ThinkWasabi interview with Evernote CEO, Phil Libin

Posted by on 27 Apr 2010

Posted by on 27 Apr 2010

Evernote CEO, Phil Libin, was recently interviewed by the Spanish tech and productivity blog, ThinkWasabi. They asked some great questions. Here is the republished exchange. To get the authentic entrevista check out the ThinkWasabi site. This interview was first published on April 12th.

The interview

Evernote has experienced spectacular growth since its launch. Within the company and the project, what 3 things have changed from the start?

You’re right that we’re growing really quickly and the rate has even surprised us. It’s been less than two years since we launched our public beta and we’re already over 2.7 million users!

Things have happened so quickly that we haven’t really had time to change; we’re still pretty much the same company that we were two years ago. I guess the three biggest changes are:

  • We have some money now, so we don’t have to constantly worry about going out of business, which lets us focus entierly on making a great product.
  • We do business in many countries, so we have to think about different languages and cultures whenever we make any decisions.
  • We bought a good coffee machine for the office, so productivity is way up.

I explain the success of Evernote for a combination of 3 ingredients: a) useful for your job and your personal life; b) its integration with mobile devices c) its easy to use. Do you agree? Why do you think that Evernote has hooked so many people?

I agree completely, except I still think that we’re not as easy to use as I want it to be. We’re spending a lot of time and money now to make Evernote even easier and more pleasant.

You’re right in your observations. More than 80% of our users say that they use Evernote for both work stuff and personal stuff. More than 50% regularly use Evernote on more than one device, and 20% regularly use it on three or more devices! The number of devices that someone uses Evernote on is actually the best predictor of whether or not they’ll convert to Evernote Premium.

I think the Evernote message has been well received by people. When we started out, we used to say that, unlike every other app and web service, Evernote was not social. In fact, we were almost anti-social. Evernote doesn’t care about your friends. Evernote doesn’t care about your friends’ pets. Evernote cares about you and what’s inside your head. Of course we have some sharing and collaboration features now, and they’re about to be significantly expanded, but the primary use for Evernote remains personal, not social.

We knew that there were a lot of people that would want to use such a service, but we didn’t know whether or not these “serious” people would talk about this product with friends. This was the biggest business risk that we took because word-of-mouth advertising was the only type of marketing that we could afford to do.

Happily, it turns out that professional people talk to their friends about the stuff they love as much as 14 year old girls do, and maybe their recommendations carry even more weight. So, even though we don’t have any “viral” features in Evernote (yet), and our users are older and better educated than average, we’re growing faster than most purely social sites!

I’ve always said that Evernote only has the barriers of our imagination. Are you surprised with the different ways people use it? And in that sense tell us three things for which you use Evernote?

I think of Evernote as my “external brain”. Anything I can use my brain for, I should be able to do better with Evernote. I love hearing about how people use Evernote. We publish some of the more interesting stories on our blog. Just recently, we wrote about people who use Evernote to decorate cakes, help people with brain injury, and run a dairy farm.

About a year and a half ago, I was searching for “Evernote” on Twitter (back when it used to only produce a few results), and I found two separate tweets from people talking about how they use Evernote. One said that he was a priest and used Evernote to prepare his sermons. The other said that he used Evernote to keep track of all his sins, so they were easier to confess on Sundays. That’s when I first thought that Evernote might catch on: we had both sides of the spectrum covered!

Three random Evernote uses from my own account:

  • When preparing for a board of directors meeting, I use Evernote to collect all of my research and documents, look through previous meeting notes, compose the agenda, store the final presentation and all the handouts, and use an Evernote shared notebook to distribute the materials to board members before the meeting (the files are usually too large for email).
  • When I eat something interesting, I take a picture of it (usually with a nice camera equipped with an Eye-Fi card so the results automatically go into Evernote), and put it into a “food” notebook. Everything is automatically geo-tagged so I know where I was when I took the photo. Later on, I open the note and add comments on the restraurant and food. Here is a public notebook of everything I ate during a one-week trip in Japan, for example.
  • When I park my car at the airport, I take a picture of it along with the spot number or just create a quick audio note. When I get back from my trip, I launch Evernote and search for all the notes near my current location and easily find my car.

Some users disapprove of there being only a few innovations in their updated versions. Even though the application has evolved over the past few months, we haven’t seen major changes. Why is that?

We have nine major versions (Windows, Mac, Web, iPhone/iPod, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Palm WebOS, Windows Mobile) and a dozen smaller projects (Twitter gateway, email gateway, Chrome extension). We try to average one release per client about every two months and most releases include quality improvements as well as new functionality. Since average users have Evernote on at least two devices, they typically see an update every three weeks or so. So it may not seem like things are changing quickly, but all you have to do is look back to where we were even 6 months ago to see all the progress!

