Late last week, news broke that Pinterest had raised an additional $US186 million as part of a $US553 Series G round of funding.
That brought the startup’s total funding to $US1.3 billion with an $US11 billion valuation — In other words, boatloads of money for the five-year-old company.
Business Insider talked to Pinterest cofounder Evan Sharp not long before the company closed its latest funding.
During our interview, he talked about why he thinks the company’s vision is so powerful, and how it plans to grow and change in the coming year.
Here are some highlights of what we learned:
- Pinterest plans to spend the next year focusing on international growth and making its Pins more “actionable.” As the site expands geographically, it also needs to become more regionally focused.
- People have stopped talking about Pinterest as a “social network” — but that’s a good thing. “Pinterest is not about sharing with your friends,” Sharp says. “It’s about saving ideas for your future.”
- Pinterest puts a lot of stock in hiring employees who aren’t just really smart, but who are also really nice. “Those are the people who can ‘knit’ together and build great innovative products,” Sharp says.
- Pinterest needs to do a better job of explaining its various uses. “I don’t think people realise the breadth of it and how it’s useful it is for so many things,” he says. “I just got a dog, and I never thought about using it to look up toys you get for the dog and walks to take the dog on, but there’s so much stuff about that on Pinterest!”
Here’s a transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity and length:
Business Insider: So, what have you personally used Pinterest for recently?
Evan Sharp: I’m going to Yellowstone National Park in a few weeks. I was there about a decade ago and so I was browsing things to do there. What I was really interested in are there things to do there, or interesting things at Yellowstone that I didn’t know about.
Because I remember a lot of the stand-out stuff from my last trip, but I was wondering if there were things I didn’t know about — that ‘are there secrets?’ And Pinterest has helped me with that.
BI: It’s been about a year since Pinterest first launched Guided Search to help people narrow down their search results. Why is that function important to Pinterest’s goals and how has it changed?
ES: We think of Pinterest as a visual bookmarking tool for saving and discovering creative ideas, and that discovery part is a really a core part of what we work on every day. When you’re searching for something on the web, you’re generally looking for something very specific. But on Pinterest, it’s usually more general. It’s like, ‘I need a scarf, but I don’t know what kind of scarf.’ Or ‘I need to stain something, but I don’t know anything about how to do that.’
The Guides are a way for us to give you the vocabulary. You may need help discovering and exploring things you didn’t even know existed.
BI: Pinterest recently announced that there are a whopping 50 billion Pins in the system. What’s the goal, growth-wise, there?
ES: I don’t know if we have a number that is the goal. Numbers are easy to talk about externally so we use them, but it’s not actually about the quantity. But for us, it’s really about ‘Do we have all the most interesting stuff well-represented on Pinterest?’
If you’re a user who is looking for something, do we have an idea that’s relevant to you? Do we have enough stuff that we can help you discover something interesting? For us, it’s less about thinking about how to make that number higher and more about, how do we take those 50 billion things and show you the right five or ten or twenty for what you’re doing. And that’s a really hard problem.
BI: What are some ways that you’re solving that problem?
ES: This year, we’re really interested in how we make Pinterest feel very regionally focused. Our biggest company focus this year is international growth. When you’re in Japan and you’re looking for something to cook for dinner, how do we make sure you’re seeing a Japanese recipe?
Another focus is how we take those 50 billion Pins — or however many we have at the end of the year — and make them more useful and more actionable? If you come across anything — clothing, a place to travel — how do we help you understand what you’re looking at — how you can get that piece of clothing, how you can get to that place? And that’s more about the information and the metadata that we have about the pins themselves.
BI: You recently made it possible to download apps through Pinterest. How else will you make more actionable pins?
ES: When you see something on Pinterest, how well are we helping you understand what you’re looking at, and how easy is it for you to go do that thing in real life?
If you see an image and it’s just an image, and there’s a bad link or no description, and you don’t know what that image is, or who took it, or what it’s a picture of, it’s not a very satisfying or actionable experience.
Whereas, if you see a photo of an awesome bag and it says what it is and there’s a link to the store and you can get it and there are reviews — all of that stuff would make the experience of discovering that bag on Pinterest way better for you. Just way easier. So there’s a whole suite of stuff that we could build.
BI: About 80% of Pinterest’s traffic now comes from mobile and you’ve talked about how international expansion is a big priority right now. How do those two things go together?
ES: For us, the phone is the platform that we think about every day when we develop new features and products. We have experiences on other devices and other platforms, and we’ll continue to do that, but the phone is really what most people think of when they think of the internet. Without that, we’d be in a much, much worse position when we think about Asia, South America, Europe and someday maybe Africa. It’s vital.
