Evernote Wants to Make Your Memories More Magical

Cloud-based notekeeping service Evernote found its first 20 million users through sheer geek appeal. Hardcore users (full disclosure: that includes me) love the ability to upload Web clips, documents, images, audio files, and other materials to Evernote’s online notebooks, then search and retrieve them at will, from virtually any device. They also like features such as Evernote’s ability to recognize and search the text in photos and scanned documents.

But to grow to its first billion users—and CEO Phil Libin thinks that’s a realistic goal—the company may need to stop thinking about features and start thinking about experiences.

“The mainstream isn’t looking for fantastically powerful solutions. They are looking for real, elegant, magical solutions. And it turns out it’s much harder to build those,” Libin says.

But the Mountain View, CA-based startup has begun to move in a more magical direction. In the last couple of months, the company has rolled out three mobile apps and one Web app that tie into its central notekeeping service but are designed to offer dedicated, simple solutions to common problems, such as remembering the people you meet (Hello), keeping a record of your favorite meals (Food), learning new subjects (Peek), and clearing away distractions for a more streamlined reading experience on the Web (Clearly). And last summer, Evernote hired the Australian creators of a drawing app called Skitch and came out with a free tablet version of the image-annotation tool.

It might seem to outsiders as if Evernote has taken a left turn, forsaking its identity as an online personal archive in order to go after the sexy new thing, i.e., mobile apps. But in fact, it’s all part of a deliberate strategy to “add structure, intelligence, and context” to the information people are already storing in Evernote, Libin says. “If Evernote 1.0 was ‘Whatever you put in you can get out in the same format many years later,’ the next phase is ‘Whatever you get back is better’—it has been illuminated, so to speak.”

Libin says he means that in the medieval sense of an illuminated manuscript, such as a Bible decorated with initials, miniature illustrations, and other marginalia. “We really want your memories to be better—to have additional context and beauty in them,” he says. “One of the first steps is to start creating beautiful experiences for certain types of memories. They all live in the central Evernote location, but there are custom experiences for capturing and recalling particular things, like food, and people, and other stuff in the future.”

How Evernote designs these new custom experiences will be one of the themes of a public Xconomy event in Mountain View, CA, on February 7, where I’ll be interviewing Libin on stage, together with Evernote investors Gary Little, a partner at Morgenthaler Ventures, and Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia Capital. The evening’s main point will be to dissect the idea of the “100 year company,” that is, Libin’s plan to keep Evernote independent and ensure its long-term survival through serial secondary fundraising rounds. But there’s so much to say about Evernote’s app strategy that this will be a big topic as well. (Register for the event before January 24 to get the saver rate.)

I didn’t want to wait until February 7 to learn more about the app strategy, so I connected with Libin (pictured above right) for a long conversation on Friday. I started off by asking whether Evernote ever expected to have 20 million users—a milestone it announced it had reached shortly after the new year. “Yes, in the sense that when we were raising money, our business plan has us getting to 20 million right about now, so it’s exactly what we told our investors,” Libin answered. “On the other hand, we never actually believed it, so getting there is quite shocking.”

But as mind-blowing as it can be to actually hit one’s business-plan projections, Libin says he keeps reminding himself that there are still 6.98 billion people on the planet who aren’t yet using Evernote. Even if you narrow that down to the people with some access to smartphones and the Internet, “that’s probably 2 billion people right now who are easily within reach, and in 10 years, more like 4 billion,” he says. “So having a couple of billion users is not … Next Page »

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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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4 responses to “Evernote Wants to Make Your Memories More Magical”

  1. Wade,

    I’m surprised you did not mention Pinterest in this piece. It’s the biggest threat to my own Evernote loyalty. I get the distinction you draw between privately amassing the stuff you want to remember on Evernote, versus the completely public nature of Pinterest. But the visual side of it and the consumer base it so quickly assembled tells you that “simple and beautiful” have a lot over the more fully featured services that the geeky crowd adopts. For now I am straddling both the Pinterest and Evernote universes and maybe I always will. But to reach the numbers you project, Evernote really needs the more influential Pinterest crowd than the Techcrunch one.

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Jules: Thanks for the comment. I have to confess that I still don’t understand the appeal of Pinterest. They’ve certainly nailed the simple, beautiful, visual approach, which is what Evernote is now aspiring to, for very good reasons. But I don’t get how Pinterest fits into the workflow of its users or makes their information environments easier to manage, whereas Evernote clearly does. (Maybe the fact that I use terms like “workflow” and “information environment” means I’m just too far over on the geek side of the spectrum to get it.)

  3. Wade, you pretty much answered your own question. For the two ton gorilla of consumer applications (women) workflow would include a much broader array of needs than Evernote addresses. The uses might look a bit frivolous or personal to a non-Pinterest user but they are pretty central to a Pinterest user’s life.