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Evernote CEO Phil Libin wages war against 'stupid office signs'

August 05, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Evernote founder Phil Libin, right, and his wife, Sharmila Birbal, attend the recent Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Evernote founder Phil Libin, right, and his wife, Sharmila Birbal, attend… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)

Over the weekend, I wrote a "How I Made It" feature on Phil Libin, chief executive of Evernote. As the story notes, Evernote is growing like crazy, has moved into a new headquarters and is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its first app. 

Libin comes across as a pretty transparent guy, and he's never dull. And he had a lot to say about how he was handling his role as leader of the company as it grows beyond its start-up roots.

So for those of you who are hankering for more, I'm posting the extended edition of our conversation here.

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Home, sweet home: On Evernote's new headquarters: "This was a Wells Fargo building. It was a cube-farm hell before we moved here. So we had to tear everything down to open it up a lot. It's nice to have a space we got to design and think through."

Size doesn't matter. Or does it?: Evernote is "at a size where I don't know everyone anymore. Which is kind of disconcerting. I'm just now still making peace with the question of how do I live in a company where I don’t know every single person. You have to make sure communication stays good.

"When you're a small company and you're all sitting in the same room, you don't realize the benefits of that. You don't realize just how much you're getting for free. Everyone knows what everyone is doing. You get good communication. You get quick decision making. As you grow in size, most companies assume you lose that start-up culture inevitably. But it's not that you lose it. It's that you explicitly have to pay for it. You have to explicitly put in the effort not to lose those benefits. It is not inevitable that you cease to be a start-up. But if you don't do anything, you will."

How to stick it to the man when you are the man: "There are the encroaching forces of corporate bureaucracy that have to be actively beaten back. But it is possible to do it. You have to be very intentional about it. I've done a bunch of things over the past year in that vein. And I'm sure more will come."

Signs, signs everywhere: "I declared war a few months ago on stupid office signs. I realized that I started seeing signs around the office everywhere. Like, 'Your mother doesn't work here, make sure you wash the dishes after yourself.' And the signs suck. They're passive aggressive. They're kind of snotty. And I thought this was really bothering me. On the refrigerator, someone put up a sign that said, 'Bottled water is for guests only.' And I was like, 'What the hell?' What they were trying to say is, 'Hey, employees, we got you all really nice water bottles and it would be nicer for the environment if you used them.'

"So I wound up for a couple of months going around and ripping down all the signs that weren't in the right tone, and that weren't really expressing themselves. And going and yelling at people who put them up. And it's worked. It's been six months since I've seen a poorly written, passive aggressive sign. I think it really does have an impact. Because when you get to be a company of a bigger size, it really does start to feel like work when you see the accumulation of crappy culture like this.”

Mirror, mirror: "When you look at any product, and kind of squint at it, you can see the reflection of the company that made it. You can see what the office looks like and how it's organized and see whether they're in cubes or not. Every product is a reflection of the company and its culture and physical space. I don't think you can hide it. The only solution to making beautiful products is to have that reflection be accurate. Have a beautiful company so its reflection looks good.

"So the same people who think about product design think about office space design. The facilities team reports to the guy who is our senior-most designer. And that was an intentional decision to say these are the same things. The physical space is part of the product. And the way we set up the space reflects the way we think about the product and whether it's open and pleasant and efficient. An office space that has inefficient communication will not create a product that enables efficient communication."

Mistakes were made: "When we moved here we thought, 'Man, this is a great location for signage. We should put up a big sign.' And we weren't going to go to a sign company and say, 'Make us a sign.' We didn't want to look like a mall fabric store. We wanted something distinctive. We have great designers, so let's design a sign. And it's just beautiful. It wraps around the building. I'm really happy with it.

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