Pando

Is Pinterest just a private Twitter?

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 27, 2016

From The Money Desk

Wired wrote a very classic business magazine piece on Pinterest last week.

It took you inside the tick-tock of a “major” redesign, described as so major that most users wouldn’t notice many changes if it was successful. A moment so thrilling, that Pinterest’s CEO Ben Silverman had to explain to the writer that this was what he looked like when he was excited.

Still, anticlimactic lead aside, I scoured the article looking for the same answers I always do when it comes to Pinterest: What the fuck am I missing here?

I am a power user of many social networks and messaging sites-- I was an early adopter of Snapchat when everyone was making sexting jokes, and OMG! I’M OVER 40! Frequently, I hear of products where I think “I’d totally use that!” and never get around to it. That’s certainly a problem for the startup if a lot of people feel that way, but at least I buy the premise in those cases. And then there are the startups that I get but just don’t think I’m the demographic, startups like Poshmark. I just don’t have the time, but I get why women love it.

But Pinterest is in a weird bucket for me. I accept that it’s a bonafide hit. The last great social platform of a pre-mobile world, some would say. I get that many many people adore it. But I simply don’t get it. I have no desire to pin anything. Occasionally I have tried to view… boards? But I get confused by the navigation. Or get prompted to sign in and create an account. And then I leave.

And, again, I’m a middle aged woman. I am redecorating a house and planning children’s birthday parties. Unlike Snapchat, I should be the demo. I am impressed by all the company has tried to do for women in the tech world. I like that its founders aren’t fratty bros. I want to like Pinterest.

Still, my lack of getting it means little. There are plenty of people “not getting” Facebook. It doesn’t keep Mark Zuckerberg up at night as much as, say, the billion-plus Chinese who aren’t allowed to use it.

But as this glowing Wired profile explains, I’m not remotely alone. I am to Pinterest as so many other billions of people are to Twitter.

From the piece:

In the US, Pinterest hasn’t been able to gain popularity among men at the same rate as women; 75 percent of the people using it are women, according to ComScore. And for all of the enthusiasm trained upon it domestically, Pinterest has had trouble translating itself internationally. Only 45 percent of the people who use it are abroad, according to Kendall, much less than Facebook or Twitter had at this point in their development.

“Pinterest was founded for and aimed at Midwestern moms, and that’s been a strong base for them, but it’s not necessarily true that mindset occurs throughout the world,” says eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson. “It remains to be seen whether the idea of pinning and sharing is relevant in many markets.” 

The beauty of Pinterest early on was that its core demo wasn’t the normal tech early adopters. Celebrities and famous political wives used it! But if it doesn’t expand beyond that… is that really something to be so excited about? Site after site-- Formspring, Ask.fm, Whisper-- have been hot with teens. And then flamed out.

Name a major Internet property worth north of $10 billion that only resonates with a niche. Even Yahoo does better than that.

Indeed, super sexy millennials aside, I’ve cautioned that Snapchat is needlessly narrowing its potential as a platform and a utility by over-doing its absurd MILLENNIAL NEWS like how to microwave a brownie in a mug or wish Anna Kendrick happy birthday. (Let’s not get started on the alienation that could occur from an, uhhhh, black face filter.)

It doesn’t matter how “hot” the demo is. If you are online only, and only big on one demo, one slice of one country, there’s strictly a limit to how big you can grow. Even if that demo is as desirable as all media, television, celebrity, and athletes as was Twitter’s unique “demo.” If you want to be a company worth tens of billions, you have to have more.

What about VICE you may ask? Well it’s not worth $10 billion, and many people contend it’s over-valued as is. But more to the point: VICE hasn’t limited itself to online only. It’s valuation grew the more it charged into video, specifically television.  

What about LinkedIn? That was basically the patron saint of not needing more than a hundred million or so users to build a highly valuable business. But even LinkedIn is now struggling with growth, recently shedding divisions that didn’t ultimately fit. And you could argue LinkedIn picked its “niche” well: All employed people. LinkedIn also gave them a service they’d pay directly for. At least it was a cleaner business model than most ad based platforms. In general premium or subscription services don’t need billions of users. LinkedIn is an exception in part, because it has a different hybrid model.

But, people say of Pinterest, there is no other site where you are so inclined to make a purchase based on perusing dream boards of weddings and houses and…cupcakes? So presumably you should be able to monetize better.  Yes, and one of Twitter’s biggest strengths-- and weaknesses when it comes to potential for growth-- is just how well it monetizes users. Twitter monetizes users far better than other social networks. The problem is it’s not growing users to keep monetizing. At some point, you hit a ceiling of growth.

Foursquare too, was said to be able to monetize a smaller amount of users because of location and intent. Try again. We keep hearing this from companies that fail to grow into outsized valuations.  

I’m not arguing that Pinterest is a bad business at all. I get that many millions of people adore it. And I have no doubt there’s a valuable business there. It reportedly did $100 million in revenues last year, just two years into monetization. But the problem is it’s one of handful of decacorns in an era where you only grow into that if you are a fast-growing, globally relevant mega-property. Even a glowing profile doesn’t paint it as such.

Pinterest: Limited in its appeal, decidedly US centric, too hard to use, embarking on a product changes that don’t ultimately change that much, and a great business but one arguably priced just too high. With a team that moved far to slow to fix basic problems, like how quickly Pinterest loads on mobile.

That doesn’t sound like a “quiet over acheiver” as Wired argues. That sounds like a still-private Twitter. Consider this quote from the article. You could easily replace Twitter with Pinterest, or in a few years, probably replace Snapchat if it continues down the millennial news route.

But really, the point is to make Pinterest much bigger by making it less of a big deal—less flashy, easier to use, and more of a utility. If more people spend more time browsing pins, it stands to reason advertisers will be drawn to spend more money on the site, too.

It’s all well and good for Bill Gurley to argue that Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg say being public made their companies better. But this reality is why companies that aren’t Salesforce or Facebook would rather hash these struggles out privately.