Pinterest wants in on the creator economy. Can it do it the Pinterest way?

Fewer likes and dance trends, more cookie-baking and outfit inspo. And, ideally, a much nicer place to be.

Pinterest screen mockups

Pinterest wants to help creators build audiences ... but in a slightly different way.

Photo: Pinterest

Most of Pinterest's best-known creators didn't start using Pinterest as creators. In fact, most of them started using the platform well before the phrase "Pinterest creator" was even a thing. They simply did what everyone else did: pin stuff they like, create boards, use the platform to find inspiration.

For years, the most calculated way in which anyone would use Pinterest was to drive traffic to their websites. "In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing," said Caroline Vazzana, a fashion editor and stylist from New York. "Everyone would say, 'You need to be pinning your blog posts.'" Everybody learned the tricks: Pinterest users liked vertical photos, they liked photos with text overlaid, they liked anything that jumped out of a sea of near-identical dresses or plants or chocolate chip cookies. For many sites like Vazzana's, Pinterest quickly became the second-largest source of traffic, behind only Google.

In recent years, though, as Pinterest grew, it began to want to bring more of that content onto the platform itself. (It's a classic tech-company move, the same business and user-experience impulse that led Google to build "knowledge boxes" and Twitter to buy a newsletter company.) Meanwhile, the creator economy was booming: Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and practically every other entertainment and social company were looking for ways to help creators build audiences and businesses on their platform. Pinterest has always seen itself as something different those apps, though, and so has largely stayed out of the fray.

But then Pinterest noticed something changing. "When we'd talk to users of Pinterest … we'd say, 'What's the most inspiring thing to you?'" said Naveen Gavini, the company's product chief. "They'd reply with a person. 'My mom's really inspiring.' 'This public figure is inspiring.'" While there were plenty of ideas all over Pinterest, there were no people behind them. In a time when authentic human connection is everything, too many Pinterest searches felt like faceless catalogs.

So over the last year, Pinterest has dived headfirst into the world of creators. It introduced a feature called "Story Pins," which allowed users to make Pinterest-native, original content on the platform. Then it decided that the word "story" had come to be associated with ephemeral, low-production content, and so renamed them "Idea Pins." Whatever you call them, they look and feel a lot like what you might see on other creator-focused platforms. That's fine with Pinterest. It thinks its community differentiates it more than any UI flourish could. As it was working on Idea Pins, the company also developed a sprawling code of conduct for the platform, governing how creators and users are expected to act.

In all, the company is hoping it can help usher in a new generation of Pinterest users — or "pinners," as the company calls them — who do much more than save pictures of recipes. But as usual at Pinterest, it's hoping to build a creator economy in a slightly different way.

Pinterest's UI is pretty familiar. But it's hoping its community can be different.Photo: Pinterest

"The secret magic of Pinterest is being able to inspire people to take action," Gavini said. The word "inspiration" is like a mantra at the company, and is the key goal executives say they're pursuing in all things. Pinterest isn't an entertainment platform, it's not a place to waste time: It's a place to get inspired and go do something. Gavini said he doesn't care how many people might "like" a photo of cookies; he cares how many people actually get out their own flour and butter.

For creators, that means thinking slightly differently about what they share and how. "The key difference that I'm always trying to explain to creators is that people come to Pinterest with search intent," said Aya Kanai, Pinterest's head of content and creator partnerships. "It's not a Rolodex of your friends, it's where people come to search for their next big idea." As Kanai and her team began working with creators last fall, they kept reminding creators to think about instructional videos, before-and-after shots and other things that might help users come along for the journey. People come to Pinterest to find something awesome, Kanai said, "and they go to other platforms when they've purchased that thing and want to show it off."

At the same time, though, part of Pinterest's plan is to humanize the platform, to turn a sea of visual search results into something that feels like it was curated just for users and by people they know. That creates a tricky balance for creators, who are still working out how much of the typical lifestyle content to share on the platform.

So far, the most popular accounts seem to be a mix, with a slight emphasis on the stuff over the personality. Joy Cho, Pinterest's most popular creator with more than 15 million followers, recently posted a series of popular home-decor Idea Pins, and while she's in some of them, she's rarely the point.