There will be major improvements to pretty much all of the clients through this summer. Just this week, we put out major releases for iPad (all new!), Mac, Windows, and Web. Some new premium-user benefits are launching next week. A big upgrade to the Chrome Web Clipper extension is coming any day now. New partner API inegrations are being released almost every day and we have some very exciting partner announcements coming out this summer. All in all, we’re staying very busy. Check our blog for details.

When will such highly demanded capabilities as subfolders become available? Will we see a Linux version soon?

Subfolders are in big demand! The other day, we had users submit questions on our blog and I answered over 150 of them. Subfolders were probably the most requested feature. We had originally hoped that nested tags would be good enough, but it looks like people want more. We’re trying to design subfolders now (many people want them, but few agree on how they should work) and will decide on how this feature fits into our roadmap soon.

We are not currently working on a Linux version, but some API partners are. I’ll check with them about their release plans. We are working on some interesting Chrome / ChromeOS stuff which could be very useful for Linux users.

Some readers of ThinkWasabi are concerned about the security and privacy of their data. It’s a controversy of cloud computing but how did Evernote solve this problem? What would you say to convince those readers?

A short question, but you’re going to get a pretty long answer in return!

When people ask about how secure a site is they’re asking lots of interrelated (and often contradictory) questions. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this at Evernote and at previous companies (my background is in cryptography and security and several of the current Evernote employees go back with me in that field). I think these are the main questions that people want to know:

How secure is my data from theft or unintended access by third parties with malicious intent?

This comes down to many factors: the physical security of the data center, the security of the data communications, the trustworthiness of the team, the processes in place at the company, etc. The Evernote data center is a professionally run, physically secure location with 24 hour on-site staff and logged access control using electronic ID cards. We recently moved to a new data center that significantly steps up the physical security by adding iris-scanning biometrics and lock-out guard posts for everyone attempting entry. Only selected Evernote personnel charged with operating the data center are permitted inside. I’m not allowed in, for example. All administrative communication with the servers is encrypted. All user authentication is encrypted. Passwords are never seen or stored on the servers. Users are able to encrypt any portion of a note and we never see or store the additional encryption keys. All data access for premium users goes over HTTPS. The network is protected by a series of regularly maintained routers, firewalls, load-balancers, etc.

How safe is my data from accidental loss? How accessible is my data in the event of full or partial system failure?

Each user’s data is stored on a logical server. Each server has fully redundant RAID hard drives. Each server is paired with a full-time, hot-failover mirror server into a logical “shard”. All data from the data center is backed up daily and stored in a secure location remote from the data center. All of your data is also stored locally on your device (if you’re using the Windows or Mac client or iPhone with offline notebooks enabled), which can be encrypted and / or backed up as the user desires. So your data is stored in at least five physical locations (RAID drives on each server, two servers per shard, offsite backup) plus your local computer(s). It’s pretty unlikely that it could all be lost. New shards can be added quickly to scale the system.

How safe is my data and my privacy from intrusion by the company itself or its business partners?

We do not look at any user’s personal data. Only selected Evernote personnel charged with providing tech support to users are permitted to access account information. I’m not allowed to do so, for example. We do not crawl through your data for ad targeting, recommendations, or anything like that. We will not share your data with any third-party without your explicit permission, unless ordered to do so by the court. You do not give up any legal rights by storing your data in Evernote. You do grant us the right to access your data for the purposes of running the services, so we can do backups, indexing, sync, etc. We provide fully documented standards-based exporting of all of your data. There is no data lock-in at Evernote; we want you to stay forever, but we think that you are more likely to do so if you know that you can leave at any time. Our business model does not depend on us doing anything clever with your data. Our business model is to make a free service that a billion people will use for their rest of their lives that’s also good enough to convince a single-digit percentage of them to pay us $5 per month.

So of course we can’t guarantee full security, but we do aim to make Evernote as secure as, say, your email or online banking, with options to make it much more secure than that. At the end of the day it comes down to user choice: if you want to store all of your notes in the cloud and let everyone in the world access them without even a username or password, you can do that with Evernote. If you want to keep all of your notes only on your local hard drive, on an encrypted file system, with additional content-level encryption, and never have them even touch the Internet, you can do that with Evernote as well. Most people choose something in the middle.

I use Evernote for many things but for certain projects and files I use another great application: Dropbox. Will we see an Evernote with virtual disc capacity to store and synchronize files?

I love Dropbox and use them all the time. We’re quite friendly with them and hope to do an integration soon. I think an Evernote / Dropbox solution would be pretty great!

“Collaborate” is a key word/action nowadays. However, in Evernote is not easy or quick to share notes with others. Why? Are we going to see any changes soon in this regard?

Yes. We already have the ability to publish or share any notebook via Evernote Web and Premium users can grant read/write access to shared notebooks to enable collaboration. Right now, you can only access shared notebooks through the web interface, which is a big drawback. We will be launching access to shared notebooks from the iPad / iPhone client this summer and the other clients later this year.
There will also be some interesting API partner announcements around sharing and collaboration in the next few months, so stay tuned.

