The Interview With Pinstagram Creator Pek Pongpaet Just Before He Got REALLY Famous

May 10, 2012

Last Wednesday, unless you were in a cave or in Tahiti, Pek Pongpaet, a Chicagoan and UIC alumni who recently moved to Silicon Valley, created a sensational stir called Pinstagram, a mashup between Pinterest and Instagram.   It was a weekend self hackathon that he did out of a simple idea how to merge the best of both hot startups. I interviewed Pek the same weekend that he was deeply immersed in his coding and he hinted to me what he was working on.  So I thought that I share with you the interview since there is now so much interest in Pinstagram and the man behind it, Pek himself.  Plus I think everyone should know about Pek, who many of us already have met through his days in the startup scene in Chicago, and an overall cool guy.

From TigerStartups:

There comes a time when you hear about someone, and as you hear a little more about the person, you can’t help but be fascinated about the person.  Recently I came across this person.  His name is Pek Pongpaet.

Pek is not much different than me in a sense that he is an entrepreneur.  He is the managing partner at FireSnake Labs, an app development company based in San Francisco.  He also founded Tapisto, a mobile website for small businesses that enables them to create a mobile site in a matter of minutes.  But the comparison ends there.  Besides being an entrepreneur he is also an engineer and a designer.  He created the award winning and BizTome iPad app. But he goes beyond tech.  He is an accomplished martial artist and has been an important part of Mortal Kombat games history.  Now that’s cool!

Hey Pek.  I saw your LinkedIn profile, and I see that you graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998 - the same year I graduated.  I don’t recall you in my classes. Do you remember seeing me at all?

Maybe I have but I have to see an old picture of you to see if I remember the old you.

True, I did have hair then unlike now.

And I had long hair back then too.

This being an Asian site and all, I have to ask you about your background.  What is your background?

I am Thai, born in Thailand.  I moved around a lot however as my parents were diplomats. 

Were they Thai diplomats?  That’s very interesting.  Is that why you went to an international high school?  

Yes, wherever I went I was put into an international school.  When you’re always moving from country to country it’s hard going straight to a local school.  In Italy I didn't go to an Italian school because I would only learn Italian, but being in an international school I was still able to speak Italian but still able to be with other international students who, like me, come from similar backgrounds.

I am intrigued by your martial arts talents.  Tell me how you got into martial arts and why you chose the craft of Wushu?

I always wanted to do martial arts watching kung fu movies.  Being Asian, I watched Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee movies.  My parents didn't want me get involved in kung fu fearing I’d get hurt.  It wasn’t until after college I was able to afford classes on my own that I began learning kung fu.

Why did you decide to go into Wushu vs other kung fu forms?

I wanted to do Wushu based on watching movies.  Jet Li in particular, he was my inspiration for Wushu.

How long did it to take you to master the craft?

I’d say seven years.

Wow.  That’s a long time. You have been a martial arts instructor - Are you still instructing?  You’ve been in major tournaments and won some. That must take an incredible amount of discipline to be at a high level.  How do you do it?

No, I don’t instruct anymore.  I did it for 3-4 years but stopped a couple years ago.  As you get older you have a lot more work and more responsibilities.  As far as the tournament, anything that is high level, such as gymnastics, figure skating, anything that you have to take seriously, takes a high amount of discipline.  When I was doing Wushu seriously, I would train from 6pm to 9pm, 5-6 days a week.  I was able to do it because I didn't think it was a choice.  If you get home and you think, “Do I want to go to martial arts or watch tv,” then you won’t do it, so I didn't think of it as a choice.

Good point.  You majored in CS so it's not surprising you are still in tech.  But tell me how technology, which has been incredibly transformative, has influenced your career/life?

I was trained in computer engineering so technology has always been part of me.  I’m tech savvy...a new app, a new software, new website, I always like to try it at the edge of technology. My career is strictly in tech but I do more design than coding now. Mobile apps,  web apps, the speed of tech and availability of information in the internet allows the common man to find everything on the web.  I can find new skills on Youtube, learn programming language by Googling it.  I sometimes say to people “I don't know anything I’m just very good at Google search.”

Haha, sounds something I would say.  Tell me about some recent or current projects you have been working on.

A couple years back I launched I’m a book nerd and I like to share books, so I created this project to share booklist.  Sort of like facebook for booknerds.  

Lately, I’ve been focusing on my current company Tapisto.  Tapisto is a mobile website for small biz enabling small biz to in short amount of time - within minutes - to have a mobile site of their own. It’s important because lots of customers look for them in mobile phones.  In a year or two mobile may take over the the web and many companies are not mobile ready.  This is where Tapisto comes in, it will mobile optimize your website where it will feel more app like as well more easily find info on the site. 

Another project I am working on is photo related because I love photos.  I’ll give you a clue.  It has something to do with instagram. 

That’s an interesting clue.  So is it something that adds to your instagram experience?


Looking forward to hearing more about it! Being an entrepreneur, how is this a different challenge than say being a martial arts expert?

It’s very different.  Being a martial art expert implies you know what you’re doing.  As an entrepreneur I feel like I’m a beginner.  I am learning every day.  With martial arts you learn the basics, repeat things and master something -- maybe learn new techniques. But with entrepreneurship you are always learning and adapting to new things about competitors, facing disappointments. You lose more than you win, but when you win, you feel it’s worth it.  So it’s very different.

I know what you mean.  For example right now I look for certain number of visits to TS.  I have a certain number where I feel I achieved some success.  But if that number doesn’t go up a year or two from now, then I would feel I lost.

Yup, you take your wins however small.

You are definitely a jack of all trades.  Tell me what is the coolest thing you feel you have done so far?

I think the coolest according to most people - I do the moves for the Mortal Kombat video games.  

Which games or which version?  

I started doing motion capture for MK since 2001.  6 games total:  Deadly Alliance, Deception, Shaolin Monks, Armageddon, PS3: MK vs DC Universe, and the last one, just Mortal Kombat 9.  So six over ten years.

That is pretty cool!

I don’t program, I do motion capture.  I wear a motion capture suit and they record my movements.  It’s definitely been a pleasure to be part of video game history.

Ok. Final question.  If you had a chance to fight a martial arts icon for fun, who would you fight?  And why?

Mmm, that’s tough  I don’t know if I want to fight anyone.  But it would be cool to be beaten up by Jet Li in one of his films.  So I would I say Jet Li.  He is the main reason I got into martial arts, watching his movies.

Nice.  Me being Asian, I remember as a kid wanting to be like Bruce Lee and imitating his moves in front of a mirror.

Yep.  Same here.  He’s still my idol.  My computer wallpaper is a picture of Bruce Lee.

Very cool.  Well thanks for taking your time early this morning.  I know you're a busy man with all your projects, so I will let you go.  But this was a great hotseat interview.

My pleasure.  I enjoyed being in the hotseat.