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The 2012 CRM Influential Leaders

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Ben Silberman,
Cofounder and CEO, Pinterest

The Unexpected Champion

In some ways, Ben Silbermann, cofounder and CEO of the immensely popular photo-collecting site Pinterest, is just your average entrepreneur. Like many start-up founders, he moved to Silicon Valley to get closer to the action and worked at Google before starting his own company. Unlike founders whose ideas have yet to take off, however, Silbermann hit the jackpot: Pinterest passed the 10 million–user mark faster than any stand-alone site ever, according to comScore, and is already considered the next big acquisition target. Venture capitalists estimate that the digital pinboard site could be worth $500 million—while others are talking about a $1 billion valuation. In May, Pinterest became one of the latest start-ups to join the billion-dollar club, after winning $100 million in a new round of financing, which boosted its value to $1.5 billion.

So what is the secret to this former premed student's runaway success?

Part of it was the ability to recognize a new opportunity. Before Pinterest, there was Tote—an iPhone app dreamed up by Silbermann that pulled information from online catalogs into one place for shoppers. The app did not become popular, but Silbermann and his partners noticed some users were collecting images with the app. Under Silbermann's guidance, the app was redesigned to enable users to collect or "pin" images to a digital board.

Pinterest was launched in late 2009. Initially, users and investors were slow to embrace the site's concept, but when Pinterest released an iPhone app in 2011, user numbers began to climb. In January 2012, the site had 11.7 million monthly unique users, and was up to more than 18.7 million unique visitors in March, according to comScore. Silbermann is also credited with hiring Evan Sharp, a former product designer at Facebook, who spearheaded the development of Pinterest's clean and visually appealing layout.

In regard to accusations that Pinterest violates copyright laws, Silbermann has played a key role in acknowledging and responding to the complaints. Pinterest now credits the source of the content that users "pin" to their boards and asks users to only pin content they created or have permission to use. It also warns users that Pinterest can remove content that violates its terms of service.

During an onstage Q&A at SXSW with Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon, Silbermann described his reaction to his company's phenomenal success. "It's a really humbling feeling that all these people are using something that you helped make," he said.

Hall of Fame:

Steve Jobs,
Cofounder, Apple, Inc.

The Dreambuilder

Long before there were words to describe the phenomenon, Apple under Steve Jobs pursued its own "Blue Ocean Strategy," notes Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group. This was not a man—or company—content with following. Instead, it was a company that "wanted to create something," while its nemeses merely wanted to "repave cow paths."

Perhaps you're wondering, "Why him? Why posthumously honor him now?" Our response: "How could we not?" Jobs is largely responsible for revolutionizing the mobile technology industry.

From Apple I to iMac to iPod to iPhone to iPad, what began in a garage in 1970s Silicon Valley ended up reshaping our very way of life. And, like any great visionary, Jobs dreamt up that way of life before it was an actuality.

"He saw music, a portable super-computer, and a new way to consume content as necessary for us to progress, and he designed it the best he could come up with," says Esteban Kolsky, principal and founder of ThinkJar. "He changed the model for delivering to expectations by focusing on what expectations were—the ones we did not know we had, but secretly wanted."

But when you're a human force of influence, there is always the potential for a dash of mad science. Fortune magazine told the tale of summer 2008, when Apple's launch of email synchronization platform MobileMe ended in public failure. After gathering the development team responsible for the product flop, Jobs reportedly "berated the group," saying, "You've tarnished Apple's reputation. You should hate each other for having let each other down," which further snowballed when the media picked up on Jobs's less-than-kid-glove treatment. The conclusion was this—Jobs was a man who knew what he wanted.

Apple's former evangelist, Guy Kawasaki, had that rare, behind-the-scenes look at what Jobs pumped into Apple culture. "I learned that people have a very difficult time telling you what they want in the future," Kawasaki said during a keynote presentation at SAS Global Forum 2012 in Orlando, Fla. "They can tell you how to revise a product, how to make it ten percent better, how to make it better, faster, cheaper…but they can't tell you how to get from telegraph to telephone to smartphone. Customers have a difficult time telling you how to revolutionize something." Jobs taught Kawasaki that skepticism was the opposite of innovation and that it was important to "sell the dream" instead of selling product specs.

Innovation is Apple's forte. It can be said that Apple was among the first software companies to turn the personal computer into a PDA (remember the Newton?). In 2010, Apple launched its first multitouch iPad, and amassed a record high of 3 million tablets sold when iPad 3 came into the world this March.

While Google Android and Microsoft continue tackling the tablet market, Gartner Research reports that Apple iOS will account for more than 61 percent of the 119 million media tablets sold this year. Now that's market penetration. "Despite PC vendors and phone manufacturers wanting a piece of the pie and launching themselves into the media tablet market, we have seen very limited success outside of Apple with its iPad…. The arrival of the new iPad has reset the benchmark for the product to beat," said Carolina Milanesi, a research vice president at Gartner, in a statement.

As more professionals choose to use their personal mobile devices for work, enterprises must address how these will be incorporated into existing computer networks. On our end, almost by default, we ask CRM vendors, "Is your solution iPad-compatible?" And, usually, that question warrants a nervous "That's definitely on our roadmap" or an "Of course. One hundred percent." Whatever the response, it's generally accepted that Apple iPad is the gold standard.

Jobs was a CEO who knew how to create, but also how to execute. "Sony talked about digital lifestyle, but Apple delivered it by keeping the technology simple and ubiquitous," maintains Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research. "You can take focus groups all you want and democratize a solution, but it takes leadership to take this feedback and set a course to create experiences people have never thought possible."

And, indeed, in technology or in any line of business, the Holy Grail occurs when your customer rallies behind your product because you imagined it and it was exactly what that customer didn't know he needed. "All the painstaking work on design that Apple and Jobs are known for simply illustrates the larger point that they have been inventing from whole cloth and when you do that, you discover that you have to invent everything," Pombriant concludes.

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