Pinterest 2010-2011: The True Inside Startup Story

It's February 2012 and everyone is buzzing about Pinterest. In the fall of 2010 when Sahil Lavingia was first exposed to the site, that was far from the case. After some of his app development work hit the top of Hacker News as a first semester computer science student at USC, he was contacted by Ben Silbermann, the co-founder of Pinterest.

On a trip up to Silicon Valley for a football game, the co-founders drove to Berkley to meet with Lavingia. “It seemed like a big deal at the time for them to drive over to the East Bay to meet with me,” said Sahil just 18 years old in 2010.

He would end up meeting with a dozen startups and fielding half a dozen job offers. Amazingly he decided to take the Pinterest opportunity. At the time the team consisted of just the two co-founders and one engineer. “Considering I was the second engineer (the first designer), and the startup was founded by two non-engineers, if I knew what I know now I would have probably said no. At the time I hadn’t been exposed to the Valley’s bias towards non-engineer founded companies."What did stand out to Sahil was how open they were about their users and data. “When I met with them they showed me everything. They pulled out Google Analytics and showed me all the users, the traffic, everything. The total user numbers were not that impressive, but the engagement was off the charts.”

With his first semester of college only just underway, Sahil decided to accept the Pinterest offer which was finalized in November. “There was no risk to leave school. I loved school, but I was moving to a place where I could do what I wanted to do and I knew I could always go back with my deferment.”

At the time Sahil remembers the startup feeling extremely risky. All the founders were unknown, and while they had some well-known SV investors like Jeremy Stoppelman (founder @ Yelp), and Jack Abraham (founder of Milo), they had only taken $500k in Angel funding in January 2010. While only a small team, the money would not last forever.

By January 2011 though the site started to explode. “We may have only had something like 40k users, but Pinterest was driving millions and millions of page views. More importantly it was all doubling each month. That’s a lot faster than it’s growing now.”

Sahil completely built Pinterest’s iPhone and iPad apps, as well as their mobile website. He was the first full time designer although his role like most startupers shifted quickly. “Since I was one of the few engineers we were constantly putting out fires and trying to keep the servers running on the site.”

Throughout the first half of 2011 there were between 4 and 8 employees at Pinterest. That has grown significantly in the last year to about 20 and continues to grow the recently re-funded Palo Alto based team.

Sahil also designed the famous ‘Pin It’ button and things like the ‘Add’ module as well as the About pages. He did not create the homepage grid-design which was already in place when he joined the team. In August 2011 he decided to leave to pursue his own startup.  “It was really tough. When a product is nailed, you can’t really rework it. I would have loved to throw everything out and redo the site, but with the growth we had you couldn’t possibly do that. Ultimately as just an engineer, I was not adding as much value as I could have.”

After leaving Pinterest Sahil worked with the team to build their iPhone app. He designed and coded the entire application in a matter of weeks. Now he’s taken some funding and is working on his own startup Gumroad. When asked about whether or not leaving Pinterest was a good decision considering the explosive growth curve, Sahil maintains that his greatest work is still ahead and in spite of the lottery-esk financial opportunity, “The satisfaction of working on and building your own product versus working for someone else does not even compare.”