2023 author’s note: With the future of Evernote seemingly in question, I have been reflecting on the product, which I’ve used for years and written about since the day it was announced in 2004. I was also moved to share some of those stories. Here’s one I wrote for Fast Company in 2018, when the company was a tad bedraggled but not necessarily doomed to spiral downward forever.
Six years before that, I also wrote a big Evernote feature for TIME, back when I was an editor-at-large there and my responsibilities included being the magazine’s emissary to Silicon Valley. That one I wrote at the request of my editors in New York. I was always intrigued when they even knew a tech company existed and considered it to be TIME fodder, since it meant it had really hit the mainstream consciousness.
At earlier such inflection points, TIME asked me to write print features about Kickstarter and Minecraft. I was and am thoroughly pleased with how they turned out as finished products. In the case of this Evernote article, however, I did not like the edited version at all, mostly because it bore little resemblance to what I had written. When I helpfully suggested that the resulting piece might be better off without my name attached to it, we compromised on some areas where our visions diverged. That did make a difference. Still, when the story came out, I chose not to promote it via Twitter, which was as close as I could come to disowning it.
Since I try to keep all my old email, I have the first draft I submitted to my editors on October 4, 2013, and present it below. You can decide for yourself whether it’s any good. But at least it’s how I thought the story should be told, at pretty much the moment of Peak Evernote.
[hed] Brain Quest
[dek] For Evernote, note-taking isn’t just an app. It’s a hundred-year mission to make the world smarter.
By Harry McCracken
Phil Libin, the CEO of Evernote, is bounding on stage to give the opening keynote at the company’s annual user conference in San Francisco. On cue, the audience of around a thousand welcomes him in unison with a spirited “Hi, Phil!” But while a goodly percentage of the crowd then gives him its undivided attention, plenty of folks are multitasking. They’re hunched over phones, tablets, laptops and dead-tree notebooks. and as they listen, they’re tapping, typing and jotting away.
Libin is presumably O.K. with the competition — it’s Evernote, his own product, in just a few of its myriad forms. In a moment, he’ll tell the assembled masses that the goal of the note-taking service is to serve as their external brain. They’re just practicing what he’s about to preach.
During his presentation, he starts with the sort of revelations you’d expect, such as the arrival of a new version of Evernote for the iPhone. Even the announcement of a major deal with 3M to add a feature for digitizing Post-it Notes doesn’t come out of left field. But then the news keeps coming: Evernote backpacks. Evernote messenger bags. Evernote wallets.
“We’re a fashion brand now,” says Libin, a goateed, good-humored 41-year-old who’s dressed in his standard uniform of jeans and an Evernote T-shirt under a sport jacket. “Nobody saw that coming.” He sounds startled himself.
At first blush, Evernote putting its name on pricey luggage and leather goods might seem a branding non-sequitur, akin to Microsoft Excel formalwear or Facebook cutlery. Its bread and butter, after all, is a relatively straightforward method for storing text, images and audio recordings in online notebooks. Yet the move isn’t out of whack with the company’s own view of itself, which is only partly about software and services.
As Libin explains it to me at Evernote headquarters in Redwood City, California, “Nike broke out and become the first worldwide, mainstream brand for people who care about athleticism. “We want the same thing, to be the worldwide signature brand for people who aspire to being smart.” He calls it a “sufficiently epic quest” to keep the company busy for the next century.
For the most hardcore fans among its 75 million users, Evernote already feels like a lifestyle choice. Some of them become Evernote Ambassadors, taking a formal-but-unpaid position which is part tech support, part missionary work. “You have to tell people how much you love Evernote,” says Kristi Willis, who specializes in helping freelancers. “I was doing that before.”
The service doesn’t try to transform unruly slobs into dynamic neatniks: They can simply dump stuff into it as if it were a virtual shoebox. But it’s equally appealing to folks who are already preternaturally organized, such as Michael Hyatt, author of New York Times bestseller Platform: Get Noticed in a Busy World. Once a believer in recording handwritten notes in Moleskine notebooks, he says that Evernote has let him go entirely digital. “I just had my annual physical done — they gave me the paperwork, I brought it home, scanned it into Evernote and threw it away.”
Actually, though, Hyatt could have chosen to keep on fussing over his Moleskines. The Milan-based stationery maker produces special notebooks designed for Evernote freaks, with pages they can bring into the service by snapping photos with a smartphone. There are also Evernote-ready cameras, scanners and electronic pens. And apps for PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Androids, Windows Phones, BlackBerrys and even Samsung’s smart watch and Google’s Glass augmented-reality goggles.
