Monday 10 December 2018

Design for life: Pinterest chief out to inspire as it gets personal with users

Pinterest is the world's online store for ideas. On the fringes of the Web Summit, Adrian Weckler spoke exclusively to co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann about the firm's future and its Dublin plans

Recipe for success: Ben Silbermann, Co-Founder and CEO of Pinterest says it has invested heavily in machine learning so that the site feels as if it has been ‘handpicked’ for its users
Recipe for success: Ben Silbermann, Co-Founder and CEO of Pinterest says it has invested heavily in machine learning so that the site feels as if it has been ‘handpicked’ for its users
While the world obsesses about Facebook, Google and Twitter, Pinterest is quietly dominating the world of design, planning and practical ideas. Photo: Getty Images

Adrian Weckler Technology Editor

Planning a wedding, new outfit or a house redecoration? If you use social media, there's only one place you'll go to help you gather everything neatly in a single online scrapbook.

While the world obsesses about Facebook, Google and Twitter, Pinterest is quietly dominating the world of design, planning and practical ideas.

The company has 700,000 active users in Ireland, who 'pin' 260,000 items every day.

Its global figures make it one of the most powerful online platforms for advertisers; 250 million users a month, two billion searches and three billion Pinterest 'boards'.

Its financials, though undisclosed, are reportedly at about €700m revenue with a valuation of around €11bn, roughly half that of Twitter (which is a few years older).

Amid such strong numbers (it is only eight years old), the company's co-founder and CEO, Ben Silbermann, is targeting Dublin as an important expansion hub in Europe.

"Dublin is our biggest office in Europe and we plan to double its size next year," he says in a quiet Iowa accent.

"To be honest, we really didn't have that much experience [in selecting a major European office] but we heard from a lot of other companies that they had access to great talent in Dublin, that it had become a little bit of hub," he says.

While the world obsesses about Facebook, Google and Twitter, Pinterest is quietly dominating the world of design, planning and practical ideas. Photo: Getty Images
While the world obsesses about Facebook, Google and Twitter, Pinterest is quietly dominating the world of design, planning and practical ideas. Photo: Getty Images

"So we ended up following those companies there. It's been a great success so far."

Silbermann's Irish base is being used to leverage a concerted push into the European market, one of the company's strongest - 80pc of sign-ups to Pinterest are outside the US, he says.

"A few years ago we were primarily a US-based service," he says. "We made a very dedicated effort to try to grow around the world.

"We had a few focus regions and one of them was Western Europe. We've seen great pickup in the UK, France, Ireland and Germany.

"So now we're starting to open up the advertising business in those markets as well."

While Europe seems to be taking to Pinterest, it has arguably become a more challenging place to do business for a big American tech company, especially one focused on an online product that naturally lends itself to sharing stuff and advertising.

GDPR alone has forced some big US firms into a rethink of how they approach their users as 'products' online.

Does a stricter European climate affect the way Pinterest is designing and building its own service?

"I think where it will affect things is in the future of online advertising," says Silbermann.

"And in making sure that consumers understand this pretty complicated world of how online advertising works.

"It's something that, as a smaller player that's coming at it later than a Facebook or Google, hopefully we can learn from some of the things they've dealt with. Hopefully people will feel like their expectations on how the service works are being met.

"Very often, people are more than willing to share if they can see a benefit back.

"Where they become concerned is when they don't realise what's going on. So we've tried to be very clear about that. Everything from our terms of service to features of the product are very clear."

Does he think that Europe is pushing too hard on privacy law, as some other big tech companies have privately grumbled?

"I'm not sure," he says. "You know, I tend to think that laws are passed because people have concerns.

"Our position is that we try to listen to those very carefully and stay ahead of that. And then of course we want to make sure we're fully in compliance with all laws and regulations. We invested to make sure that was the case."

One frequent cause of tension between big web companies and regulators is online advertising. For consumers, too, it can be a source of irritation with disruptive or annoying ads souring their experience.

But whereas we gripe about ads appearing in WhatsApp, we don't seem too fussed about ads on Pinterest.

Indeed, the platform may be one of the most fortunate services around in that those planning an event may genuinely like to see ads for stuff they're avidly researching.

"At its core, there's a basic alignment between what consumers are there to do with the regular product and what advertisers want to do," says Silbermann.

"Consumers are there to get inspiration to do things in their life. Advertisers are there to be discovered.

"One of the top requests that we get from our users is when they see something they like and say, 'I really want to know where I can buy that'.

"So in this case, ads can actually fulfil that desire. Now it's a ton of work to actually make sure that we fulfil that promise."

There is another trope about Pinterest, that it's mainly for women. This appears to be supported by most surveys, which show a female skew in Pinterest's user base of about four to one.

Is this set to continue?

"It was initially adopted more by women, yeah," says Silbermann. "And then by men. But today, honestly we see both men and women using it.

"They use it in quite a similar way, to get inspiration to do something in their life. So kind of runs the gamut from small things like 'what do I cook for dinner' to outfits to bigger projects.

"We have a lot of creative professionals who use it for things like making movies. It's a tool. Designers and directors are strong users, he says.

"The director of the movie 'Crazy Rich Asians', just came by the office. He said that he used Pinterest for a lot of his set inspiration and designs. That's something that we hear quite a lot.

"Last year, some of the writers from [Netflix series] 'Stranger Things' came over to show their boards for inspiration."

Where will Pinterest go next in terms of product development?

"At a high level, I think Pinterest will remain the same for a long time," he says. "It comes back to this idea of giving people inspiration in life.

"That said, we're investing in a few areas to make that better. One is that we're really investing heavily in personalisation.

"We want to make sure that when you open Pinterest, it feels like everything's been handpicked for you.

"So we've invested both in machine learning as a technology platform and specifically in computer vision."

One such feature is the ability to pick part of an image and hunt for similar styles. "I think computer vision has been something that people have spoken about for years," he says.

"But it's just getting to that point where it's going mainstream. So we're investing in a pretty big way."

Another thing the company is working on, Silbermann says, is making it possible to do more when you see something that "inspires" you on Pinterest.

"That means different things for different types of pins for a recipe," he says. "It might mean that you can leave a review or actually buy the product, or be sent directly to a retailer.

"This distinguishes Pinterest from being something that just keeps you online to something that can hopefully get you offline to do those things right."

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