Put The Damn Phone Down and Do Something


NewCo Shift Forum 2018

Pinterest wants its users to get offline. And that’s a pretty good thing to be about these days.

Ben Silbermann during NewCo Shift Forum 2018

Ben Silbermann is a founder and CEO of Pinterest, one of the most misunderstood platforms ever born in Silicon Valley. I’ve written about the company extensively, and earlier this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben at the Shift Forum. Find out why I’m an unabashed fan in the video and transcript below.

John Battelle: I’ve found Ben to be one of the most thoughtful, humble, and non-typical valley founders out there. Please join me in welcoming the founder and CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann, to Shift Forum.


Ben Silbermann: Thanks for having me.

I wrote a piece about your company a month or so ago, because I found that I really didn’t understand it as well as I thought I did. Even though I’ve had you on stage and we’ve had conversations, I still had a few misconceptions about the company.

I’d like you to help us clear them up, but first, I want you to tell us a little bit about Pinterest’s scale. Put us in the perspective of…comparatively to the big companies of the era from which Pinterest came — the Twitters, the Facebooks. How do you stack up?

Sure. In terms of just raw scale, Pinterest…last year, we crossed over a couple of a hundred million users. We’ve grown that pretty quickly. The last 100 million, we’re at it about two and a half times faster than the first 100 million.

There’s people [from] all over the world. A lot of people assume that Pinterest…it’s like all Midwesterners who love arts and crafts. I always joke like, “I’m a Midwesterner, and I love arts and craft. So I’m excited about that.” Now, more than half the users are outside the United States. Countries like Brazil, Western Europe, Japan, about 80 percent of them are using it on the phone.

What they’re doing on there — which I think we’ll talk about it a little bit more — is they’re basically using it to discover ideas for their everyday life. About 70 percent of them are actively saving things, or they’re tapping through on ideas, and trying to make them happen.

I can’t — at least in the United States — think of a company with several multiple hundreds of millions of users growing very rapidly, with a business model that’s starting to scale and actually work. I’ve talked to advertisers who are enthusiastic about working with you. I’m trying to think of another company that’s doing that, and I can’t. Am I missing something? Really, I can’t think of another company that’s doing that, except maybe Snapchat. How is it you didn’t get bought a year ago by Facebook, or Google, or Twitter, or Tencent, or Alibaba? Basically unicorn-hunting has been the sport of the large platforms. How did you manage to grow this with that set of characteristics and not get swallowed up by the larger fish?

Pinterest has been really consistent from the beginning about the mission that we wanted to pursue. I think it’s a mission that’s actually different than a lot of the companies that are out there.

Our mission is to help people discover and do what they love. If you ask somebody who uses the platform regularly, what they’ll say is that they use it to plan their future. Big ideas like my vacation, my wedding, maybe my dream home. Small things, like my kid’s birthday party or meals.

I think that that’s actually pretty different from the way that a lot of the big Internet companies think of themselves. There’s obviously the world of social. When I think of social networks like Facebook, like Instagram, like Snapchat, they’re fundamentally about connecting with other people.

If you put up a photo on Instagram and no one likes it, you didn’t do it right. [laughs] That was the whole point of putting it up there. Pinterest actually…

As a matter of fact, my teenagers will take the photo down if it doesn’t get a certain number of…

There’s value in that. We need tools. We’re social creatures. We need to connect with other people.

Pinterest is actually…it’s really about you. It’s about your tastes, your aspirations, your plans. There are other people there. Our recommendations are all curated by other users. The objective is not to do that. That’s why it’s different than social networks.

On the other side, you have utilities like Google. I would say on that pole, we’re closer to Google. Google and Pinterest have very different missions as well.

Google is a search engine. I used to work there. They obviously have transformed the world with this very simple vision of you can ask or type this query into a box and you’re going to get amazing information back or you get objective information.

Some argue with that statement.


I think it’s about more good than it’s been…

Objectively, you get information.

You get information.

Pinterest picks up where Google leaves off. We ask ourselves, “What if you can’t put it into words? What if the answer for you is really different than for someone else? What if you’d only know it if you saw it, and if you saw it, you might not know actually how to go make it part of your life?”

I just think that the missions of the companies are different. Since we’ve had an opportunity with that mission to get a lot of people around the world using it and then to also provide value to advertisers, we stayed the course of trying to build an independent company.

You just mentioned Google, and I don’t know… if I’m Sergey or Larry I’m probably thinking “Well, OK. If you pick up where we leave off, that sounds like something we might be interested in.”

