Founder Stories

Evernote founder Phil Libin: Lessons for CEOs & founders

Founder Stories

Evernote founder Phil Libin: Lessons for CEOs & founders

Words Simon Lovick

April 3rd 2024 / 8 min read

Serial entrepreneur Phil Libin thinks that not all ideas need to be a startup. There’s a fetishisation around the very idea of being a startup founder, and launching a startup creates an additional level of risk, causing them to fail for reasons completely unrelated to the quality of the idea.

Phil wanted to move away from the ‘startup’ and towards the ‘product’: a belief that spawned All Turtles, a mission-driven product studio, which focuses on technology products offering innovative solutions to problems from the rising cost of healthcare to harassment and discrimination. The latest of these products is mmhmm, a video call companion app. In October 2020, mmhmm raised a Series A funding round led by Sequoia Capital, bringing the total raised to $35.6m. 

This comes off the back of years of experience. Long before All Turtles and mmhmm, Phil was co-founder and CEO of Evernote, the transformational note-taking technology company. Under Phil’s leadership, Evernote went from marketing software to a billion dollar startup, raising nearly $300 million in the process. Phil was also the Managing Director of venture capital firm General Catalyst. 

In a Founders Factory fireside chat, Phil revealed some of the most valuable lessons he’s learned along the way through being the founder and leader of different companies. These include:

  1.  Don’t ignore the “superpowers” of distributed working

  2.  Products should be useful and fun

  3.  Building and maintaining a strong team is a sign of your success as CEO

  4.  Investors in technology products look for two key things

  5.  Try not to get consumed by fear of failure

You can watch the full fireside chat with Phil here.

This article was originally published in June 2021, and was updated in April 2024.

Learning 1: Don’t ignore the “superpowers” of distributed working

Companies are having to make an important decision about whether to continue working remotely, or to bring employees back into the office. To my amazement, I’d say that 99% of the conversations around working remotely are negative. 

Understandably, we’ve all been traumatised slightly by the experience of being forced to work at home. Everything feels terrible if you’re forced to do it. As soon as we transition from doing something because we’re forced to do it, to having agency over being able to do things the way we want, that changes everything.

First of all, I want to highlight the difference between remote working and distributed working:

  • Remote working is working at home while everyone else is in the office, being creative, and having fun.

  • Distributed working is where no one is remote - everyone is spread out, and the default is working from home. 

CEOs need to pay attention to the superpowers that distributed working gives us. Think about all the things we can do now that we couldn't do before. If we work out what these superpowers are, then that gives us the ‘why’ —the reason to stay distributed—and from there you can problem solve the ‘how’. 

Take commuting. The average UK commuter spends 221 hours a year commuting: but currently, the vast majority don’t waste any time commuting. Imagine a parallel universe where we never had to commute before, and I came in and said, “Listen up guys, I need you to waste two hours of your day sitting in traffic. No, you won’t get any work done, no, it won't be time spent with your friends or family, and yes, it's terrible for the environment, but two hours a day, you have to sit in traffic.”

Essentially that’s what companies are asking employees to do by telling them to come back to the office. So rather than saying that we’re only doing this because we have to, think about the amazing new powers we have, and how much better our lives are if we embrace them. 

Five more reasons distributed working may be better

  1. You’ll have more control over hours you work 

  2. You’re not restricted geographically by where you live

  3. It enhances diversity and accessibility for those from different socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds 

  4. Your employees save money on commuting, work attire, buying lunch out

  5. It’s better for the environment, with less pollution caused by commuting and international travel

Read more: Benefits & challenges of remote work

Learning 2: Products should be useful and fun

At All Turtles, we have two key criteria that any products, and any updates, should meet: they should be both useful and fun (or ‘fuseful’ as we like to call it - we stole that from Biz Stone).

  • Useful - at the end of the day we’re making products to make the world a better place. If we weren’t doing that, I think I’d struggle to get out of bed in the morning. 

