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How a Massachusetts angel investor wound up putting money into Pinterest, the latest social media success in Silicon Valley

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 17, 2012 01:24 PM

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Pinterest is the latest social media company to start accumulating scads of users (23 million so far) and a sky-high valuation ($1.5 billion, according to Forbes.) The site, which allows users to "pin" products and images they like onto a digital bulletin board, is growing at a faster rate than Facebook did in its early days, and it has raised almost $140 million in funding.

And there's just one person in Massachusetts who was smart enough to invest in Pinterest's very first round of angel funding, back in 2009.

thumb-jitendra_saxena.jpegJit Saxena is a serial entrepreneur who started database companies like Netezza and Applix, and these days mainly makes angel investments. Most of the checks he writes are to Boston-area software companies like ParElastic and CloudSwitch.

But in 2009, Saxena was out in Palo Alto for a family wedding. "I had nothing to do in the morning, and Ed [Zander] has suggested I go meet this guy Ben Silbermann," he explains. Silbermann had previously worked at Google, and at the time he was working on something called Cold Brew Labs, a "social commerce" incubator that eventually spawned Pinterest. (Saxena had worked with Zander, formerly a top executive at Motorola and Sun Microsystems, at Massachusetts minicomputer-maker Data General back in the day.)

"I went and had lunch with the guy" at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto, Saxena says. "I didn't understand completely what he was trying to do. But I invest in people. To me, that is everything. I think understanding the space is overrated. It just creates biases." Afterward, Saxena e-mailed and talked with other members of the Pinterest team, but Silbermann remained the only one he'd met in person. "I don't think you need to make investing very complicated," he says. "You just get a gut feel that the person is great."

Saxena decided to invest, and so did Zander. All told, the fledgling company raised $500,000 from investors at that point, in a first round of funding that also included legendary Silicon Valley angel Ron Conway and Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder and CEO of Yelp.

Since then, Pinterest's user base and valuation have grown like a beanstalk. But Saxena says that he doesn't have a Pinterest account of his own. "I'm not a user," he admits, "though I've looked at the site a lot to see what's new."

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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