I really appreciate your desire to go it alone, because as we discussed yesterday, that’s something that we’re increasingly not seeing, which is we’re losing independent companies to large platforms.

You did work on Adsense at Google. I know that you said to me that one of your greatest frustrations is that Pinterest offering gets lumped in with social platforms and it’s not as you point out. It’s about the person getting shit done.

I wonder what your point of view is about what has been a constant narrative in this room over the last two days, which is the business model of all of these companies which has been called deeply into question because of its interrelationship with the engagement model that has created significant interference in our electoral processes and those around the world, as well just divisiveness generally.

You also have an advertising-driven model, which I suppose means you are possibly subject to the same potential conflict. What is your take on your colleagues and what they’re going through, and how is Pinterest advertising model different?

The way I think about it, I can’t speak for other companies, [I think about it] in two buckets. The first is always what are we trying to do for people, and is there alignment between what people are there to do on the platform, and the way that we make money?

On Pinterest, we’ve talked about some of those typical use cases to get inspiration and go do things, and the flipside of doing something. The flipside of doing it is there is a business on the other side that often provides you with the product, with the service to make it happen.

Look, 93 percent of the people that use Pinterest say they’re using it to plan or think about a purchase. We know that if you compare a Pinterest user to a non-Pinterest user, Pinterest users will spend about 39 percent more.

That’s because they’re literally using the tool to get ideas for things to do in their lives. That basic alignment is really important and I think it’s there.

When we talk to advertisers, what we tell them is that Pinterest is a place where people are actively considering what they want to do in their future. You can actually help them achieve that. That’s, in theory, the principle of advertising. That’s one side of things.

The other side of things is a little bit more about what your principles are for a company and how you treat your users. We have this expression at Pinterest called Put Pinners First.

It’s this reminder to all of our employees that we can’t let the business diverge from what the company was created for, which wasn’t to keep you online stuck on your phone all the time. It was actually to get you to go offline and go do these things in your real life.

The mission is to help you go do things but we crowd out all of your time to actually get it done. It’s a tragedy. We’re really serious about that.

You actually have a metric within the company, as I understand, that is about getting people to go do something, as opposed to the metrics which have driven many of the companies that you sometimes get lumped in with, which is engagement on the platform.

We care a lot that people go out and do stuff. We re-launched a feature, for example, last year called Tried It. The idea was if you try something, you go to a place where you try a new outfit or you bake something, you take a photo and put it on.

That feature was actually to help teach users that, sure, it’s fun to look at millions of ideas, but eventually, the real satisfaction and joy comes from giving it a shot. It might turn out great. It might turn out poorly. All of that is fine. We want to be the company that motivates you to put your phone down and to go try those things.

I can’t say there’s many companies that have that as a core mission. “Put the phone down.” [laughs]

I care about that a lot personally. I have two little kids. My whole family are doctors. The moral bar on work is high during Thanksgiving. I’ve got one sister. She’s like, “I took out a tumor today.” I’m like, “I’m making this app.”

“I made an app.”


It’s something that the whole industry…I’m actually happy the conversation is happening. These devices are really new. The words that we use to describe the consumption patterns, they should give us pause.

When you use words like binge-worthy or addictive, those are words that are really negative in the context. I think that like any new technology, people need to be very aware of finding the right balance. The companies need to play a part in helping chart that new path forward.

That’s a very responsible point of view. Tell me just a little bit more. There have been reports about the size of your business. In the main, it is an advertising business. Half a billion has been bandied around as a number for this year. Those are the kinds of numbers that a company can go public on.

There has been a very strong trend, particularly here in the valley, of companies waiting as long as possible to go public. It used to be, in the beginning of my career, which was 122 years ago, you could go public on $20 million in revenue or $50 million in revenue, as long as you could show you were profitable.

We had John Chambers here yesterday, who was talking about how he found it extremely disappointing that companies are waiting so long to go public. On the other hand, it isn’t fun to be public anymore. Where are you philosophically on all of that? You’ve got investors, a lot of them. Obviously, you’re on a path. Is this a path that has a milestone soon?

Right now, our intent is to make Pinterest a public company. We don’t have a time frame to announce today. The challenge that every CEO has is that they’re trying to achieve something. One of the challenges that I face right now is there’s so much discussion about that.

I always try to remind our team that all the value of the platform emanates from the people that use it every day. If you stay completely trained on that value proposition, the other things will follow over time.

