The History of Evernote and Where They Are Now from CEO – Ian Small


The Paperless Movement® has been lucky enough to speak a few times over the years with Ian Small, CEO of Evernote. We’ve been lucky to hear from the main man himself. We’ve also been granted a behind-the-scenes look into how such a huge software company operates. Evernote has been around for a long time now, and as many of their hardcore users know, they are part of a strong loyal following, but they have also experienced and had to weather Evernote’s very bumpy journey.

This blog post shares key points from the conversations Tom’s had with CEO Ian Small over the past few years, where they dived into:

  • What it’s like having created software that was designed Pre-iPad and Smartphones.
  • The challenges of making changes to Evernote whilst having a devoted and massive following.
  • How Evernote has learned from its mistakes and what could have been avoided.
  • Plus their exciting future plans.

The capabilities of Evernote make it a firm favorite for Tom. Many members of the community love the app. Thus, inevitably questions, as well as frustrations were sparked with previous Evernote updates. So what better than the chance to ask our questions directly to Ian.

We believe the interviews and this blog will shed new light on your perception of Evernote and give you a better understanding of their journey. We also get a heads up on what’s in store. Also as many devotees to the software want to know – Is Evernote worth sticking with? – Does Evernote have the ability to become the new thinking platform? How does Evernote compare to the new kids on the block, that many of us wish it to be?

Plus read on to hear Ian’s message to us fans.

A Brief History of Evernote

The Evernote web service launched into open beta in 2008, and reached a phenomenal 11 million users by 2011. As a start-up they became huge. However, Evernote’s growth began to slow and became surrounded by challenges. Ian joined in 2018, at the point when Evernote was ‘stuck’ deep at the roots. Ian explains that over the course of 10 years, they’d built up an enormous amount of product and technical debt, this prevented them from moving forward and severely constrained the rate at which they were able to innovate and deliver.

The Evernote Problem

Their challenges were deep-rooted at every layer. With millions of active users, it was not simple to make changes. Notion and other knowledge management systems use the latest infrastructure which allows developers to easily add and modify. Whereas Evernote was built on an old framework so, introducing any new features was a challenge in itself. If they could take the system offline for eight hours, change the schema, and put it back on again, it would have been a no-brainer. As a very complex and powerful app, any changes have to be done while the app is actually running, and doing so while nobody notices. This proved to be a very difficult task.

Those of you in Architecture will know this but, London Underground had and still has the same issue today. How do you make repairs to a dated system that is in need of a lot of maintenance, development, and innovation without upsetting the entire city’s flow?

At Evernote’s height of success, a lot of the decisions made at the time were sound decisions. But their success, longevity, and the fact that they have hundreds of millions of users has in a way created a lot of problems. Victims of their own success, perhaps?

The Turning Point

Due to the size of the company, Evernote has one of the largest engineering teams in the industry. In the past, everything they built had to be built five times for five different applications. As Ian explains, the way the cloud was architected meant their team was working on all these different areas. Today, they are working through this convoluted process, and they are now in a place that has become much more efficient to deliver new features. By choosing specific frameworks and deciding on the right implementation code. Also by using the software framework: Electron their large-scale engineering team is no longer spread thin. Instead, they can now focus on creating and moving very quickly.

The Evernote Objective

One of Evernote’s aims is to create a coherent and consistent user experience that makes sense for the device you’re on. If you are on a large screen device, such as a desktop rather than shrinking the experience to fit your mobile, Evernote elements are adapted to the specific form and capabilities of that specific device. They know there is great scope in which Evernote can develop. However, they want to focus on the areas that will make a difference to the largest percentage of their users. 

The Evernote dilemma:

One of the challenges Evernote has faced is users use only use 5% of their features.

The issue further compounds when you factor in that every user, uses a totally different 5% of Evernote’s features! This means most users have never experienced the true power of Evernote. In fact, they are completely unaware of how to use the App to its full potential. It’s actually something Evernote Expert Stacy Harmon – one of our Paperless Movement Partner Experts – refers to in her interview with Tom. In this interview, she talks about how to Level Up Your Evernote Skills To The Max. Stacey’s Masterclass inside the membership can help Evernote users on their journey to realizing the full potential of Evernote. She’ll push Evernote Pioneers way past that 5% threshold.

