Ben Silbermann: the modest genius behind Pinterest

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When you go to meet a hot young tech mogul in his hot young tech office, there are certain things you expect to see: a raw industrial space filled with dressed-down young people, many of whom have beards.

A neon sign. Out front: a hot young receptionist, a fridge full of free drinks and a carefully curated collection of reading matter. In this instance, the standout title on the coffee table is: Feminist Ryan Gosling: Feminist Theory From Your Favourite Sensitive Movie Dude.

At Pinterest's office in downtown San Francisco, it is entirely as I expect. Down the road from Groupon, round the corner from Airbnb, it is right in the middle of what has become tech dude central. Inside, it's lunchtime, which doesn't, as it does for the rest of the working world, mean a sandwich from Pret: it means a hot meal laid on every day for all employees and the lingering smell of chicken stir fry drifting up through the triple-height exposed brick-and-steel space.

So far, so tech-cliché. And yet its 31-year-old co-founder, its chief-executive, the man who has overseen it being valued at £3.8bn) in its last round of funding, one of Fortune magazine's, top 40 under-40 young entrepreneurs, and the presiding spirit of what has become the fastest growing social media site on the internet, is not what I expect. Ben Silbermann is not a hot young tech dude. Or if he is, he's keeping very quiet about it.

Silbermann is the mild-mannered man of tech. He is polite. He is sincere. He comes from Iowa. If he were a character in a movie, it would star Jimmy Stewart. He is not a man you would pick from a crowd; I have difficulty, frankly, picking him from the team page of his website. He is the Clark Kent of the San Francisco startup scene: the unremarkable ordinary guy who is concealing an extraordinary superpower, in Silbermann's case, the fact that his site is undergoing incredible, exponential growth: growing faster than Facebook, growing faster than Twitter, and that, arguably, its prospects for making money are better than both.

But he is understated. When I ask him how it feels to be at the master controls of one of the fastest growing social networks, and whether the multi-billion dollar valuation has added on the pressure, he shrugs.

"Well, I think there is some pressure. But I think that what I really feel is that we've always made Pinterest to use and enjoy, and that was the same when it was a really small community when I knew all 500 users. The pressure is just in making a product that's really, really useful and really inspiring to you."

In truth, all his answers are like this: modest, measured, a bit boring. For tech analysts, and tech investors, Pinterest is one of the most interesting sites out there. It is based on pretty pictures of pretty things, many of which people want to buy. It has a far more direct relationship to product than almost any other site. It has dollar signs written all over it. And yet, Silbermann could not be less excited. He is the nicely brought-up boy who's been taught that it's wrong to boast and the kind of bragging that is standard in almost any startup anywhere is absent in his talk.

When we're setting up the interview, the PR asks me if I've ever used Pinterest. I have a little bit, I email back. I've been renovating a flat and I type incredibly dull things into its search box such as "white tiles bathroom" and it'll bring up photographs of beautiful bathrooms, flooded in light, exquisitely finished, which I then email to my builder. He'll pull them up on his phone while we look at the small windowless box in front of us and then he'll ask me questions like: "Gloss or matt?" and: "What colour grout?" and throws his hands up in despair when I say I'll have to do a little more research.

This does, however, illustrate the official description of what Pinterest is: Silbermann calls it a "visual discovery tool". Theoretically, it allows you to discover things you didn't know you were looking for. So while I'm still confused about what tiles to get, and still have no idea about the grout, I did see pictures of nice baths. Interior decor is big on Pinterest. Fashion is big. Cooking is big. It's the Disney princess castle of the web. Porn is banned. Nudity is banned. Even "partial nudity" is banned. There's no snarkiness.

"Women are from Pinterest," one commentator extrapolated. "And men are from Reddit."

It is the nice bit of the internet. The bit where you are most likely to come across a creatively decorated cupcake. Where you are most unlikely to come across a photograph of someone's naked genitals and an invitation for some hot phone sex.

Or you were until a couple of weeks ago when the site was hacked and someone thought it would be funny to take over users' pages and replace their carefully curated images of directional sofas and one-pot dinners with ones of what the American news sites called "butt pics" and we would call people's arses.

I can imagine that was taken quite seriously inside the funky downtown San Francisco converted warehouse. Because Pinterest's core audience, its heartland, is not necessarily the tech crowd, or the west coast crowd, or the New York crowd.

There were two sets of early adopters. One was the design bloggers, who loved its clean white space, and highly stylised design, a design of which Evan Sharp, Silbermann's co-founder, did 50 fully functional versions, tweaking every part of it, many times, until he and Silbermann were convinced they had got it right.

The other early adopters were the people to whom one journalist refers dismissively as "the mid-western scrapbooking set". By which, I think, he means ordinary people. Ones with homes to decorate and children to feed and holidays to plan.

The "scrapbook" idea, though, is at Pinterest's heart. Other social media sites – Twitter, Facebook – rely on users generating their own content. But Silberman believes "most people don't have anything witty to say on Twitter" or any major news to share on Facebook. But everyone can collect stuff. Pinterest relies on "repinning" other people's content, other people's beautiful bathrooms.

