How Pinterest’s Cofounders Are Turning Cameras Into Keyboards

Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp talk visual search, augmented reality, and the importance of Middle America.

How Pinterest’s Cofounders Are Turning Cameras Into Keyboards
Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp are focused on building a social network that empowers people. [Photo: Chloe Aftel; Groomer: Rebecca at Artists by Sherrie Long]

Seven years after encouraging users to curate the internet with photos rather than hyperlinks, Pinterest cofounders Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp have unveiled their next act: Pinterest Lens, which launched last February and enables people to search for information and inspiration simply by aiming their phones’ cameras at objects around them. With advertisers increasingly embracing Pinterest—–2017 revenue was reportedly just shy of $500 million, up 64% from the previous year–CEO Silbermann and chief product officer Sharp talk about how visual search is the next frontier for users and brands alike.


Fast Company: How important is visual search–being able to identify what’s in an image and connect it to other pins and photos–to Pinterest’s future?

Ben Silbermann: It’s foundational. All the media that you consume on Pinterest is obviously visual. It’s either a photo or a video. Understanding, computationally, what’s inside those photos and videos is fundamental. Using computer vision, we can show you things that feel like they were handpicked just for you.

FC: Is using the smartphone camera the key to all of this?

BS: It’s exactly half the story.

Evan Sharp: In the next year, [receiving information from a] touch screen is massively more important. Ten years out, we’ll see.

BS: We are really excited about making the camera useful. A lot of big companies are chasing each other around [in the camera space]. There’s nothing wrong with putting out an augmented-reality Star Wars [sticker]. A lot of great things that have serious applications today started off as fun toys. But I think the marginal increase in entertainment that you get from sending images of yourself around . . . I feel like we’ve peaked on that. I’m kind of over it.


FC: You founded Pinterest in the same year as Instagram emerged and a year before Snapchat. Both get more press than Pinterest. Do you think the media has taken you less seriously because your initial user base was in Middle America?

BS: The world is a lot bigger than New York and San Francisco–and there are interesting technology stories happening all over that aren’t talked about as much as they could be. Pinterest is one example, but there are others.

Evan Sharp [Photo: Chloe Aftel; Groomer: Rebecca at Artists by Sherrie Long]
FC: Google and Facebook are essentially a duopoly when it comes to advertising. How do you break in?

BS: We have to provide a different value proposition to advertisers.
For us, the key lies in how people use Pinterest: to think about what they might want in the future.

ES: Google owns finding infor­mation, and the social companies own seeing what’s happening in the world through your friends’ eyes. Pinterest owns time spent investing in yourself. It owns a space that’s free from social judgment and other people’s agendas.

BS: [Our users] have intent, but they haven’t fully decided what they’re going to do. They don’t have those three or five or seven keywords to describe exactly what they want their living room to look like. That presents a really compelling opportunity.


FC: Evan, you have said you would love to see Pinterest drive its
users offline to actually do things in their lives. Is that a viable business plan?

ES: It could be a big advantage for us to focus on getting people to do things offline. That’s going to mean we’ve got a lot of user intent, which is a great foundation on which to build a service for advertisers as well as our users. The most valuable internet company is Google, right? Their business model, historically, has been to drive you off of Google onto other services. That’s led them down the path that has [delivered] a mass of business.

Related Video: Pinterest’s Diversity Leader Explains Their Inclusive Hiring Process

Pinterest is No. 41 on the 2018 World’s Most Innovative Companies list. Check out all 50 companies here.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach