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Pinterest joins ranks of $1 billion-plus tech start-ups

With pre-IPO buzz about Facebook at fever pitch, it would be easy to overlook Pinterest's growing appeal to investors. But a huge new infusion of cash virtually guarantees that the "virtual pinboard" won't be in Mark Zuckerberg's shadow for long. 

Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten has led a $100 million investment in the company. It values the start-up at $1.5 billion, according to unnamed sources cited by the Wall Street Journal. Other participants in the deal include Andreessen Horowitz, Bessemer Venture Partners and FirstMark Capital, in addition to unnamed angel investors, according to the company. In a statement, Rakuten said the investment is the first step in a partnership to expand in Pinterest into Japan and Rakuten’s 17 additional markets.

Interest in the three-year-old site took off earlier this year, and Pinterest has been growing rapidly ever since, according to an infographic compiled by U.K.-based marketing firm Tamba.

More than 20 percent of Facebook users are now on Pinterest every day. Its mobile app has been downloaded almost 250,000 times, and the much-discussed gender divide seems to be lessening: Although Pinterest users still skew heavily female, the number of men using the site went up by eight percentage points in the space of just two months this year. 

Tamba's data show that, although users' favorite things still include fashion, art and crafts, a new breed of user is emerging with decidedly more commercial interests: venture capital, marketing, public relations, SEO and graphic design have all broken into the top 10 list of audience interests. 

Another evolving trend that makes the site attractive to companies is the growing number of people who visit other sites based on Pinterest referrals; at just over 1 percent, the number is still considerably smaller than the number of Facebook referrals, but it has already eclipsed Twitter referrals. In this quarter, 40 percent of all social media-driven purchases are projected to come from Pinterest. Plus, just over 40 percent of users have household incomes of between $50,000 and $100,000.

"[W]e believe [e-commerce] is a living process where both retailers and consumers can communicate, discover, and curate to make the experience more entertaining," Rakuten's CEO Hiroshi Mikitani said in a statement.