Kingpins: The Business of Pinterest
S1: Set. Tell me about this article you wrote.
S2: OK, so in 2012, the site Pinterest took over the entire Internet and was racking up page views and everyone talking about how successful it was.
S3: Pinterest is a relatively new social sharing Web site that is sweeping the nation and had this huge valuation.
S2: And a lot of people noticed that it was mostly women who are visiting Pinterest. Not a lot of men.
S4: They have this great website called Pinterest and it’s called. From what I can sort of see, it’s mainly for women and it’s mainly just a collection of the most amazing, wonderful craftiness on the Earth.
S2: And so in 2013, a handful of male Pinteresque all launched around the same time to try to capture whatever the magic of Pinterest was except attracting male users. And I found that interesting. And so I went to visit all these male Pinterest sites to see what that would look like. And then I wrote a story about it for Slate.
S3: I’m just Miller and I produced Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. When I said I was interested in doing an episode on Pinterest, Seth remembered a piece he wrote for Slate back in 2013 about these knockoff Pinterest websites being marketed towards men.
S2: There was more interesting, which I just went and looked in does not appear to still be alive. There was gentle mint, which maybe is alive in some form. Dude, pins, punch pin.
S1: Pinterest isn’t supposed to be a website for women. There’s nothing inherently female about curating images on the Internet, but women still constitute 70 percent of Pinterest user base. What could these so-called male Pinterest offer that Pinterest itself doesn’t?
S2: And I’m looking at dude pins dotcom, which apparently still exists. It’s like boxing equipment, weightlifting sets a Fast and Furious poster, a Nissan GTR muscle car, a woman in a very tight fitting shirt. It’s that kind of stuff.
S1: Now, there’s a reason why you’ve probably never heard of any of these sites, they never really took off. But Pinterest, which was blowing up when Seth wrote this article, just kept building momentum. And the site has only gotten more female over time, in part because its algorithm is self reinforcing. The more people who come to Pinterest looking for so-called female content, the more Pinterest prioritizes that kind of content and the cycle continues. But there’s another reason to. Pinterest has a reputation for being one of the nicest corners of the Internet. If you want a man to shout at you, you can go to Reddit or Twitter. But if you want to trade ideas for reindeer themed cupcakes or medium length beach wave hairstyles or DIY boho style twinkle light canopy beds, well, Pinterest is the place for you. When the pandemic started and people began cutting their own hair and launching their own DIY home improvement projects and generally needing a website where by design, doom scrolling just doesn’t exist, they increasingly found their way to Pinterest. Advertisers were also drawn to Pinterest cheerful content because users are more likely to form positive associations when the ads they see are surrounded by pretty pictures. So seems like a great business. Women love it. Advertisers love reaching those women. But Pinterest doesn’t seem satisfied.
S5: I know that one of our talking points was that eight out of 10 American moms were on Pinterest. But I also remember that while the audience was was made up of women primarily, and that women were really driving the attention, fanfare and the reputation of Pinterest externally, internally, that very audience was not respected.
S1: Erica Shimizu Banks used to work at Pinterest. She says the company leadership often took its predominantly female audience for granted.
S5: And instead of sort of honoring and celebrating that women were on the platform and driving those very conditions, that made it a more trustworthy platform, the emphasis was on we have to appeal to men. We have to bring more men onto the platform.
S6: Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting different kinds of users to come to the platform you’ve built. It’s the only way to really grow as a company. But Banks believes that this was a narrow focus and that the fixation points to some of Pinterest broader problems.
S5: You know, whose voices were listened to, who we saw ascending into certain positions, who got to drive projects versus do the work for the projects.
S1: This summer, Pinterest found itself in the headlines for reasons that threw a wrench into its women friendly image. Erica Shimizu Banks was one of several former employees, including the CEO, to accuse the company of being a hostile place to work, citing examples of gender and racial bias and retaliation towards those who pushed for change, its top executives have vowed to do better. But as more and more users sign up for accounts, who is Pinterest really for? Is it for the moms who made it what it is, or for those elusive male users the company thinks it needs to win over? And what happens when a company that’s built a reputation for being friendly, pleasant and women centric is accused of building an internal culture that is not those things? How nice is Pinterest really?