Evernote, in short, is everywhere. That’s one big reason why it’s attracted so much attention, even though the world wasn’t exactly suffering from a shortage of note-taking apps before it came along. Yet if there’s such a thing as a classic tale of Silicon Valley success, this company isn’t it. With roots stretching back to 2004, it’s something of a late bloomer. And even though Libin talks about Evernote with such ambition and exuberance that you might assume that it’s his creation, he didn’t found it — it found him.
In the beginning, Evernote was known as EverNote, and it was the brainchild of Russian-American computer scientist and entrepreneur Stepan Pachikov. “I was thinking how to make myself more effective,” he remembers. “I realized one of the problems I had was that I didn’t have any good tool to remember a lot of stuff and very quickly find it.” He solved his own conundrum by developing EverNote, initially as a software package for Windows PCs.
Around 80,000 users embraced Pachikov’s program. But as a money-making enterprise, it stalled. “By the end of 2006, we had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you couldn’t make a business out of a Windows app,” says Dmitry Stavisky, an early employee who stuck around at the company until this year.
Enter Libin, who was an emigrant from Russia himself, having arrived in the U.S. at the age of eight with his family in 1979. After dropping out from Boston University’s computer-science program, he’d started two companies: One developed Internet software, the other created identity-verification technologies for governments and other large organizations. They were successful, but not all that spiritually fulfilling.
In early 2007, along with some of the people he’d hired along the way, he started hatching plans for a third, more meaningful startup. “We wanted to do something permanent,” he says. “Let’s only build a product we want to use, and build a company to keep.”
Libin and his colleagues zeroed in on the idea of creating a tool which would help busy people store important information. And then they discovered that their idea already existed in the form of EverNote. The two teams met and hit it off; Pachikov says that he knew within 30 minutes that Libin should be running the company. A new lower-case-N Evernote emerged, with Libin as CEO and Pachicov as a board member and advisor.
If Evernote was going to have to reboot itself, its timing was fortuitous. The entire technology industry was doing so on an epic scale, as smartphones started to supplant PCs as the most personal of personal-computing devices. And things which would have been PC software in the past — such as the original version of EverNote — were morphing into Web-based services, hosted in the cloud and accessible from any Net-connected gadget.
So Libin’s team started over. Henceforth, data would be stored on its own servers, not users’ computers, and Evernote would work on as many platforms as possible. When Apple opened the iPhone App Store in July 2008, Evernote was there on day one.
Still, it wasn’t immediately clear that Libin’s Evernote would fare better than Pachikov’s EverNote. The nadir came in the fall of 2008. Libin says he was within hours of telling the staff that the company was shutting down when he got an e-mail at 3 a.m. from a well-heeled Evernote enthusiast in Sweden inquiring about the possibility of investing. The $500,000 he provided kept the business afloat.
Then the new Evernote started to take off. By May 2009, it had a million users, a figure it doubled by the end of the year, and tripled a year after that. Venture-capital firms noticed, eventually plowing a total of $150 million into the company’s coffers.
Those investors liked the service, but they also liked Libin’s overarching vision for the company that produced it, which he’s grown only more obsessive about as the busness has staffed up to its current count of 330 employees. “The product is the product,” he explains. “The culture is the next hundred products.”
Like many tech workplaces, Evernote operates on the philosophy that pampered people are productive people. “We spend as much time thinking about how we change our lunch menus as how we change the settings in an app,” says Libin, sounding proud rather than sheepish about it. There’s a industrial-strength espresso machine in the reception area; he’s mandated that the company’s executives go through a four-hour training program to learn how to use it and spend an hour a week playing barista for other staffers.
Of course, in the Valley, no sought-after engineer would join an outfit that didn’t have good coffee and copious amounts of scrumptious free food. But other aspects of life at Evernote are less standard fare. It provides a $250-per-month stipend towards the purchase or lease of an electric vehicle which qualifies for travel in the carpool lane, a time-saver which roughly 20 percent of the staffers at headquarters have taken advantage of. The cost of biweekly house-cleaning service is also covered.
Evernote insists that such policies aren’t mere perks. “We’re doing these things because, like [the Evernote service], we want to eliminate burdens,” says VP of marketing and longtime Libin associate Andrew Sinkov. “What we strive for is to eliminate various stupid things in modern life, but also to instill a sense of what we’re about.”
The company may be thriving, but it still doesn’t fit the profile which typically makes venture capitalists giddy. It’s not a social network which will grow virally as friends and friends of friends create a community together. And unlike Google, Facebook and Twitter, it pledges that it will never mine what it knows about its users in order to pelt them with highly targeted advertising.
What it is is addictive. “Once a consumer adopted Evernote and stuck with it, the ones who stuck, stuck forever,” says ex-venture capitalist Ken Gullicksen, explaining why he invested in the company on behalf of Morgenthaler Ventures. (Later, he joined it as chief operating officer.) “There was essentially no churn after the first few weeks of trying it out.”
