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Episode 104 February 13, 2018 | 26min

The Elephant In the Room

Our co-founders talk to Chris O’Neill, CEO of Evernote.

Show Notes

Success Isn’t Linear: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade sit down to talk to Chris O’Neill, CEO of Evernote to discuss the company’s shift in focus. We talk about acquiring talent as an established company, digital hoarding, and how to compete with a pen and paper. Paul also compares NYC to a hatchet, and California to a widdled stick!

[Intro music]

Paul Ford Hello! And welcome to Track Changes, the official Postlight podcast. Postlight is a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford, I’m the co-founder of Postlight.

Rich Ziade And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder of Postlight.

PF Rich, what do you use for note taking?

RZ The app is called Bear.

PF Oh you’re a Bear user?

RZ I’m a Bear user.

PF Yeah yeah.

RZ And it’s just so elegantly done. Everything syncs instantly and it’s a small team that is behind it and it’s just — it just nails it. And this isn’t a note taking app! Uh the guest we’ve got today is —

PF It’s about knowledge, right? It’s uh Chris O’Neill from Evernote, CEO of Evernote.

RZ Evernote is, frankly, an icon at this point. As far as —

PF Yeah. It’s part of the infrastructure of software I mean —

RZ It is. It is. So put images, documents, uh you can put web pages through the extension —

PF Alright, let’s let him tell it.

RZ [Chuckling] alright, let’s let him tell the story.

PF Alright.

RZ So we got Chris O’Neill from Evernote.

PF Alright, let’s talk to Chis . . . Maybe start us off, just go ahead and give us the ‘what is Evernote.’

Chris O’Neill Sure so if you think about the lives we live — the professional and personal life, it’s all connected and it’s blending uh increasingly, it’s blurring. And technology has done so many incredible things for the world but it’s also had some unintended consequences such that we’re all feeling overwhelmed. So Evernote is really a tool that helps you deal with feeling a little bit less overwhelmed. Feeling a little bit more in control of this chaotic life, to really help you capture your ideas and then hopefully turn them into stuff over time. And eventually we want to help people work together more effortlessly, and that’s really what Evernote’s hired to do in people’s lives.

2:10 PF So I think of it as note taking. What — and it sounds like there’s — it’s a little bigger in your head than note taking. What is the difference? What does it do besides let me take notes?

CO Yeah so it does capture notes, so you could capture a to-do list or a shopping list but really the higher order bit for Evernote and why it’s different is it’s much more than that. It’s about organizing things. So you have these things called Notebooks so notes live in a Notebook. And it’s a way to actually offload what’s on your mind — we often think of it as an extension, like a digital extension of your brain —

PF And let’s talk about platforms for one second. So it runs on — it’s a downloadable application [correct], it’s a mobile application [mobile, yes], and is it also on the web?

CO It’s on all platforms.

PF Ok.

CO That’s part of the power —

RZ How long have you been at Evernote?

CO I have been at Evernote just over two and half years.

RZ Ok. So and Evernote’s been around for about ten.

CO You got it.

RZ I’ve tracked Evernote’s history for — probably throughout much of its history because it was a big presence. It is still a big presence. How many users does Evernote have?

CO We have over 220 million global users.

RZ Ok so that’s massive [yeah] and it went through this phase where — I’m gonna maybe overstep here but it was before you showed up so don’t worry about it [CO chuckles]. Um all kinds of crazy shit was coming out of Evernote. There was like a food app, there was these weird apps, and I just started to think, “That’s Evernote?” And I felt like . . . it was kinda all over the map, it was kinda trying to find its way a little bit. And then it settled back down again to what its core mission is.

3:50 CO The founding vision is Stepan Pachikov has poor memory, he has Parkinson’s disease, unfortunately yet he wanted a place to really bring a technical solution to a problem that technology is created. So we started with preserving memories. Hence the logo which is an elephant. Elephants never forget [sure] [mm hmm] so we wanted to talk about preserving memory. So, gosh, we had these kernels of use cases and we leaned into a bunch of them. Food being one [yeah]. So people stored recipes and still do store a lot of recipes. And I think from a place of innovation in saying, “Gosh, what if we made this food experience incredible?” “What if we uh — ” You know one idea was helping you remember people’s names. So Evernote Hello. So there’s all these bats that came from a place of wanting to be innovative and I think you’re quite right, I think we spread ourselves fairly thin as a company. So part of the first step for me coming in two and half, three years ago was really to spend time with our users and spend time with the founder of the company and really reflect on what is our purpose in the world? And how do we rally solely around that? And have the courage to say: “Hey, these other things are important and great but not as important as the pursuit of this higher order — this mission, this notion of remembering things and then turning these ideas into action.”

