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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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Sharp, left, and Sil­ber­mann are fo­cused on build­ing a so­cial net­work that em­pow­ers peo­ple.

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