Photo: Teymur Madjderey on Flickr
Phil Libin started Evernote because he wanted an external brain, somewhere he could stash all this notes and photos.He hasn’t strayed from that vision since he started the company.
Libin sold two startups — an Internet development company called Engine 5 and identity management provider CoreStreet. But both of those companies made products for other people.
This time, Libin and his co-founders decided they wanted to make a products that they would use.
Libin’s gut instinct was right. Evernote now has 27 million users and 160 employees. It’s so popular in Japan that there are more than 30 books out about how to use it, and Libin is recognised on the streets of Tokyo.
Even when he’s travelling, Libin likes to be present in the office. He uses a robot that roams around and interacts with his employees.
Before visiting his office in Mountain View for a tour, we spoke to him on the phone about Evernote.
Here’s some of what we learned:
- He’s not particularly organised himself. “The act of organising something means different things to different people. Some people have an organizational fetish … [like] putting labels on things. That doesn’t correlate to being efficient. We tried not to conflate those two things. My desk is pretty messy. I don’t do a whole lot of organisation.”
- He wants Evernote to go public, not be acquired. “We are building a 100-year startup. It will certainly IPO at some point …. We have turned down every acquisition offer.
- He loves San Francisco. “I don’t know why I spent 19 years in Boston. Everything about San Francisco is great. The weather is great. The food is great. Geography. Business. Educational. It’s a magical place with the innovation and business culture.”
- The most important thing to keep in mind when moving to a bigger office. “Where will people be seated? It’s the central most important thing …. When you have 10 to 20 people, you don’t think about it. There’s a lot of communication and situational awareness. When you get bigger that stops happening automatically and you have to force it to happen.”
Here’s a more detailed transcript from our notes:
Business Insider: Why did you develop something to help you store data?
Phil Libin: We are building a product that you use for the rest of your life. We launched in 2008 and have been adding functionality, trying to make it better and better.
BI: Has the company changed since you launched it?
PL: The idea has stayed consistent.
We haven’t had to pivot. The original vision was to help people remember everything. It was an ambitious plan.
We want it to feel like it is completing your thoughts and make it easier to communicate.
When I get in a car, it has a GPS system. The GPS makes me smarter. I am much smarter at navigating things [because of it].
10 years ago, before Google was widespread, you’d wonder about how something worked. Who had the time to go to the library to research it? [Through] Google and Wikipedia, I can learn about anything.
BI: So how does Evernote fit in?
PL: Evernote is the same thing for me. It has all my personal information.
Everything runs together: Prepare for a board meeting; clip things from the web; all of my best meals; things that I want to buy; and where I park my car when I go on long trips.
BI: What’s the office culture like?
PL: A different team couldn’t have built Evernote. People that we have and the way we think about the product are are all very open.
The important thing is communication. The ability to communicate and express what you want and why you want it.
The product doesn’t force a lot of organizational structure. That’s the philosophy — transparency and efficiency in the office and the product.
BI: Are you one of those people that needs to organise everything?
PL: The act of organising something means different things to different people. Some people have an organizational fetish… [like] putting labels on things. That doesn’t correlate to being efficient.
We tried not to conflate those two things. My desk is pretty messy. I don’t do a whole lot of organisation.
If I go out to dinner, I use one of our partner APIs such as Expensify. It knows where I was, who I was with, and what we talked about.
We have other people who are much more structured. They have folders and notes that they use. It doesn’t make them more productive, it’s just a different preference.
BI: How did you get the idea, then?
Evernote is my third company. It’s not our first startup. For me, my first two companies — we built for someone else. We built products other people would use. We sold the companies.
It was nice and successful, but it felt like two times, we gave up a big portion of our lives to make something for someone else.
The only products we make at Evernote, [we make for ourselves]. We are the customers. We just hope that if we love something, others will.
We are building a 100-year startup. It will certainly IPO at some point … in a few years.
BI: Would you want to be acquired?
PL: We have turned down every acquisition offer.
There are a ton of note taking apps. No one really cared about them. They are boring. The whole category is cultish and prescriptive. The bet that we took, people have been trying to solve [this problem]. Evernote has shown that it can be a mainstream success.
BI: What do you think about Instagram getting bought by Facebook?
PL: Every party in that came out looking great. I’m impressed by Facebook. It shows the level of thinking on Facebook’s part and how to integrate good products. It clearly shows that very advanced thinking. Kevin Systrom and the Instagram team created a huge amount of value. Instagram customers are well served. It was a great story.
BI: You were born in Russia, then moved to New York when you were 8. You started your first two companies in Boston and moved to Silicon Valley in 2007. How do you like San Francisco?
PL: It’s amazing. I don’t know why I spent 19 years in Boston. Everything about San Francisco is great. The weather is great. The food is great. Geography. Business. Educational. It’s a magical place with the innovation and business culture.
BI: You’re moving to a new office space. What worries you?
PL: We will be on multiple floors. I’m pretty scared what it’s going to do to the culture once it is on multiple floors.
Where will people be seated? It’s the central most important thing. It’s really a non-trivial undertaking. We haven’t figured out all the details.
I’m thinking about the move and the culture. When you have 10 to 20 people, you don’t think about it. There’s a lot of communication and situational awareness.
When you get bigger that stops happening automatically and you have to force it to happen.
What were the best things about Evernote when we were 20 people? How do we replicate that? We do a 10 minute meeting every Thursday afternoon at 4 pm. That time works for Chinese and Japanese staff. The entire company gets together in one room and we do a 10 minute session — what we did this week and where we are going. We started doing that 6 months ago.
BI: Is there anything else you do to keep the office open?
PL: “Officer training” [like in the military] works really well.
People are assigned to a few meetings outside their department — and aren’t officially supposed to be there. We expose them to what everyone is doing. The IT guy is sitting in a finance meeting. These are just experiments.
BI: What are other ways you help your employees be more productive?
PL: Every two weeks, someone shows up and cleans your house. We want as much as their time freed up — so they have more time to think about work or recharge and relax.
BI: What’s the deal with the robot?
PL: It’s a six foot tall robot. Any employee can connect through a browser. You can see them, sort of like a video conference. You’re not stuck in a particular room.
It is a nice way to stay connected. We have a big video wall. I can see you, you can see me. You’re never on camera without seeing who is looking at you.