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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • April 19, 2016
  • minute read

Evernote's Slow 'Death by Startup' 

By Les McKeown, CEO of Predictable Success
The morass that is Evernote – once a darling of the tech commentariat – continues to implode.
As one wave of executive departures follows sweeping layoffs and yet another round of product closures, it has become clear that this is a company that’s not just going through growing pains – it has lost its way completely.
In one sense, this is hard to understand. Evernote has an elegant, niche-dominating product, a raving fan base within its estimated 150m+ users (full disclosure: I’m one of them), and a myriad of ways to monetize its user footprint.
So why the spiraling decline? How can an organization with such potential be failing to achieve the growth goals the market clearly expected from it?
Well, if you take a look at Evernote’s original CEO’s intent, it isn’t hard to see how it all began to go seriously wrong right from the get-go.
Back in 2013, in an interview with Fast Company, Phil Libin, Evernote’s founding CEO (and still executive Chairman) said this about the company “…we still want to be a startup in 100 years.” Remember – this is in 2013, a full six years after the company was founded and Mr. Libin first took up his role as CEO.
Fast forward to today – almost 10 years since the company was founded – and it’s clear that Mr. Libin is getting what he wanted, albeit not with the results he expected. A recent Techcrunch article about Evernote’s departing CTO Dave Engberg says of that executive: “…it’s hard to underestimate his involvement with the startup.”
So, 10 years in to Phil Libin’s ‘100 years’ and yes, Evernote is still seen as a startup. Also, it’s dying on its feet. And one, to the endless shame of tech commentators, is directly caused by the other.
Here’s the thing. There is, and only should be, one strategy for a startup: Stop being one.
Startups, if they don’t grow out of the startup phase, will eventually die (most often, sooner rather than later. Over two thirds of all startups die within three years of inception). Why? Because businesses are living, breathing organisms, with a need to mature just as vital as that of a sentient being. Trying to keep your business as a startup is as perverse as trying to keep your kid as a toddler for the rest of his or her life.
And those of us who comment on business – especially in the tech sector – have done the world no favors in glorifying the startup phase. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with adopting and holding on to some of the features of being a startup such as flexibility, innovation and creativity, but encouraging the notion of staying a startup is plain wrong. To thrive and survive, every organization has to, at some point, find its profitable, sustainable market, mine that market, grow, and become – gulp – a mature, can-chew-gum-and-walk-at-the-same-time, post-startup business. Just ask Reed Hastings.


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  1. Spot on. A successful young business shouldn’t look like a startup. When a company asks ‘why aren’t we a bigger business”, it’s usually because the leaders, and naturally enough the rest of the company, are behaving like it’s a little business. Acting small with aspirations of being big makes no sense, but someone needs to hold up the mirror.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Joe! You’re absolutely right that the change in behavior has to start at the top. In Evernote’s case, it must begin with a ruthless pursuit of finding a profitable, sustainable market by the executive team. ~ Sarah, Community Manager, Predictable Success

  2. I use Evernote for just about everything. I hope it can find its way to be a long term sustainable business providing great value. And yes, I’d pay more than I pay today for this app.

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