Will Evernote go public or be acquired

"Facebook was forced to go public"

Phil Libin, head of the digital notebook Evernote, speaks in an interview about premature IPOs, centenary start-ups, the new Zurich branch and the Swiss competitor Memonic.

The most recent round of funding for Evernote raised $ 70 million. In a statement from you, it is said that the money is important for opening new international locations such as Beijing, Tokyo or Zurich. Why did you choose Zurich as the only European location to date and not, for example, Berlin, which is currently being promoted as a start-up center in many places?

Admittedly, that was a difficult decision because I love Berlin and in the end our decision was made between these two cities. We decided in favor of Zurich because we wanted a location where we can quickly hire qualified workers and find a favorable tax climate, both of which will make our start in Europe easier. But as soon as we have built up some organizational structure in Europe, our next stop will be Berlin.

What are the fastest growing markets in Evernote right now?

Thinking in terms of markets is actually rather alien to us because it is so sales-centric. When we look at a country, we don't primarily see a market. When we go to Korea, for example, we don't do it to sell our products to the people there, but because we want to benefit from the creativity and innovative strength of this country. We want to create a product that is attractive all over the world and that everyone can use equally well anywhere. This is how we are also approaching Germany and Switzerland. As for Evernote's growth in individual countries, the situation is constantly changing. Japan was at the top for a long time. As far as I know, the 36th book on Evernote was recently published there. In the last few months, China, Korea and Brazil in particular have grown fairly quickly. This also applies to Europe and especially Spain, although we do not know exactly why. Germany has always been our largest European market. We are growing quite quickly and quite organically. This is not because we spend a lot on advertising or marketing, but rather depends on where important bloggers are currently writing about our product. The growth is unpredictable so far, but we think it's great to play a role everywhere.

How do you approach international growth, for example when it comes to the different versions of user interfaces? Do you employ professional translators or do you rely on crowdsourcing like Facebook?

We were an international product from the start. Even before we had users, our product was available in 36 languages. That was a big investment, but it was also our stated goal from the start to be usable all over the world. As for the translation work, it is a combination of the work of volunteers and professionals, although it varies from language to language. In the countries where we have a high number of users, we are hiring more and more locals, who then do translations, but also devote themselves to other tasks. That is the case for large markets like Japan or Germany. In countries with fewer users, we mainly rely on the work of volunteers. We see ourselves as an international company and for us that means we want to offer more than just our own language versions. We don't just translate text versions from English, we want texts that have been written from scratch. We did that in Japan, for example, and we are now doing that for our offer in German as well. We want to get away from the idea that every text has to come from the company headquarters. And we value the details.

On which?

When we were recently looking for a symbol for a new feature that we would like to introduce in a few weeks, our designers came up with the idea of ​​using a globe. I refused because this symbol with its 32 pixels has to be understandable for all users all over the world. But a user in China will not be able to do anything with an icon that shows North America on the globe. So now we've decided on a satellite. There are thousands of details like this that have to be constantly revised in order to create a product that really works worldwide.

How many users does Evernote currently have worldwide?

We have more than 30 million users in total, maybe 32 million. We exceeded the 30 million a few weeks ago, and 60,000 to 70,000 are added every day. We're growing pretty fast.

And how many of them are paid accounts today?

About 1.5 million.

Clipboard, a new internet application to collect cloud-based data, organize them thematically and save it, has just left the closed beta phase. Are you familiar with the service? Are you facing new competition?

I've heard about it, but haven't seen Clipboard myself. In general, we don't think much about competition. Before starting my company, I worked in maybe ten companies - some of which I founded - and each time we had something like an archenemy, a competitor that we watched closely and with whom we competed very strongly. And in ten out of ten cases it didn't really matter at all. The ones we focused on had no long-term impact on our success or failure. That depended on other factors or other actors. At Evernote, we believe there is no point and a waste of time wondering what other people are doing. We don't have to worry about someone beating us in price, because our product is free in the basic version. We don't have to worry about someone else having a better distribution system since we are all over the world. And we also don't have to worry about someone having a better advertising strategy because that factor becomes more and more meaningless.

And what do you have to worry about?

The only thing that can threaten us is when someone shows up with a significantly better product. And the best defense against this is to just compete with this better product yourself. But you can't do that if you look at what others are doing day and night, but if you concentrate on your own product. Business is not a zero-sum game. They are not a sport, not a boxing match that says, “To win, you have to lose. “It's more of a“ How can we produce something cool together? ”All the big companies we work with - Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft - have competing products and we can still be partners. It would be a pretty sad world in which you wake up every morning and look for opponents. So we're looking for partners. We currently have 12,000 users using our interface. As for Cipboard, we're going to take the same path: if they have a great product and they are successful, which I hope, then we'll see if it makes sense to work together. If that is the case, that's great, and if not, that's fine too.

The last round of financing also serves to prepare for an IPO, you write on your website. In light of recent Facebook developments, are you sticking to this plan?

We're pretty steadfast on this issue. We want to build a 100-year-old start-up. That was our goal from the start. Our hope is that 100 years from now, people will still be using Evernote and love it, and that Evernote will still be a start-up that is agile. We don't really know how that works either, but we work towards this goal every day. What we can say for sure is that we will probably not be bought up because we excluded that from the start. And that means going public is pretty much inevitable if we want to be there 100 years from now. Incidentally, I also consider this a moral question.

In what way?

