The Rise of Evernote: An Interview with CEO Phil Libin (Part 1)

6/15/10Follow @wroush

The paperless office is a pipe dream. But these days, the bulk of the information that knowledge workers encounter every day is born digital, not on paper. As long as there’s an easy way to store and retrieve the important snippets, there’s a diminishing need to print any of it.

That’s where companies like Evernote come in. The Mountain View, CA, startup runs a digital notekeeping service with more than 3.2 million users, a number that’s growing by 5,000 to 10,000 per day, CEO Phil Libin says. The customers are gravitating to a service that lets them upload as much as 40 megabytes of data per month to their Evernote notebooks for free. All that data can be accessed a number of ways, either through a simple Web interface, the dedicated Evernote programs for Mac or Windows computers, or customized Evernote apps for Android, Apple, BlackBerry, Palm, or Windows Mobile devices.

Once it’s on Evernote’s servers, users’ material—whether it’s Web clippings, e-mails, receipts, recipes, voice memos, photos, maps, or shopping lists—can be searched and browsed from any Web browser or Evernote-capable device, on demand. Perhaps Evernote’s coolest feature is its ability to index even handwritten, scanned, or photographed text. This makes it easy to snap a picture of your office whiteboard with your camera phone, upload it, and suddenly make every kooky idea you and your colleagues have searchable on Evernote.

Longtime Xconomy readers know that I’m a major fan of Evernote, having relied on it as my main digital repository ever since the company’s combined desktop, Web, and mobile service debuted in 2008. In fact, so much of my life is stored on Evernote now that when I set out for San Francisco later this month, I’ll be putting far fewer file boxes on the moving van than the last time I moved a few years ago.

Phil LibinEarlier this month I caught up with Libin by phone. He’s a former Bostonian who studied computer science at Boston University. He also spent long parts of his career at pioneering e-commerce companies Art Technology Group before founding Engine 5 (acquired by Vignette) and then CoreStreet. Libin was recruited to lead Evernote in 2007, five years after its founding by mathematician and software engineer Stepan Pachikov. Under Libin, the company hit the fundraising trail (it’s collected some $25.5 million in total angel and venture funding, from an eclectic group of investors that includes Japan’s NTT DoCoMo, Russian investment bank Troika Dialog, and Menlo Park, CA-based Morgenthaler Ventures). It also went back to the drawing board on its technology, spending about a year redesigning its original Windows storage software to work across multiple platforms, including the Web and mobile devices.

That decision was vindicated, Libin says, by the huge upsurge in users that followed the release of the Evernote iPhone app in July 2008. (It seems appropriate that the iPhone, and now the iPad, are now such important vehicles for Evernote, given that Pachikov is known as one of the fathers of automatic handwriting recognition, and was involved in the creation of the Apple Newton back in the early 1990s.) My talk with Libin, who is one of the newest members of our Xconomist network, ranged from his early interest in “memory prosthesis” technology to the mobile revolution to Evernote’s business model, which, interestingly enough, is not dependent on converting lots of free users to Evernote’s $45-per-year premium plan. Today, in the first installment of a two-part conversation, Libin talks about how he got involved with Evernote and crafted its strategy in 2007 and 2008. Tomorrow, we’ll continue with details about Evernote’s revenue model and Libin’s vision for the future of the company. Here’s the first part:

Xconomy: You became CEO of Evernote in 2007 after about six years at CoreStreet, a security company. How did you first connect with Evernote?

Phil Libin: The business [at CoreStreet] had morphed into sharing with the only people who cared about security, which was basically government, people who buy crypto stuff. It was a nice, profitable business, but I started getting pretty bored. I became concerned one day when I realized how much of my brain was taken up with information about DoD budget cycles and the German defense establishment. The company was at profitability, and just needed … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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