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The 100-Year-Old Startup

More than 100 million users count on Evernote’s Swiss-army-knife capabilities on almost every smartphone, tablet and laptop. CEO Phil Libin and his team have gotten the world hooked on productivity. That was the point, Libin says.

Evernote had the features the team wanted themselves—a note-taking, web-clipping, project-managing, almost-anything-you-can-think-of app that’s free for the taking in its basic format. And they know that once users start depending on Evernote, they may very well want to upgrade to the $45 per year Premium or the $120 per year Business versions.

But all of it almost didn’t happen. In 2008 the company was running out of money. Libin had decided to shut it down the next day. At 3 a.m., he was preparing to turn in for the night when he decided to check his email one more time.

Against all odds, there was an email from a Swedish investor and Evernote fan in his inbox. The investor eventually wired $500,000, enabling Libin to keep the company afloat.

Q: You have said that you want Evernote to still be a startup in 100 years. What do you mean by that?

A: A lot of entrepreneurs are taught to think: What’s the exit strategy? We were tired of that. We wanted something that would be our life’s work. You don’t need an exit strategy for your life’s work.

We asked ourselves, How might we design something that could be around for 100 years? Thinking about doing things that are durable is different from thinking about how to maximize profitability short-term. But we don’t just want to be a 100-year-old company—we want to be a 100-year-old startup. In 100 years, we want to still make quick decisions and not become bogged down by internal bureaucracy and politics.

Q: I read that you said that you have people working for you now who have worked for you in previous companies. How do you choose your team?

A: There are lots of people who’ve never had a job other than working with me. There’s this high chance that once we’ve worked together a few years, you’ll never need to work with anyone else, because either we will stay together in the company for a long time or you should have made enough money that you won’t ever have to take a job you don’t like.

For me, it’s always easy. I just always work with my friends. I have a lot of brilliant friends, and I work with more or less all of them. The first people you bring aboard are friends, and the others are the friends of friends. It just grows from there.

Q: What about co-founders? How do you know who will be a good partner?

A: There are no shortcuts. You just have to go with the best people you know, people with whom you share a common vision.

You don’t necessarily need to know them for a long time. Stepan Pachikov—the person who originally started the California team that became Evernote—and I had a team in Boston. He and I had met only a few months before we decided to combine the teams. But we hit it off right away.

Building and cultivating the team at every level—it starts with co-founders and then goes to early employees and later-stage employees—that is the central thing.

Q: You’ve said you shouldn’t hire anyone unless you’ll be able to fire them. And yet they’re also your friends.

A: If you want to be an entrepreneur, you’re not optimizing for the easy path. You’re not optimizing for fun. You’re optimizing for impact. There are a lot of things you have to know how to do or you shouldn’t be in this business. You have to be able to fire people.

It’s tough to give people a chance if you know that if it doesn’t work out, you can’t end a relationship correctly. And if you know that you can, it lets you give people a chance. It lets you hire people whom you’re pretty sure are going to be a perfect fit, but you don’t have to be 100 percent sure.

If you lose friends that way, it sucks, but there’s really nothing good to say about it other than the alternative is to never work with your friends, and that’s much, much worse.

Q: What would you say to people who would like to take the plunge into entrepreneurship?

A: Work on something that you honestly believe deserves to exist. Ask yourself, Is the universe better off because my company exists? If you can’t honestly say that, then you shouldn’t do it, even if you think it’s a good way to make money. Because you can never guarantee financially what your outcome is going to be. Being an entrepreneur takes up so much of your time, your life, your energy. If it were just about money, then I wouldn’t do it.

Q: How can small-business owners or entrepreneurs find success in a marketplace that always seems to change?

A: Focus on the product. Make products and provide services that you yourself want, love and use. It’s very hard to make something great if you’re making it only for somebody else, because you don’t have a gut feel for it.

A lot of young entrepreneurs ask, “What does the market need?” Then they come up with some idea that isn’t something they deeply care about. Unless you’re making the product for yourself first, it’s hard for you to know what is good. It’s hard for you to make it great. And products that aren’t great just aren’t going to succeed.

You have an infinite number of things that you could work on. Choose to work on things that you know about, understand, use, are in love with and want to work on for the rest of your life.

And that gives you the best chance of making something great enough to succeed.

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