You don't have to pin photos of your own windowless box. You can pin pictures of the bathroom that you think should define you rather than the one you have.

Even Silbermann, on his Pinterest page, has a board called "A Future Home" which features a modern, glass and steel box.

"Don't you already have a future home?" I ask him.

"Well, I have a home. A two-bedroom apartment. We rent it in the city." Really? That doesn't seem very tech mogul?

"Yeah, I mean my life is pretty … I mean, it's exciting, but I don't know that it's conventionally glamorous. I drop my kid at daycare in the morning and then go to the office."

I am agnostic about Pinterest – there's a limit to the number of bathrooms that I can bothered to look at – but then I'm not much of a girl. I find handbags unspeakably boring. Cupcakes make me gag.

But I speak to plenty of bloggers who enthuse wildly over it, particularly designers. Marcus Fairs, editor-in-chief of Dezeen, one of the most popular design sites on the net, says it has a utility that goes far beyond "showing how many friends you have or how clever you are".

It drives more business to Dezeen's watch store, he says, than any other site.

"By being image-driven and only asking you to 'pin' pictures you like it takes to an extreme the linguistic contraction brought first by blogs, then by Twitter." You can see the attraction for designers. Anybody who's ever worked with one knows the glint they get in their eyes when they see an opportunity for, as Fairs says, removing "the need for language".

Jeska Hearne, an interiors blogger, on the other hand, tells me it's where she spots rising interior trends and that one of the things she enjoys is the "happy, inspiring, positive online community".

And I'm not agnostic about Silbermann. There's such a careful concern at work with everything he's done, and the way that he has gone about building the entire site, the entire business. An authenticity that runs through everything he does. A Jimmy Stewartness.

There is nothing cynical about Pinterest. Nothing brash and rip-offy. It was built by hobbyists, for hobbyists. Silbermann's boyhood bug collection is the touchstone inspiration and the company's founding myth.

Both his parents and and his siblings are doctors and he enrolled at Yale as a pre-med with the thought of becoming a doctor. And there's more than a touch of the bedside manner to the solicitous concern he has for his users.

When I interview him, I know that he comes from Iowa. But it's only afterwards that I realise that he comes from Des Moines and I'm reminded of Bill Bryson, or, more specifically, the first line of Bryson's book, The Lost Continent, when he explains that he comes from Des Moines. "Someone had to."

It goes on: "When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a girl called Bobbie and get a job in the Firestone factory and live there forever or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can't wait to get out and then you settle down with a local girl called Bobbie and get a job in the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever."

Silbermann didn't accept it. He decided against medicine, moved to Washington DC but all the time he had the feeling that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He started reading TechCrunch, a technology news website. He loved history. And he realised that the history of our time was being made on the west coast.

He moved to San Francisco and got a job at Google. Which was his dream. But he wasn't an engineer. A genius teenage coder. He got a job in customer support. He answered the phones.

It's an experience that never left him. He emailed the first 5,000 users of Pinterest personally to get their feedback. It's not a coincidence that Pinterest engaged the mainstream before it engaged the tech crowd. He emailed a link to the site to his friends shortly after launch and it was his friends in Iowa who were the first to pick it up and start using it. A while afterwards, he spoke at a conference in Salt Lake City and the Mormons got their hands on it; the "bloggernacle."

The Republican politician Mitt Romney's wife Ann was the first known celebrity user, though its most popular pinner for a long time was Silbermann's mother. Her page is nothing if not quirky. Her profile picture is a chinstrap penguin from Antarctica. And she has more than eight million followers, most of whom do not have a clue that she is the co-founder's mother. They just really like her recipes. (He most popular board is one called "Delicious"). Of course, they're not her recipes. That's the Pinterest thing. Her board is like a bespoke recipe book of dishes curated from other people's recipe books.

"She uses it all the time. She just really enjoys it. And she's the kind of person who, if she didn't like it, she'd just be like, 'I don't like this thing'."

Having spent four years perfecting the site, making it beautiful and easy to use and, in the early days, "curating" the users (design bloggers rather than porn barons, ideally), the plan this year is finally to monetise it with "promoted pins". Advertising, basically.

It's a no-brainer, really. Pinterest is like the glossiest of glossiest mags filled with perfect things, perfectly photographed. (Other people's photographs, often; users agree to respect copyright in the terms of service agreement but it's been a contentious issue and still open to abuse.)

Pinterest is capitalism's ultimate tool. It's all about things. You can plan your holidays and look at photos of trees but it's mostly about stuff you can buy. "Promoted pins" will, at least, keep this relationship transparent.

It is unclear how many top Pinterest users aren't already taking advertising cash on the sly. The users' terms of service were rewritten recently to ban it but it's obviously going on. I hear of several off the record accusations about top pinners making a good living from taking advertisers' cash.

Still, when I ask Silbermann how he uses Pinterest, he tells me he planned his wedding on it.

Really? I say. Gosh, do you you think you are the first straight man ever to create a wedding mood board? "No," he says. "I don't think so."

Pinterest is different. And so is Silbermann, Silicon Valley's undude.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Carole Cadwalladr, for The Observer on Saturday 5th April 2014 13.00 Europe/London

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