Five Lessons from Scaling Pinterest

Five Lessons from Scaling Pinterest

I was involved with Pinterest from 5 employees through 650. Here’s what I learned.

When you’re scaling quickly, you get a lot right, but you inevitably get some things wrong. The best companies — like Pinterest — are the ones that learn from those mistakes and adjust quickly.

This post is a distillation of the lessons I learned, first as one of the company’s first product managers, and finally leading product for our discovery team — overseeing search, recommendations, our visual search team, and more.

People often say that what you measure, improves. While true, it overlooks how strategic the decision of what you measure is. If you get stuck measuring the wrong thing, you could end up wasting your time on the wrong initiatives.

For example, early on at Pinterest, our newly created growth team set its objective: to increase the number of monthly active users. MAUs is a common metric used by a lot of growth teams and social networks, so it made intuitive sense.

The growth team then created and executed on a product roadmap that poured new users into the top of our sign-up funnel. The problem was that while MAUs did increase, we had a leaky bucket. While the growth team was pouring people into the top of the funnel and the product teams were focused on increasing engagement of existing users, no one was responsible for making sure those new users became engaged, productive users.

Realizing this, the team shifted their focus from MAUs to increasing the number of new weekly active pinners (the people who use Pinterest to pin or repin something new on the site that week — Pinterest’s core action).

With this shift in focus, the growth team’s priorities aligned with what was better for our users (and the company), and weekly active pinner growth accelerated. Now, it wasn’t just about getting new users to sign up, it was about making sure they had a great experience from sign-up to first home feed that set them up for long-term success on Pinterest.

This by the way is why vanity metrics are so dangerous to companies. They aren’t just misleading to the outside world— they can start a vicious-cycle. You use a metric because it makes your company (or team) look good, and because you start tracking it, you want it to continue to increase, so you start optimizing for it. This will take you down the wrong path.

So yes — if you measure it, it will improve. But make sure you measure the right thing.

Most execution problems boil down to two root causes: Wrong org structure, or wrong person in the job.

There’s a lot written about “wrong person in the job”, but org structure isn’t covered as much. Indeed, it’s common for young companies to focus on keeping the organization “flat” and nonhierarchical, or letting it take form organically. But that approach can lead to mediocre execution.

I’ll give two examples:

Early days at Pinterest, we had a matrixed organization. This meant no team had all the resources it needed to ship a product. The strategic pillars like my team (Discover) were mostly backend engineers. When we wanted to ship a new Discovery feature, I’d have to beg the mobile team to prioritize my project for the next front-end engineer who’d become available, and try to line up timelines so that we’d have the backend and designs ready when the front-end engineer became available (at one desperate point, I made a Gantt chart to help!).

This approach made it really hard to build something excellent quickly. When we switched to full stack teams, it was night and day. Everything moved faster, we could prioritize better, we built better products, and everyone was a lot happier.

Another example is when at one point, the growth team reported to the marketing team. Result: Tons of coordination overhead. People on the growth team were constantly having meetings with the product team in order to get their strategies and roadmaps aligned. It added a huge number of meetings to our schedules, and made it harder to align priorities with strategy. When we moved the growth team over so it reported to product, it streamlined their strategy, got everyone aligned better — and also eliminated a heck of a lot of meetings.

Lastly, if you have a strategic initiative, you better create a team that can drive that initiative if you want to make any progress.

Org changes are often painful and distracting but they’re absolutely necessary as a company scales. When an org structure doesn’t reflect your strategy or is overly matrixed, it acts as a tax on your company’s ability to execute.

Your loudest users — the users who complain when you ship something they don’t like, and post in your Facebook Group their feature requests, are a blessing and a curse. Without them, you wouldn’t have a company. But to reach your next 100m users, you need to be willing to ignore them.

Here’s the trick: Your loudest users don’t represent all your users, and they definitely don’t represent your future users. They are your power users, your users who best understand your product the way it is now. This creates two biases:

  1. They’ve gotten used to using the product the way it is, so they don’t want things to change.
  2. They inevitably request power-user features — features that increase the complexity of your product for everyone but only get used by a minority of users.

This is how these two biases can lead you down the wrong path:

Not wanting things to change

The best companies over time realize that in order to endure, they need to disrupt themselves.

Remember when Facebook first rolled out its newsfeed in 2006? It caused a huge backlash. Users threatened to boycott Facebook, they created Facebook Groups protesting the feature. But over time, it became the core of the product.

If Facebook had let that small minority of power users dictate what was best for the majority, Facebook would be a lot smaller than it is today. Could Facebook have done a better job rolling out the newsfeed? Absolutely. But ultimately Facebook was right to ignore that vocal minority and stick to their guns.

The newsfeed is an extreme example, but these things happen all the time on a smaller scale. Want to simplify a core product flow? Your users don’t care if a redesigned flow takes out two steps — they’re used to those two steps! Want to simplify the product by removing a little-used feature? But that’s my favorite feature!

It takes courage to make these changes — you don’t want to irritate your best users, but you need to keep that next 100m users in mind who can’t tell you what they want. The key is to listen to what the data says, communicate to your users, and be prepared to ignore your vocal minority if the data points you in a different direction. All that said, as I’ll talk about in lesson #4, sometimes the vocal minority is the tip of the iceberg.

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