An Interview With Pinterest’s International Lead Scott Coleman
I’m super bullish on Pinterest. They’re one of Silicon Valley’s largest tech unicorns, and after its latest fundraising round in June 2017, its valuation has hit $12.3 billion. I love how CEO and cofounder Ben Silbermann describes the product as an online “catalog of ideas” that help users discover content that might inspire them in some way. At the root of Pinterest’s model is new content discovery. It’s not quite a search engine like Google and not exactly a social network like Facebook — it’s something altogether unique. John Battelle has an interesting analysis on this in his article Pinterest’s “Third Way”.
Pinterest has grown by leaps and bounds since it was founded in 2010, and it’s not just restricted to niche users. In late 2017, they hit 200M monthly active users — that exceeds 40% year on year growth. While those user numbers might pale in comparison to entrenched social media players like Facebook (2B) or even Twitter (328M), I’m willing to bet that those users are ultimately more valuable to advertisers due to significantly higher engagement with the content. Pinterest’s Head of Product Evan Sharp confirms as much, stating that their users have “much greater purchase intent” than other platforms. Granted, it missed its $500M revenue target last year, but I think the fundamental model is still a strong one.
The product and growth lessons Pinterest learned along the way are super interesting. Casey Winters, who previously led growth there and is now an advisor-in-residence at Greylock, draws on many of these lessons for posts on his blog. While at Reforge, where Casey is a frequent mentor, I had the chance to pick his brain on how to think through metrics as you build for growth. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on the dangers of being guided by the wrong North Star metric. As Casey tells it, in the early days at Pinterest, they relied on a metric they defined as WARC — weekly active repinner or clicker. Unfortunately, this led to “false rigor” in A/B tests. The team could see increases in the overall WARC metric, but could not easily understand whether a potential feature was optimizing repins over clicks or vice versa. Great lesson to learn. As Casey puts it in a post on the subject:
“Obviously, Pinterest doesn’t use WARCs anymore as its one key metric, but the search for one key metric at all for a complex ecosystem like Pinterest over-simplifies how the ecosystem works and prevents anyone from focusing on understanding the different elements of that ecosystem. You want the opposite to be true. You want everyone focused on understanding how different elements work together in this ecosystem. The one key metric can make you think that is not important.” — Casey Winters
Sarah Tavel, who was one of the first product managers at Pinterest and is now a General Partner at Benchmark Capital, wrote a brilliant post on her lessons from helping to scale the company from 5 to 650 employees. She advocates finding the right org structure and shared an anecdote on how there was a “night and day difference” between the matrix structure of Pinterest’s early days and the full-stack teams that they operate with now. I also love Sarah’s point on making a conscious effort to build with the next 100 million users in mind, not the power users of the present. This is especially relevant when planning for the development of a global platform. As Sarah puts it:
“When you’re scaling quickly, you get a lot right, but you inevitably get some things wrong. The best companies — like Pinterest — are the ones that learn from those mistakes and adjust quickly.” — Sarah Tavel
However, of particular interest to me is the fact that much of Pinterest’s growth can be attributed to its growth in international markets. As of this year, 60% of its users are from outside the United States. As early as 2016, Pinterest found itself in a situation where two-thirds of its new users were coming from its markets in Germany, France, Brazil, and Japan. Pinterest is a fantastic case study for why a technology company should, and indeed needs to, build a global platform to cater to markets outside of its home territory.
The leader behind international expansion at Pinterest is Scott Coleman, who serves as Pinterest’s Head of International. I was fortunate enough to chat with Scott about what brought him to Pinterest, how he ramped up international growth there, what new markets excite him, and what he advises other technology companies to think about when scaling abroad. More below!
Shawn: How’d you get involved in international expansion roles? What was your first job doing this?
Scott: “I’ve always been interested in international expansion work. I’ve taken roles in my career that sit at the intersection of global business and technology. I spent more than a decade at Google. In my first role, I helped launch Google AdSense globally. Specifically, that meant traveling abroad for 2–3 years to set up AdSense in Latin America. We worked directly with publishers. We started in Brazil, then moved on to Argentina, and eventually went on to India.”
Shawn: Tell me more about your career path. What came next?
Scott: “After Google AdSense, I moved into a business development role at Project Link in Africa. Basically, we built fiber optic networks in metropolitan areas in Uganda and later Ghana. Link just recently spun out of Google and is now called CSquared. Now it’s one of the largest wholesale metro fiber optic networks in Africa. The role taught me a lot about government collaboration.”
Shawn: What brought you to Pinterest?
