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Evernote taps former Google Glass exec as New CEO

Signaling what it hopes will mark the start of a new phase of growth, Evernote, the company behind the popular cloud-based productivity app of the same name, announced today that Phil Libin will step down as CEO but remain as executive chairman.

Chris O'Neill, who most recently ran the business operations at the Google X research unit, will take over as Evernote's CEO starting next Monday. The change will be announced at a company all-hands meeting this morning.

In an interview with Re/code ahead of the announcement, Libin said the change is intended to carry Evernote into a new more aggressive phase of growth during which the company will likely beef up its sales and marketing efforts. O'Neill will also likely take Evernote public, he said.

"I've always said that I wouldn't be the company's last CEO. And I realized years ago that I didn't want to be the CEO when the company went public," he said. "I realized I wasn't passionate about being the CEO who will take this company public and that I should find someone who will be passionate about it."

Evernote did not make O'Neill available for an interview, but in answers to a series of emailed questions, he called the company's product one that passes what Google CEO Larry Page likes to call "the toothbrush test," meaning it's something that a person can use at least twice a day. He counts himself among its fans: "I'm one of the tens of millions of Evernote users who view it as an essential part of my daily life," he said.

He said he plans to boost Evernote's efforts to convert its free users to its various paid tiers of service. "Global user growth looks strong as do early returns on recent monetization efforts. User growth and revenue are the oxygen for any successful company so we'll be looking to double down on this traction," he wrote. "My job is to lead and scale this great team through the next phase of product and revenue growth, and to preserve Evernote's unique culture while evolving it over time."

In explaining the change, Libin described himself as "not passionate" about many roles that fall to a CEO by default: Building a sales team, helping employees grow in their careers and creating the kind of predictable business model that appeals to Wall Street investors.

They're the signs of a mature company that Evernote doesn't yet have, he says. Before taking Box public, its CEO Aaron Levie got its executives into the habit of hosting quarterly earnings calls with its investors for 18 months before its shares floated on the New York Stock Exchange. That gave it the kind of fiscal discipline and attention to the nuances of financial forecasting that public investors expect. It's "a muscle that Evernote hasn't developed yet," and something that "is not in my DNA." Evernote, which has raised some $290 million from venture capital and private equity investors at a valuation reported to be north of $1 billion, has recently started hosting quarterly earnings calls with investors.

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Libin's passions, he says, lie more in working with "small teams of nerds" on "specific actionable things," like improving Evernote's software. "We've now gotten to the place where we can afford to bring someone in who is just going to be amazing at scaling the company and the flip side is that I will get to work on the stuff that I like to work on."

Libin started talking about finding a replacement with Evernote's board of directors in earnest early this year, and the company started zeroing in on candidates about four months ago. "Phil was the person who led the search process," said Roelof Botha, a former PayPal executive and now a Sequoia Capital partner who sits on the company's board. Botha said there was no pressure from directors on Libin to step down. "This is a carefully measured and considered decision."

Still vague about his preferred timing for an Evernote IPO, Libin hasn't changed his often-repeated answer about Evernote's "moral obligation to be a public company" eventually. He also repeated his standard line — one that he has recited since at least mid-2012 — that a public market debut is probably "about two years away."

"One of the things I'm looking forward to is not being the person whose opinion about an IPO matters the most," he said. Asked if O'Neill will be the CEO that finally takes Evernote public, Libin said with a grin: "He better."

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote.

Re/code first reported last month that O'Neill had left his role as the business lead on the Google Glass project after 13 months in that job. He joined the search giant in 2005 and moved up the ladder to become managing director of Google's operations in Canada, his native country, in 2010. He also sits on the board of Tim Horton's, a Canada-based coffee-and-donut chain.

O'Neill stepped in to run business operations related to Google Glass following a fumbled debut that led the Internet giant to revamp the product. In January, it shut down its Google Glass Explorer Program intended to attract early testers of the $1,500 device and released a vague statement about Glass "graduating" from Google X. The company handed the product over to Nest Labs, its connected device unit headed up by the former Apple executive Tony Fadell.

Before that O'Neill ran Google's operations in Canada starting in mid-2010. At the time, Canadian consumers were among the world's heaviest Internet users, but were statistically wary of shopping online. And by Google's reckoning, fewer than half of Canadian small businesses even bothered to build a website, let alone advertise on the Web. O'Neill's mandate was to change that.

O'Neill says on his LinkedIn profile that he "doubled Google's business in Canada." The claim is hard to verify because Google doesn't break out its revenue in the country. (The U.S. and U.K. are its biggest markets; Canada gets grouped into "the rest of the world.") But data from Canada's Interactive Advertising Bureau shows that in 2010 Canadian Internet ad spending at $2.2 billion Canadian barely eclipsed ad spending at its major daily newspapers. By 2014, Internet spending had nearly doubled to $3.8 billion Canadian, and far outpaced TV ads.