We want to be the collective memory of our users and build on their trust to be a place where they can store essential data from their lives. In this position, it is morally correct to be held accountable publicly and to give everyone the opportunity to purchase shares. In this respect, we are definitely working towards an IPO. But that will not be the final destination for us, but a step. And because this step can have an extremely disruptive effect on everyday business, as you can now see on Facebook, we are planning it for the long term. I have no desire to go public and have employees who then do nothing more than check the share value, as I have experienced in various companies in the past. That's why we're taking a step-by-step approach: by the end of the year, we want to be big enough that an IPO would theoretically be possible. Then we will enjoy this phase for a few years and only actually go public in four or five years.

Did Facebook go public too early?

I can't speak for Facebook, of course. But I think they were more or less forced to go public. They put it off as long as possible. The many stakeholders in the secondary markets then made it inevitable. I don't think anyone on Facebook, certainly not top management or early investors, pushed the IPO. And to be honest, the anger that many people are now expressing towards the IPO is a mystery to me, because it is discharged for reasons that are exactly the opposite of the reasons for which IPOs are otherwise criticized. Usually one is annoyed that the IPO benefits institutional investors and nothing at all for the company and the original investors, because the IPO results in an immediate price jump. I would understand this criticism, but the opposite was the case with Facebook. I think right now they just can't please anyone.

Why?

I think the management is sticking to a long-term strategy and they are now trying to keep the unrest as low as possible. It is really unfavorable that so much attention is now being devoted to leveling the price and that convinces me even more that we at Evernote have to approach the IPO as a planned, long-term project.

In Zurich you will meet Memonic as a direct, local competitor. How do you go about that?

I've spoken to the Memonic makers a few times. Although I haven't met her personally, we are kind to each other. It will be nice to look for a way to work together. I think when it comes to the general issue of giving people a second brain that makes them smarter about what our two products are trying to do, there is still a lot to do. And if we can agree to work together, we can achieve a lot. So we will choose the same approach that we always choose: We want good products to be in the world and that is why we want success for those who offer them, even if it is not us. And if we can help create good products together, that's great. If they're not interested in working together, that's fine too. We honestly don't think about it much. I don't know your product very well, but you are one of our partners and integrate Evernote very well. It will be great to work in close proximity to each other and to communicate more effectively with each other - for example with a beer after work.

You recently bought the handwriting app Penultimate and made its founder Ben Zotto head of the app development department. What to expect Your own handwriting app like 7notes, which converts handwritten notes into text files?

7notes is a really great product that already has full Evernote integration. In general, it is very important to us to make the interaction between humans and computers as natural as possible. For a while I was pretty pessimistic about handwriting on the computer display, although Evernote is deeply rooted in such applications as part of our team was involved in the development of the Apple Newton (PDA, which Apple stopped manufacturing in 1993 and which enabled notes to be entered via the display; editor's note) was involved. But writing by hand on computer displays no longer seemed up-to-date to me. Then came the tablets like the iPad, which changed things. Writing on it feels good and just looks good. That makes the whole thing a natural application again. We bought Penultimate because I myself misjudged the situation two or three years ago. We want to make up for that now. Other purchases can also be made for this, whereby our main criterion for buying a company is that it does not want to be bought. We want founding teams who have the same goal as we do: to change the world. And we want to convince them that they can do that more easily within Evernote. We did that with Penultimate CEO Ben Zotto, just like with the Skitch team last year, and hopefully we will continue to do so. The money from the new financing round should also help us with this: To have the means to get passionate start-up teams on board.

How many employees does Evernote have today?

I think we have 180. But it has tripled in one year, last year we were 50. By the end of this year we will have 300. We are growing very quickly and are currently moving into new offices with space for up to 500 people. It's pretty exciting.

How many employees do you have in Zurich?

We currently have two people there and we will grow as soon as we manage to hire good developers. To have your own local corporate culture, it would be great to buy a company there. Our Beijing office opened with one person last month, and there are now eight of us there. We hope that Zurich will grow just as quickly.

You keep mentioning your idea of ​​a “100 years start-up”. What other web application other than Evernote would you like to use in 100 years?

Nobody has asked me that before. The thing is, when you start a business, it's the most important thing in life, psychologically and emotionally. For yourself, the co-founders and many of the employees. You invest so much that it almost seems like a fraud if you are planning to sell the company. I sold two companies before Evernote and it always had mixed feelings. On the one hand you are happy because you have made money and on the other hand you are sad because the thing you have invested years of your life in is simply gone. And that's exactly what we didn't want for Evernote. There are big differences here from before: We only manufacture products that we want to use ourselves. Not what the market wants, not what the customer wants, like my companies before Evernote. We only want to manufacture products that we ourselves find good in a company that we want to keep. That is the longevity that "100 years of start-up" means. As for other companies that I want to use 100 years from now, I think Twitter and Facebook have real long-term potential. Personally, I have been using Amazon excessively again recently. Google is an integral part of my life, but only Google search. As for startups, I'm currently falling for Uber.

What service does the company offer?

This is a web application that is currently only available in the USA and can be used to book a chauffeur service. I can no longer imagine what I was doing before Uber. And as for the question of whether it will still be there in 100 years, I personally hope that there will be no more cars in 100 years. But the idea of ​​Uber is bigger than that and therefore it can exist. She says that mobility has to be smart and possible without great effort and that everyone should be able to get from A to B quickly without having to own a vehicle that makes this possible. This idea will still be relevant in 100 years, even if there are no more cars that move people.

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