For example, we’re finally prioritising Brazil this year. It’s one of the five countries we’re focused on. We’re focused on the the UK, Germany, Japan, and Brazil, and Brazil is a very mobile dominant country. For us, it’s kind of a test-bed of how we really try and grow without a desktop presence, which I think is a good exercise for us to go through as a company.
BI: People used to always talk about Pinterest as a ‘social network.’ Now, you see it described as a ‘discovery tool.’ Do you think the social element of Pinterest is as important as it used to be?
ES: One of the problems is that there’s not a good definition of what social means online. When people use that as a label, it’s hard to agree or disagree. To me, a social service is a service that is primarily about sharing and communicating with your friends. So that’s Facebook, that’s messaging apps, that may or may not be Twitter depending on how you define friend…
Pinterest is not about sharing with your friends. It’s about saving ideas for your future.
I do think, obviously, you can get inspired about things you want to do by looking at what other people do. People are at the core of Pinterest, but it’s just not about sharing. For me, a lot of the people who inspire me are people I know. Like, my friend Everett re-does scooters and motorcycles — and that’s really inspiring I never thought about doing that before I saw his Pin Boards. And my friend Shaw is an architect in New York so I can keep a pulse on what he’s doing, because he’s way more cutting edge than I am.
But I don’t think of those interactions as social interactions. I’m more interested in the fact that they’re experts in a taste I admire then that they’re people I’m friends with.
BI: Pinterest recently held an event called “Knitcon” where employees taught each other classes about things like song writing, photo editing, fixing a flat bike tire, and more. Why is that sort of thing important to Pinterest’s culture.
ES: Our core company value is actually the word ‘knit,’ which is kind of a funny word. That’s the word we use to describe different types of people learning to see each other’s point of view and work on a problem together. And that’s just how creative things get built right?
We want the different disciplines and functions to be learning each other’s languages. Engineering and design work very closely. I think that there are a lot of companies in the valley that call themselves an ‘engineering company,’ or a ‘marketing company,’ — they’re very focused on a specific part of a business.
We’re more interested in forming a business where there is no Alpha dog team within the company.
There’s one more thing… We try to hire people who are nice. Which is kind of obvious in some ways, but there’s definitely a stereotype of a successful startup that it’s often this aggressive, type A place. And that’s just not necessarily true.
You can have geniuses that are nice or geniuses that are really egotistical. But they’re both geniuses. So, we really want to work with the geniuses that are nice to each other and have a common level of respect. Because those are the people who can knit together and build great innovative products.
BI: What do you wish people better understood about Pinterest?
ES: I don’t think people realise the breadth of it and how useful it is for so many things. Even I don’t sometimes.
I just got a dog, and I never thought about using it to look up toys you get for the dog and walks to take the dog on, but there’s so much stuff about that on Pinterest!
Pinterest really is a portal. We’re an effective search engine for a lot of things in people’s lives, and I’m not sure that we’re top-of-mind in that way yet. You wouldn’t ask Pinterest how far it is from New York to San Francisco, but you would definitely ask it, ‘What should I do in San Francisco?’ or ‘What kind of sofa do I want in my apartment,?’ or ‘What kind of clothes do I want to wear?’ These very subjective questions that have no right answer, that I think a visual, object-focused service can help you answer really well.
Where do you want the company to be in the next five years?
ES: We really want everyone in the world to be discovering and doing things in their life in a way that they don’t today. Everyone in the world. So, that’s people outside the US, that’s demographics that aren’t as interested in Pinterest today… That’s using Pinterest for all sorts of projects and ideas that people might not think of today.
A lot of people think of creativity as this artistic, elitist thing. ‘I’m not creative!’ is a really common phrase you hear adults say. Every kid is creative though, right?
Getting people into that creative mode, just an hour a day, can be really transformational. It can really give people confidence and make them feel like they’re in control of the things in their life.
You can take the things that you have to do — you know, like raising a kid, teaching a class — and make them a little bit more creative, a little bit more interesting.
BI: How has Pinterest unleashed that creativity in you?
ES: I got back into photography really heavily about a year and a half ago, and I used Pinterest to figure out what I liked and what photographers I actually loved. That was a process of browsing through thousands and thousands of photographs and figuring out, over time, what the pattern was of what interested me. I found all these great photographers I had never heard of, just by using Pinterest to save the stuff that caught my eye over time.
And now I take crazy-amounts of photos. I probably took 15,000 photos last year. All of that is about me getting confident in what my taste is, and learning to feel confident in expressing it myself. So for me it was a tool that helped me find a voice, in a way, photographically.