Charlie Rose talks to ... Phil Libin

Evernote’s CEO discusses keeping user data private, the path to an IPO, and why the app is a hit in Japan


Describe Evernote for me.

We think of it as a cognitive prosthesis, something you can use to increase how smart you already are. We didn’t think of calling it Evernote because of note-taking. It’s about remembering everything in your life. But everyone very quickly went to note-taking because I guess that was a big need. We’re proud to be the world’s most successful note-taking company, but we hope to be much more than that. I do everything in Evernote. I’m clipping articles from the Web into it, writing my own notes. I get all of my management staff to contribute materials. I then share the notebook with the board. But I also use it to remember everything I ate.

Or if somebody says something important?

Exactly, put it down. And I don’t have to organize things. It does that for me automatically. It’s making connections with things I already know. And if you use it in business, it’s making connections with what your co-workers know.

Why do think Evernote has been such a hit in Japan?

We don’t know for sure. It’s a culture that really values information. It’s a country of nerds, in the best possible way.

Evernote is for nerds?

Maybe in some sense we’re all nerds now. It got really big in Japan first, but now it’s growing faster than anything in China. It’s growing quickly in Korea and Brazil and Europe. Now less than a third of our users and a third of our revenue is in the U.S. Everything else is worldwide.

Your marketing philosophy’s interesting. You’re not out there pushing your product.

You can use Evernote for free. We don’t show you ads. We don’t drive you to affiliates. We only make money from users when we give them a good enough experience that they want to pay for the professional version. The first time you hear about Evernote ... we want it to be from your buddy, telling you how great it is.

Is Evernote a Big Data company?

We have close to 60 million users. We do quite a bit of analysis of your information, but that never leaves your account. We never do it to target ads or sell you anything. Everything put into Evernote is totally private. We’re definitely on the other side of the fence from a lot of companies who are basically just figuring out how to make money off of your data.

This isn’t your first startup. What’s different with this one?

The main thing is — third time around — we said we don’t want to sell it. We don’t want to make products for somebody else. We want to make a 100-year startup. You look for something that is sufficiently epic to say, “This is what I want to work on for the rest of my life.”

Is there an IPO in your future?

I think so. An IPO is not a goal. I think it’s an important step along the way. And you can really do a lot of damage if you get that step wrong. So we kind of have this very long-term IPO planning. It’s a couple years out, but we’ve already done several investment rounds with a goal of rotating out shorter time horizon investors with longer time horizon investors. We basically want to decouple liquidity from exit. You don’t need an exit strategy for your life’s work, but you do need liquidity.

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