While in architecture school in 2009, Evan Sharp started Pinterest with two friends as a fun side project. He later left Facebook to lead the design and front-end engineering of Pinterest full time. Their website and mobile app enables users to collect and share their favorite images. In large part due to its simplicity and beautiful execution, Pinterest has quickly skyrocketed to success with more than 50 billion pins and a $11 billion valuation.
Work with really nice people whose goal it is to make things and not to take things. Because there are people out there who just want to take things.
A Discussion with Evan Sharp
It’s fun to be judged by the actual value of your work rather than someone’s perceived value of your work. It’s fun to have no layers between. I guess it’s also scary. It’s amazing when what you should be doing is exactly what you think is the most valuable thing to do with your time. That’s a really cool place to be. And the best thing about being the founder of a startup is that’s your job. Which could mean going home early if you’re feeling burned out, or it could mean never going home.
Obviously it’s a good time to be a designer in the technology industry. Although “technology” is a weird word. The platforms available to everyone now are really advanced, or advanced enough that they present many exclusively design-related opportunities. There have always been lots of opportunities in engineering to make money, to build something valuable. Like now that we have so much data, how do we show it? That is a design question. And if you don’t have someone who thinks about problems that way, it’s easy for companies to fall into the trap of only thinking about what they build through the lens of engineering, which of course can be fine, depending on the kind of company.
Pinterest is a consumer Internet company. It’s very much a designed product. A lot of what makes it unique is its design, even more than its engineering. We’re trying to build a company where the opportunities that design and engineering and our community team seek all live on a relatively equal playing field. It’s aspirational. It’s not always that way.
Q: Any fears, things you worry about when you come to work?
Tons of fears. I’m not a person who’s motivated by money. Of course, everyone’s somewhat motivated by money. But what I worry about most is that we have all these employees now, which is awesome, but now we’re responsible for their well- being and for their families in some ways, and that’s a really big responsibility. I don’t stress about it because it’s not going to change what I do, but that’s on my mind a lot.
I know the potential of this company is actually huge, as big as it gets. And so I stress about making sure we reach that potential. I would hate for us to fail and some other company or startup to succeed. That would make me feel bad about myself. That’s a very selfish one.
Also I always have a lot of tension between wanting to design and wanting to lead and manage.
Q: We believe designers are an important part of a company’s DNA since they contribute to its culture, principles, and values. How have you built a culture that fosters design?
The easiest way to do that is to design a lot of really good stuff, literally. Going back to that lesson about drawing, the easiest way to have a great design-led company is not to
talk about it, it’s to draw beautiful designs that people are excited to build. There are a lot of problems at Pinterest that are engineering problems, and there are a lot of problems that are design problems. The solution is a perfectly drawn mockup or wireframe so that when people see it, they immedi- ately understand how to use the product and get value out of it. And you can talk about those things for awhile and that’s good. But pretty soon you’ve got to draw them. That’s what designers can do that no one else can: draw the solution to those problems.
The second thing is we have a pretty good culture here. We’ve hired people who are relatively egoless while still highly talented, which is hard to do. It’s not that they don’t have any ego, but some people bring their ego to every conversation. And our culture hasn’t evolved that way. In the beginning that wasn’t intentional, but for the last half of the company, it’s been intentional.
And the third one is hiring engineers who are motivated by product. Not all of them, not engineers who don’t get that high up in the stack—ops or infrastructure or something.
But a mid- or front-end engineer who really understands design cuts out a huge amount of work. If an engineer doesn’t speak design, you have to spec everything and do all this work to communicate exactly what you want, like five pixels here and two pixels there. But other people, you give them a mockup and talk to them for five minutes, and you actually get something better. Finding those people is difficult, but it’s worth our time.
The trick for us is to build a company that makes money as a result of every single one of our disciplines operating at the highest level. Building a product in service of a business is the only way to make something long, long, long term. Like people say, Apple is a design company, which it is, but really that means everyone is doing an amazing job at their craft. We’re trying to tie the value of our product to every function—engineering, design, support, content, marketing, sales, all of them—doing high-quality work. We give everyone the scope and the challenge to be the best at what they do and that inherently makes value for Pinners and for Pinterest.