At this moment in time, I feel doubly that it’s important to remind people of that, because I really think Pinterest is a fraction of what it could be in the future. I mentioned that when we first launched the product, I don’t think we had expectations of it necessarily being hundreds of millions of people. That core value proposition of helping people get inspiration and make these everyday choices better, we just keep finding that it resonates in country after country after country that we go to.

I want to make sure that we’re focused on how do we scale that mission to as many people as possible while building a really healthy business. That’s why, like a lot of CEOs, I try not to distract people day-to-day by thinking about a milestone, which is just that. It’s what you described. It’s a milestone towards a much longer journey to try to fulfill that mission over time.

I want to talk a little bit — and this has been a big topic over the last two days as well — about the information, the data that your platform creates. You alluded to it. When people make boards of things they want to do or ideas they’re feeling out, it’s clearly a constellation of intentions or possible intentions.

When hundreds of millions of people do that and there are many shared nexus points between them, you’ve got a system that gives, I would imagine, some pretty deep insights into the human condition. Can you tell us a little bit about that? How do you characterize that? What does that data look like? What are you doing with that data?

Pinterest has really always been interested in this idea, which is like, what’s that intersection between a person’s individual taste and curation and machine learning? Anyone who has used the platform knows the core activity is you save things that you like.

Even if you take a really pedestrian example like, I don’t know, sitting in this chair, “What kind of chairs do I like?” I bet your answer and my answer might be different. That’s just two people. What we do is we try to look across all those hundreds of millions of people and literally map out what is the topology of taste.

We call that the taste graph. Facebook has a social graph. It’s a map of human relationships. Google has what they call a knowledge graph. It’s a map of concepts and entities that let you answer questions. Pinterest wants to build a taste graph, which is a mapping of taste.

There are hundreds of billions of pins. They’ve been all hand-organized and curated.

All of that technology in the back, the point of it is so that when you’re faced with a decision where you’re trying to get some help like, “What should my living room look like? What’s a cool idea for my kid’s third birthday?” you can see a manageable set of options that isn’t prescriptive.

It doesn’t say, “You have to go this way.” It helps you understand your own taste or find it. You can use that to go ahead and make it happen. That’s how we think about our data. It’s a super-exciting technology problem because it’s never been done before.

It’s also really exciting to think what it would be like if people had this tool that could really help them develop their own sense of taste and preference on all of these everyday things that today, we don’t really have a great vocabulary to describe.

We don’t. I do feel, with my limited use of it, that it’s starting to be almost magic in that it is suggesting things to me that feel like it understands me a little bit, or at least, it’s giving me a set of options that allow me to understand myself better. Is that the goal?

I would say it’s that second thing. If you think about any time in history, when you were passionate about something, think back to when you were a teenager or something. You’re into something like, what do you do? You flip through magazines. You look for inspiration.

Pinterest lets you take that core activity, but it applies the power of machine learning and the preferences of hundreds of millions of people who do that at Internet scale. That’s incredibly exciting. It means that your tastes and preferences are far less determined by chance, like where you happen to grow up or who your friends happen to be.

One of the things I find so fascinating about all these graphs — the taste graph, the social graph, or the interest graph, which is what Twitter calls its graph, everyone has got a graph — is you can mix them.

I would really love to go over to Google and say, “Hey, here’s my Pinterest taste graph. Munge that and make search better for me,” or, “Hey, Pinterest, here’s my search history. Take that and help me understand how to do things better,” or, “Hey, Facebook…” Will there ever be a time in the valley when these companies start to actually share like kindergartners with each other?


I don’t know, John.


Are you at least open to it?

That’s my honest answer. We’re just 100 percent committed to trying to fulfill that mission. Look, there’s a reality of being companies. You were just saying that you want this set of diverse, independent companies. There are other costs and benefits with that.

Good point. Before we go to questions, please, guys, come up to the mic. This is my last question. I want to ask you about computer vision. This is something that you’re working on diligently. It’s part of, as I understand it, your mission as it relates to, “Look, if you want to discover and see things, obviously, you have this discovery and vision tool in your pocket called a phone. You can take a picture of it.”

Tell us about what you’re doing in computer vision and how it relates to your mission.

I’m super-excited about computer vision. Pinterest has been visual from day one. That’s because me and my co-founder Evan, we’re visual people. We always understood that a picture can convey things that words can’t. It can convey a feeling. It can convey a preference that you might not have the words for.

A few years ago, we made a pretty heavy investment in computer vision. We bought a small company. We’ve been building an in-house team around that. It’s going to feel a lot like the way voice felt in that transition five or six years ago. Five or six years ago, there were these SNL jokes about talking to Siri and not understanding. Now, a lot of people interact with voice.

