Social Networks

Why Image-Sharing Network Pinterest Is Hot


In June, Kirsty Colquhoun decided to do one homemade project every day for a year. Colquhoun, a mother of two in Auckland, New Zealand, documented the experience on her blog, 365 Days of Pinterest Creations. As the title suggests, she got the idea for each of her projects—peanut butter cookies, Barbie sleeping bags—from photos she saw on Pinterest, a kind of social network that centers around finding, collecting, and sharing images from across the Web. “I don’t have a lot of time for scrolling around the Internet looking for great websites I can trust,” Colquhoun says. Pinterest is “like the encyclopedia of great blogs for someone who has no idea where they should be looking.”

Less than two years after its launch, Pinterest has become the favorite website of moms, do-it-yourselfers, home cooks, brides-to-be, and others not generally known for their obsessions with startup fads. Traffic has increased sevenfold in the last five months, and marquee venture capitalists put $27 million into the company in October.

Part of the appeal is simplicity. Visitors browse their friends’ “boards,” which, like bulletin boards, are basically curated collections of photos, usually centered around a topic such as food or clothing. Users make boards by finding pictures they like on the Web. Hitting a button in a bookmark toolbar adds the image. Pinterest users can follow each other’s boards and “re-pin” each other’s postings, or create communal boards so that, for example, bridesmaids can share dress ideas. Since the site is image-centric, it’s an attractive way to browse. “Once you know what you want, Google (GOOG) or Amazon (AMZN) will take care of it,” says Ben Silbermann, a founder. “But if you don’t know what you want and you want to discover, I don’t think there are very good solutions.”

Pinterest was created last year by Silbermann, fellow Yale University alum Paul Sciarra, and their friend, designer Evan Sharp. Silbermann, who collected insects and stamps when he was a kid in Des Moines, saw that there was no convenient place for people to collect things online. “Not everyone’s a writer, so blogging doesn’t make sense for everyone,” he says. The three quit their jobs and began working from a tiny shared apartment in Palo Alto in November 2009. They knew they were onto something when, next summer, they held meetups for early users in San Francisco and New York. Silbermann was surprised to find that architects, chefs, and other “regular people” were the most passionate users.

Pinterest doesn’t release traffic numbers, but ComScore (SCOR) estimates the site grew to 3.3 million users in October, from just 418,000 in May. (The site still requires an invite from a current user to join, and a recent surge in invitations contributed to the boom, says Silbermann.) About 70 percent of users are female, another rarity for young Web services, which usually grow by relying on word-of-mouth among Silicon Valley’s (mostly male) insiders. “It is hard to call it a business—it’s more a phenomenon,” says Eventbrite Chief Executive Officer Kevin Hartz, an early investor. “The fact that this bypassed that step and went mainstream almost immediately was a very interesting and attractive factor,” says Jeff Jordan, partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, who joined Pinterest’s board when his firm led the October investment.

The nine-person startup has raised more than $37 million and now works out of an airy Palo Alto studio with two floors and a conference room. Like many local startups, it hasn’t made a cent. Silbermann mentions vague ideas about advertising. “People are planning their vacation, they are redecorating their home, they are planning their wardrobe,” he says. “They are going to Pinterest to get inspiration for the most important life projects, which correlate to the most important purchasing events in their life.”

Some merchants are already using the site to reach customers, free of charge. Whole Foods (WFMI) has created Pinterest boards like “The Fabulousness of Fall” to suggest recipe ideas for shoppers. When West Elm, a subsidiary of home goods retailer Williams-Sonoma, recently noticed an influx of customers on its website coming from Pinterest, it set up its own boards. “It made sense to share home stuff and artwork and design ideas because that is a huge part of the Pinterest community,” says Aaron Able, West Elm’s social media manager. “Our customer was very involved in Pinterest, so it made sense to be there.”

The bottom line: Traffic has increased sevenfold over the past five months at Pinterest, a bookmarking site that already has the attention of some retailers.

MacMillan is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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