With advertising out of the picture, Evernote makes money the old-fashioned way: by getting customers to pay for stuff. Most of the service’s features are free, but some users pony up $5 a month or $45 a year for Evernote Premium, which adds options such as the ability to upload more data and share notes with other people. More than 8,000 corporate customers have rolled out Evernote Business, a version with additional collaborative features, for $10 per user per month. The company won’t disclose how much revenue that adds up to, but between Premium and Business, more than 3.1 million of its 75 million users have paid accounts.
Those numbers, while impressive, aren’t stratospheric enough to make Evernote one of the web’s true behemoths. But Roelof Botha, who led Sequoia Capital’s investment in the company in 2009 and sits on its board, says that its long-term potential reminds him of past Sequoia portfolio mega-successes such as LinkedIn, PayPal and YouTube. “The thing that really surprises you in the long run,” he contends, “is the upside of the winners.”
Much of that upside will come from international expansion. Evernote had fans all over from early on — it was a hit in Japan even before the company got around to releasing a Japanese-language version — and today, more than 70 percent of users are outside the U.S. “Our next 50 million people are not going to look like our first 50 million people,” says Chief Technical Officer Dave Engberg. “We’re signing up a lot more people from Brazil and China than we did two years ago.”
But the company is also thinking far past its next 50 million signups. In early 2011, its board and management team concluded that they prized independence over the quick windfall that selling it might bring. They agreed to work towards taking Evernote public, which Libin says won’t happen for at least another two or three years. When it does, he wants to make sure that the IPO doesn’t change everything.
“Evernote is our life’s work,” he says. “There is no exit strategy for your life’s work. Going public is not a goal. It’s not an exit. It’s a step on the road to being a 100-year startup.”
That sort of thinking runs against the grain in Silicon Valley, a place where even big ideas often have short shelf lives, and happy endings often come in the form of an abrupt buyout by Google or Yahoo. Which brings up the question: How seriously should we take Libin’s 100-year mission for Evernote?
It’s tempting to regard it as a bit of an attention-seeking prank, especially since he discusses it, like all matters, in a jovial and jokey manner. (He says he hopes to still be involved with the company “in some capacity” a century from now, and wouldn’t object if it became history’s first million-employee startup.) It’s perfectly true, however, that Evernote will only fulfill its mission if it’s around for the long haul. If you invite users to think of your service as an extension of their brains, you’re telling them that the data they salt away will be there when they need it — whether that moment comes in two weeks or twenty years.
And more than most tech products, Evernote will be subject to radical reinvention as the decades pass. A word processor will always be a word processor. An external brain, however, could be anything. Someday, it could even be a chip implanted into the human brain, a possibility which Libin has been known to discuss enthusiastically.
Nobody claims that it’s possible to predict the specifics of what the service might look like in 2038 or 2063 or 2088, beyond the obvious fact that it likely won’t run on something which much resembles a 2013 smartphone, tablet or laptop. But the company sees it evolving from what it is today — basically a well-designed, cloud-connected database — into a constant companion which performs mental gruntwork at precisely the moment its users need it.
“We all have dozens of little moments a day where we could be better prepared,” says VP of Augmented Intelligence Mark Ayzenshtat, a Google alumnus. “Evernote can stand out as a way to situationally prepare you for what you’re about to do. If I met you two years ago and got your business card, it should show it to me.”
The company is dabbling with some possible aspects of Evernote’s smarter future in the form of complementary applications. Evernote Hello, for instance, is dedicated to helping you brush up on people you’ve met. Evernote Food knows which of your notes contain recipes. And Evernote Peek is a quiz app aimed at students, one of the service’s core constituencies.
It’s also thinking about collecting new types of data, such as wellness information; power users are already logging stats from Fitbits and Jawbone Ups and other fitness trackers automatically into their notebooks. “Five years ago, virtually nobody had access to their health information,” Libin says. “Five years from now, it’ll be utterly mainstream.”
And before all that long, he believes that Evernote, and software in general, will morph into distributed services — built into glasses, watches, refrigerators and cars, with every version working seamlessly in concert with all the others. In this scenario, “the idea of apps shifts from being about a particular device to being about a person,” he says. “The whole metaphor for how we design products doesn’t work anymore.”
If the prospect intimidates him, he hides it well. “It’s super-cool to be in an industry that’s on the very edge of that sort of apocalyptic change. You roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Someone will figure this out, and it might as well be us.” If Libin’s company gets there before some upstart competitor, the Evernote of tomorrow won’t just be everywhere — it’ll be ambient. A sufficiently epic quest, indeed.