Evernote CEO Phil Libin Interview: Evernote Business, Coal Mines And 'The Nike Of The Well-Ordered Mind'

'We Want To Be The Nike Of The Well-Put Together Life'

If there's one thing that hasn't got much simpler at work in the last 15 years, it's remembering things.

Or, at least, remembering to remember them.

While the amount of digital information we generate has increased exponentially with the birth of email, cloud document editing and the hideous resilience of the Powerpoint presentation, our ability to share what's useful - and record the stuff that really matters - hasn't improved much at all.

Phil Libin thinks he might be able to help. As the CEO of Evernote, a note taking and sharing productivity suite which has been winning rave reviews - and 41 million users - since it was launched five years ago, he's well placed to understand the problem. For him it's a question of making simple, beautiful tools, and letting people find the best ways to use them on their own.

Now Evernote has announced a version of its service specifically designed for businesses, and is making a renewed push into the physical world with its Evernote Moleskine notebooks (which also made it onto our 2012 gift list).

We caught up with Phil to talk about Evernote, the strange places people are using it - and why he sees his company as the Nike "of the well put-together life".

This Q&A was conducted by phone, and has been lightly edited for space.

What's the pitch for business - and employees - to use Evernote at work?

That's actually kind of backwards - the employees are actually people who are taking it into the business. We're really just targeting organisations that already have champions inside who love Evernote and use it, and help them convince their IT mangers to make it official. Tens of millions of people are using Evernote at work, just unofficially. For the first year or two we'll focus on them and I think in doing that we'll learn how to make it in a way that appeals to people who don't know what it is.

Why do most productivity tools imposed on employees seem to fail? How are you going to overturn that?

That's the entirety of the strategy - it's all organic growth, word of mouth and app store discovery. We haven't done any paid advertising, we don't do any sales lead generation. We have a no-tricks approach to business. There is no one at Evernote to make it seem better than it really is. We just want to make a great experience and for our users to tell other people.

Do you run into that problem with business in that 'you don't get fired for buying IBM?' - that they tend to play it safe?

I would certainly fire somebody for buying IBM! But there is certainly that attitude. What percentage of companies would not buy Evernote - it might be 20% or 50%. That's fine with us. It's not our job to convince anyone. We don't get into arguments. There are plenty of companies who are enlightened, want their employees to be happy and who already see them using Evernote, and just want to make it a better experience. Those are the ones we care about and over time I think the trends are in our favour.

Above: Evernote CEO Phil Libin

What kinds of companies to do you have in mind when building Evernote?

We make Evernote for companies who look like Evernote - so small to medium sized companies... But in terms of industry, it is very varied. We have people using it in coal mines -

Coal mines?

- yeah! There is a customer who is sending people down with iPads a couple of miles below ground, and they use the iPad to take notes, pictures and documents, and when they go back up everything gets synced to Evernote. Those are knowledge workers in coal mines.

Evernote has been pretty good at adapting to new hardware. What innovations would you like to see coming on to the market?

That's the best part of the job is being able to plan this stuff out and start doing some prototyping work. I'm actually very optimistic about the Google Glasses - and those by other companies who will make them. That product and idea, that within a couple of years we'll all have access to information super-imposed on top of our normal world, is really powerful.

I've used it a little bit myself and - I'm making a firm prediction - in as little as three years from now I am not going to be looking out at the world with glasses that don't have augmented information on them. It's going to seem barbaric to not have that stuff. That's going to be the universal use case. It's going to be mainstream. People think it looks kind of dorky right now but the experience is so powerful that you feel stupid as soon as you take the glasses off... We're spending a good amount of time planning for and experimenting with those.

We also spend a lot of time with more traditional, old-fashioned technology, like the partnership we did with Moleskine... Those have sold out everywhere - hundreds of thousands of copies. We're planning the next version of those things, that's a combination of high-tech software and our application doing smart things with a camera, but ultimately there's as much work with what kinds of paper we should use and what should it feel like.

Is Evernote still an aspirational product as much as a utilitarian one? I always feel like I want to use it more than I actually do. How do you get to the point where this is just how I live my life?

We definitely don't want to stop at just being aspirational. I think you've hit on something - that is a core part of the Evernote brand and in fact we encourage it. But our long term strategy for the brand, is that I want it to be a lifestyle brand for the well put-together life.

It's the brand of choice for people who value their mind and their productivity. It's like Nike - people who buy Nike products are self-expressing their desire for athleticism, people who care about their wellness and their body. People that buy Evernote products do the same sort of thing but in place of athleticism is their mind... Having said that we also want people to use the product as much as possible and drive engagement.

Nike have recently been pushing the idea of collecting your exercise data and other information, and organising that, partly through products like the Fuel Band that are so simple you don't realise you're wearing one. Does Evernote have to get to that point of simplicity - where it's almost invisible?

I think simplifying everything is good. Nike is also a good example of a company that's merging physical and digital products, a lot of their stuff is a combination of both and that's inspirational for us. But yeah, making something simple is the holy grail. What we've realised the past few years is that how crushingly difficult it is to make something simple. Making something simple is hard. Much harder than making something complicated. We're on a constant quest to make Evernote more simple and by making it simple, make it more powerful. I feel like we're nowhere near the end of that.

Does Evernote need to be embedded in mobile operating systems in a more consistent way - like social sharing for Twitter and Facebook?

Absolutely, and I think the world is coming around to that. We're working with a number of platform companies and manufacturers to do deeper OS-level integration. We want people to be aware they're using Evernote because we want the brand to be prevalent, but we don't want them to have to go out of their way to use it.

That's going to take years to get right, but it's getting better and better. There will be some products that will come out I think pretty soon that will be big first steps on that - initially in things like scanners where Evernote is just fundamentally part of it. Then we'll get to phones, tablets, PCs and things like that.

What's the office of the future look like to you at Evernote? You've spoken before about using robots at work - is the future just two robots in a room with my face and yours on a screen?

We did have one meeting where a neighbouring company had an Anybot [like we do] and it drove across the street to talk to our Anybot. But it wasn't the best conversation.

We reported recently that robots have been taught to lie, that might make the meetings more interesting.

Clearly that's the missing piece. No - people are going to be in person in offices, probably forever, but I just think - the way we try to structure our environment is very methodical. It's tough to get a job at Evernote... But once you're in, we assume that everyone who is there wants to be there. So it's our job to eliminate the obstacles that get in the way of you being productive.


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