Scott: “I manage the international team for Pinterest. I’m lucky enough to be in a role that allows me to take an existing product that already creates value around the world by helping people discover and do what they love and expand it to more countries. So far, it’s been great. Operating in multiple markets feels very natural.”
Shawn: How is the international team structured at Pinterest? What’s your mandate?
Scott: “Our team drives Pinterest’s entry strategy [international product strategy, partnerships, marketing, and operations] in new markets, which effectively means we heavily influence the question “what features and experiences should we be building?” in countries outside the United States. As a result, our team works very closely with the product management team. Collaboration with the product and engineering teams mostly happens here in San Francisco. We also have dedicated country teams in markets like the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Brazil. Each market has its own Country Manager, who all roll up to me. We also have a product operations and localization team based in San Francisco.”
Shawn: What’s the problem you’re trying to solve, and how does it change when thinking about international markets?
Scott: “Pinterest is a discovery app that people around the world use to discover and do what they love — everything from what to cook, what to wear, and how to decorate their homes. At Pinterest, we’re solving a meaningful global challenge — how do you help people discover things? To take it a step further for our international markets, how do you help them do it offline? How do you take a product or service that already has a good product-market fit and make it make sense for a different country?”
Shawn: How does international expansion factor into Pinterest’s overall growth strategy?
Scott: “Global growth is a top priority for Pinterest. We are building a global platform. You can’t be a global platform if you don’t have an international expansion strategy. From a product perspective, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to create a meaningful experience for users in every country. We don’t want to ship a product that’s just a simple translation of our US product. We want to create a Pinterest experience that feels local and personal.”
Shawn: Have you seen any interesting regional differences among users in the different markets Pinterest is live in? Are there user personas that are distinctly from one region?
Scott: “It’s interesting. We’ve found that our top categories or use cases are similar across markets (food, home, fashion) but what people are saving is aligned with local tastes. There are Pinterest users across different regions that have identical use cases, and they don’t look too different from each other. However, as more users from different countries around the world use Pinterest, the more diverse the content becomes. Can you believe that the top pinned items from British users are avocados, and in Germany it’s zucchini? There are definitely regional differences.”
Shawn: How do you process and interpret data on these regional differences? What does it mean for Pinterest?
Scott: “Content needs to be local and relevant. This requires ensuring that your systems (serving platforms, algorithms, etc) are tuned to the market. We’ve invested a lot in the last year to improve our feature set for Spanish-speaking users. For instance, we built guided search for Spanish that has a much more local feel than before. When you search for something on Pinterest, we can make recommendations for related or refined queries. We do this by investing in product quality and performing human eval to ensure its right. We then see increased relevance and engagement in search.”
Shawn: What are the metrics you look at for global growth? Do you have different metrics for different markets?
Scott: “We look at a variety of metrics. We have standard measures like monthly active users, weekly active users, various indicators of highly engaged users, as well as activation rates. We also look at brand equity measures like aided and unaided awareness to understand our position in the market. We use similar metrics across markets. However, you need to be nuanced when evaluating performance because metrics change substantially based on market maturity.”
Shawn: What are the biggest challenges to international growth for Pinterest?
Scott: “Again, it’s about localization. There’s a big effort at Pinterest to get localization right. All Pinterest users have a magical moment when the product helps them solve a specific discovery problem. For instance, a user who is redecorating her house might use Pinterest to find the perfect cabinets for their space. Remodeling a home is different in different countries though. For instance, remodeling in France could entail smaller spaces in urban apartments. We want all users in all countries to have these magical moments.”
Shawn: Which new markets are you most excited to explore at Pinterest? Why?
Scott: “Latin American markets for sure. We’ve invested a lot there, and we’re seeing really significant growth across the entire. Brazil in particular is one of our fastest growing markets. We’ve had a team in Brazil for 3 years now, and we’ve been focused on delivering a truly localized product experience. I was actually down in Brazil with our CEO Ben Silbermann just a few months ago — it’s really incredible to see users adopting Pinterest at such a high rate. Japan, France and Germany are also super interesting. We’ve built a big user base in those markets, and it will be a fun challenge to figure out user growth in those markets.”
Shawn: What best practices could you share for other technology companies who are attempting to scale globally to emerging markets?
Scott: “Product is the guide post. It all boils down to being able to deliver localized and personalized user experiences. Be very real on delivering on that, and effectively communicate to your users on what your product is and why it matters to them. Hold yourself accountable if you fall short on this.”
Shawn: Thanks very much Scott. Best of luck with building Pinterest everywhere in the world!