We came from a place of wanting to be innovative and I think we spread ourselves fairly thin as a company.

RZ So Chris you came in with the hatchet?

PF It’s California. It’s not a hatchet.

RZ What is it?

PF It’s — they flip it over to the other side, it’s just a stick. Um [RZ laughs] the organization needed some restructuring cuz it had grown in so many different directions.

RZ In clarity — what I’m hearing from you is like this is cluttered. It’s funny. It’s like an analogy for Evernote. Evernote got clutter-y. Right? [Laughter.]

PF Ok yes.

RZ No, but this is huge! That reboot is a big deal and that reboot is hard.

CO It is.

RZ It is hard, right?

PF Actually this is a good que — how long did it take to do that reboot?

CO That took probably six to — six to 12 months.

RZ Wow.

PF How did you define success? Like what was gonna let you know that this had worked?

CO A couple areas I would describe: product and the product quality. What I use the words are ‘delivering on the promise we’ve made to our users.’ Really it’s a fancy way of saying is the product quality — are we relentlessly improving the product quality? So we measure that by the type and the mix and the quantity of calls or emails we get to our customer support is one [sure] way but we measure, you know, is the product fast? Is it reliable? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? That’s one area. Secondly, is the quality of the team, right? Are we attracting the type of people? Are we closing the type of candidates we are? That’s another aspect of measuring quality.

6:30 RZ And you’re in a competitive place as far as recruiting goes.

You’re not the new hotness, you’re ten years old, you’re Evernote, everyone’s heard about you, they’re 23 years old so they’ve known you to exist since they were 13. How do you convince talent to come work for you?

CO The world is a competitive place. It’s a war for talent particularly in places like New York, here, and in the Valley. Yes, absolutely for technical talent, we are. One other aspect of success, however, is do we control our own destiny? You were referring to — like most companies and products don’t last this long and I take that very seriously. Like I wanted to basically be in charge of our own destiny, didn’t wanna be reliant upon yet another round of funding, for example. I wanted to say, “Hey, we want an investment position of strength. So we wanna have a robust and strong business and a financial model that worked.”

PF Relating to that, right, you have to convince talent you’re not the new hotness, you’re ten years old, you’re Evernote, everyone’s heard about you, they’re 23 years old so they’ve known you had existed since they were 13 [laughter]. How do you —

RZ “They!” “They!”

PF How do you convince them to come work for you?

CO I think that most humans want a sense of connection to a deeper purpose. So it really starts with what’s the purpose of what we’re doing? And do you connect to that? And the good thing is: a lot of people do [right]. That’s part one, that’s a starter. The other thing —

PF When there’s 220 million potential contacts that you can make, that’s compelling.

RZ You can make impact.

CO Yeah and this is a product that people actually use. Right? Like everyone in our company is — you know maniacally — like they’re fans of the product, they use it for everything. The other aspect is culturally, right? So I was very fortunate to spend like just short of a decade at Google, amazing company. But like I call it the Goldilocks culture and stage, right? We’re not a large company. We’re not some scrappy little startup that is grinding away product market fit. So it is a Goldilocks that says, “Hey, we’re not gonna worry about mean payroll, we’re not unclear about where we fit in the world, but we’re also not — you’re not just gonna be one of many many people doing something.” So everyone at the company has an impact and ideally has a connection to the higher purpose. And I think those are the core ingredients for people. Then the last piece — when I was putting together the team, a leadership team in particular, I wanted people who had fire in their belly, who had something to prove, I didn’t wanna go hire the 400 hitter, right? Who’d been there and done that. I wanted to take people who may have been number two or number three in some of these companies and really wanted their shot, they wanted a seat at the table. And if you look at the composition of the team, there’s been an intentional choice here. And it’s proven to be really well. I think the people who have something to prove are the types of people that I want to be part of —

9:07 PF When you started this job did you feel you had something to prove?

