How Do You Build A 100-Year Company? Ask Evernote's Phil Libin on Feb. 7

12/6/11Follow @wroush

I’m a power user of Evernote, the Web-based notekeeping service used by more than 16 million people around the world. I’ve got Evernote’s applications and extensions installed on my Mac, my iPhone, my iPad, and my Web browser, and I’ve saved thousands of items in the system, dating back to June 2008 (the wildflower photo below was my very first one). I use Evernote to store everything from news clips to recipes, and from audio memos to tax returns. It’s one of the technologies that allows me to lead a nearly paperless existence.

But for me, Evernote isn’t just a great tool—it’s a great story. I’ve written nearly a dozen Xconomy articles chronicling the growth of the Mountain View, CA-based startup, and in the process I’ve gotten to know its leader Phil Libin as one of the funniest and most insightful CEOs in Silicon Valley CEOs. (We’re glad to count Phil as an Xconomist.)

That’s why I’m excited to announce that Phil himself is joining us for Xconomy San Francisco’s next big live event, coming up February 7. It’s called “The 100-Year Company—An Evening with Evernote, Morgenthaler, and Sequoia,” and it’s the latest in our “Xconomy Xchange” series of on-stage chats with leading entrepreneurs and investors. This is going to be my big chance to grill Phil—as well as two of Evernote’s leading investors, Gary Little of Morgenthaler Ventures and Roelof Botha of Sequoia Capital—about all of the big and little decisions that go into building a consumer Internet service that lasts.

We just opened ticket sales for the event, which will take place at Microsoft Silicon Valley in Mountain View. Register now and you can get in at our super saver rate—the price goes up after December 21.

The title of the event is a reference to Libin’s philosophy about building long-term value for customers. If you want to create something of lasting quality, Libin argues, you can’t focus on short-term concerns like who’s going to acquire your company, or when you might go public. You have to think bigger, and think longer. “We don’t want to exit,” Libin has stated. “We want to build a permanently great company. Our goal is for people to still love Evernote a hundred years from now.”

My starting point for the February 7 event will be to take Libin’s statement at face value, and ask what strategies you need to think about if you really want your company to last 100 years—and pay back its investors in a reasonable time along the way.

Libin’s solution to the quandary, which he partially laid out in an interview with me in October, is to rely on multiple rounds of private fundraising. Some of the money you raise in each new round can be used to pay off investors in earlier rounds. Even an IPO, in Libin’s view, shouldn’t be viewed as an exit—it’s “just another in the long string of partial liquidity events where some investors leave and some come in.”

Sounds good, as long as you can keep it rolling. But the partial-liquidity strategy comes with its own questions. In a market rife with secondary trading, employees are going to want to trade in some of their own options, so how do you keep them motivated? And after the eventual IPO, how do you keep thinking about the next century, when so many public-market traders are focused only on the next quarter? Those are just a couple of the questions I’ll be putting to Libin, as well as Little and Botha, who both sit on Evernote’s board. (You don’t raise nearly $100 million from top-line Silicon Valley venture firms like Morgenthaler and Sequoia unless your pitch accords, in some fundamental way, with their investment theses.)

Then there are the technology questions, which, in Evernote’s case, are pretty cosmic. In the near term, the company strives to make it possible for users to capture digital memories on almost any digital device and keeping it all current, which is hard enough. But what happens when it becomes possible to go beyond cloud storage of digital documents, and start capturing real memories? Libin has talked about Evernote using phrases like “external brain” and “memory prosthesis,” and if Evernote or some future version of it is still around a hundred years from now, it will like be much more intimately intertwined with our cognitive functions. Does that mean Evernote will have to start hiring neuroscientists?

We’ll find out from Libin on February 7. And if you sign up, you’ll be able to ask your own questions—audience Q&A and networking are always a big part of Xconomy Xchange events.

As an appetizer, here’s a video of a fascinating talk Libin gave at Stanford on October 12, shortly after the death of Steve Jobs. Picking up on Jobs’ own follow-your-dream message in his now-famous Stanford commencement address, Libin uses the talk to investigate, in a roundabout way, how entrepreneurs can find a “suitably epic” dream.

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

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