🎯 Pinterest’s growth paradox

Start narrow to grow wide

Read time: 3 minutes 25 seconds

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Pinterest’s growth paradox

Chess Move

The what: A TLDR explanation of the strategy

When you launch a new product, there’s an overwhelming temptation to get as many people to use it as possible.

Anyone willing to try it.

Any traffic source.

Rather than letting anyone and everyone in, Pinterest leveraged a number of counterintuitive tactics to restrict the volume of new users.

This perception of exclusivity increased demand, and was the driving force behind their ~50% month-on-month growth… for 2 years straight.

Between launching in January 2010 to January 2012, Pinterest grew to 11.7 million users.

By July 2013, they had over 70 million users.


Strategy Playbook: Scarcity drives demand. Grow your product by restricting who can use it.

Here’s how they did it:


The how: The strategic playbook boiled down to 3x key takeaways

1. The ‘invite-only’ paradox

When Pinterest launched, there were just 2 ways to get access:

  1. Someone with access invited you, or

  2. You request access, with no specified timeline for when you’d be accepted

For option 1 users, Pinterest felt like a community you were personally chosen to join, so you’d naturally be a more engaged participant.

For option 2 users, the uncertainty created a sense of anticipation, so once the invitation finally came, you’d be more likely to engage, and even share on Facebook or Twitter that you were selected for early access.

If you had no access, you could still see current members’ pins and boards, but you couldn’t create pins or curate boards of your own.

From the outside, Pinterest seemed both in-demand and exclusive → everyone wants it but no one has it.

You could even view the product, but you couldn’t play with it yourself.

From the inside, your access was a status symbol as an early adopter → not just of something new, but something new and exclusive.

It made Pinterest less like a mainstream trend, and more like a scarce resource.

Paradoxically, the way to grow wide was to start narrow.

2. Counterintuitive caps on exponential growth

Getting users to invite more users is viral growth 101.

Generally, the aim is to maximise the number of referrals per user to drive up “K-factor” (viral coefficient).


Rather than seeking to incentivise users to refer their entire network, Pinterest counterintuitively gave each user only a limited number of invites.

This worked for a number of reasons:

Exclusive brand: Limited invites aligned with the exclusive allure they were creating - not only was Pinterest “invite-only”, it created the perception that it was difficult to get an invite at all.

Scarcity effect: People have a cognitive bias towards placing higher value on things that are scarce. By giving users a limited number of invites, each one became a careful choice, which in turn maximised the likelihood that users would invite others at all.

Engaged referrals: The limitation encouraged users to only invite those who would actually value the platform. This led to the growth of higher-quality, more-engaged users.

3. Bypass network activation

One fundamental problem with being so restrictive about letting new users into a social network is the “cold start problem”.

Users rely on “network effects” to get value, meaning the app is only valuable if they can quickly interact with their friends, colleagues, local community, interest groups etc.

An exclusive community like early Pinterest risks having no relevant content to show new users.

2 tactics they use to solve for this:


To populate the platform with initial high-quality content, founder Ben Silbermann personally reached out to a group of design, arts, and crafts bloggers.

Then, when early users signed up, they were automatically set to following these creators, and were immediately presented with an aesthetic feed.

Social signup

Pinterest bypassed needing to create a social graph of its users from scratch by leveraging existing networks like Facebook and Twitter.

New users were prompted to ‘Connect with Facebook / Twitter’, which connected them to their friends out-of-the-box, and greeted them with a page full of content from people they know.

Both tactics made the first app session more valuable, reducing the churn likelihood of new users.

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