One of the biggest revelations about Silicon Valley is that there are still founders out there who value humility over hubris. Most founders talk of IPO’s, exits and unicorns, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, sometimes it’s refreshing to see the product do all the talking.
Evan Sharp prefers it this way. Unlike media savvy giants Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the co-founder and creative director of Pinterest stays out of the limelight.
A company valued at around $11 billion dollars, Pinterest is a fascinating giant in the world of tech, having subtly amassed 100 million users a month; and an incredible 75 billion pins, these are users who catalogue their everyday life, indexing their taste, cross pollinating, and visualising their own worlds. Alongside Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn, Pinterest is a big player in the world of social technology. But they’e not just a pretty tool. Pinterest is working on a visual map for the world, motivated by life changing algorithms and the realm of beauty and design. Evan assures us that at less than a decade old, they haven’t even scratched the surface of what Pinterest can really do for you.
Do you feel like we’re becoming more of a visual culture rather than making decisions intellectually?
Definitely. Five, or maybe ten years ago, having a camera was a rare and special thing. Now all of us take photos all the time. There’s just an obvious explosion of visual media in our lives that fundamentally changes our world, and obviously Pinterest is part of that culture. Like any culture there are great strengths and great weaknesses. A change is neither good nor bad. Images are really powerful in making us aware of what’s possible. You see an image of Iceland and think, “I should go to Iceland because that looks amazing”, or you see an image of a jacket and want to buy it. But what images don’t have is the facts: is it cold? What should I do there? You don’t know from the picture of the jacket if it fits you, how you will feel when you wear the jacket, or what will happen after you wear it 50 times.
The problem with images is obvious, they are two dimensional. Our vision at Pinterest is to use what’s great about images, use the users taste to make good decisions but also to make sure to give them that information to make sure they get a more holistic understanding of what they are looking for.
A lot of our lives are spent on social products and they are very much about creating an image of our lives for others to see. Pinterest is personal, it’s not social. The more time you spend understanding your taste, learning what’s possible and looking inwardly saying, “this and that is what I like”, the more aligned how you come across to the world will be with who you are. You won’t be constantly worried about what your friends like.
Let’s talk about the heavy female user status of Pinterest. Some reports show 80% female. Did that surprise you?
There is definitely some truth to the fact that women use Pinterest more than men do. In the U.S. it’s a really big difference between men and female usage. Abroad it’s a bit different, we have just as many men as women signing up now as new users. I think it’s a great thing that a lot of women use it, but I’m also excited that more men understand what it is and find ways to use it to.
Is it a problem that more women than men use Pinterest?
I don’t think of it in terms of, why is it so many women? I think, why don’t more men use it? It’s not weird that women use it and in terms of business it’s great, because women are really doing a lot of planning in the households, they’re good business. Beyond that, I think Pinterest is for everybody, that’s our vision. A lot of what we are trying to do is personalize your interest, where you live, who you are, what you do in your life. Women vs. men is one aspect of your identity and what is going on in your life, but so is where you live, what you are doing and what you are planning. The better we get at showing you relevant ideas, the less it matters whether you are a man or a woman.
“It’s an open question whether a service as ours leads to a global homogenization.”
You’ve said, “We think of Pinterest as this crazy human indexing machine”. What have you learned about people through the way that they use Pinterest?
The things people use Pinterest for tend to be universal. The core usage is every day, common, universal things. What am I going to eat for dinner? How should my house look? What gift should I get for my partner? What should my kid’s birthday party look like? How will I do my hair and makeup? These are everyday decisions that everybody have to make on some level. At its best Pinterest really does help lots of people with everyday things. Those things can seem really small. It’s not like you’re curing cancer, but all of those things together become really important.
Has there been any user experiences in a non-U.S. country that surprised Pinterest, like Russia, China etc.?
