January 3, 2017
Moving with The Speed of Thought: A Conversation with Evernote CEO, Chris O’Neill
You’ve got mail. Slack just pinged. Someone retweeted your tweet. Your next meeting is about to start in ten minutes. Sounds familiar? In our world of constant distractions, it’s becoming more and more difficult to stay productive and keep track of our (potentially) great ideas. Here’s where Evernote comes in. The productivity company is devoted to help its 200 million users around the globe to capture notes on the fly, remember things and connect the dots.
But how are they planning to disrupt the way we stay productive and ultimately the way we work? We sat down with Evernote’s Chris O’Neill to find out just that.
Chris took over the company in unicorn status from the founding CEO in 2015. He previously headed global business operations within Google [X], led Google Canada and served in various leadership positions over the last decade.
Today, when apps can go from millions of users to basically no interest within a very short time, how do you maintain and grow Evernote’s 200 million users and keep the app on top of the App Store lists?
There’s no shortage of apps and competition, but there are certain things that help us cut through the clutter. Most, if not all of our growth comes through organic channels and word of mouth. It’s people using the product telling their peers. So our success really comes down to delivering a great product experience and ensuring that reviews stay strong at all times.
We also benefit from a global presence. Over 75% of our users are outside the United States, and countries like Germany are within the top ten markets for us. In other parts of the world, like Latin America or Asia, where smartphone penetration is still growing, we expect to see an increasing number of users over the next couple of years. Evernote is a great companion app for a smartphone. The amount of information that comes at us every day is continuously growing, and thanks to this information overload, knowledge workers spend about 80% of their time in email, chat or meetings. We have very little time to actually work. That’s where Evernote helps. It acts like an extension of your brain.
Your quest is to become a century-old startup. What’s your long term mission?
If our users felt we were just another startup, they probably wouldn’t trust their precious moments and ideas to Evernote. It seems like they do, so we’d love to stick around for a very long time. Our long-term mission is to help people unlock the full potential of the ideas they capture with the app. We’ve been known for our logo, the elephant, and our taglines that have indicated that we help people remembering things. In the future we’d like to evolve from the concept of merely remembering to actually connecting ideas and translating them into action. As technology allows, we can remove all frictions from ingesting things into Evernote. We’d like people to collect ideas at the speed they come up with them – the speed of thought. Machine learning and AI will certainly help collect, organize and retrieve information and eventually connect these bits of information to others that exist in Evernote or on the wider web.
“Thanks to today’s information overload, knowledge workers spend about 80% of their time in email, chat or meetings. We have very little time to actually work.”
What do you think is the next big trend in productivity?
We’re in the midst of moving from physical to digital metaphors. If you think about the last 30 years, there’s been very little innovation. Work hasn’t changed fundamentally. Take Microsoft Office, when it was developed it had a unique and daunting challenge. The Microsoft team had to explain to a non-digital generation how technology would improve their lives. And the only way they could do so was through physical terms. Hence the phrases office, file, folder, desktop and mail, etc. These have served us reasonably well for a while, but I think now they are holding us back. Today, there are lots of digital natives who’ve only known digital so we can see these physical barriers starting to break down.
Some of the legacy productivity tools might wane, but at the same time we experience massive innovation and experimentation. There’s lots of different startups coming in to help with one or more parts of productivity. I expect to see open protocols and APIs, more democratization on how a software gets used within companies, as well as different applications interplaying with one another to unlock new ways for people to stay productive and successful.
You took over a tremendously successful company in unicorn status from the former CEO Phil Libin. How would you reflect on the past one and a half years?
It’s been fantastic! As I reflect on it, I think about three things: who, why and what. The who really talks about the team and the culture. I’m thrilled about the team that we built upon and added to. It’s a collection of people who are committed to our mission, as well as to building an enduring company and product.
This leads to the why. Why do we exist? We’re evolving from a high-growth startup to a more mature business, so we needed to narrow our focus and deliver a smaller number of things, doing them exceptionally well. This includes rediscovering the original mission of our founder, Stepan Pachikov. He had poor memory and wanted to have something like an extension of his brain, that’s why he developed his own private “internet” before Google’s time. We want to get back to this heritage and evolve it because we believe that everything starts with an idea. Sometimes it’s a small one, sometimes it’s a big one. The beautiful thing about ideas is that you don’t really know what impact they will eventually have. In a world where we’re so bombarded with distraction, ideas need a place to be stored, nurtured and cultivated over time. What we envision is an uncluttered space where those ideas can live and people can work on them to evolve them into world-changing opportunities.
And so we translated that into what? This vision is reflected in our product, the people we hire, the technology we use, and pretty much everything we do to ensure that we have a bright future.
“We’d like people to collect ideas at the speed they come up with them - the speed of thought.”
How does your typical day look?
Organizing my week in themes helps me to keep up with the insane amount of email and slack that keeps me busy and distracted.
Monday is the business of the business. I check in with my leadership team one-on-one to see how I can be supportive. Tuesdays I like to invest some time in the product to understand where things are with our product backlog. Wednesdays we review the state of our technology stack with our CTO, then I head to our partnerships team. We have partnerships all over the world so there’s always something to talk about. I try to dedicate my Thursdays to the team at large, that’s when we do all-hands meetings. Coffee is a big part of our culture, so I take a shift on making coffee for people. It’s a great way for me to have open office hours and be accessible to the team whenever I can. Friday is a bit of a grab bag. Every other week we do a demo day when certain teams present to other teams what they’re working on. They just crack open their computer, beam it up on a screen and talk about what’s happening in the company.
You have decades of experience in building companies and products. What’s your advice to fellow entrepreneurs taking on management positions?
The team you build is the business you build. The best team wins. I’ve made every possible mistakes when it comes to teams. Holding on to a certain team culture a little bit too long, or keeping people who haven’t scaled together with the company. It can be tough to make the decision to either find a different role for that specific person or help them find another place in the world. The longer you wait to define the culture you want, the harder it is to change it.
Also, have a big, ambitious vision. This is something I learned from working with Larry Page. You’d be in a meeting with Larry and he’d always push your thinking in ways that are really uncomfortable. He has a specific expression: “Your work should feel uncomfortably exciting”. It means that you should feel uncomfortable and beyond your comfort zone but equally excited about that fact.