CO Yeah!

PF Ok. Well, so, what did you wanna prove to — were you proving to Google? To the world? What was your —

CO No, to myself.

PF To yourself.

CO Really, so listen I had had a wonderful journey.

PF Cuz it’s gotta be hard to leave Google.

CO It is! Some of the best advice I got is actually from Sanjay Kapoor, he said: “You only leave Google once. Make it count.”

PF Right.

CO And that was great advice. So of course it’s hard um but I had had the pleasure of leading Google in Canada and that was a fantastic job.

PF How are Canadians different at using the internet than Americans?

CO Oh interesting.

RZ Less incognito [boisterous laughter].

CO Well I’m not gonna test that one. I’ll leave that one alone but it is interesting broadband usage among Canadians is amongst the highest in the world. So far far higher than the United States.

PF They got a lot to do.

9:56 RZ I think it’s cold — it’s cold in Canada!

PF Yeah it is cold.

RZ I wonder if that’s a factor.

CO I do think it is — I do think it is uh a factor but actually it really speaks to affordability and accessibility to the internet is an offshoot I think of philosophy of society in Canada. There’s a little less disparity between the have and have nots. And then I think the infrastructure is just robust.

PF Righ, right, so when it started to become the thing to have, just about everybody could get it.

CO Correct. So YouTube, for example, off the charts, right? When we were looking at the YouTube numbers every quarter or pretty much every week um usage as a result, great broadband. A history of creators, if you think of SCTV, you think of all the Canadian actors. There’s actually kind of a reason for that. Uh not just cuz it’s cold and we have to do things and invent games although I’m sure that helps. But it really is a rich heritage of creating wonderful content. So the YouTube business was phenomenally great. Not surprisingly: weather related applications. If you wanna talk to a Canadian, you talk about the weather or hockey. Those are the two famous conversation starters. So the weather applications in Canada are very robust as well for some reason.

PF So here the concept of the digital divide is very profound, is that sort of an issue too in Canada? Like how is it perceived?

CO It is. Just less pronounced. To be clear. To be clear.

PF Ok. There’s a thing I wanna come back to which is that you said — you slipped in earlier that Evernote is ten times better the competition.

RZ Who do you consider the competition?

CO I think anyone who, well, you’re using the competition right now, right?

PF He just pointed to a piece of paper, ladies and gentlemen.

RZ Yes.

PF Yes and a pen.

CO That is not flippant. That is the right answer. About half the world, by the way, still uses that, the other half have discovered a digital way of collecting um their ideas — or capturing their ideas. So it really starts there. So it’s an enormous market. There’s like a billion notes created everyday.

11:51 PF Ok.

CO But there are other players, of course: there’s large tech giants, there’s small upstarts that are doing parts of what we do.

RZ I don’t use Evernote. I do need to organize my shit and I’ve got Google Docs, I have email, I have DropBox, it’s messy. I guess the question I’m getting at is . . . are you fighting a pattern that has taken hold where people are not thinking in terms of “let me put the stuff in the buckets,” but rather have just sort of come to accept that this is how —

PF You live in an ambient bucket apartment building.

RZ Like I’m still deprogramming the fact that I don’t have to worry about the file system on my own computer. Like I’m still — I’m old enough. Like, you know, you talk to teenagers and they don’t get the notion of where the file is.

PF Their hard drive will never crash.

RZ Their hard drive will never crash.

CO Yeah.

RZ So, my question is for many people there’s no going back. They started there. They started where I’m gettin’ to [chuckles] and it is all very kind of . . . you know in thin air . . . to some extent. And they’re not thinking about organizing their stuff, they’re just thinking, “Ah, the stuff’s there! I’ll go get it in a second. Wherever it is.”

WordPerfect and Microsoft Office were only like 30 years ago, 40 years ago. And all the metaphors were physical things: desktop, file, folders, and there’s a very good reason for that: Microsoft needed to have a metaphor that people understood. Now the problem is we’re stuck in that metaphor.

