How I Made It: Evernote CEO Phil Libin
The gig: Phil Libin, 41, is chief executive of Evernote, which makes apps that let people store notes and other content that is important to them and make those items available across many devices. The original Evernote app launched in 2008 and the Redwood City, Calif., company now has 66 million users. Along the way, it has raised more than $200 million in venture capital, and with its most recent round of funding in 2012 it has been valued at $1 billion.
Serial entrepreneur: Prior to joining Evernote, Libin founded and served as president of CoreStreet, which provides credential and identity management technologies to governments and large corporations. CoreStreet was acquired by ActivIdentity, now owned by HID Global, in 2009. Libin also founded Engine 5, an Internet software development company in Boston acquired by Vignette Corp. in 2000.
Science in the blood: Libin moved to the U.S. from Russia as a child with his parents and was raised in Bronx, N.Y., where he attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. He studied computer science at Boston University but left to found his first company before finishing his degree.
Size doesn’t matter. Or does it?: With 326 employees, Libin is wrestling with how to keep Evernote an innovative and interesting place to work as it gets bigger. “A lot of my time is spent thinking about the culture,” Libin says.
Hello. My name is...: After years of being a relatively small company, Evernote has reached a size where Libin doesn’t know everyone personally. He’s been trying to make peace with that, while at the same time trying to maintain the dynamics that make small companies more efficient.
“As you grow in size, most companies assume you lose that start-up culture inevitably,” Libin said. “But it’s not that you lose it. It’s that you explicitly have to pay for it. You have to explicitly put in the effort not to lose those benefits. It is not inevitable that you cease to be a start-up. But if you don’t do anything, you will.”
How to stick it to the man: As part of his mission to protect Evernote’s culture, Libin tries to actively weed out any process or attitudes that he says contribute to an environment that feels too rigid or limits creativity.
“There are the encroaching forces of corporate bureaucracy that have to be actively beaten back,” Libin said. “But it is possible to do it. You have to be very intentional about it. I’ve done a bunch of things over the past year in that vein. And I’m sure more will come.”
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign: One such pet peeve is what Libin calls “stupid office signs.” He particularly hates signs like one he found on a refrigerator at Evernote that said, “Your mother doesn’t work here, make sure you wash the dishes after yourself.” Libin said such signs are passive aggressive and he declared war against them by taking them down and encouraging people to post only positive, straightforward messages that might say something like, “Hey, employees, we got you all really nice water bottles and it’d be nicer for the environment if you used them.”
“It’s worked,” Libin said. “It’s been six months since I’ve seen a poorly written, passive aggressive sign. I think it really does have an impact. Because when you get to be a company of a bigger size, it really does start to feel like work when you see the accumulation of crappy culture like this.”
Mirror, mirror: Libin firmly believes that the physical space where employees work and the culture within that space are evident in the product and services a company produces.
“When you look at any product, and kind of squint at it, you can see the reflection of the company that made it,” Libin said. “You can see what the office looks like and how it’s organized and see whether they’re in cubes or not. Every product is a reflection of the company and its culture and physical space. I don’t think you can hide it. The only solution to making beautiful products is to have that reflection be accurate. Have a beautiful company so its reflection looks good.”
An IPO? Libin always laughs when people ask about rumors that the company might go public. He’s been very clear about when it will, and why.
“We want to make a 100-year company. Being public is not a goal, but it’s a step. A lot of companies hurt themselves in that step. They sort of run toward it and trip over it. We don’t want to be public in the sense that it, in and of itself, is a goal. We just think that if we’re going to be around for 100 years, it’s morally correct to be a public company. It’s morally correct to be more transparent. And to let people be owners if they want to be owners. So we’ll walk up to it slowly. No earlier than 2015 or 2016.”
Advice to entrepreneurs: The availability of app stores, Libin said, has changed the way people should think about designing products. Thanks to app stores, far more people can find and use new products.
“If you make something for you, that you love, there are people out there who will love it and they’ll be able to get it,” Libin said. “And that was never the case before. If you want to make something in consumer technology, the last thing you should be doing is figuring out what the market wants. You should make something magical.”