We Heart It, The Social Photo Phenom That’s Quietly Amassed 20M Monthly Users, Nabs $8M Funding

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We Heart It, a photo-based social network that is reminiscent of Pinterest in functionality with a dash of Tumblr’s youthful appeal, has raised $8 million from a group of investors including White Oak and IDG Ventures.

This may be one of the first times you’re hearing about We Heart It, but the company’s reach is actually huge. The site currently has 20 million monthly users, with more than 1 million new users registering every month, CEO Ranah Edelin told me in an interview alongside founder Fabio Giolito this week. And the people who use We Heart It really use it: Members on average spend more than 16.5 minutes on the site at a time, and the average mobile app user opens the app more than 25 times per month.

So who are these people? Well, in general, they’re young. We Heart It’s demographics skew to the female side, heavy in the under-24 space. That makes for a different crowd than Pinterest — these people aren’t planning their weddings or home decor just yet, they’re tacking inspirational images up in the same way that I created collages for my locker at school.

A popular image created by a We Heart It user

A popular image created by a We Heart It user

And though it’s flown under the radar in the tech press, We Heart It actually dates back to the fall of 2007. That’s when Fabio Giolito created a section within his own website that he called “I Heart It” to help him aggregate images that he found inspiring as part of his graphic design studies in a Rio de Janeiro college. Giolito showed the site to some of his fellow students, and they all asked him if there was a way that he could build a similar tool for them. So in December of 2007, We Heart It was officially born — two years before Pinterest, it should be mentioned.

From that point, the organic growth of We Heart It continued to surge, as people shared their favorite photos with friends, who in turn signed on to the site, and so on. This demand was exciting, but also overwhelming, as it had started to take up big chunks of Giolito’s salary (by 2009 he was working full time at Yahoo in Rio de Janeiro as a graphic designer.) So he eventually brought on a infrastructure-focused co-founder Bruno Zanchet, and the two of them took the leap to take on some seed investors and turn We Heart It into his full-time job. The site became a funded business, incorporated in California, in 2011.

I’ve been hearing increasing amounts of buzz about We Heart It for a while now — investors who heard about the company in recent months were raving about the “growth charts like you wouldn’t believe” from this company they’ve never heard of before. That buzz may have been stoked by the fact that We Heart It didn’t do the typical “Sand Hill Shuffle” to deliberately raise this new round of funding. Edelin and Giolito told me they just took meetings with people along the way of building the business.

What’s on deck now that the $8 million is in the bank? I’m told that We Heart It, which has 16 full-time staffers, is sticking to the same formula it’s used for years — now with just a little more fuel. Edelin is a relatively new addition to the team, bringing some industry experience at the executive level along with newly-appointed president Dave Williams (Giolito will head up product operations.) A few more hires will likely be added in the months ahead.

The company has experimented with some revenue generation initiatives in the past, and will likely keep that on the back burner for now as it continues to focus on user experience and growing its base. For Giolito, the aim is to always keep We Heart Its as clean and simple to use as possible, to let the visual sharing shine through. He put it like this:

“We just keep it simple, to let the content surface itself. People make it their own as they start to heart these images, and really express how you feel and who you are as a person. When you look at what other people heart, you really have this feeling that you begin to understand how they really are, even if they don’t know how to express it in words.

It’s what I like most about visual expression: You don’t even need to know how you’re feeling to connect with an image. The image says everything.”