Not surprised me really. To go back to my earlier point, a lot of the things we are trying to do is making sure that it’s relevant for you. Let’s say you live in France and you search for recipes you want to cook and you end up seeing American recipes, that’s a pretty bad experience. It’s not relevant. A lot of the work that we are doing internationally is showing what’s relevant, and to make sure it is useful to you. That has had a lot of impact on how fast we are growing in a really positive way. It makes sense, it’s not surprising.
In terms of surprising, I am surprised that so many more men use Pinterest outside the U.S., as a percentage. There’s something in the U.S. as how we grew as a brand that is distinctive versus the universal market.
How does Pinterest influence global taste?
That’s a really good question. I think it’s different in different industries. It’s hard to talk about because it’s kind of secret. Almost every fashion designer, or architect, or film maker, or professional creative I know, uses Pinterest to get their inspiration. So in some ways, around the world in the small creative community, Pinterest is the source of inspiration. Pinterest is having an impact on global taste, we’re equipping people who create culture to have a broader inspiration and to give them a tool that helps them refine that inspiration and their vision.
It’s kind of an open question about whether a service as ours, as we grow, leads to a sort of global homogenization, or whether it leads to more diversity, or a combination. No one really knows the answer to that I would argue, it’s a long term question. But the answer is probably a little bit of both. It’s not as much about where you live, that’s a part of it of course, but it becomes more complex. It’s also about who you are and your values.
Having access to a broader set of influences allows you to be more specific about your taste. Being specific about your taste is powerful. It gives you a better sense of who you are, it gives you more confidence. I really believe that. I’ve gone through the same process. It’s a never ending process really.
You’ve said that “building a startup archetype made you feel claustrophobic”, and that there is not a lot of empathy in the “Valley”. Is that a dangerous discussion to have? Do you differ a lot from other tech companies in that way?
I think the trick there is, how do you build a business where your business advantage is real empathy with humans? That is the question I try to answer as an executive of the company. It is tough. Some businesses are built that way, and some aren’t. We were built that way, so the question is not whether we are going to go that way, it’s how. Putting human problems in the center of the business sounds obvious, but it isn’t.
“Facebook is an expression of Mark Zuckerberg, Apple is an expression of Steve Jobs. […] Who I am and what the company is kind of have to be the same thing on some level.”
Was that your intention with Pinterest from the beginning?
I would say yes, definitely. Your company becomes sort of a reflection of yourself and your values. Facebook is an expression of Mark Zuckerberg, Apple is an expression of Steve Jobs. So I say yes because that’s who I am. Who I am and what the company is kind of have to be the same thing on some level.
What you find is that tech companies start to absorb other ideas because they are scared of losing users. Facebook buying WhatsApp, Instagram applying Snapchat features. Do you ever feel isolated or perhaps that you need to adopt different features to make Pinterest more usable?
Different companies operate in different ways. Facebook operates like Mark Zuckerberg. It’s important for them to own a part of the market. I guess it’s about growing as a business and fending off competitors, defending their territory. That’s just the game you play as a company.
One of the things I like about Pinterest is that there aren’t any direct competitors. We lay somewhere between a search product like Google, but like Facebook it’s all rooted in human interest and human lives. My point is that the product we’re building has never really been built. We are not another messaging app or another sharing app. We have competitors that copy our features, but there literally aren’t any other companies that are working on discovering on how to help people find personal ideas for their lives. There’s no other tech company doing that in our size. There is no one to copy from for us, the way Instagram can just copy Snapchats features. I like that. It makes that dance between companies less central in our strategy.
Let’s talk about algorithms. How fine-tuned they will become? How do you see the tech landscape evolving?
Algorithms are as good as the database they are built on. What an algorithm really does is that it goes through something and looks for patterns. The reason our algorithms can be so good is that they are all operating on a human curated database. It’s not the way Google does it, where everything is algorithms. It’s algorithms on top of human curation, it’s the combination. When I think about the future of Pinterest I think, because personalization is so central in our discovery, showing ideas that are relevant to your life is the make our break thing for Pinterest being successful. We need algorithms, they are fundamental. That’s how we take our 75 billion ideas and show you 50 that are relevant to you.
