Why I Decided to Move Away From Evernote

For the last few months things between Evernote and I weren’t as good as they used to be. The direction the company is taking, focusing on enterprise customers, and monetizing its users’ data, eroded my trust in it. Since I use Evernote as the repository for my most personal and precious data, trust is invaluable. And as this factor is gradually taken away, I’ve stopped adding new notes, and sadly started looking for alternatives.

My relationship with Evernote goes way back. I fancy myself one of Evernote’s early users. A productivity nerd, I’ve used it since v.1 back in 2005, when apps were called softwares. Evernote looked a lot different back then. It was designed as one continuous note, imitating a cash register paper roll. This design eased my transition from the physical notepad I used to carry, and turned me quickly into a “power user”, accumulating hundreds of notes every year.

Soon Evernote became the hub for my digital life. I used it to take notes, log ideas, summaries meetings, manage todo lists, maintain contacts information, capture screenshots and whiteboards, and stash passwords. I also created workflows to forward information I wanted to keep track of, such as calendar appointments, text messages, scanned document, invoices, receipts, and workout logs using services such as IFTTT and FileThis. It grew to become an extension of my brain, just what it was built for.

I was a delighted user; so much that I decided to pay for a premium account, even though I didn’t meet my free account’s quota [1], and didn’t need the premium features. Yet I wanted to pay, because I admired the product, and wanted to express my support and loyalty to the team behind it. And more than paying, I became an advocate. I often used Evernote as a showcase for how you can build a big company by focusing your strategy and product roadmap on the user.

Of course, not everything was perfect. I never liked the note taking editor, and even less so as I started to write markdown, which Evernote doesn’t support, and witnessed the proliferation of innovative markdown editors. Keeping track of my notes became another source of grievance. Not being able to organize my notes the way I wanted meant that the more notes I’ve created, the harder it become to keep track of them or find the right note when I needed it. The hundreds of tags and dozens of notebooks I accumulated didn’t make things easier. And my biggest concern was always the lack of portability of my data. Once I put it in Evernote, it was hard to take out. But I wasn’t deterred by these shortcomings, because I knew Evernote’s vision is in line with mine, and therefore trusted those issues will be sorted out eventually.

That’s why when Evernote shifted its roadmap, I started to feel that we don’t share the same vision anymore. At first, there were those small annoyances, such as promoting Evernote’s physical stuff inside the app, and introducing features that work only with Evernote branded hardware. Then more concerning intrusive features, such as “Context” followed. But it wasn’t until Evernote has gone full throttle on sharing and collaboration that I realized it’s time for me to move on.

I’m not very surprised with the change Evernote is going through. You see, for 10 long years Evernote worked diligently to develop an amazing app, believing that’s the only way to build an engaged audience. You can’t build such a user base with less than exceptional product. But as it grew bigger, it got under pressure to show how it translates users into $s. This pressure became unbearable when it started to plan for an IPO.

My speculation is that when Evernote took the IPO route, it found that 100 million users, 5% of them are paying customers, won’t get it the valuation it desires. It won’t, because when evaluating companies, Wall Street doesn’t care about reality and past achievements. It is much more interested in future potential, in dreams. So for Evernote to be priced 10x it’s revenue, it must convince investors that such a dream exists. Now, due to the amount of users it already has, Evernote can’t project an exponential user growth. It can, alternatively, prove it can increase its users’ LTV [2], or show growth in new markets or segments.

Evernote went both ways. On the one hand, it took more aggressive conversion tactics, such as the introduction of a new system of Plus and Premium plans, reduction of the monthly storage of the free plan by 94%, and a new communication strategy that nudges users to convert into one of those paid plans. On the other hand Evernote shifted its focus towards business users, with features such as “Work Chat” and “Team Workspace” that have crept into central position within the app.

As Evernote got itself into the race of cashing in on its users, I lost trust that this will be a service I can rely on for years to come. Hence my decision to jump ship, and seemingly I’m not alone.

I used to quote Phil Libin’s reference to Gus Levy’s brilliant “long-term greedy” strategy. Unfortunately, Evernote’s long-term has arrived, and I don’t want to take part in it.

[1] Back then Evernote offered 1GB to it’s free accounts. Now it’s only 60MB.

[2] Stands for user’s life time value, and is a prediction of net profit you’ll make out of every user you acquire until this user churns.

KPIs and Building Blocks

Few days ago I presented our product vision and roadmap to our R&D group. At the end of my presentation I was asked what gives me confidence that we build the right stuff. I didn’t think too much, and answered that our vision and product roadmap define the what. Knowing our partners and users, I added, and listening to their feedback, problems, and goals help us plan the when. That’s a typical product guy’s answer, yet it’s not a satisfactory one.

The truth is that vision and users’ feedback alone don’t ensure fail-proof products, and you shouldn’t rely on them for that. In fact, much of what you build will fail. The trick isn’t to make perfect predictions, but to take small risks with possible high return. To that end you should obsess yourself over KPIs and building blocks.

Good KPIs are numeric representation of a vision, and therefore serve as your lighthouse. Build something that advances you toward your vision, and your KPIs will encourage you to scale and keep investing in it. If a feature you built, on the other hand, takes you off-course, your KPIs will signal that you should cut your loses short and kill it immediately.

Building blocks means developing stuff that can be reused. This is crucial if you want to minimize risk while moving fast and experimenting with many new features. You can move fast because when you have enough blocks in your arsenal, introducing new features becomes mere integration of existing components, like playing LEGO. The faster you move, the lower your risk is. This is true not only because you have to invest less time and resources in each features, but also because you incur less sunk costs. Say a new feature doesn’t improve your KPIs, you don’t throw it all away. You can remove the feature while keeping its components for later use. Your failure becomes a future investment. On the upside, if a new feature turns out to be successful, you can scale it immediately, since it’s reusable.

Use KPIs to make sure you’re going in the right direction towards your vision. Insist on developing building blocks and you’ll get there at the fastest and most efficient way.

Focus – Not Only Steve Jobs

It seems that Steve Jobs attained a monopoly on the idea of being focused, as many of the articles I read lately on the subject refer to or quote him. Here’s the latest one of them.

I might be breaking some unwritten law now, quoting someone else’s take on what being focused means. I ran into this line in Ayn Rand‘s book The Art of Nonfiction:

When I was writing Atlas Shrugged, I accepted neither day nor evening appointments, with rare exceptions, for roughly thirteen years.

I like this example because not only does it demonstrate extreme focus, suitable for an extreme individual as Rand, but also discipline and persistency. These are complementary qualities without them focus is meaningless. Indeed, Rand’s isolation wasn’t in vain, as it allowed the creation of a book that became an instant bestseller.

Steve Jobs would have liked this example as well, as he himself may have been inspired by Atlas Shrugged when starting Apple…

Ekko for iOS

Ekko is a true “news reader” app – it actually reads the news to you. Not only will it speak headlines and stories, but it will also listen to your voice instructions. Say “headlines”, and it will read the top headlines; “play” 1, and it will read an entire article; “ekko” and it will stop reading and wait for your next instruction. It’s like having Siri as your personal news anchor.

The company that developed Ekko is Intelligence Interactive. It’s a small NYC based startup, and I’m part of its advisory board. My help revolves mainly around product strategy, and Ekko is the first fruit of that collaboration. There’s hardly anything as satisfying as turning an idea into a real product, especially one that’s getting warm reviews.



When you say “play”, you should add a keyword from the headline, so Ekko can infer which headline you’re trying to select.