Ben Silbermann: creating Silicon Valley’s “silent unicorn”

Ben Silbermann © Getty images
Ben Silbermann: founder of the “silent unicorn”

Ben Silbermann, who launched the digital pinboard Pinterest in 2010, is not your typical tech entrepreneur. Quiet and meticulous, he has built the company in his own image. Jane Lewis reports.

When Ben Silbermann founded Pinterest in 2010, the film The Social Network had just come out. “I was like ‘Geez that doesn’t look like our company’,” he told Forbes last year. “Everyone’s drinking all night.” At Pinterest, by contrast, there was no laddish tech culture. “A lot of our early folks had families.” That distinction has endured.

The persona of the “aggressive and outgoing” start-up has never really fitted Pinterest, which was scheduled to list this week and is likely to be seen as “a barometer” for initial public offerings (IPOs) to come – including Uber, Slack and Postmates, says The New York Times.

The “digital pinboard” conceived by Silbermann and his partner Evan Sharp is “a slightly different breed of unicorn”. True, Pinterest is still unprofitable. But it is “burning less cash” than, say, ride-hailing outfit Lyft, which floated last month – and whose shares are still languishing 17% below their float price. And Silbermann and Co. have priced their baby relatively cautiously.

This less gung-ho style has won the social-scrapbooking app and its publicity-shy founder new fans. “Taking some of the hype out of the IPO process,” says Gina Chon on Breakingviews, gives “Silbermann room to argue that his more conservative approach puts the long-term interests of both the company and its investors first.”

“In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs pour time and energy into perpetuating the myth of the genius founder,” says the Financial Times. But Silbermann, 36, has always “cultivated more mystery than myth” – challenging “the convention of the cocksure founder”. One reason why the Pinterest story hasn’t followed the standard start-up script is that he remains a relative outsider in clubby tech circles. Described as “quiet and meticulous”, he has built the firm in his own image. It is known in the Valley as “the silent unicorn”.

From Yale to Google

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, to parents who were doctors, Silbermann initially assumed he would follow them into the profession. But after Yale, where he studied political science, he became a tech consultant before joining Google as a product specialist in 2006. Three years later, he quit to co-found Pinterest.

From the start, the aim, borne of his “childhood passion for collecting leaves and insects”, was to create “a place to collect things on the internet”, says the FT. Users typically pin photos to their pages, creating “visual wish lists”. As a result, the site has become “a haven for wedding planning and hunting for clothes and recipes”. The earliest users – typically women from his native Midwest – came through word of mouth and stayed because “the experience felt very personal”. Creatives and mums are still two core user groups.

“I always describe Facebook and Twitter as ‘them time’: it’s time about the world and what’s outside you,” Silbermann once observed when explaining his firm’s niche. “Pinterest, for a lot of users, is ‘me time’. What do I want my future to be? Who am I? What are the things I want to do?”. The site aims to “recreate real-world serendipity online”, says Forbes. “Browsing Pinterest should resemble the real-life experience of spotting something in a window and thinking you like it.”

Early backers, such as angel investor Ronald Conway, claim that Pinterest has “created a whole new search paradigm on the web, which is discovery”. That might be over-egging its credentials.

However “believable” Silbermann is as an entrepreneur, he still needs to persuade many investors of the value of his platform, says the FT – and that “profitability is in reach”. Still, one thing future shareholders can probably count on is that he will stick around. “I hope Pinterest is my last job,” he remarked recently. “I don’t think there are a lot of tools at that scale that let you indulge in who you want to be.”