The Pinterest employees were at a deserted rest stop outside Yuma, Arizona, when the unmarked truck appeared and began, as Greg Hoy recalls, to "circle us like a vulture."
This was an unusual situation for any workers at a tech startup to find themselves in—something more Breaking Bad than The Social Network. Indeed, Hoy and Skip Bronkie, another member of Pinterest’s creative team who was joining Hoy on a road trip to SXSW, even had that staple of the meth-cooking series: a giant, conspicuous RV. A few months back, Bronkie and Hoy had pitched their bosses the idea of taking Pinterest on the road, largely to promote a new location-based Pinterest feature called Place Pins. Their boss responded with a simple image: a classic Winnebago, only with the Pinterest logo where the iconic "W" would be. They called it the "Pinnebago," a name that stuck.
Now, though, Bronkie, Hoy, and another colleague named Everett Katigbak had reason to wonder about the wisdom of their Pinnebago road trip. They were trying to shoot a video of Katigbak painting the word "Pinspiration" on a toolbox, as the silver pickup truck continued to circle and the man at the wheel started "looking at us pretty intently," recalls Hoy.
Was he a coyote? A cartel footsoldier? A lone madman wandering the highways? "Some worst-case scenarios were running through our heads," recalls Bronkie. "We just kind of quietly looked at each other." Just as Hoy began to reach for his cell phone to call for help, the man stepped out of his pickup truck.
He wore, Hoy recalls, "a gun, a holster, and a vest-y thing that I assume would stop a bullet." He sauntered over to the Pinterest guys and identified himself as a member of Border Patrol. What the heck, this man wanted to know, were these young guys doing along the Arizona-Mexico border with a tricked-out RV, a video camera, and painting supplies?
Finally, one of them piped up, saying they were with a tech company called Pinterest.
The border patrolman was quiet a moment.
"Aw," he said, his tone softening instantly. "You guys work for Pinterest?"
The border patrolman’s wife was obsessed with Pinterest. In fact, he and his wife were using it to decorate their home!
Bronkie chatted with the patrolman for a bit, while Hoy ran into the Pinnebago to get a T-shirt for his wife. After a few minutes, they asked the patrolman if he would mind moving his truck, which was in the background of their shot.
That was the tensest moment on the Pinnebago road trip, Hoy and Bronkie say, but it was far from the only memorable one. In two weeks on the road from San Francisco to Austin, Hoy, Bronkie, and a rotating cast of coworkers who flew in to various airports—including Pinterest cofounder Evan Sharp—partied in L.A., played an open mic in Albuquerque, made a pilgrimage to Marfa, and ate at a roadside steak joint in Abilene. At SXSW, the guys hosted a barbeque on a dirt lot and set up a mobile screen-printing operation to make totes, tees, and posters.
In a sense, the road trip was a manifestation of a company that’s good at the virtual, but acknowledges a need to get better at the real—a company that has a vibrant online community, but still is only taking its first baby steps towards revenue. "The mission of Pinterest," says Bronkie, "is to help people discover things that they love, and to go out and take action on those things in the world. It’s not just an online experience."
"Action in the world" is how virtual economies become actual ones, and a road trip—even if this one didn’t generate revenue directly—is nothing if not "action in the world." At all their stops, the Pinnebago generated good will, won over new "pinners," and reminded existing ones that there was a correlation between the online picture-collecting site and the real, live space in which transactions are made.
"It’s TBD what happens next," says Hoy. The RV was a rental; the Pinterest logo merely a wrap. There’s interest at Pinterest in finding a more permanent use for a Pinnebago, but space is at a premium in San Francisco. "As much as it’d be awesome to buy an Airstream from ’68 and deck it out and make it ours, we’re in SoMa," acknowledges Hoy. They’d love to do it again next year, but that remains to be seen.
Still, they have nothing but enthusiasm for the creative juices a road trip releases, and they suggest that more startups should consider it. Noting that the filmmaking Nolan brothers are said to get their ideas on road trips, Bronkie says that he and Hoy, who have worked together for four years (previously at Facebook), still found the road trip transformative to their working relationship.
"As soon as we got on the open road, the ideas started flowing," says Bronkie. "You start to get more comfortable with your coworkers, and you talk about things that you normally wouldn’t inside the walls of an office."
"Something like this gets you to the point of knowing what’s important," concurs Hoy. "It helps break down things to the essence of why you’re doing what you’re doing. If I were to start a company, I would most definitely jump in a car and drive across the southwest. It’s nothing but sky and desert. You see that and realize you can do whatever’s exciting to you."
"Pinterest helps anyone be creative," says Bronkie, "and what the great American road trip does is exactly that."