S7: I’m just filler welcome to thrilling tales of modern capital equipment that handed me the keys to the show this week. Today’s episode, Kingpin’s the Business of Pinteresque.
S8: As a kid, I was a big collector.
S1: I collected like insects and I collected stamps when Pinterest CEO Ben Silverman describes the origins of the company he founded, as he did in this 2012 conference keynote. It usually starts like this as a kid growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. He liked to accumulate stuff.
S8: And I’d always thought that the things you collect, they say, just like so much about who you are. Like when I go to someone’s house, I look at the books on their bookshelf. When people go out, they pay attention to what clothes you wear. And I felt like none of that was online.
S1: Silberman has no programming background, but in 2008, after bouncing around as a consultant and then a brief stint at Google, he teamed up with a friend to design a shopping app called Tote. It notified you and clothes you liked, went on sale and told you where to buy them. You could also buy things within the app, but most people didn’t. Instead, they use the app to save and share pictures of the items they liked. Silberman’s started thinking about building an entire app around that kind of behavior, and that idea came to fruition when Silberman met Evan Sharpe, a designer who was training to be an architect. Sharp was sold on Silberman’s vision. Founders describe what most people think of when they think of Pinterest.
S9: It’s kind of an aesthetic. It’s sort of like a nice, quaint, cute place on the Internet. Populated primarily by craft loving Midwestern ladies.
S1: Erin Griffeth covers tech startups and venture capital in Silicon Valley for The New York Times. She said that from almost the very start, Pinterest was an outlier in the startup world. And intentionally or not, the choices that Silbermann and his colleagues made at the outset drove in their female audience early on.
S9: They deemphasize a lot of the social media features, and that is one way to grow super easily. You know, you get a notification that there’s a photo of you or that your friend tagged you or your friend wants you to join this thing.
S1: At the time, the tech industry was obsessed with social networks. Apps that are built on users social connections have a growth strategy built in. But that wasn’t Silberman’s vision for Pinterest.
S9: Ben Silverman. He’s an introvert and he views the project as something that you do by yourself. You know, you make these plans and you say things that you like. And he wanted it to be sort of private, little like project that you do.
S1: So Silberman didn’t build in messaging features that would have created interaction between his users. Instead of building a timeline more like Twitter or Facebook, Pinterest went for a grid layout. It was more aesthetically appealing and more evergreen. And most significantly, rather than doing what many tech companies do to drive up their numbers, which is paying people to become users or offering other incentives to join, Silbermann went for slow, steady and organic growth. He prioritized quality over quantity.
S9: He’s not trying to take over the world like Mark Zuckerberg. He just wants to build a nice business.
S1: But it took a while for the tech industry to catch up.
S9: I didn’t really catch on in Silicon Valley, but, you know, Midwestern women were among the most voracious users of the app. And so some investors kind of missed it for that reason.
S1: Turns out venture capitalists don’t get that excited when you tell them that your core user base consists of moms from Iowa and Illinois. And even if you recognize the value of those users, this is a fairly limited pool of people to draw from Pinterest needed to scale up. It didn’t have much more than three thousand users after it launched. So Silberman’s started inviting people to meet ups, hoping to turn his core audience into evangelists for the site. Perhaps the biggest success came from a campaign called Pinette Forward, which was kind of like a chain letter of PIN boards that users could send around to their friends to have them edit and in turn send to more people.
S6: It was a success. Pinterest kept rolling along with an eye on organic quality growth. There were a few bumps along the way, but by fall, twenty eighteen, the company had two hundred and fifty million monthly active users and was worth twelve point three billion dollars. One hundred and seventy five billion items had been pinned to three billion boards and Pinterest started to get ready for an IPO. It came in spring of last year, nine years after Pinterest founding, and it was a success. Ben Silverman became a billionaire, but it wasn’t until the current pandemic that Pinterest really started to exceed Wall Street’s expectations, with people around the world sitting at home meeting pretty pictures to look at, recipes to trade, and most importantly, things to buy online instead of at the store. Pinterest traffic and revenue started to accelerate.
S1: And with many advertisers boycotting Facebook over its mishandling of false information and hate speech, there was a little more ad money heading in Pinterest direction.
