Evernote is a smart phone app that epitomizes the modern day web service. It is used over a variety of devices, it syncs easily between those devices, it augments your daily life in ways not possible before the mobile web, it can be used equally at work or home. In an interview with Evernote CEO Phil Libin, I discovered that the genesis of Evernote is tied in with the Apple Newton – the innovative, but ultimately ahead of its time, Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) from Apple from the late 80’s to 90’s.
In Part 1 of this interview, Phil Libin explains that link to the Newton and how it ultimately led to the “secondary brain” app called Evernote. In Part 2 (to be published tomorrow) we discuss Evernote’s ambitious 20-year plan.
Phil Libin isn’t the founder of Evernote, but he joined the company before it had a product and has been instrumental in creating the Evernote service we see today. As we’ll read below, the technology behind Evernote was developed by a brilliant Russian scientist called Stepan Pachikov. Libin wanted to create a startup with the same concept, so he joined forces with Pachikov in 2007 to build out the product.
Richard MacManus: How was Evernote conceived and what was the inspiration for it?
Phil Libin: The basic idea was really simple. We figured that no one is really fully satisfied with our normal brains, with our normal memory. Everyone wants a better brain. And a few years ago, it looked like technology was finally at a point where it would be viable to try to build a service to be your secondary brain – your external brain.
RM: How did that line of thinking come about, that people needed a secondary brain?
PL: The company was founded by Stepan Pachikov, who was kind of this brilliant mad scientist from Russia. He and his team were behind a lot of the pioneering work that went into the Apple Newton, fifteen years ago. The handwriting recognition engine [Ed: the CalliGrapher word-based handwriting recognition engine] was built by these guys. They had a company called ParaGraph, which Apple licensed.
So the original idea really started in the Newton days. Back then it was just a device, but it grew to be more of a service that would let you keep all of your memories. [It would] just remember everything. [Ed: One of Evernote’s defining features is recognizing text in photos]
After Stepan sold that company to SGI [in 1997] and spent a few years there, he and his core team of Russian and Russian-American R&D folks – researchers and technologists – started Evernote in 2005. They started it with this idea of giving everyone a better brain, giving everyone a perfect memory. And they spent a few years working on the technology. There wasn’t really a product [at that time], but there was a whole bunch of really interesting back end tech around image recognition and things like that.
RM: When did you meet Stepan and what were you doing before then?
PL: I had started a couple of companies in Boston and in 2007 I was starting to think about what to do next. My previous company was pretty successful, but it was in the government security space – very interesting technologically, but not the sort of thing that a hundred million people would be excited about. And I really wanted to have my next thing be something that a billion people would wake up in the morning and be psyched about. I wanted something really mass market.
So I was thinking about what it should be and I thought: “Well, everyone wants more, better memory. Let me try to do something around that.” I put together a little business plan and started doing research to do my own start-up, that was going to focus on memory enhancement for consumers.
And in that due diligence process I ran into this company called Evernote – and Stepan [pictured to the left], who had been talking about a lot of the same stuff.
I flew to California to meet with Stepan, in the spring of in 2007, and saw the tech they already had. I was really, really impressed by the vision and the background technology that was already built. However there was not much of a product or a business model. So we joined forces, instead of me starting another company to compete. I was invited to come on board as CEO and take the tech that had been developed over the past couple of years and build it out as a consumer service.
I joined as CEO in the summer of 2007. It was like the company that I wanted to start, except that it already had a 2 year head start on the technology.
RM: Wonderful story. When did the first version of Evernote launch?
PL: The first version, of what the service is now, launched in open Beta in June 2008. We’d had a closed Beta for a few months before then.
In Part 2 of this interview, to be published tomorrow, we explore how Evernote evolved after its launch and its grand 20-year plan. Hint: it involves brain implants!