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The Self-Made Man: Ben Silbermann

Last week’s Self Made Man, printer, Founding Father, and lecherous diplomat Ben Franklin, was one of the most gregarious people in American history, but this week’s Self Made Man, Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann, is cut from a different cloth. Silbermann rarely speaks to the press or gives interviews, and is a much more introverted person than a lot of the outgoing, type-A self-starters we’ve profiled here. Nonetheless, his accomplishments are certainly impressive, and they were built on the foundation of smarts and hard work that TSB recognizes in all successful entrepreneurs.

Silbermann grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and later attended the Research Science Institute at MIT before graduating from Yale with a political science major. Huh. I guess you can do something with those degrees.

Well, sort of. After graduating, Silbermann got a consulting job in DC, and understandably wanted to get the hell away from that as soon as he could. He read a lot of tech blogs and moved to Silicon Valley to be part of the action (he was specifically inspired by Digg and similar projects).

After sweet-talking his way into a job with Google, Silbermann started making friends and contacts in the tech industry, and left Google in 2009 to try and hack it as a freelancer. He tried making iPhone apps for a while, but that went nowhere, and he started Pinterest with co-founders Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp as an end-run around getting another day job.

Pinterest’s progress was slow, compared to other social sites like Facebook and Twitter. It was hard to find investors for a site that was image-based and didn’t stream user content in real time. None of the founders, Silbermann included, were techies either, and that worked against them too. A lot of engineering types still don’t understand Pinterest, which is really a site about broadcasting your interests to other people through images. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Silbermann compared the Pinterest experience to “when you walk into a shop and half of you is like, ‘How is this happening? I thought I was so unique,’ and the other half is like, ‘Yes!’”

What ended up driving Pinterest’s success was a small, but unique and almost fanatical, user base, and Silbermann went above and beyond to communicate with them. Pinterest hosted meet-ups at stores and boutiques where users could offer feedback and get to know each other in person, and partnered up with friendly blogs for invitation campaigns to attract more users. Silbermann gave some of the early users his cell phone number and still talks to them about the site, which is pretty much unheard of with most start-ups. It’s weird enough picturing someone as shy as Silbermann even owning a cell phone, much less giving the number to people.

Through those strategies, Silbermann learned that his site wasn’t really about algorithms as much as connecting with users, because that’s why they were using Pinterest in the first place. For whatever reason, his user base felt that Pinterest was a more meaningful experience than Twitter or Facebook, and because Silbermann didn’t abandon them or his project, it grew into a huge network of users that features regularly in the same tech blogs Silbermann read when he was planning his escape from DC.

Pinterest is still growing, but only because it was helmed by guys like Ben Silbermann, who were willing to risk failure and sidestep convention in pursuit of an idea they believed in. Here’s a video of him talking about Pinterest and his journey at Startup Grind.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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