A Site That Aims to Unleash the Scrapbook Maker in All of Us
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AUSTIN, Tex. -- Seeking attention for your start-up? You may want to look beyond the Internet-savvy throngs clogging the sidewalks and bars here.
Many start-up companies trying to attract interest work the circuit at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, cozying up to the Silicon Valley elite and influential bloggers, throwing blowout parties and pulling stunts.
But Pinterest, the most talked about start-up of the spring, did not take that approach. Instead, the company went after a different crowd when it introduced its service in 2009. The site lets users create "boards" where they can collect images from around the Web and share them with friends and strangers.
"We showed it to folks from all walks of life, lifestyle bloggers, crafters and hobbyists," said Ben Silbermann, a founder and the chief executive of Pinterest. "The early people were from the area where I grew up, in Des Moines, and the site grew very organically from there."
And grow it has. Pinterest declined to provide specific figures, but data from analytics firms indicates the company's traffic has been rising exponentially. Nielsen reported that Pinterest had 16.1 million unique visitors in January in the United States alone, double the number it had in November.
That is the kind of gain that most entrepreneurs in the South by Southwest crowd can only dream of, and the company's woo-the-heartland tactics have prompted some head-scratching here.
"It defies the mold that you have to build something for New York and San Francisco and then spread it out from there," said Chris Dixon, an investor in Skype, Skillshare, GroupMe and other companies and the chief executive of Hunch, which was acquired by eBay earlier this year. "It's amazing how well that worked."
Mr. Dixon said investors were no doubt clamoring to put money into Pinterest. "I wouldn't be surprised if people are handing them fill-in-the-blank term sheets," he said. "Everyone's envious. I'm envious. I wish I was an investor. I wish I'd created the site." Mr. Dixon is scheduled to interview Mr. Silbermann on stage at the conference on Tuesday.
Pinterest's low-key approach makes sense for the site because it aims to appeal to people interested in creating curated collections of photographs around a topic, like midcentury modern furniture, fancy cakes or fashion trends like floral fabrics. Essentially they are making scrapbooks that link back to the original source of each photo, whether it be a museum site, a fashion blog or an online store.
Mr. Silbermann, a meticulous collector himself who kept glass boxes full of beetles and stamps as a child, said he thought the service appealed to such a broad swath of Web users because the simple act of collecting is universal.
"It's like, when you go to a friend's house, you're always excited to see what's on their bookshelf," he said. "Behind Pinterest was the idea that if you can put that online, it'd be really exciting for folks."
Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group who advises companies on how to use technology, said Pinterest was tapping into behavior that went beyond simply sharing. Ms. Etlinger said it was akin to early forums on the Web where users would congregate around a very specific topic -- vegan recipes or tattoo art, for example -- because it let them drill down into things that truly interested them, and explore what others had shared on a subject. This is an area that Facebook, the king of social sites, has not really pursued, she said.
"Facebook used to be about connecting with your friends, but now it's so focused on the individual, with curating your timeline and how you present yourself to the world," she said. "The site never had great group tools, and bringing both a community of interest and people together has always been a blind spot at Facebook."
Other social sites have tried approaches similar to that of Pinterest, without great success. Ning, for example, let people build social networks around any obscure topic, from popular television shows to niche hobbies. But it failed, in part, because the site was a bit of an eyesore.
Pinterest went through 30 or 40 iterations before settling on its current pleasantly cluttered look, which has had a ripple effect across the Web. Several copycat sites have popped up, from Manteresting, which is for "interesting man things," to Friendsheet, which pulls Facebook photos into a Pinterest-like interface. Some social sites focused on e-commerce, including Lockerz and StyleCaster, have revamped themselves to look more like Pinterest.
"The Pinterest guys set a new bar," said Ari Goldberg, chief executive of StyleCaster. "We're seeing more likes and comments in the 24 hours since we relaunched than ever."
Analysts say Pinterest's popularity has caused such a shake-up around the Web because there is a large overlap between the people who gravitate toward the site -- largely women -- and those who visit mass merchandise and e-commerce sites.
"The Pinterest audience is the same audience that shops online, which is very unique," said Radha Subramanyam, senior vice president for media analytics at Nielsen. Pinterest, she said, "could very quickly translate these interests into transaction opportunities."
That is another way of saying that Pinterest could be sitting on a potential gold mine, especially because it lets people connect their Facebook accounts to their Pinterest profiles. That means Pinterest knows a lot about its users and what kinds of clothing, furniture, accessories and even food items they really like, and what they might be interested in buying.
The site is also aggressive about leveraging that tie-in with Facebook. When a user signs up, the site automatically "follows" all of her Facebook friends who are also on Pinterest, and sends them e-mail alerts about this.
Jeff Jordan, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a prominent venture capital firm in Silicon Valley that provided some of Pinterest's $40 million in financing, said the company had tremendous business potential, in part because its users could not seem to get enough of it.
"The most noteworthy thing about the site is its engagement," he said. "The users that use it, use it voraciously." Mr. Jordan said he had seen only one other site with similar numbers in this area, "and that was Facebook."
Mr. Silbermann said Pinterest, which has 20 employees and is based in Palo Alto, Calif., had an iPad application in the works, which should give it another way to grow.
But Pinterest maintains it is in no rush to figure out a way to turn a profit. Earlier the company was testing out an approach to bringing in revenue by working with an affiliate marketing service called Skimlinks. If a Pinterest user clicked on an item, went to its page in an online store and bought it, Pinterest received a small cut.
But users were not told about this, and some were upset when they found that Pinterest was making money from the items they posted. That led Pinterest to drop its relationship with Skimlinks.
The company has had other stumbles. Some photographers and bloggers have lashed out at the service for the way it lets users share copyrighted images without permission.
Mr. Silbermann, who has personally responded to many of the complaints online, said the company was working to address this issue. He said Pinterest "cares deeply about copyright," and wanted to make sure people could report infringement.
"Every site with user-generated content has had to think about this," he said. "We care a lot about understanding what people's concerns are and making the service valuable to them."
First Published March 12, 2012 12:00 am