CO So sometimes I explain that as like a post file world. Lemme zoom back for a second. So if you think of like way, way back like to writing on caves, and then bones, and then printing press, and typewriter, and then WordPerfect, and then Microsoft Office. That was only like 30 years ago, 40 years ago. And all the metaphors were physical things: desktop, file, folders, and there’s a very good reason for that: Microsoft needed to have a metaphor that people understood. Now the problem is we’re stuck in that metaphor. You use Google Docs. Like Doc is an eight and a half by 11, like that’s not — we’re in a post file world. That little picture I scribble on the pad of paper, a whiteboard, an audio note, a business card — is that a file? I don’t know. I don’t think so. So we’re living in this post file world. Now let’s drill into the problem a little bit. We’re all overloaded, our personal and professional lives are blurred and the solutions that were meant to save us are kinda like, you know, you’re drowning in the sea here and it’s like an Ikea box that’s sent to you: “Assemble the raft here!” It’s like, “Ok, we’ve got these chat products, we’ve got email, we’ve got copy and paste, and countless browsers that are opened and we’re asked to kinda stitch them together or duct tape all of this together and like voila!” The reality is it’s not working. Like these solutions are not helping. That’s really I think the crux of the opportunity for us —

14:30 RZ But is that true? Is it not working? I mean it is a deep sea but I feel like if you’re 16 you know how to swim.

CO Perhaps, perhaps, but these things are siloing people more and more.

RZ Yeah.

CO So all these other tools are coming in and layering on and it’s making your life more complicated. So that’s really I think that’s the problem and we think that we have, you know, part of the solution [right]. And I think technology can help.

RZ I mean without a doubt you’re attacking and making available a very very particular service towards a need that’s real. I mean there are — I’m a researcher, I’m gonna guess you got — you guys — in academia, you probably have a ton of users who are just like [yeah], “Ok this is where all my stuff’s gonna go as I research this thing for the next year and a half.”

PF I see it when I teach.

RZ Yeah.

PF Yeah and it’s definitely — when people have to bring in information in a structured way — I think what’s tricky is what you’re describing is a little different than that in a lot of use cases where — you know my day to day life there’s no structure [mm hmm] and I’m always trying to find and apply structure to the job that I do here. And that’s actually I find — I’ve tried ever note taking system. I find that it’s just — I just sort of drift off at a certain point because the chaos gets to a certain point that I need a new, totally new framework. I need to go sit in a room for an hour. It’s not — there’s nothing I can organize. I just need to sort of come up with a new approach [sure] and that’s hard! Like I don’t know any software that actually solves for that. There is a real need at different stages in life and with different roles and responsibilities where you just need that outline. You need that structure and to capture what’s going on.

CO Structure is one part. Although I’d argue a folder system or some other system would probably be better than us at that [PF sure]. We actually shine at semi-structured or unstructured data, meaning, “Ok I’m having this conversation with a prospect,” if I’m a salesperson, and, “There’s a structured system called Salesforce that my boss makes me enter stuff in everyday. I hate it. It’s you know like I have to pull down and spend all of my time on a Friday afternoon doing that.” So we have an integration with Salesforce that takes the semi-structured conversations you have all week and tries to upload those directly into Salesforce and that’s a good example where, gosh, you can just do your work and go about your life the way it is and then technology can automatically go from semi-structured to structured but —

16:46 PF What would be an example of like something it would pull out of that semi-structured data?

CO Uh it could be uh the name of the significant other of a prospect, it could be an observation you made about how they use a particular product, or it could be a follow-up, like a reminder to follow up. So it would take like all those things and map them to fields in Salesforce, as opposed to having to go and kind of do the pull-downs and the buttons and so forth.

PF So there’s a case you’re making there to like — someone has a hundred person sales team and you go to them and you say, “You should give them all Evernote. It’s a way to capture sort of what’s going on on the ground and it integrates with Salesforce.” Ok.

CO It’s rooted in the notion that — this is really shocking to say but like people wanna choose stuff that they like [sure], and things that bring them joy and make them happy and productive. And people are going to find things that work, whether that’s pen and paper or Evernote, or whatever it is. People are gonna find what works for them. So, gosh, why don’t you actually empower and enable them? And that’s a mega trend I think you’ll see in the workplace . . . is like things that are gonna be user chosen but then companies will enable them.