The future of Pinterest is very recommendations-driven, but it needs to feel very human. That combination is what we strive for, with everything that is driven by algorithms.
How fast do you think that development will go?
We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of using the data we have and showing what’s relevant to you. There are such big opportunities. We have incredibly small teams working on incredibly huge projects, five engineers running search quality for all of Pinterest, which over a hundred million people are using. Google’s got thousands of engineers for a product that is maybe ten times our size. The gap in our capability is huge, but at the same time it means that each engineer at Pinterest has a huge impact, in relation to other companies. That means we can move really, really quickly, and take bigger bets than a huge company can. We’re in a really specific place. We have the most unique curated data set of objects ever built. The next opportunity is to make that more useful to users, so that you don’t have to follow 50 people. We can show what’s relevant to you without you doing that much work, in a way that is clear and controlled.
Let’s talk about e-commerce. You’re apparently the top traffic source to retailers’ websites. Are we witnessing a new way to consume culture?
Personalization is still very new, no one does it really. Stores are physical, we can’t really change them, and we are just now starting to think what’s possible. It’s about anyone with a catalog of products or ideas or recipes, anyone with a catalog of things, where they have users who wants to personalize the way to look through that, our technology can really help making that possible.
“We have the most unique curated data set of objects ever built.”
What does an average work day look like for you?
The most common thing about my work day is that it’s never average. It’s always different, and my schedule is always changing. I typically get in at the office at 9 a.m. or 8:30 which is kind of early for a technology company, most are later than that. I’m an early bird, or the company is, I would say.
I spend most of my time in meetings, but I do spend some of my time reading and designing. If I don’t to that I lose my connection with the product, with whatever field is currently interesting to me. I spend a lot of time with Ben, our CEO, and our executive, discussing strategies and planning. If you get what’s coming at you dictating your time, at a certain level you get aggressive and think this time is for me, and to figure out what I should do proactively. It speaks of Pinterest in a way, spending time with yourself. What you want in your everyday life is just as important as what you want in your professional life.
You just started to push into video. How will that affect your future strategy?
I’m really excited about it. We invested in that this year and launched it. It’s very early but it makes a lot of sense to me. Pinterest is about discovering everyday ideas, and a lot of those ideas should be video, versus image format. It’s that simple, and I think it’s going to make Pinterest more useful. We’ll be investing in it more and more. This launch is really about having our own videos for the first time and building all that technology, partnering with some brands and bring their best videos.
What’s your relationship with hardware? Obviously your company relies on it so much. Do you have meetings with Apple where you say, “user data says we need to make the hardware more like this,” etc.?
I don’t think anyone gets to have those meetings, not even Google or Facebook. We meet with the big technology companies to talk about what we are building and what they are building, if there are any partnership possibilities. We worked closely with Apple when the released their share widget. What we are focusing on this year is international growth. A lot of that is connectivity in places where internet is slower or where it’s further away from data centers, Brazil for example, because in the Southern hemisphere the internet is slower and devices tend to be less powered compared to Europe.
How does Pinterest handle copyright, how has that narrative evolved?
The biggest thing is that the architecture of the service is to drive traffic back to the creator. Unlike Instagram, a picture on Pinterest is like a book cover. You see the cover and then you want to click through. The reason I think why we haven’t really had any legal issues with this have been that it drives a lot of value to people who create content, images for example.
That said, obviously, those people own that work and we build a lot of tools to make copyright management easy and painless. It’s really easy for us to attribute images if you want your name on them. It’s good for users to know who made something or who took that picture. The more of that we have, the better for the service for everybody. When there is a real issue, we take responsibility, we take it seriously and fulfill our legal obligations. The laws are not black and white in this area, it’s really tricky.