Phil Libin remembers the moment he left childhood behind. It was nearly four years ago, when the funding for his Internet start-up fell through. He was 35.
It had all been so much fun until then. But at 3 a.m., out of cash and having waited in vain for a venture capitalist or angel or CEO or anyone at all to return his increasingly desperate calls, Libin knew that he would have to pull the plug on Evernote, a software application that helps people remember things. “I realized I was going to have to wake up tomorrow and lay off everyone in the company,” he says.
Exhausted and demoralized, he was reaching for the light switch when his e-mail dinged. A momentary blast of hope—but no, just a message from a fan, something he had been getting more and more of lately. This one was from some guy in Sweden, a fellow software entrepreneur, and it was the usual “Evernote has changed my life” sort of thing. Libin almost missed the last line: “If you ever need any money let me know.”
Feeling more awake, Libin typed back: “It just so happens we could use some cash. How much did you have in mind?”
The answer came right back: “Would half a million dollars be enough?”
Today, the company is swimming in tens of millions of dollars in cash from both VCs and profits. Evernote is buying companies, tripling in size each year, and drawing 40,000 new users a day. If you live in Silicon Valley or Tokyo, where Evernote has reached cult status, none of this probably surprises you. Otherwise, you must be wondering: What the hell is Evernote?
Libin has different ways of explaining it: It’s your brain offloaded to a server. It’s Google for the Web of your life. It’s a spotlight on the dark matter of your universe. It’s a tool for converting your smartphone from a time killer to a time saver.
Learn more about how Evernote works, and hear from some of its biggest fanatics in the tech industry.
OK, so Evernote is a little hard to explain—you have to get to know it to appreciate how subversively effective it is. You could say pretty much the same about Libin, as well as about the team of fellow managers—many of whom have stuck together through multiple start-ups—and the company they have built around memory. It’s a company whose employees romp in spacious offices ringed with conference rooms named after video games. (So much for adulthood.) Whose customers are so dedicated that many eventually choose to pay for the service, even though they can use it for free. That’s starting to change the way children learn in schools. And that has set its sights on affecting the lives of a billion people—a goal that’s looking less fanciful every day.
Such lofty ambitions might have seemed absurd when Libin’s family moved to the Bronx, New York, from the Soviet Union in 1979. Libin was 8 years old. Fourteen years later, he had managed to effect a trifecta of ancestral shame when he left Boston University one course short of his bachelor’s degree, in a fit of pique over a questionable charge on a school bill. “I was the first one in my family for 200 years who had no degree, didn’t play an instrument, and wasn’t a chessmaster,” says Libin, who, whatever his limitations, has raised acerbic self-effacement to an art form.
Degree, schmegree—Libin could code. He had been a computer…
— David H. Freedman