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Thinc Iowa: Ben Silbermann on inspiring ‘the confidence to do things that you would never do’

October 21, 2011 by

Ben Silbermann discussed overcoming insecurities to take the entrepeneurial plunge in his keynote today. Photos by Anna Jones from Anna Jones | Art of Photography and Tom Woolery from Ikonix Studio.

Ben Silbermann is the co-founder of a startup, Pinterest, that just closed a $27 million round and has been heralded as the “hottest startup of late in Silicon Valley.” His work led one Thinc Iowa conference-goer to suggest during a Q&A session that Silbermann’s alma matter, Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School, build a statue in his honor. 

But if Silbermann is overly impressed by any of that, it certainly didn’t show as he delivered the closing keynote of Thinc Iowa this afternoon at the Temple for Performing Arts. “Nobody,” Silbermann quipped at one point, “gives a (care) about what I’m doing.”

Judging by the borderline-rabid user base of Pinterest, a virtual pinboard that lets people organize and share the things they love, plenty of people would probably beg to differ with Silbermann’s assessment. But Silbermann’s self-effacing response to Pinterest’s popularity gets to the core of his entrepreneurial narrative. A few of the highlights of his story: 

Five T.I. Takeaways

1. Environment induces entrepreneurship

Silbermann always admired successful entrepreneurs but, for a long time, didn’t see himself as possessing the tools to become one himself. The path to Pinterest, Silbemann said, “was totally crazy. It was fraught with insecurity.”

Out of college, he worked as a consultant. But he wasn’t happy with the job, so he decided to make a change, leaving the consulting gig to move to Silicon Valley. “I wanted to be closer to people that I thought could inspire me to do that on my own,” he said.

2. Getting it right takes time

Early on, one of Silbermann’s Pinterest co-founders insisted on perfecting the design of one of site’s main pages. So, for 2.5 months, the team labored on that one piece of the website. In retrospect, Silbermann says it was well worth the time they invested.

“Figure out the thing, the first thing in your site … that the rest of it completely depends on,” Silbermann said, “and pour all of your efforts into that, at the exclusion of everything else.”

3. Inspiring people to act

Pinterest was not designed as an end unto itself. Unlike the Farmvilles of the world, which Silbermann said don’t encourage offline engagement, Pinterest was created to let people share their passions and try new things — and do so in the real world, not in front of a computer monitor.

Silbermann cited the example of a woman in New Zealand who has endeavored to try a different Pinterest-based project every single day. “Part of the mission of Pinterest is to get you off the site,” he said, “and give you the confidence to do things that you would never do.”

4. Startups take scrappers

Don’t let the big funding rounds fool you. Silbermann said Pinterest, which has a nine-person team, is still a struggling startup at heart. “We have a small team,” he said, “and they’re super scrappy.”

The energy of that team drives Silbermann on a daily basis. “I had this vision of entrepreneurs as solitary geniuses,” Silbermann said. “And I guess some of them are. But I’m definitely not.” 

5. Iowa love

Pinterest launched in March of 2010, but it didn’t catch on right away. “It was stealth without us trying to be stealth,” Silbermann said. “Nobody would listen.”

The first people to “get it,” Silbermann said, were from the Midwest. And today, people from the Midwest make up a disproportionate percentage of Pinterest users. That, coupled with the fact that Thinc Iowa meant a chance to come home, made the event special for him.

“The thing that I found most inspirational in my journey,” Silbermann said, “is working with people that inspired me, whether they’re the people on our team or the people in the community.

“So that’s, again, why I’m really excited about what Thinc (Iowa) is doing.”

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