The story of note-taking app Evernote has both high-highs and low-lows: It was one of the first “unicorn” startups with a billion-dollar valuation and a cult-like following in 2012, before plunging into “deep trouble” in 2015 and a “death spiral” that included executive departures in fall 2018.
By October of that year, the company recruited current CEO Ian Small who has led Evernote’s slow, laborious resurrection ever since, including the decision to completely rebuild its app.
“If you work anywhere in Silicon Valley, they say, ‘Let’s go back to basics,” Small told Business Insider. “The reason people say it is because frequently products lose their ‘why.'”
That’s exactly what happened to Evernote, he admits, which is why the team has spent the last year and a half chugging away on the on-going process of competely redesigning its product to try to win back its once-fervent following.
“At the end of the day, you have to focus on who your users are and what brought them close to the products in the first place,” Small said.
Here’s the story of how he’s trying to rebuild the company’s reputation and product.
Evernote needed an upgrade
With the tagline “Remember everything,” Evernote became wildly popular early on, whether for students taking notes in class or employees writing down meeting agendas. Since launching in 2008, it has raised a total of $296 million from investors like Sequoia Capital, Salesforce Ventures, and Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. At its peak, it was valued at $1.23 billion.
But as Business Insider previously reported, Evernote was slow to develop the revenue side of its business and struggled with converting free users to paid ones. It was selling fancy backpacks and water bottles through a “lifestyle” market, while also starting to receive negative feedback about glitches on its apps. In particular, the iOS version of Evernote had different sets of features than the Android version, and these different features often weren’t compatible with each other – making it hard for people to use the service across multiple devices.
Small copped up to these issues in a January 2019 blog post, shortly after joining the company, writing about how “each version of Evernote seems to work slightly differently and exhibits its own unique collection of bugs and undesirable behaviors.”
Small realized that while Evernote’s user base was still technically growing, the rate at which it was growing had fallen off dramatically and existing users were losing interest, too.
“When you’re a company like Evernote — which is built on a movement of users who love the product — when those users start to feel skeptical about whether or not the company is listening to them, that movement starts to get a little shaky,” Small said.
He vowed in that blog post to make big changes.
How Evernote started rebuilding its app
The first thing Evernote did was open the floodgates of user feedback and complaints; Small also asked all its employees for suggestions on what needed fixing. The company wound up with an enormous, crowdsourced list of issues.
Members of the management team locked themselves in a room for several days, poring over the lists. They sorted through and prioritized all the necessary fixes, making each group of related issues into a small project.
“Everyone at the company then looked at this plan,” Small said. “They saw things, they suggested. It wasn’t being bestowed from on high. It was built from the bottom up.”
Finally, Evernote assigned teams to work on each of its mini projects.
Progress has been slow and steady, affecting the most fundamental building blocks of the product. Previously, the technology behind the app was five to ten years old, and there wasn’t much shared code between different versions, which meant that every feature Evernote built, it had to build five times.
In other words, “you have the opportunity to make five times as many bugs,” Small says.
Evernote is now distributing preview releases of its new iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows apps every two weeks to about 20,000 test users in six languages. Though the company declined to share user growth or totals, it says its 2020 roadmap is jam-packed with improvements and it already has a laundry-list of upgrades it can trot out.
For example, Evernote spent two months updating its architecture from hundreds of fragmented databases into one Google Cloud BigTable database and has revamped its search. It released a new editor for its web app.
The process has been hard, but rewarding, especially because of positive feedback from users who finally seem excited again, Small said.
“It’s easy as a leader to stand at the front of the room and be a talking head, but what you need to do is enroll people into that mission,” Small said. “Going back to basics is a hard thing.”
Evernote is still ‘very much writing this journey’
Small says that although Evernote has been working on updating its technology for months, it’s still “very much writing this journey.”
Along with revamping its entire product from the ground up, Evernote is also working on renovating its culture. For example, it’s now being more transparent about its goals. Too often, companies end up making decisions that prioritize the needs of the company over is customers, Small says, and he hopes that being frank and open will help the company avoid that mistake and focus on what makes its product special.
“We need to have a more coherent, consistent, and reliable culture inside the organization to deliver on that,” Small said. “Our goal is really — over the long haul — to do things more productively than we have before. The reason why we want to go back to basics is to be able to move forward again.”
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