People are going to find things that work, whether that’s pen and paper or Evernote, or whatever, people are gonna find what works for them. So why don’t you actually empower and enable them? That’s a mega trend I think you’ll see in the workplace . . . things are going to be user chosen but then companies will enable them.

.PF Do you find yourself thinking a lot about voice interfaces? Is that the big road map here? Or what’s the —

CO Uh absolutely, absolutely. The next frontier of how we’ll interact with our devices and technology is clearly voice.

PF Ok.

RZ So you have an Alexa skill?

CO We’ve started with Siri and we’re working with Alexa, absolutely. Uh the way I think about it is, gosh, you wanna enable — we want to, certainly, enable people to capture their ideas at the speed at which they come up with them. Right? So you shouldn’t be thinking about it, like, “Oh gosh! Like now I have to capture this.” It should just be —

PF Alexa, take a note.

CO Take a note. Or, gosh, just record a meeting. Right? And that speech will be transcribed in near real time to text. And then, again, when you start to understand the context um you’re in, you can then figure out what to do with it.

PF Ok.

Let’s talk about Information bankruptcy. I have a friend. I once took a look at her computer for a moment and she had about 77 tabs open. They didn’t look like tabs anymore.

18:43 RZ Let’s talk about bankruptcy.

CO Sure [chuckles].

RZ Information bankruptcy. I have a friend. I once took a look at her computer for a moment and she had about 77 tabs open. They didn’t look like tabs anymore. They looked like these little humps —

PF Yeah, yeah.

RZ — all across the top.

PF I’ve had that situation.

RZ And I said, “Why don’t you close your table? This is a mess. You’re probably eating memory. You’re ruining your computer.” Like, “No, no! I’ll lose them.” I’m like, “Well there are tools out there that you could put them in.” She’s like, “Yeah, I don’t feel like doing that. They’re tabs. They’re right there for me.” I’m like, “Ok but tell me something: the first few tabs in this tab parade that you have going on here [laughter], when did you put those in?” “I have no idea. A few weeks ago.” “Do you care about them . . . still?” “I don’t know.” She doesn’t even know what they are —

CO Yeah.

RZ It is uh digital hoarding . . . to some extent. It is that feeling that if I just put it away somewhere then I put it in my brain.

PF It is but it’s cheaper just to hold onto it than to even process whether you should get rid of it.

RZ But they’re not gonna ever go back to it.

It is digital hoarding to some extent. It is that feeling that if I just put it away somewhere then I put it in my brain.

PF Yeah, true.

RZ And there is a tax, by the way, because if you feel like, “Great article! Great article! Great article!” You feel like you’re under — you’re failing. You feel like you’re underwater. And that just — you got that security of throwing it in a box but the truth is you’re probably never gonna come back to it. And it’s this — it’s like the whole notion of like get all that shit out of your house. Get all that crap out of your house. You’ll feel better [yeah] cuz it’s less of a burden for you. Do you think that people are using Evernote as a place where they wanna put stuff or they feel like, “Ah, I wanna check this out later,” and then they literally look back three months later like, “Oh my god, I’m underwater.”

20:25 CO Yeah, yes. And I when I talk about people hiring at Evernote to feel more organized and feel a sense of control in their lives, this is exactly one of the things I’m talking about is the cognitive load of those tabs and things that you’re carrying with you goes away. It’s the same feeling as some people get when they cross something off a to-do list. It’s just like [sighs] like a little sigh of relief. It’s there.

RZ Locked away, if I need to get to it, I’ll go get to it. It’s like Storage Plus!

PF Sort of but sometimes it sits in the closet and screams at you. I think every format suffers from this . . . where it’s like if you take your big scary to-do list and put it in Evernote, Evernote will not be the source of your problems.

RZ Yeah. Because you have to get to it.

PF Right.

CO So you have to wrap it with — so this is the problem with New Year’s resolutions and the like cuz you gotta set these things in abstracted kinda note — but it has to be rooted in — in something that matters to you, right? So when you set goals — I always like to give people the advi — like set them as north stars! Like things that you have an emotional connection and when you get buffered in the winds of life, right? You’ll get back on track, you look up and say, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I did set this goal and it matters to me.” But then you have to have a system that breaks it down and you come back and review it. So I think that’s where people — and the system can be simple, right? But it has to work for you. And that’s where it comes in. But I do think technology has a role to say, “Hey, you haven’t touched this content in awhile. Is it still important to you?”

