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

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adult supervision, so we hired a new CEO, and I started thinking about my next thing.

I decided to do something radically different, staying with computers but getting as far as I could from government cryptography stuff. I wanted to do something in consumer Internet. And if it was successful, I wanted a billion people to wake up in the morning excited about it.

I thought that some kind of memory prosthesis or augmentation could be really cool. No one is satisfied with their normal memory. It seemed that maybe the technology was getting to the point where it would be possible to build a consumer-facing service or product that really would help you remember everything. So I started doing a bunch of research, and I very quickly ran into Stepan Pachikov and his company Evernote, which was making this stuff and had a very similar vision about what they wanted to do with it.

I went to California, and we went out to a sushi place and talked stuff over. Stepan gave me a demo, and I was really amazed by his vision. He had really refined a lot of these concepts to a much higher degree than I had. And the technology was fantastic.They had built all this image recognition technology that let you search through printed and handwritten matter, and it was years ahead of the competition. He had a team that went all the way back to the Apple Newton, and had kept it together for years and years.

X: Exactly how was Pachikov involved with the Newton?

PL: The original Evernote guys had founded a company in Moscow called ParaGraph, which provided all of the handwriting analysis for the Newton. The cool stuff that the Newton did was all from ParaGraph. It was right at the end of the Soviet Union, and they were the first company [that] went to the West—SGI bought them right as the curtain was starting to come up, so it was part of the first wave of Russian entrepreneurial resurgence.

So I figured these guys had at least a five year head start, but they didn’t really have much of a product. It was kind of a science project. There was a business plan, but it wasn’t really credible. It was a bunch of disparate little shareware applications, not really a mature product. And they were looking for a CEO. I didn’t initially have any interest in working at somebody else’s company.Both of my previous experiences had been with companies that I started. But the board members included people like Esther Dyson and Max Levchin, and they kind of talked me into it. That was three years ago this month.

X: Most of the press materials about Evernote make it sound as if the company was founded in 2008, but obviously it goes back a lot farther than that.Wasn’t there a Windows note-taking application, for example?

PL: Relatively few people know the company from before June 2008, which was when we launched the Evernote service, with a full rewrite of the components, the user interface and the architecture. There is not a whole lot that’s left over from the original days in terms of the technology. The image recognition stuff that’s running on the server uses all the same algorithms that were developed back then. But all of the consumer-facing stuff is new. And we had to do a full recapitalization, so in effect it was a re-launch of the company.

X: It sounds like your first focus when you came onboard in 2007 was on fundraising, not technology.

PL: Yeah. The company had no money when I came on. I think we had three or four weeks of payroll left in the bank. All sorts of things were a mess. It was run by scientists, who had all sorts of fascinating software and great people, but none of it was particularly simple or coherent. I was kind of in a weird position, because I was explicitly brought in to be the discipline guy, which was kind of funny because I had always been the punk kid before that, the one who came up with stuff and then the real adults would come in and run it.

X: But even if the technology had been in more coherent shape when you got there, it seems to me that all the pieces you needed to make this “memory prosthesis” work, including smartphones and 3G wireless, weren’t really in place before 2007 or 2008.

PL: That was exactly my thought when I started researching the business. I’m a giant nerd. I’ve been following lifelogging and Gordon Bell’s work and the MIT Media Lab and all of that stuff for years, and I’ve always been a big fan of the idea of a cognitive prosthesis. Every other aspect of our bodies’ capabilities has been magnified thousands-fold by technology in the past 10,000 years. How fast I can travel, how much weight I can move—all that stuff is many orders of magnitude better. But the number of things that I can keep in my head is still pretty much the same.

So the universal demand was always there, but as you said, until recently you did not have the right factors in place—such as affordable cloud-based computing, good image recognition, and smartphones and other devices—that were powerful enough so that it was almost as good as having it in your head. In the 1990s, it was nowhere near consumer-ready. You had to be very far out from the mainstream to take advantage of this stuff, like when Gordon Bell started MyLifeBits. But it was getting to the point, when I was thinking about this in 2007, where it felt like in the next five years everything was going to line up.

Continued in Part 2.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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