  • Fun - this builds the muscle memory in the user, which is what makes people use it again and again. 

mmhmm is the perfect example of this: in fact, it kind of started as a joke. In the early months of lockdown in 2020, I thought: when did video calls become so boring? So I started prototyping with one of my engineers, putting photos and images in the backgrounds of video calls. Whenever I used early versions of it, people would smile and laugh. Clearly there was really a strong emotional need for something that was fun.

In the current circumstances, this goes a long way. Many of us know how to deploy charisma at work. We just naturally know how to make people laugh, how to engage with people, without even thinking about it. 

All of a sudden on video, no one knew how to do that kind of stuff. I saw the reflection of this in my own work: I realised that pitches were not getting a good reaction, and that meetings were super hard, because I just didn’t know how to be good on video. 

Ultimately what we wanted to build was a tool through which anyone could look into a camera and be engaging. We can’t deny how important that is professionally. So that’s what we built with mmhmm. 

Learning 3: Building and maintaining a strong team is a sign of your success as CEO

If you ask any CEO about the hardest thing they have to do as a leader, they’ll tell you that it's hiring and keeping brilliant people on their team. 

This is definitely true. I’ve found that my success as a CEO is almost entirely pinned on the things that my team does, and on my ability to keep them there doing it. Investors and board members don’t care about the things that I’m doing, they’re evaluating me based on my team.

My job, essentially, boils down to: setting the vision, hiring incredibly talented people who are far more impressive than I am, and making sure there’s enough money. 

Hiring talent is another “distributed working superpower”. Never am I going to have to post a job advert saying “Software Engineer in San Francisco” or “Graphic Designer in London”: every job I hire for now is global. That’s multiplied the pool of available talent by thousands. CEOs, who have been whining about how the hardest thing to do is recruiting people, have been granted this amazing solution which makes hiring infinitely easier. 

Learning 4: Investors in technology products look for two key things

I’ve discovered a cheat code for what investors look for in a pitch.

  1. They can understand the big picture potential and find it plausible. The product doesn’t have to exist, or be fully-formed, but ultimately they can see where it’s going and understand why it's transformational. 

  2. They want to use it. This was a great thing we saw with mmhmm: as soon as I showed it to investors, they all asked when they could start using it themselves. 

The combination of these things is the sweet spot for raising investment. Now, not every company has this luxury. If you’re selling dog food, unless you’re selling it to dogs, your scope for meeting the second category is limited. For technology products, this is easier: these are things that VCs and investors may use themselves.

It’s worth remembering that raising funds, as necessary as it is, shouldn’t be a measure of your success. It’s certainly an important step, but not a success in itself. I’d really encourage other founders not to view fundraising as a goal or something worth celebrating.

Learning 5: Try not to get consumed by fear of failure

I’m a chronic worrier, which really isn’t useful in a startup, so I try and think of ways to embrace my worries without it going to an unhealthy place or draining my energy. 

What I’ve learned is that, in startups, it’s actually okay if you fail. Most people can get other jobs, no one will be penalised for working at startups that have failed. While bigger companies have resources and assets that they need to protect, startups have the luxury of being leaner and less weighed down: in comparison, you have nothing to protect. 

Once I learned to think like this, a great weight was lifted off me. Now, I still spend a lot of my time worrying, but I try not to act on my worries: that way I can make decisions that often result in doing something unexpected and great.

Phil Libin

  • Phil was co-founder and CEO of Evernote from 2007 to 2015. 

  • Phil joins General Catalyst as a Managing Director in September 2015. 

  • Phil leaves General Catalyst in May 2017 to launch All Turtles, where he is now co-founder and CEO. 

  • Phil launches video conferencing tool mmhmm in May 2020, which has to date raised $35.6m.

  • This summer, we’re mmhmm are unveiling their biggest update ever, with a new way to remix reality on video. Join their virtual event series to celebrate:

👋 Say hi to Phil on Twitter

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