PF Right.

CO And a good review process would actually do the same thing.

RZ Does Evernote do that?

CO It doesn’t yet. But this is where we’re heading to.

RZ You’re thinking about it.

CO Yeah. So we can see like what types of things you interact and surface it back to you in service of you but your notion about hoarding and the digital, like the cognitive load. This is contributing to this sense of being overwhelmed —

RZ Yeah.

22:18 CO — that I think we all feel [yeah]. I have a little Jedi mind trick on my kids, right? I’ve gotten them to use Evernote and I’ve taught them how to actually take pictures —

PF Wait, how old are your children?

RZ Three [laughs].

CO They’re nine. Yeah, right? Yeah, “They’re two.” [Laughter].

PF It’s a newborn.

RZ Sorry, how old?

CO They’re nine and 12.

RZ Ok.

CO So they’re using it — so my son literally is using it at school. Alright but I’ve taught my daughter to take pictures. If you take pictures of the artwork and then it can live on forever and then we can throw it away —

PF That’s good.

RZ That’s a good idea.

CO — cuz like I don’t know how much clutter you can tolerate but it’s a similar thing.

PF She should have a pretty good plan with Evernote, I’m assuming, like lots of storage.

CO Yeah, unlimited storage.

PF That’s right, that’s good.

CO I’ve hooked her up.

PF Being the CEO’s daughter has to have some benefits.

RZ Well, hold on, I mean your daughter is 12?

CO My daughter is nine, my son’s 12.

RZ Your son’s 12 and he’s using Evernote?

CO Yeah.

RZ And his friends are in Snapchat looking cool and on Instagram looking cool and your son is on Evernote.

23:13 CO And he’s looking cool [RZ laughs boisterously].

PF Yeah you know —

RZ New demographic for Evernote!

PF I mean a dad’s a dad, man.

RZ A dad’s a dad!

PF What are you gonna do? Who would you like to get in touch with you, what are you looking for? And how do they get in touch?

CO Oh gosh, you can find me through any social thing: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Chris at Evernote. I mean you can send me an email. I do check that too. And anyone who’s looking to do some amazing things and especially in a professional context, I would love to hear how they’re using it. I always love feedback.

PF Alright, well that is — I’m gonna bet uh most of the people listening have some Evernote story [music fades in] —

RZ Connection, yeah.

PF — to share so, go ahead.

RZ Without a doubt.

PF Alright, well, you know, that’s legit.

RZ It is legit and it’s interesting to hear about the ups and downs. It’s usually a pretty linear story.

PF Yeah, that’s true.

RZ It’s usually they crashed or the meteoric rise but here it’s, you know, there’s a valley. And they’ve got a really smart leader to really focus the company. That’s pretty cool.

24:23 PF You know we focus a lot on making the product. That’s a big part of Postlight.

RZ Correct.

PF But it’s always good to realize how that fits in, even if it’s the core. Like Evernote is its product [yeah] but the product is not at all the only thing that they have to think about in order to make their company work.

RZ No, you could fail for other reasons, absolutely.

PF That’s exactly right.

RZ And he’s hit it right on the head. The story around it, what is it — how is it making people’s lives better? I mean it sounds corny but, frankly, you know he’s focusing the company.

PF Well that’s your job as a boss, you’re kind of a storyteller and you —

RZ How do you motivate outside of the company? How do you motivate people?

PF That’s right. Well, thanks to Chris O’Neill for coming on Track Changes. Track Changes is the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue.

RZ We build great shit.

PF We do. We build really good stuff. We build that software so you can build your business around it. We like to help people do that, we like to help people build their business. The way to do that is cool software and uh —

RZ And we’re hiring!

PF Uh senior design leadership, senior product leadership, product managers, engineers, designers, a marketing designer, like really if you are in this field check us out postlight.com look at our careers page. The link is at the bottom of the page.

RZ Yup.

PF And we’d love to talk to you.

RZ Have a lovely week, everyone.

PF Bye! [Music ramps up to end.]