INSIDE PINTEREST: An Overnight Success Four Years In The Making


The hottest small startup in the world right now is Pinterest, a photo-collecting site that is adored by several million American women.

How hot is it?

When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion on April 9, All Things D reporter Peter Kafka tweeted, “So Pinterest is now worth what – $5b? $10b?”

His colleague, Kara Swisher, replied: “A kajillion.”

Pinterest gets its share of comparisons to Facebook.

This success seems to have come out of nowhere.

If you look at a chart from Google Trends, which measures how often Google users are searching for certain terms, the search term “Pinterest” doesn’t really register until about midway through 2011. Then it spikes.

But Pinterest wasn’t founded in 2011.

Or 2010.

Or 2009.

Pinterest was started four years ago, right as the recession was really getting underway; in 2008.

It had a different name and a different CEO, then. It had three cofounders. Two of them are no longer around. A third “cofounder” joined just last year.

The truth is just as one source close to a Pinterest investor told us: “Pinterest is an overnight success four years in the making.”

Here’s that story.

Tote-tal Failure

In August 2008, Paul Sciarra quit his job at New York venture capital firm Radius Capital. Across the continent, his college friend Ben Silbermann quit his gig at Google.

They started a company called Cold Brew Labs.  There was a third cofounder, but he was a student still, and he quit the company after a couple weeks to go back to school.

Silbermann is a small, quiet person with a dark complexion and short dark hair. He’s skinny. He has the demeanor of an artist.

“He’s a very humble guy, and somewhat soft-spoken, but when you take the care to lean in and listen, he’s very thoughtful,” says one of his investors.

Sciarra is bigger in stature and personality. He can look like Don Draper when he wants to, but he usually doesn’t, preferring a “California” look of t-shirt, sneakers, and jeans. There is a “pretty good energy about him.”

Sciarra, thanks to his VC connections, was the CEO – the business guy. His job was to raise money. Also, his home in California would be the company’s first office, though that is a stretch of the word.

“It was kind of a house,” says an early employee. “Paul and his friend Dave lived there, and then we kicked Dave out – and then we kicked Paul out.”

An investor remembering that office says, “There was dirt on the floor. There was no place to sit. It was a really dark, dirty – a really tough place.”

Silbermann, whose job at Google was using data to improve the company’s products, was Cold Brew Labs’ product visionary from the start.

His first vision was called Tote, and it was an app for the iPhone. It pulled data from online product catalogs to create a meta catalogue for shoppers on the go. You could find particular products across retailers, sorted by location.

The app was pretty enough, and the idea interesting enough, that Cold Brew Labs found institutional funding in early 2009 from First Mark Capital in New York.

Months after launching, it was clear that Tote wasn’t going to work.

“The app was a total failure,” says one source close to early employees.

There were two big problems. One was that people weren’t using mobile apps for shopping yet. It was too early. The other was that Apple’s App Store wasn’t ready to support businesses built on the platform. It was still too slow. Cold Brew Labs would submit an app update to the store and then finish the next version before getting feedback on the prior.

Says a source that was around during the company’s early days: “Apple had two or three people on the whole team. It was like the DMV.”

Still, some people were using the app, and most of them were using it in a particular way: They were sending images of particular products to themselves. Collecting them.

Watching this behavior during the summer of 2009, Silbermann and a very small team of technical employees began working on a product built around this behavior. It would be for the Web, a mature platform.

The pivot from mobile app Tote to the new Web-based product “was a very progressive iteration,” not an “epiphany” says a source close to early employees.

“It makes total sense because we got the idea from a shopping app. You don’t shop for [particular items] you shop for shoes, you shop for dresses. You shop in buckets, so we were like OK, we need buckets.”

The team built a product that allowed users to put images of things in buckets. Silbermann made sure that the image collection product wasn’t described as a utility for shopping alone.

A source close to early employees says Silbermann wanted the product’s purpose to be vague, so that it could be used by everyone for anything. He learned this lesson from Twitter.

By the end of fall 2009, the new product was almost done. Silbermann had convinced the directors that the new product was the company’s future.  It wasn’t a dramatic choice, says a source close to the board. “It was, let’s refine the vision given what we’ve learned.”

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Silbermann’s girlfriend thought of a name for it: Pinterest.

Read the full story at Business Insider

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