Movers & Shakers
Going from College Dropout to Designing Pinterest's Grid
Sahil Lavingia , Founder Gumroad and Former Pinterest Designer
Everyone had a great time when Sahil Lavingia, former designer for Pinterest and founder of Gumroad, dropped by ZURB HQ for his soapbox earlier this month.
Sahil was very entertaining, even dropping a few F-bombs while candidly sharing his reasons from dropping out of USC to help get Pinterest off the ground. He took us through the real world inspiration that influenced the unique pinboard He also spoke about why its important to eat your own dog food by actually using your own products.
Feel free to listen to the podcast as you read through the summary of the event below.
At 14, Sahil built his own products and created some 20 apps, making more than $100,000 by the time he was 15. He got his start by simply opening up photoshop and playing around, teaching himself how to use the tool. That’s when the Web was really beginning to take off. Sahil said he jumped at the chance to construct websites, doing contract work and teaching himself how to code.
That quickly transitioned to actually building my own products because I got bored just building pictures. So I learned to code, and I got bored of just learning how to code to build other people's shit. I wanted to build my own.
But the root of it was a bit of sibling rivalry. Sahil said that he got into computers because his mother asked his brother to fix an problem with their internet connection. "And I got really pissed off," he said. Which is why he got into computers.
Sahil would build products on the weekend, release them and then email blasted bloggers who wrote about apps. All his ideas came about because he wanted to build stuff for himself, such as an app that would allow him to mess around with color palettes while he was riding the bus.
Before it was "I wish this existed" and that was the end of my stream of thought. And now it’s like "I wish this existed."
Sahil said there’s nothing else worth pursing than building something for yourself.
It’s really hard to figure out what people need. People say they need one thing when they actually need another. Or they say they need something and they don't at all.
He said it’s very difficult to gain traction. It’s better to start with one user — yourself.
You’re gonna start with yourself then you’re going to have a pretty good person to ask whenever you want about this product about “is this product working for you.” And then you can worry about getting a second user. If you start with zero, you have nobody.
That makes the feedback loop instantaneous, he said. You figure out first how crappy your product is and you don’t have to what to hear back from users.
Every product I’ve built, I’ve built to solve my own problems.
Dropping Out of College
While a computer science student at USC, Ben Silbermann recruited Sahil to get Pinterest off the ground. Ben found him because of another product he built and got in touch. Sahil then started working on the app while still taking classes. Eventually, however, he packed his bags and dropped out to become one of the founding members of the popular pinboard site. And for the most part, his family was very supportive.
I wasn’t being very stupid about it. It’s very easy to say "fuck college, I’m going to do a startup" or whatever. I wasn’t ... I had a very specific agenda: I wanted to figure out if this career path was for me.
Besides, USC would still be there as a safety net, he added. For him, it was all about knowing whether or not he wanted to make a career out of product design and if he wanted to actually start his own company.
Taking Inspiration from the Physical World
Sahil wore many hats as the first designer hired for Pinterest, from plugging away at the front-end code to building the iPhone app. He was one of the architects responsible for how the site looks to this day. Although, Sahil won’t take 100% credit for it, saying that it was really a team effort.
When it came to the unique user interface, the designers looked to the real world. In the case of Pinterest’s offset grid, the inspiration came from scrapbooking and pinboards.
It’s kinda what people do anyway. I think most of the best products, like Jack Dorsey says all the time, technology should use whatever human things we’re used to.
Sahil said the site has a very physical element to it, like a scrapbook. The offset grid that Pinterest uses has been around for a long time, like in restaurants and college dorms.
It’s just that no one decided to take that, which had already existed and is used all the time. You go to a girls’ floor in a college dorm. What does every person’s door look like? It’s a pinboard.
Pinterest was just the first app to take that and digitize it, making it a core feature, said Sahil. “Everything I’ve worked on has had a very physical element,” said Sahil, referencing Turntable.fm.
Jumping Off the Rocketship
But just as Pinterest was taking off, Sahil jumped ship to build his own product, Gumroad, where you can sell anything you want from music to icons to books. In the process, Sahil gave up ownership in Pinterest.
I totally jumped off the rocketship … but I jumped off with a parachute.
For him, it was more risky not to do what he wanted to do because his ultimate goal is to build a product everyone uses and fundamentally changes the way they interact. Pinterst, however, helped put him in a good place to help him do just that.
It was less risky than how it looked from the outside.
Creating Lemonade Stands
For Sahil, Gumroad is about creating lemonade stands on the internet, not store fronts. That’s because there are a "crazy amount" of roads for people to connect with their potential customers, such as Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. The world is different than when iTunes first came out, charging artist 30% to get their work out there, he said.
"It’s hard to sell stuff. It’s not that easy," he said. With Gumroad, Sahil hopes to make it easy for artists to share their work to those potential customers and cut out the middleman.
So far, the selling platform has raised $8.1 million, all from heavy-hitting investors. Sahil said that fundraising wasn’t nerve racking or difficult. Everything happened through a casual conversation, where he didn’t solicit for money. He just talked about the product and found investors were willing to fund his product.
It was always about the product, about the user. I don’t really give a shit about raising money unless it makes the product more awesome.
He said if you have to raise money, it’s going to be a pain, especially going after VC funding. He advised that if you’re at that point where you have to raise funds, you might be better off going after a loan. "VC money isn’t the best money when you’re in that situation," he said.
But it’s not about the immediate return on the investment when it comes to fundraising. It’s about the potential of the product 5 years from now, not 5 months from now, said Sahil.
Our conversation with Sahil continued as he took questions from the audience, including how he differentiates Gumroad from other selling platforms, such as eBay and Etsy. We’d like to thank Sahil for chatting with us and to all those who attended the event.