August 1, 2014 12:33 pm

FT Masterclass: Frisbee with Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp

The design genius behind the hugely successful scrapbooking site shows his moves. But can he demonstrate the tricky ‘flick’ he honed as a college champion?
Evan Sharp and Hannah Kuchler©Matthew Reamer

Sharp in demonstration mode, 'his elbow almost clicking it is so straight'

Frisbees need a flick. A taut arm, focused vision and a swift flick of the wrist can send a frisbee flying as smoothly through the air as the alien spacecraft they so closely resemble.

It’s a sunny day in a park on the edge of San Francisco’s South of Market district and Evan Sharp, co-founder of online scrapbooking site Pinterest, is trying to teach me how to play frisbee. “It is all in the wrist action,” he emphasises, encouraging me to mimic his expert throwing style. I’m having trouble throwing the plastic disc without sticking my leg in the air behind me; Sharp’s legs stay firmly planted on the ground.

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Sharp prefers to teach by example rather than giving long elaborate instructions, casually throwing the frisbee again and again. When he lets go, the frisbee flies almost to the other side of the pitch. But when I give it a try, it floats briefly before flopping to the ground just a few feet away.

Sharp has taken a break from a busy schedule of design meetings at his headquarters just a few blocks away. He’s looking relaxed in casual black jeans, T-shirt and hipster trainers and I feel self-conscious about my sportier yoga-pants ensemble. He does not look like a man preoccupied with running a $5bn company in a booming tech market.

We’re playing on the site of many victories for Sharp and the Pinterest frisbee team. “This is where we beat Square and Twitter last season,” he says. “When I have free time, which I wish I had more of, playing frisbee is a great way to get outdoors and have a bit of fun.”

Sharp, 31, insists he’s not that serious about the game and that it is his 6ft 5in frame, rather than any special skill, that gives him an advantage; it slowly becomes clear, however, that he has long been a frisbee player. He remembers games growing up, using his mum’s frisbee that was stamped “patent pending”. (A quick Google search later tells me that the frisbee disc was granted a patent in 1958.)

Evan Sharp with Hannah Kuchler©Matthew Reamer

At university in Chicago, where he studied history, Sharp was a college champion at ultimate frisbee, where teams of seven race to pass the frisbee to a player in the opposite “end zone”. There’s a lot of running, falling over and skidding, a bit like American football, without the bruising macho element.

Now, as well as the technology companies tournament, Sharp sometimes drives down the Californian coast to meet a friend at a ground for games of frisbee golf. Here the challenge is all about accurate throwing, trying to get the frisbee round the course of targets (odd-looking baskets on poles) in as few throws as possible. “It’s really beautiful – it’s more a reason to go there,” he insists.

Back in San Francisco, on a pitch shared with kids playing an after-school soccer game and a local character playing with his puppy on a Segway, Sharp’s challenge is simply to teach me to throw in a straight line. I seem to have got the hang of keeping the frisbee in the air but it is now doing impressive but pointless swoops and curves that send it nowhere near where I intended. I am unlikely to be welcomed on to an ultimate frisbee team any time soon.

Stretching out his arm to show me his technique once again, with his elbow almost clicking it is so straight, Sharp advises me to try for 10 accurate throws in a row: “It’s like design.”

When I have free time, which I wish I had more of, playing frisbee is a great way to get outdoors and have a bit of fun

Sharp, who also studied architecture, is the design mind behind Pinterest, the fast-growing site that aims to be the Google for discovering things. The Bay Area’s tech industry, once dominated by engineers who did not prioritise the pretty, has begun to celebrate design. Pinterest’s clean white squares and picture-led interface have already inspired many copycats.

Dismissed at first by Silicon Valley snobs as simply the home for mid-western wedding planners, Pinterest has become a popular place for people to share interests from food to travel. Most of Sharp’s own boards focus on design, from “architectural sections” to pinning images of “beautiful complexity”. Sharp describes the site as both “museum” and “a collection in a store”.

“Our vision for Pinterest is to be a discovery engine for people to see the possibilities for their life, to make their life more meaningfully lived,” he says, adding that discovery – finding things you didn’t know you were searching for – is at a nascent stage, about as developed as search was 15 years ago.

Pinterest was launched in 2010 by Sharp alongside chief executive Ben Silbermann and Paul Sciarra (who has since left), out of a side project developed while Sharp was working at Facebook. He traces his obsession with design – which took him first to architecture school at Columbia and then to Silicon Valley – to the time he worked in the zoning department of Chicago city council. “I redesigned the [zoning] forms,” he says. “It was incredibly OCD – I’d do it at night. [But] those forms sparked for me a realisation that I was actually good at this and it was also really fun.”

A frisbee©Matthew Reamer

Designing software, he says, takes as much “energy, emotion and passion” as the more permanent elements of design, yet without the longevity. “There’s this very weird twist that what you’re creating will disappear but while it’s alive it’s incredibly influential.”

The analytics company ComScore says Pinterest, a private company, now has about 57 million users. In 2013 it raised more money than any other start-up from venture capitalists, according to PrivCo; its valuation soared by more than 50 per cent in just eight months, before it had even taken a penny from marketers. And research firms such as RichRelevance say that the female shoppers who dominate Pinterest spend far more than the average social network user.

However, Sharp, whose stake in the company could one day make him a billionaire, remains modest. Pointing up the hill, he shows me where I can catch a glimpse of his new house. He hasn’t had time to buy any furniture yet, he says, but when he does, “this is the first time it won’t be from Ikea”.

It’s time for one last attempt at passing the frisbee accurately – though I’m not convinced I’ll ever be more than a throw-a-frisbee-to-a-dog kind of girl. “You’re better than you think you are,” he says. “It’s all in the mind.” And the wrist action, of course.

Hannah Kuchler is an FT correspondent based in San Francisco

Photographs: Matthew Reamer

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