We think about it in terms of three horizons. We’re working on all three at once. One is we want to understand the visual content of an image. “What is this? Is this a scene of a living room, or is this a chicken dinner?”

That’s for basic recommendation purposes. If you can do it with vision, you rely less on people annotating all of that with tags.

Second, if you take an individual image, we think it would be amazing to be able to go inside that image, extract an object, and identify it. There are lots of times where you’re watching TV or flipping through magazine, you see a picture on the Internet.

You’re like, “Oh, I love that individual thing, that outfit. How can I actually go get it?” We’re working on that as well. We’ve been seeing this great rise in the number of what we call visual queries. We doubled that in the last year or so.

What is a visual query? I just want to understand it.

Visual query is when you see an image, and you say, “I want to look at just that portion of it.” We find you that thing. Imagine, we’re up here. I’m like, “John, I love your shoes. I want to query just these shoes.” That wasn’t an easy query at all.

You query it by taking a picture of it?

We query the image itself. We look at the image signature data. The third horizon is something that people have dreamed about for a long time, which is, we all have these cameras and computers in our pocket. When do I get to a point where the camera itself is the way that I search the world?

Instead of having to see something, think of the words, translate it into words, and then come back with results, I can just say, “Show me things inspired by that.” That feels to me at once futuristic but also realistic in the next couple of years. I’m very, very excited about the whole direction it’s going.

That has the potential to change all of commerce. That’s just the start.

I just think so many people have trouble putting to words the things that they know in their heart or in their brain. If you can give people that freedom, it’s just going to unlock an enormous amount of potential.

Hi, Ben. My name is Julia Freeland. I help people reinvent their careers. I’m wondering, have you ever considered the capacity that Pinterest has for helping people navigate their interest and align it to careers? We’re talking a lot about the future of work. We really need to start helping people get exposed to what’s out there.

How many different opportunities there are, and how much we don’t…as a result of where we live, we don’t necessarily get exposed to all the opportunities that one area might know about but another doesn’t. Have you ever looked at how Pinterest can not only track our career interests but also education opportunities?

As somebody who looks at like, “How do I get this information in front of my clients?” — moms, largely — this is of real interest to me. I’ve tried to look at Pinterest to see how I could use it, but I haven’t seen that opportunity, as far as career interest or education interest in there.

People use Pinterest for a lot of things. Education is actually a big area especially focused on kids. When it comes to adult education, as a tool, it can do two things.

One is a lot of it is about understanding the possibility space. As the service grows and more and more people use it for more things, there may be content there, but it may not be the most direct path towards it being realistic where we are today.

The other thing — and I think it’s really important — that’s underestimated is, how many people are looking to find ways to give themselves the confidence to actually dive into something new? That is something that we see a lot of people use Pinterest for.

They create a mood board that’s a visualization of, “Hey, this is what I might look like. I can imagine myself in a new situation and learning about it.” We see that really commonly today.

As the platform grows, my hope is that discovery will apply to a huge range of things, from every day to something pretty big like a career.

Hi, my name is Karen Ripenburg. I’m a big Pinterest user. My question is towards the future of Pinterest. I’ve been using it for years and years. I know that the algorithms will show me the things that I want.

I’m wondering if there’s more of a trend towards things becoming more homogenized, like, “I like this. Crate & Barrel likes this. My friends like this.”

People maybe around the world are going for the same look. If we end up going with cameras and taking pictures, are we decreasing the diversity and the scope of what we see? Are we getting stuck at our own echo chambers that way?

It’s funny. We talk about this problem of, how do we make sure that people are seeing possibility spaces all the time? From a technology standpoint, that’s actually a super-interesting question. How do you quantify the diversity of the possibility space? We try to work on that all the time.

I think your bigger question is, are people more and more homogenized in their tastes? I would say the answer is no. If you just look at what Internet culture has done to every cultural medium — whether it’s music, exposure to video, exposure to hobbies — actually, you’re seeing more and more diversity in a lot of areas.

What’s exciting to me is a lot of that diversity is not defined by geography anymore. I don’t know. I grew up in Iowa. There weren’t a lot of kids that break dance. If you want to learn how to break dance now, the Internet will teach you, no matter where you live, how to break dance.

A lot of people live in a place where there are only a few big companies that provide the clothing that they wear, the furniture that they put in their home. Services like Pinterest actually let people say, “Hey, there’s a huge possibility space out there.” The general trend is towards more personalization and more diversity, not less.

Everybody, please thank Ben Silbermann for being here.



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