By Jessi Hempel
May 30, 2013

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann leads one of a small number of privileged startups for whom growth is so strong that money is not (yet) the point. Instead he’s focused on solving one of the largest conundrums on the web. Google is great when you’re searching for “West Elm couch gray,” but what happens when you want to discover more broadly? Speaking at the AllThingsD conference outside Los Angeles on May 29, he explained, “The problem of how you discover things is a really tough one. Problems like, ‘What should my living room look like?’ That’s at the heart of our interests right now.”

That’s a personal question at the moment. My partner, Frances, and I just moved into a new home, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to decorate. Pinterest — the visually stunning collection of digital pin boards — has become the logical organizing tool for the search. I created a board called “Upper West Side” that I shared with her, and we’ve populated it with couches and rugs and lamps and the occasional plastic moose head (looks great on a wall, I’m told). Neither of us knows what we want exactly, so we plunge through images on Pinterest and on the larger web, pinning anything that looks interesting.

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We’re part of a growing community of Pinterest power-users. In the past year, Pinterest has jumped 82% to 54 million users. Thanks to a recent $200 million round of funding, it has been valued at $2.5 billion. And it is one of the largest sources of referral traffic on the web. Yet its reclusive co-founder and CEO, Ben Silbermann, still thinks of the company as small. He’s reticent to offer too much information on plans for the future or suggest a business model, saying only: “Right now, we don’t make money.”

The most compelling opportunity for Pinterest to turn a profit off of this likely exists in the list of sources that Frances and I follow. They include my friend Carla, West Elm, and a former college classmate with great taste. Each of these resources is useful to me at the moment that I’m searching in the same way. Social networks like Facebook (FB) are experimenting with opportunities to make advertising in the newsfeed as useful as content from my friends is to me, but usually when I’m on Facebook, I’m not shopping explicitly. That’s not so with Pinterest. Says Silbermann, “When we think about this mission — we think there’s a direct link between the things people think, the things people do, and the things they buy. It’s explicit.”

In the future that could be a big opportunity. But at the moment, Silbermann will stick to making Pinterest better — more simple and more beautiful — for its pinners.

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