Evernote CEO Phil Libin recently stopped by the Fast Company office. The following is an excerpt of our hour-long conversation, all in Phil’s own words.
From the beginning we said, “Evernote is for us.” That means we’ve started and sold companies before, but they were always kind of for somebody else. We said, “The third time around, let’s only build things that we want to use and let’s build a company that we want to keep.” We had this idea of trying to make a hundred-year startup. We decided to take it seriously.
Taking it seriously basically means that there is no short-term.
In all my previous companies there were a lot of times where we were thinking, “Wow we just need to buckle down and deal with things for the next couple of years, and then we’ll probably sell the company.” That’s not an option at Evernote. We’re in it for the long haul, so if there’s anything that’s dinking, that’s annoying, anything that doesn’t feel right, our only solution is to fix it because we’ve got to live with it forever.
There’s two ideas in there. We wanted to make a company that was durable, that would be around for 100 years, and did a little research about that. There’s a little bit over 3,000 companies in existence right now that are more than 100 years old, and the vast majority of them are in Japan.
We wanted to do that; we wanted to make something that would be long-term, that was going to be sustainable, but it wasn’t enough to just make a 100-year-old company. Just because they’ve been around for a long time doesn’t necessarily make them great places to be. We said, 100-year startup, we still want to be a startup in 100 years.
We spent a lot of time thinking about when does a company go from being a startup to being something worse? What is that transition where at some point you’re no longer a startup? And tried to see if we could hold that off for another 95 years. Even as we get bigger, we don’t want to stay small, we want to get quite large, but we want to be a 100-year-old, very large company that’s still operating like a startup, people are still in love with, that’s making innovative decisions, that’s acting decisively. We didn’t know how to do it; we still don’t, but we thought “This seems like a sufficiently epic quest to devote our lives to.”
The challenge we had is we thought we need to have a culture of design, so we need to make a culture in the company that basically says that design is the most important thing and evaluating constant improvement in design is the central element to what we do, but to have that culture we need to design it. We have this feedback loop where we’re trying to design a culture of design.
We made business socks as a promotional item when we launched Evernote Business. About a year ago we said “We’re launching business socks.” We had our people design really excellent socks because that was important; we wanted to have people stretch that culture of design, we wanted people to be able to stretch and say, okay I don’t really know anything about socks but we are going to find out.
We said, “What does it mean to make great socks? Great for what?” Any product is probably going to be great for certain things, and not for others, so it’s important to understand what are these socks for? What are they supposed to be good at? That’s definitely the same approach we try to take everywhere. I still think we’re not great at it, but we’re getting better.
Even the concepts, we say we want something to feel magical, we try to be as rigorous as possible. So we study what is that feeling, what triggers it? How do you repeat it? That involves, there’s cognitive science in it, there’s evolutionary psychology in it, there is performance art. We’ve worked with consultants who are magicians or sleight of hand artists who just walk through what is the experience you’re trying to create in someone’s mind? What is that, what are the triggers?
There’s all of these aspects that tie in to having a design-centered culture.
If you’re thinking in 100-year terms, the culture is the only important thing. The culture is everything in the long-term. The culture is much more important than the current product. The product is the current product, the culture is the next hundred products. This is what’s going to produce everything.
Our culture’s in the service of good design. Good design means you are completely rejecting the premise that there is any trade-off whatsoever between a great experience and great functionality. If you say that, if you talk about that trade-off, then you haven’t achieved good enough design. Greatness in design is where you have a design where there is no trade-off. You look at something and say, this is beautiful, this is a great experience, it’s pleasant and it’s really powerful. You know that you haven’t achieved that when you’re doing things where you’re constantly thinking about making that trade-off.
I think it’s rare to have a product that gets to that point. That’s what we try to achieve. It’s the figuring out what is this for, what are we trying to improve? Every product that we work on starts with that, what is this, what are we trying to do with this?
It never starts out with how much money can we make. It never starts out with how many of these can we sell? It starts out with what’s the point of it; why is the world better off because this product has existed in it? If the world isn’t better off because the product existed in it then it’s just not interesting to make.
[Image: Flickr user cuatrok77 | Socks photo by Andrew Burke | Evernote]