How do you use Evernote to organize yourselves in the company? Did you use in your meetings?

I use Evernote in every meeting and most other people here do as well. We take notes on our laptops and take pictures of whiteboards that become searchable using our image recognition technology. I also put all the business cards I get into Evernote by either taking a picture of them with my iPhone or (if I get too many at once) throwing them into a scanner and having the results automatically go to Evernote. Then I can search for business cards by name, company, time, or geo-location. I can also jump to a business card to quickly find the notes that happened right before or after in the same meeting. This has made business cards useful to me for the first time in my life!

We also use internally-shared notebooks to keep track of press clippings, manage beta programs, coordinate IT operations, etc. We never force anyone at the company to use Evernote for work, but almost everyone just starts doing it naturally.

Let’s say that you have never seen or used Evernote. Describe or define it in 3 sentences.

Evernote is a service that lets you remember everything interesting that happens to you, now and for the rest of your life. You can use Evernote from every computer, phone, camera or other device that you own and all of your data is automatically synchronized between them. You can use Evernote for free, forever, although there is a premium version available for power users.

See the original interview in both Spanish and English »


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12 Comments RSS

  • Chris

    Awesome interview, I had no idea what kind of security measures were in place until now. Makes me feel even that much better about using the service!

  • john f

    Great interview, Phil. Could you tell us what exactly is that “nice camera” that you use to capture in Evernote the food you eat?

    • Phil Libin

      It’s a Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm f/1.7 lens. Perfect camera for pictures in dim restaurants and small enough to always be in my bag. The 45mm macro lens is next on my wish list.

  • Rob Parnell

    Ahhhh, so sure I can use Chrome on Linux. Problem solved.

    And for the naysayers out there. At times, I notice my Web client works far better than my Native client. (Windows, yes) = Printing is the last major area. I can understand why, from an Application angle – why perfect printing is hard. (Look at MS Excel, it still doesn’t print perfect.)


  • Shannon Wagner

    Thanks for posting this interview – I think this sort of publicity goes a long way toward building momentum for Evernote’s user base to expand (which I appreciate for my own selfish reasons..).

  • Carol Gee

    As one of your millions, I appreciate all the info you conveyed in this great interview. As retired psychotherapist, however, I am concerned about the addictive properties of your dynamite application. I confess that it just suits my obsessive-compulsive tendencies to a tee. :~)
    It pleases me that you folks now have money. Enterprises that are drop-dead smart, ethical and mysteriously/intuitively user friendly should be rewarded.
    Peace to you and cheers.

  • Marc

    Hi from Spain Phil,

    gret stuff here!!

    I’m still concerned about privacy and security. Any article out there with more information about how to make my “relationship” with evernote more secure? I currently use a combination of Truecrypt, Dropbox and Evernote for sensitive data (that I manage to review and decide it is), and though in principle this should step up the overall security, I’ve lost some usability since I cant’ have Evernote seamlessly running in multiple computers etc. Still wondering if I should fully use the cloud instead…

    Evernote is such a great app!!! I’m in love with it 🙂


  • Jeff

    When you add support for webOS you can say this:

    “You can use Evernote from every computer, phone, camera or other device that you own and all of your data is automatically synchronized between them.”

    But not until then.

    • Andrew Sinkov

      Jeff, there is a webOS version of Evernote:

  • Taj Chiu

    Would Dropbox integration allow me to do something like put a PDF into Dropbox which would then sync to Evernote. I would then be able to open this file on my iPad fro the Dropbox folder and add annotations in iAnnotate or on of it’s brethren and have those annotations visible in Evernote? I am in Graduate school and I love Evernote but the inability to annotate PDFs is causing me some real trouble!

  • Joan Haworth

    I decided NOT to install web clips after I read this on my Google Chrome download site!!:

    Chrome Web Store › Help articles › Users › Get apps, extensions, and themes › General information › Permissions requested by apps, extensions, and themes

    Permissions requested by apps, extensions, and themes Share Comment Print
    Apps and extensions you install may have access to your data. You might also see a warning dialog when an already installed extension or app is updated, if the item requests new or different permissions. A warning doesn’t mean that the extension does do something dangerous, just that it could.

    Don’t install an app or extension unless you trust its creator. Check the item’s ratings and reviews to determine if it’s trustworthy.

    Here are the permissions that apps and extensions may request. Click the links to see more details.

    All data on your computer and the websites you visit

    This item contains an NPAPI plug-in.

    Caution: NPAPI plug-ins can do almost anything, in or outside of your browser. For example, they could use your webcam, or they could read your personal files.

    Your list of installed apps, extensions, and themes

    Your bookmarks

    Your browsing history

    Your data on all websites

    Your data on {list of websites}

    Your physical location

    • Andrew Sinkov

      Joan, Here’s an explanation of why we need the permissions. Please be aware that Google Chrome’s permission statements are incredibly broad.