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 a hypothetical crazy number. That’s very much what our goals are, and that is what we are preparing for when we do our IT buildout.”

Evernote has the potential to get that big because, at bottom, it’s “a service that makes you smarter. It gives you a better brain, and that is in universal demand,” Libin says. But right now, Evernote is basically a big, personalized multimedia database that you can access from your PC, your smartphone, or your tablet. When you open the main Evernote application, you see a huge collection of notes. There’s only as much structure as you’ve chosen to create by tagging the individual notes or organizing them into notebooks. For the billionth user, the Evernote experience will probably be very different.

Evernote Food on the iPhone

Evernote’s new Food app, released last month for the iPhone, reflects parts of Libin’s new vision. The app is simple: it helps you create a record of memorable meals. For any given meal, you can snap a few photos, write captions and notes, and attach tags and a location. All of the data is automatically stored in your Evernote account, and when you browse past meals within the app, you see related notes, such as restaurant reviews, recipes, or profile information for the other people who were at the meal.

At first blush, an app that you use to take pictures of your favorite restaurant dishes might sound a lot like Foodspotting, the massively popular iPhone, Windows, Android, and Blackberry app from the San Francisco startup of the same name. But Libin argues the two apps have completely different purposes: Foodspotting is all about sharing with your social networks, he says, whereas Evernote Food is about your personal history and building a context for your memories.

“You know me, so you know that I eat a lot,” Libin told me. (The quip implies a level of rotundity that Libin doesn’t actually possess.) “The meals I’m having are a core bookmark into my life. That’s how I remember many things. When I’m looking back, I’m saying ‘Oh, here is this trip I just came back from in Paris, and here is what we talked about, and here is what we ate.’ It’s all intertwined. It makes my memories more vivid, and gives me the ability to serendipitously rediscover other things, like the business cards I collected at the meal and the notes I took.”

Evernote Hello for the iPhone

Evernote’s Hello app, released the same day as Food, has a complementary purpose: to store contact information in a way that aligns with the way our memories actually work. Again, the app is extremely simple: It lets you add a new person to your records by typing in their name, taking a snapshot, and entering information such as a Twitter handle, an e-mail address, and a phone number. The information is copied to Evernote. For each past contact, the app shows you when and where you met them, along with notes related by time, location, or keyword.

“An address book is a completely weird and arbitrary thing that is completely at odds with how your brain works,” Libin says. “Your brain doesn’t store things alphabetically. You remember faces—not even high-quality pictures, just expressions. You remember the chronology—when did I meet that person. And you remember the context—who else was there, did we eat something, what did we talk about.” The whole point of Hello, Libin says, is to “make the experience of remembering people more natural.”

And that’s the recurring theme in Evernote’s app development. Libin says most consumer software was designed by and for computer-science experts, without much consideration for the way average people think. “The human brain evolved over millions of years to be good at certain types of things and bad at other types of things, and I think in the past 20 to 30 years a lot of software has ignored that,” he says. When designers and programmers find the formula that clicks with users’ real behavior, “you are happy, productive, and gratified. So what we are trying to do with Evernote is return things to the way your brain worked 10,000 years ago.”

All of which takes a very different skill set from the classic programming work. Creating the new Evernote apps has been “15 percent CS-hard and 85 percent design-hard,” he says. “The UX [user-experience] stuff is far harder, because it’s ignoring the past several decades of horrible information design and saying ‘Let’s pretend this is being built for humans to use in a natural way.”

But when it works, the outcome can be heartwarming. Libin says he got an e-mail last week from the father of a 9-year-old boy with autism. The man said he and his son had recently been spending a lot of time together using the iPad version of Skitch, which provides extremely simple tools for adding boxes, circles, arrows, and labels to photos or screen shots.

“The guy said, ‘He can draw arrows to say what’s important. It feels like a very natural type of communication.’ It makes sense to us, because 10,000 years ago, when a group of people wanted to get something accomplished, they would sit together in a cave and draw in the sand with a pointy stick. Then, at some point, we stopped doing that and started writing passive-aggressive e-mails to each other. We’re just trying to strip away the weird, unnatural forms of communication that have built up over the years.”

It’s a grand vision, and Evernote is only at the start. As it tries to create more hooks into users’ everyday activities, the startup will have to figure out which tools make sense as standalone apps, and which should be added to the central Evernote application. It will also have to pay attention to relations with its growing community of third-party developers, many of whom are working on their own apps that enhance and interconnect with Evernote. Libin says the company is happy to promote third-party apps—even if they compete with Evernote’s own apps—as long as they improve the experience for users.

The key thing for developers—and future users—to know, says Libin, is that Evernote service is no longer about just about storing memories, but about giving them meaning. “Probably 98 percent of the notes people store didn’t exist a few seconds before they were created,” he says. “They are memories that happened, where Evernote was there at the birth of it. Then when I put it into Evernote, I want to see it in context with everything else. If you just want a storage and synchronization engine, you should use Dropbox or iCloud or something. If you are putting it in Evernote, it really should be open to the rest of the user’s experience.”

Sign up now for Xconomy Xchange: The 100-Year Company: An Evening with Evernote, Morgenthaler, and Sequoia, February 7 at Microsoft Silicon Valley in Mountain View.

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.