Pinterest and Strava

Today, day 9, we visited Pinterest and Strava.

The first visit was to the Pinterest headquarters in the Soma neighborhood of San Francisco. (If you aren’t familiar with Pinterest, it’s a “social pinning” site where users can pin pictures, links, and notes about stuff that interests them on virtual bulletin boards.)

We had a chance to meet with John and Dan, two data scientists at Pinterest. As data scientists, they’re responsible for analyzing metrics related to the service that Pinterest provides, and making sure that issues are resolved. On a technical basis, that means using things like the R programming language, the Hadoop database engine, and various other analytic tools to measure metrics from user engagement to site reliability to demographic information.

One of the most interesting challenges that Pinterest is facing is how to expand its user base from their historically predominate demographic: American women. They want to change the gender balance to include more men, as well as expanding to more international users.

One of the components of this that Dan and John talked about is that in many ways, they don’t really understand exactly why Pinterest is so popular (among women), and so it’s very difficult to figure out how to attract more male users. Is it because there isn’t enough content that’s interesting to a male audience, or is the content there but there just isn’t a critical mass of male users?

The other (unrelated) aspect of the Pinterest visit that struck me was their open office layout. Every employee is assigned a small desk as their home. All the desks are out in the open and very close to each other. What this means, especially for programmers who need quiet to concentrate, is that they have to find other places to get real work done. I’m skeptical of this approach; it might make collaboration easier occasionally, but as a programmer myself, I think that it would be a death knell for my productivity.

The other company we visited is Strava. Strava makes a service (including a web app and mobile apps for iOS and Android) that allows athletes to track their runs or bike rides. Strava has a social aspect that allows users to compete with themselves and with other users over common routes.

We met with Michael, a co-founder, just-stepped-down CEO, and current president of the board of directors. Michael is an excellent speaker (he used to be a professor…go figure!) and is clearly passionate about entrepreneurship. He gave a lot of advice, but the piece that resonated most with me was what he said about going to business school (I’m sort of applying this to grad school too). He said that if you’re interested in starting a company, whatever you do, don’t get an MBA. If you do, you’ll gain skills and a piece of paper that will make you very desireable to many established companies. More importantly, it will most likely put you in the significant debt. When you graduate with the degree and the debt, going to work for a company that will pay you a safe salary will seem very appealing (and you will be recruited heavily).

Instead, you should just start your company as soon as possible. You can get advice from other people on most aspects, and avoiding the debt incurred in going to business school (or grad school) allows you a lot more options in pursuing your own company.