Additionally, Google's staff in Canada grew from 300 in 2012 to 578 by this year, and it has been rated as the country's most-admired place to work for four years running. O'Neill's performance in Canada especially impressed Libin: "He transformed it from a mediocre organization to one that is highly regarded," Libin said. "He knows how to build a team, motivate people and get them all on the same page."

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And that's what Evernote needs now, Libin says. The company has reached its "awkward adolescent phase." It has about 400 people, and he expects O'Neill to lead the charge to staff up fast. "The company has reached a stage where it doesn't feel like a startup, but it doesn't feel mature yet," he said. "Part of Chris' mandate is to scale up on the people side and to make sure that everyone understands where we're going. This is exactly the puzzle that he likes to solve."

Google declined to comment on O'Neill's departure and if the company will replace him in its Glass business.

Founded in 2007, Evernote started as an ambitious mobile and desktop app devoted to helping its users "remember everything," — its logo is the head of an elephant — inspired in part by the work of Gordon Bell, a Microsoft researcher who spent a decade on experiments during which he digitally logged nearly every detail of his daily life. It developed a quirky, dedicated following that has at times been compared to a cult.

Now that cult is approaching the size of an established religion: It has 150 million individual users in 193 countries, up from 100 million six months ago. Seventy-five percent of those users — both using the free and paid tiers — are outside the U.S. And while Libin declined to break down the mix of free and paid users, he said that more than 50 percent of revenue comes from paid users outside the U.S. Meanwhile a corporate tier of service called Evernote Business has attracted 20,000 companies, up from 14,000 a year ago.

In his new role, Libin said he will turn to working day-to-day on the product. One big priority, he said, will be to build new features — and even a new line of products — aimed at workplace collaboration. "If there is one thing I wish we would have done sooner is taking the collaborative uses case for Evernote much more seriously," he said. "We've been working on it a lot recently but I wish we would have done it three years earlier."

Libin also hinted at a new product in development. He described it only as an "adjacent product," that would coexist with its current application. "It has a codename," he said, "but I won't tell you what it is."

If workplace collaboration is to be a strategic priority, then Evernote will be entering a crowded marketplace, and doing it rather late. Its rivals will by no stretch of argument include young cloud companies like Dropbox and Box, but also Microsoft's OneNote, to name only a few.

But when you compare its numbers, Evernote sits squarely between Dropbox and Box. It has more than four times the number of individual registered users as Box has (37 million as of last quarter) but about less than half as many businesses signed up as Box (47,000). Compared to Dropbox, Evernote has roughly a third as many individuals as Dropbox (400 million) and about one-fifth the number of business customers (Dropbox had 100,000).

But opposite those rivals, Evernote has grown its user base almost entirely by word of mouth. Where Box in particular was criticized for spending lavishly on aggressive sales and marketing efforts, Evernote spends almost nothing comparatively. "Almost all of our spending is on the product," Libin said. "We can probably afford to do things more like Box without getting into any danger. We have a sales team of about four people. We should probably have a couple hundred. But I don't understand sales. Chris does."

Sales is one fundamental business problem at Evernote. The other is one that Box and Dropbox would recognize: Converting free users to paid users. That job has fallen to COO Linda Kozlowski, an Alibaba veteran, who led an effort to analyze pricing of Evernote's paid services. Evernote initially offered a free service, and a paid service with more storage and features for $45 a year. This year it added a mid-tier service called Evernote Plus for $25 a year. The price of Premium rose to $50 a year.

The company also reviewed pricing in every country in which it operates. "A $50 purchase is a bigger deal in India or China or Brazil," Kozlowski said. "We wanted the price to reflect a more reasonable purchase given the country's economy and scale." Growth of paid users in those countries has since spiked: Paid users in China rose 156 percent; in Brazil, 137 percent. And while the company declined to break out the precise mix of paid versus free users, Kozlowski said that globally the number of people paying for Evernote has grown by 60 percent year on year. And that improvement is not off a low base: More than 20 of Evernote's international markets have more than one million individual users.

Kozlowski was named COO two months ago, as part of the new management team responsible for what Libin says is "taking it to the next level." In March the company tapped Jeff Shotts, a former finance executive at eBay, as its CFO. These execs along with Dave Engberg, Evernote's longtime CTO, have largely taken over the company's day-to-day operations. O'Neill, he says, is the last piece of that puzzle.

—By Arik Hesseldahl, Re/code.net.

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