But the platform is too new to have any hard and fast rules. Vazzana's Idea Pins skew more personal, which she said works for her and her 89,000 followers. "I do the style videos, but I also do days in my life," she said. "And people love those, because it kind of brings them along with me through the craziness of what's going on in my day." Her videos feature fast-moving tours of her closet, lots of outfit inspiration, and, she hopes, a glimpse into how the industry works. Vazzana's engaged and planning her wedding now, too, which is pretty much dead-center Pinterest territory. But she said she doesn't want to be a Wedding Creator. "I posted a couple of Idea Pins about wedding dress shopping, and those did well," she said. "But my brand is not my wedding. My brand is me, and my life, and fashion."

Anderson, a photographer and another of Pinterest's early creators, has built an audience by bringing people behind the camera. A recent five-video Idea Pin takes viewers inside his camera bag and another offers 10 tips on how to take great self-portraits, with Anderson himself as the model. "I always like to kind of bring it down to earth a little bit more," he said. "So anyone who might be interested in having a creative career doesn't find it so guarded and daunting, but they can really see a path there."

Part of Pinterest's pitch to creators is that because the platform is so large — more than 475 million people use it every month — they'll be able to build an audience more quickly than if they were going all in on some unproven new space. It's also offering early adopters more access to the Pinterest team and platform than they'd get from TikTok or Instagram.

For a platform so new to the creator space, Pinterest is a surprisingly sophisticated tool. It's a particularly powerful platform for anyone with a merch business or a direct-to-consumer brand, since Pinterest lets anyone set up a shop through a partnership with Shopify. It's also sharing data with creators about what users are looking for, helping them create just the right content. And of course, Pinterest is an ads business, and can pass deals and revenue on to creators. "It's great to see a Home Depot pin," said Colleen Stauffer, Pinterest's global head of creator marketing, "but how did Kelly Wearstler style it in her home with Home Depot?"

Beyond all that, Pinterest is hoping it can solve some of the worst things about being an online creator. It's hoping to simplify the way things are distributed so that creators don't feel like they're at the mercy of some unknowable algorithm. By making Idea Pins last forever and not disappear after 24 hours, it's hoping to help creators grow over time instead of having to constantly feed the beast. And — this is the big one, and the hardest to pull off — it's hoping to make the internet a nicer place to be.

The Creator Code is crucial to Pinterest's strategy for keeping the platform positive and productive. But it won't be easy to implement.Photo: Pinterest

In April, Pinterest announced it had created a "Creator Code," a content policy that co-founder Evan Sharp described as a way "to keep Pinterest a positive and inspiring place." Anyone who wants to post Idea Pins has to sign it. In doing so, they agree to "Inspire action … but avoid causing harm," and "Encourage others … rather than divide." In many ways, it sounds like the same sort of things executives always say they want for their platform. But by codifying it early and making it a non-negotiable part of the creator experience, Pinterest thinks it might catch on.

A kinder, more positive platform might also be a competitive advantage. Pinterest has made an effort over the last couple of years to improve the emotional experience of using the service: It banned political ads and health misinformation, it recently banned weight-loss ads, and has in general increased its moderation efforts. The Creator Code was part of that larger project, Stauffer said. "We had policy, legal, creatives, marketing, PR — it was a really unique experience to help build the Creator Code together," she said. She even hopes other companies might adopt the code going forward.

Early indications have been positive for some creators. "There's going to be hate on any platform," Vazzana said, "but I really feel like when I post on Pinterest, I'm just flooded with 'You're so gorgeous. I love your style. You're so inspiring.'" Anderson, too, said that people are more pleasant and interactive than on other platforms. Neither considers it their primary platform — Vazzana is big into TikTok, and both spend a lot of time on Instagram — but they said they enjoy the experience on Pinterest more.

Keeping that feeling will get much harder as Pinterest continues to grow, though. The company touts its huge audience, but that audience is still getting used to actually communicating and interacting with each other on Pinterest itself. Pinterest was quick to act on things like COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, but adapting and enforcing its rules amid a growing creator ecosystem won't be easy. And Pinterest is dealing with its own internal issues, of course: Former executives and employees have accused the company of fostering a racist, misogynist culture, a stark contrast from the way Pinterest presents itself to the world.

Changing the way the company works won't be easy, and changing the way the internet works will be even harder. But Pinterest is convinced it's on the right path. It built a huge business without trafficking in Likes and needlessly complex algorithms leading people toward ever more controversial content in the name of engagement. And it's confident — and crossing its fingers — that it can help build the creator economy the same way.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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