ben sent it to all his friends in California – "and actually, no one got it." He decided it was too late to go back. This is the very first "pin" put on the site, in January 2010.
Most early users came from Des Moines. "I suspect because my Mom was telling all her patients," says Ben.
In May 2010, a woman named Victoria helped organize a program called "Pin It Forward" – a "chain letter" where bloggers would exchange pinboards about what home meant to them. It was an inflection point.
Suddenly people started using Pinterest in ways the company hadn't expected. Like say this board: "Things That Look Like The Deathstar."
Or this tour-guide.
Or this collection of maps.
This is the first Pinterest meet-up, organized by Victoria, now the company's community manager. Ben says: "That was the moment where I was like, 'We've got it.'"
Pinterest couldn't afford an office at the time, so it got a "tiny house."
This guy, Dave, was actually living in the office. But he wasn't a Pinterest employee.
"Evan got the coveted door seat because you have to treat your designer really well," says Ben.
"This is a picture of the office conference room."
This poster was on the wall of the office. It was originally hung at Facebook, where Evan worked for a while.
Ben says this venn diagram explains how he's felt Ever since Pinterest started taking off
He says he feels this way because technology is like Highlander: "there can be only one. First place takes all; second place takes very little value."
So…where is Pinterest going?
Ben says it'll help you connect with the most important things in your life.
The jeweler on the left puts all his future designs on Pinterest. Every day, the woman on the right finds a craft to do on Pinterest and then blogs about it.
Pinterest's mission is to get you offline and do the things you love.
Pinterest also wants to be a place where people discover beautiful things they didn't know you were looking for. Like this grocery store…
…or this bookstore…
…or MoMA, in New York.
These days, Pinterest has a new "real" office, says Ben. Here's the space.
And here's the team, now into "double digits."
Another shot of the team.
If you want, you can watch Ben's entire speech
Ben Silbermann Keynote Address at Alt Summit from ALT Summit on Vimeo.
So…want to know about the other Silicon Valley startup that got huge really fast?
Instagram Cofounder: Here's How We Scaled Into A Billion Dollar Company [DECK]
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