S6: The stock price surged, but inside the company, things were not quite as rosy.
S10: Since they’ve gone public, they’ve received the scrutiny before they were public, they did not.
S11: More on that after the break.
S1: You know, it’s pretty unusual to see a lawsuit for discrimination from a C Suite executive in 2018, Francois Brugger became Pinteresque first chief operating officer in previous jobs, Brugger had boosted revenue for Google and helped oversee an IPO at Square. Erin Griffiths says her arrival was a pretty clear sign that Pinterest was going to IPO.
S9: Hiring a CEO who has taken companies public before is definitely a step that a lot of companies do before their own IPOs. You know, Mark Zuckerberg had Sheryl Sandberg and a lot of people looked at Francois as sort of stepping into that role, like here’s an experienced executive who is going to help usher this company out to the public markets alongside the sort of visionary founder, CEO type, which is Ben Silverman.
S1: Burger successfully handled Pinteresque IPO, but within a year, she was no longer a Pinterest employee, and a few months after that, she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer. Brewer claimed that even though she was the number two executive at a company focused on women, she was intentionally left out of meetings, offered a different pay structure and received gendered feedback about her work performance. The lawsuit also alleges that complaining about these things to each other and to her boss, Ben Silbermann, cost her her job. She was fired shortly after voicing some of these complaints.
S9: She wasn’t even invited on the IPO road show, which is crazy. If you think about this is the number two at the company who is pitching this company to go public. And she was not on the road show to pitch the company, to go public to the investors. That’s just seems super egregious.
S12: Here’s Francois Brugger in an interview with Bloomberg.
S4: I was in the US as a first CEO and I was looking forward to being a force of progress and drive change the companies that cater to women. But I realized fairly quickly that while I was given a seat at the table, I was not empowered to use my talent to drive Pinterest forward.
S1: Brooker’s lawsuit made headlines. Outwardly, Pinterest may have been centering women, but internally even the female CEO felt sidelined.
S4: And I do think if it’s happens for someone at my level in tech, it happened many women across the organization and I wanted to be able to add voice to this conversation and explain a little bit my story and I’m hoping showing my story. So the conversation about what the role of women and even when they reach the sea level of a company, there is still gender discrimination.
S1: Breuker wasn’t the only employee to come forward with complaints against Pinterest. The summer Ifeoma Ozma was one of the first people hired to work on public policy for Pinterest, along with Erika Shimizu Banks, who you heard at the beginning of the episode. Part of their job was to make sure that Pinterest could stay a nice, safe place on the Internet even as it grew.
S13: The type of things people use Pinterest for don’t usually lend themselves to scandal.
S14: It’s not a site where people go for political commentary.
S13: People go to do things on their own and not primarily to discuss with others. So you wouldn’t get the types of conversations you get on Reddit. It doesn’t have a ton of video, so you’re not going to have issues like Twitch.
S1: Erica, Shimizu Banks remembers that when she arrived at the company, it wasn’t clear what was and wasn’t allowed on Pinterest. Pinterest had firm policies against things like pornography, but a lot of other content fell into a gray area.
S10: There were no substantive, nuanced policies on content, on hate speech, on medical misinformation until Ifeoma joined and the company was 10 years old when I joined. So it would have been a long time coming for these things to be developed. And yet these socially impactful, beneficial changes to protect users and to minimize harm did not occur until two black women joined the team.
S1: The first big test of Pinterest content moderation policy came last year. Measles outbreaks were popping up all over the US, and Pinterest users were coming to the site looking for information about vaccines and treatments. In response, Pinterest wiped all that stuff from its platform. It wasn’t a medical site. It wasn’t designed to give people accurate information about vaccines, and it didn’t want to spread false information. And above all, it wanted to stay positive. Ozma was instrumental in formulating this policy internally. It was controversial.
S14: There was pushback about what I was proposing until it was covered on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. And then the show gave a shout out to the company. And then The Washington Post editorial board also wrote a whole piece about how what we were doing. My work was notable.
