Evernote Spins Up an In-House Accelerator for App Builders

9/26/13Follow @wroush

If you’re passionate about Evernote, the Web- and mobile-based storage platform for personal notes and other documents, chances are you’re in San Francisco this week for the third annual Evernote Conference. It’s the high point of the year for Evernote power users (like me) and for people building third-party applications that make Evernote more useful.

But unfortunately, it will all be over by Friday night. True Evernote groupies—and it’s definitely the kind of company that has groupies—would probably love to stay around longer, and maybe even hang out with Evernote engineers at the company’s Redwood City, CA, headquarters.

Now a few of them will get that chance. The company plans to announce at the conference’s closing session on Friday that six of the teams competing in Devcup 2013, its annual developer contest, will be invited to Evernote HQ for an all-expenses-paid, four-week accelerator program, starting Oct. 21.

All of the app builders being considered for the accelerator are from outside the U.S., reflecting Evernote’s big international user base.

The idea behind the Evernote Accelerator is to “encourage teams that are doing cool Evernote integrations to take their projects to the next level, by giving them access to a great startup curriculum, giving them the opportunity to work more closely with Evernote engineers and businesspeople and marketers, and introducing them to the Silicon Valley ecosystem,” says Rafe Needleman, Evernote’s director of developer relations.

Unlike most accelerator operations, such as 500 Startups or Techstars, the Evernote Accelerator won’t make equity investments in its admitted companies. But it will give the teams office space and pay their expenses while they’re here in the Bay Area. Evernote will offer company-building lessons drawn from the lean startup paradigm, and it will run workshops that pair the visiting teams with Evernote engineers and designers, giving them a look under the hood of the Evernote platform. “We are investing, but just in a different way,” says Needleman.

In the big picture, what’s going on here is that Evernote is looking for ways to keep growing its ecosystem of outside developers, who are a big boon to the company, since they build features that make Evernote more interesting at zero cost to Evernote itself.

Back in 2010, the company decided that it was time to start thinking beyond the central Evernote application—software for the Web, Mac and Windows desktops, and a range of mobile devices that lets users store Web clips, text notes, snapshots, PDFs, audio files, and many other types of content. It opened up the application programming interface, or API, that other companies needed in order to build apps that interact with Evernote. And it collected these apps in a kind of directory called the Evernote Trunk. (In fact, for the first two years, the company’s annual developer conference was called the Evernote Trunk Conference; this year it junked the “Trunk.”)

Most examples of Evernote integration are pretty simple. Content-focused apps like Pocket or Postbox, for instance, give users the option to transfer articles or e-mails into their Evernote notebooks. But occasionally, the integration goes much deeper. A visual phone conferencing service called UberConference, for example, lets users tap into their Evernote notebooks during a group call and share notes with other participants.

In two cases so far—Skitch and Penultimate—Evernote has acquired apps that complement the company’s own software and brought their creators into the company. But that’s been the exception rather than the rule. Even as other big Internet companies like Twitter are restricting the roles outside developers can play, in other words, Evernote seems to be happy to let outsiders build much of the stuff that makes the Evernote service useful.

“Evernote is a company that makes a service that helps you remember things,” Needleman explains. “There are a million things that can be done with that type of service, and we only make the app. The more ways there are to put information in and take it out—whether we make it or somebody else makes it—the happier users are. And happier users means a better business for us.”

Through the accelerator, which was first announced in April, developers from outside Silicon Valley will get the opportunity to integrate their software even more tightly with Evernote, as well as a crash course in the software business. “Whatever the magic we have here—and I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that this is a magical environment to build a startup in—I want people to experience it and get contacts and meet other people who are doing the same thing, and then take that message back to their countries and keep the entrepreneurship going,” Needleman says.

One of the companies vying for admission to the accelerator is Input Logic, based on Vancouver Island, BC. The company has developed a tool called Postach.io that lets Evernote users transform notes in their Evernote notebooks into public blog posts. To turn a note into a blog post, all a user has to do is register for Postach.io and tag a note as “published.” It’s almost as if somebody had turned Evernote into an authoring system, similar to (but a lot less complicated than) Tumblr or WordPress. “We tell people that we built a CMS, and it’s Evernote,” jokes Shawn Adrian, co-founder of Input Logic.

Input Logic introduced Postach.io this spring and Adrian says it’s already being adopted by thousands of Evernote users, including a large contingent of teachers, who are using it to share lesson plans with colleagues and students. “People use Evernote as the place where they store their thoughts and naturally many of those thoughts are originally intended to be shared,” Adrian says. “But until now they haven’t had an easy way to share those in a way that’s presentational. Now you can literally scribble some thought, tag it ‘published,’ and it’s on your blog.”

(As a personal aside: for as long as I’ve known Evernote CEO Phil Libin, I’ve been bugging him to add a feature exactly like this. He always demurred, saying that Evernote’s focus is on helping people store information, and that building a presentation layer to share notes publicly was the sort of thing the company would probably always opt to leave to its developer community. So when I heard about Postach.io, my reaction was: finally, someone took up the challenge.)

How would participating in the Evernote Accelerator help Input Logic, if the team is lucky enough to get in? Adrian says it actually wasn’t easy making Postach.io work. Using the Evernote application programming interface, outside developers can write software that grabs content from users’ notebooks, with authorization. But that content comes in many formats, depending on how it was originally saved to Evernote (i.e., via the Evernote client for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, or some other platform).

“There is some crazy parsing that goes on the background to create nice clean HTML” for Postach.io posts, Adrian says. The opportunity to work closely with Evernote engineers could help the company figure out how to smooth the transition from note to post, and how to help Evernote users do more elaborate formatting of blog posts from within Evernote.

Needleman says he already knows all of the teams being considered for inclusion in the accelerator, “and they’re all awesome…I can’t wait to work with these guys. I imagine we’ll all be learning a lot.” Depending on what Evernote itself learns from the first run-through of the accelerator, the company could scale up the program in future years, Needleman says. “The constant for us will be identifying teams that have incredible potential to help Evernote users.”

Update, 10/1/13: At the close of the Evernote Conference, six teams were named to join the inaugural accelerator class: Postach.io (which also won the Gold Award in the Devcup), Context Booster, Biscuit, Lightly, Agent Panda, and Xing. See this Evernote blog post for more details on the companies.


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

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