The big ‘Tag’ question

One of the big frustrations of loyal users has been Evernote changing existing features. And in some cases the unnecessary removal of features they loved. A popular question from the community was put to Ian: “Why had Evernote moved the ‘tags’ down to the bottom and no longer in the more prominent position at the top of the note?” The reasoning is that ‘tag’ users are less than 2% of the App’s audience. They did not want to give this area prime real estate on the interface. Despite it being a controversial issue, we can see Evernote’s committed stance of focussing on the majority of users’ needs.

Evernote vs Roam Research vs Notion

There are a lot more innovations in the personal productivity market. Compared to when Evernote first launched. As Tom describes, whilst Notion and Roam Research have powerful features like backlinks that can connect our data. The two platforms can also be very limited. Evernote’s advantage is the ability to connect with other apps. We have APIs to create automations or can use another productivity app: Filterize to deeply integrate with Evernote.

Ian values the potential of apps like Roam Research and Notion, but rather than view them as competition, he sees them as a source of learning, just as they do with their users. The mission and vision of Evernote has always been to act as your external brain. Evernote’s focus is on remembering, whereas Roam Research is geared towards thinking. As Ian explains, with such a different objective, their approach, functionality, and focus are considerably different too.

Evernote truly acts as your external brain…
or your knowledge co-pilot.

Ian Small

The Future

It was Stepan Pachikov, the founder of Evernote who envisioned the software to be your external brain. However, technology has progressed exceptionally in 20 years. Ian shares, that the power of Evernote should be able to do more than just help people remember. We can currently search our data with ease, but Ian believes Evernote isn’t doing that much work for us. He wants to turn our content into action, into a form of accomplishment.

The mantra has evolved from, ‘remember everything’, to ‘remember everything and accomplish anything’. A place where you reap the rewards for having added the information. Essentially, shifting the burden so that Evernote is increasingly doing more of the work for you, helping you accelerate your workflow. This sounds incredibly exciting and we look forward to seeing how this develops! 

The Mistakes

As you’ll see in the videos, Ian is open about the mistakes Evernote has made over the years. Recognizing the miscommunication at the recent launch. The team was focused on releasing updates that addressed the needs of the 90-95% of users and neglected the remainder. They should have been upfront and clear to the 10% of users. Reassuring them that their needs would be addressed – just not yet. They created a lot of dismay and confusion. Confusion that could have been easily avoided. The team now knows they should have made it clearer that existing workflows could still be used.

The Fans

After a very challenging one and a half decades of progress, this is still just the start for Evernote. Ian wholeheartedly thanks Evernote users for their loyalty. Despite being silent and not releasing much software for a period of 18 to 24 months, their dedicated followers remained. This says a lot about them as a company. Ian is clearly grateful and humbled by Evernote’s incredibly generous users.

He says, “….ultimately we are doing all of this for the users so that we can get back to having a live and dynamic and evolving application.” For those of you who want to delve deeper into Evernote, we have Partner Expert, and Evernote Certified Expert & GTD® practitioner, Stacey Harmon, sharing a comprehensive video on how to use Evernote to boost your productivity, you can find out more here.

Evernote’s Next Steps

We can see the changes and evolvement of Evernote’s approach; they are releasing features consistently, listening to feedback, fixing bugs, and actively showing their dedication to getting it right for the long-term Evernote Power User. Ian promises there will be new ways to look at your existing content and new kinds of content that Evernote will support.

In this fast-paced tech world, where we at the Paperless Movement® see companies come and go, we truly believe it is crucial for us users to see a face and a connection to a brand. We’ve really enjoyed chatting with Ian, it has been a beneficial insight into how software companies operate and we are super excited to hear what is next and look forward to the next interview installment too.


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