That’s how he opened his AMA at AfroTech, stating that as the reason why he wanted to attend the conference. He brought his expertise as CEO to a crowd of eager listeners and dropped knowledge about everything from building a team to making the most of failure. Check out what he had to say below.
Know what you don’t want to do
To kick off the discussion, Silbermann talked about how he came from a family of doctors in Des Moines, Iowa. Although he went to school to be a doctor originally, he started to realize that he wasn’t sure he wanted to go down that path. And as he told the crowd at AfroTech, “Everything that I knew growing up meant that if you’re not sure if you want to be a doctor, you’re actually sure you don’t want to be a doctor.
This approach to finding your niche in life is powerful. If you’re in a place where you aren’t sure exactly what you want to do, a good way to start is to rule out what you definitely don’t want to do. What are you uneasy about? What doesn’t fill you with excitement? Cut those things out first and narrow in on the path that best aligns with you.”
When he was in school, Silbermann had high-speed internet for the first time. And the concept of the Internet thrilled him.
“I loved this idea that no matter where you were, you could get access to the same information as everyone else. It just felt like it was obviously the future.”
Although he wasn’t positive what he wanted to do with that passion, he found himself building things online as a hobby, experimenting and demo-ing different structures. He built an internet trivia game, a community family health platform and eventually Pin Board -- a program that would eventually evolve into Pinterest.
Just get to it
While working as a consultant after graduation, Silbermann found himself daydreaming about starting his own company. Instead of continuing to simply dream, he instead focused his sights on the first step to accomplishing his goals — moving to a place where they would be possible. In his case, that was California.
He applied to “basically every role” at Google until landing a customer support job. And Google’s environment was pivotal for Silbermann because of the “why not?” attitude throughout.
"I had never worked somewhere where the standard answer was 'why not?' and that was thrilling" - Ben Silbermann, Pinterest CEO #AfroTech16— Franchesca A. Hashim (@sundaysbloom) November 12, 2016
And it was Silbermann’s girlfriend who finally gave him some tough love that steered him in the right direction. She sweetly said, “You know Ben, we’ve been going out for a couple years, and it would be really great if you either did it or stopped talking about it.”
After some thought, he quit his job with no plan but jumped into his dream full-force.
Build with the right people
After raising some money and trying (with little success) to get their app at the time featured in the app store, Silbermann and his crew went back to doing what came naturally — building things online for fun. From this practice came Pin Board, the earliest iteration of Pinterest.
The first people to join the team started in a humble office in an apartment building, but one of the biggest perks happened to be the grill that allowed them to have weekly barbecues. The team was different — but Silbermann believes that unique environment allowed them to attract the right group of people who would most benefit and benefit from the company.
Everyone involved knew that if they wanted to see something, they had to build it. And the motivation and dedication that requires made for a strong start-up team.
After a few iterations of Pinterest, they landed on a design that allowed people to display their collections in a useful and appealing way. The team decided that this Pinterest idea was much cooler than their app and shifted their focus to marketing it. Silbermann says he knew this product was different because “It was something that I really loved.”
After sharing it with all of his family and friends, the team started doing meetups all over to promote the product. This expanded the idea of the weekly barbecues that occurred in the office and brought that company culture to potential users, building an essential sense of community.
But even being in Silicon Valley, the product was mostly used by women, specifically women not located in the valley. And although Silbermann saw that as a distinct advantage, investors didn’t always agree. Because it wasn’t something they were using, they didn’t always see that it served to solve a problem for others.
But Silbermann and the team learned that if someone doesn’t know about something, that doesn’t mean it’s not needed. It just means you need to teach them.
From adding his phone number at the bottom of every customer service email to putting Pinterest on the browsers of every Macbook in the Apple store, Silbermann didn’t hesitate to make the product accessible to potential users.
Don’t shy away from failure — optimize your recovery
No path to success is free of failure. There’s no way around it. Silbermann was raised believing that doing research until you could figure out the smoothest path was the way to success, but through growing Pinterest realized that failure was unavoidable. So instead he realized they needed to streamline how they recover and grow from mistakes.
And the team is honest about their goals. They lay them out and are honest in saying that the way to get there is really hard. What the Pinterest team has learned is that this thinking inspires and motivates the right people to form solutions and to solve the joint problem. Being honest about the huge task at hand will show you who is down for the cause vs. who isn’t invested in the long-term success of the product for consumers.
Pinterest is meant to be a catalog of ideas. It allows users to see everything in the world and to make choices on what’s for them to have a more fulfilled and more joyful life.
"A company is a way to turning something that you really care about into something that you're paid for" -Pinterest Founder #AfroTech16— Alona King (@techgirlmagic) November 12, 2016
Ultimately, Silbermann believes there should be more black entrepreneurs because having a company is a way to take your passions and your perspectives and turn them into solutions for consumers and a vehicle for success and happiness. It’s a powerful position with a lot of responsibility, but through these roles and through having inclusive work environments, our world will benefit.
The audience was certainly moved by Ben’s Pinterest success story. And although it wasn’t the straightest path or the smoothest sailing along the way, the story he told was real — something upcoming entrepreneurs can relate to and learn from.
From startup advice...
it's about: team. timing. resources. and endurance (both mentally & spiritually). ^ Ben Silbermann, CEO Pinterest #AfroTech16— yakka m (@yakone) November 12, 2016
To the elements needed for success in general.
Everyone was grateful for his honest story.
CEO of Pinterest just dropped some major knowledge dimes #AfroTech16— J Storey (@Sto_Knows) November 12, 2016
Check out Ben Silbermann’s AMA here and let us know what you take away from the talk.
What did you learn about Pinterest? Entrepreneurship? What advice will you be applying to your hustle? Tell us in the comments below!
This post is brought to you by Pinterest.