S1: Osama said this was a regular cycle. She would raise problems and catch flack for management, but her work ended up earning the company good press. This happened again when Pinterest was accused of romanticizing former slave plantations in their wedding planning content. Ozona said she brought the accusation to others at the company, asking what specific content policy changes they can make that would effectively make those kinds of images disappear.
S14: I even went through the effort of explaining why we wouldn’t have. Concentration camps as wedding venues are party venues and how the parallels could not be more clear again.
S1: She says she was met with pushback, but ultimately the changes were made. And again, Pinterest was commended for it widely in the press.
S14: It was a familiar pattern where I would be punished internally for what I was pushing and be called things that women are often call like not a team player aggressive, a term specifically used for black women. But then the public praise would be the type of thing that Ben Silverman, the CEO, would stand on the stage of an ad conference and talk about in order to get more advertisers.
S12: All of this made it really hard for XOMA to do her job. In addition to all of it, she’d already spent much of her tenure at Pinterest fighting against what she saw as pay and title inequities. But she didn’t want to leave Pinterest, hoping that her concerns would eventually be addressed. But the final straw came when Osama’s personal information, including her cell phone number, was published online. The info was leaked by an engineer at Pinterest as part of a harassment campaign against a XOMA who was looking into putting a content advisory on post related to a right wing journalist. Erica Shimizu Banks says that Pinterest handled the situation badly.
S10: The company’s first question was, well, why do you think they’re targeting you? Not How do we better protect our employees? And there was, you know, an investigation done internally. And surprise, surprise, no one was held accountable for anything.
S5: No one would do anything differently, really. And everything’s fine.
S12: Thanks. Says Pinterest is more accountable now that it’s a public company.
S10: There is a real protection that I think I’ve recognized in my career that there is actually a greater potential for harms to be addressed, for serious change to happen when you’re at a place large enough, where people care, where people on the outside, where the public cares and they are subject to public scrutiny. A lot of these practices are very opaque pre-IPO.
S1: Ozma and banks left Pinterest earlier this year. At first, they didn’t speak about their experiences at the company publicly. Then, after the murder of George Floyd, Pinterest released a public statement signed by Silberman professing the company’s solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and pledging to take steps to support racial justice on the site and within the company. Silberman wrote, quote, With everything we do, we will make it clear that our black employees matter. Black partners and creators matter and black lives matter, end quote. To banks, the new XOMA, those words ring hollow.
S12: So they decided to go public with their experiences on Twitter, Osmo wrote, quote, As a black woman seeing Pinterest middle of the night, Black Employees Matter statement made me scratch my head after I just fought for over a full year to be paid and leveled fairly. And quote, Those tweets went viral and kicked off an unprecedented season of bad press for Pinterest. At first, the company issued a statement saying, quote, We took these issues seriously and conducted a thorough investigation when they were raised. And we’re confident both employees were treated fairly and quote, but when that wasn’t enough to put the issue to rest, the company changed tack. Its next statement said, quote, We never want anyone to feel the way Ifeoma and Erica did while they were working at Pinterest and, quote, calling them by their first names. Two months after those tweets were posted, Francois Brugger, the former CEO, filed her lawsuit. And since then, more women have come forward with stories about their time at Pinterest. Working from home during the pandemic, employees staged a virtual walkout. Since then, Pinterest has appointed its first black female board member and pledged to get more diverse candidates into more senior level positions. It also says it’s conducting reviews of company culture. A Pinterest spokesperson told us, quote, The leadership and employees at Pinterest have a shared goal of building and fostering a company that we can all be proud of. We’re committed to advancing our culture to ensure that Pinterest is a place where all our employees feel included and supported. We recognize that it’s our job to build a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment for everyone at Pinterest.
S1: Pinterest may be a women centric website, but without a company culture that values all women, the company won’t be serving its users properly.
S15: What does nice mean? Because is it nice to people of color or women who are being called every single horrible term that you can think of to leave the content up or not put warnings up? So my question would be who you’re prioritizing when you use a term like that or think of yourself in that way.
S3: That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by me and Atia Solutia with help from Cleo Levin and Seth Stevenson, technical direction from Merrett. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts of Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate Podcast Network. Next week on the show, how to market cultural nostalgia.
S4: I just love me some gefilte fish. I know that’s jacked up thing to say.
S3: That’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.