By Kane Fulton
There’s been a few famous elephants over the years – from Dumbo’s big-eared protagonist to the star of that 90s Rolo commercial.
California-based Evernote’s logo, a grey elephant, is perhaps the most recognised trunk-toting mammal among fans of cloud-based productivity software in 2014.
More than 90 million people now use the company’s digital writing and archiving service, which lets you store, organise and sync text-based ‘notes’ and other media across desktop and mobile devices.
Not bad for an elephant that’s lousy at circus tricks.
According to Linda Kozlowski, head of International Marketing at Evernote, the company’s growth is showing no signs of slowing down and is mostly driven by “accelerated word of mouth”.
“We still don’t do a ton of traditional advertising,” she says. “It’s more about how we expand on word-of-mouth by spotting patterns and letting users tell us what they’re interested in so we can serve those needs.”
Kozlowski believes that it was necessary for the company to develop a global mindset from day one as 73% of its users reside outside of the US.
Doing so allowed it to focus on geographical markets, she adds, with one of the first big wins coming after the company added handwriting recognition for 31 languages, as well as Asian character support.
This led to a surge in adoption in Japan and China when combined with the integration of Evernote into LiveScribe’s Wifi smartpens in 2010, marking a successful foray into the hardware business.
“The combination of handwriting recognition, new input devices and the ability to capture information on the go using mobile devices proved the perfect formula for us,” says Kozlowski. “That merging of physical and digital is where we’re going next, and it’s where we’ll see the innovation.”
As the mnemonic goes, big elephants are supposedly ugly, but Kozlowski maintains that tying Evernote to hardware is all about bringing out the beauty in devices, a practice that has gone missing in recent times.
“Somehow over the last 20 years there became this artificial separation of software and hardware, which we feel is coming back together,” she says. “Those experiences are very important to each other. If you have something that’s beautifully designed but doesn’t run well, what good is it?”
The company now has a growing list of hardware partners that includes Moleskin and Fujitsu, which have released Evernote-compatible ‘Smart Notebooks’ and printers respectively.
Evernote is also keeping a keen eye on developments in wearable technology as it treads the hardware path, outing apps for Google Glass and smartwatches, including the Samsung Galaxy Gear.
The app for the latter serves up tailored features such as displaying scheduled reminders with associated notes, and the device’s camera lets you upload snapped pictures and recorded audio straight into Evernote.
For Kozlowski, added convenience will be the main benefit offered by wearables (as opposed to, say, taking photographs). Achieving this in a way that “makes sense” has been taken on by the company’s Augmented Intelligence unit, she says, which was setup to make the process of using Evernote with products “more natural”.
“It’s early days, and the only way you can figure it out, the same as everything else, is to jump in at the beginning and learn how people are using them,” she says. “Wearables are really interesting in that information can be served up that’s relevant to you at that moment, but it has to be done in a way that’s elegant and not creepy.”
Evernote takes a process-driven view to Augmented Intelligence, Kozlowski adds, comparing the company’s strategy around products to how sports companies tap into their customers’ long-term ambitions.
“It’s like what our Phil [Libin – Evernote’s CEO] said about Evernote wanting to be ‘Nike for your brain’,” she says. “Nike is an example of where you buy a pair of something because you want to be fit. We want you to buy something from Evernote because you want to be smart. That’s our ultimate goal.”
An area the standard version of Evernote hasn’t gone into is collaboration. That experience is a personal, (or “inherently anti-social, according to Kozlowski) one. To introduce collaboration, the company launched a separate product, Evernote for Business, in 2011.
While the interface only features subtle differences, Evernote for Business separates personal and business Notebooks while taking advantage of Evernote’s global search capabilities to not only locate searchable data, but also suggest potentially useful related information.
“As you’re working on projects and typing notes, you can see which colleagues have similar search knowledge, which can save a huge amount of time,” says Kozlowski. “It brings the people aspect into focus as you can start to see expertise trends in the company.”
As with the regular version of Evernote, the business-flavoured option presents equal scope for innovation when it comes to putting the service to use.
Kozlowski points to an Evernote for Business use case in Korea, where staff at a hospital for the elderly are using iPads to share notes on anything from patients’ family backgrounds to their taste in music, lighting and colour preferences – all of which she says are used to provide better care both medically and emotionally.
Other use cases are perhaps less obvious. Buddhist monks in San Francisco use it to manage concepts and thoughts, and it’s apparently popular among mining companies which advantage of its offline capabilities by penning notes below the surface and synching them when hoisted back up.
Additionally, a car garage in Australia gives its mechanics iPads to record videos of repairs being carried out, which are uploaded to Notebooks that are shared with owners of the vehicles in a bid to increase trust.
Aside from its collaborative features, Evernote for Business also includes ones not found in the standard version, including a Powerpoint-like presentation mode that displays notes full-screen. The company also partnered with Salesforce.com in 2013 to make Evernote-stored notes and information directly accessible in sales records for faster retrieval.
Kozlowski says that the company consciously kept a simplistic, consumer-style design for the business product to let workers “do everything in an interface that’s as beautifully designed as something that you would invest in for your personal life”.
In Kozlowski’s eyes, simplicity in design, along with the flexibility afforded by the cloud, mirrors the “office of the future” where employees don’t have desk phones (instead using mobiles) and aren’t tied to stationary PC terminals.
“I think that design will become more important in offices in the same way that it’s becoming more important in software,” she says. “People want a beautiful environment at work – it’s inspiring and makes you think better.”
The idea of elegant design and cross-platform support has gained traction recently following the launch of Microsoft’s well-received, albeit long-delayed Office for iPad. It also let loose a free version of OneNote for Mac, a software suite often touted as Evernote’s closest competitor.
It could be said that serious competition to rival Evernote is long overdue, but Kozlowski is confident that the emergence of new rivals won’t keep the company’s employees up at night.
“We have a philosophy of not thinking about our competitors, because if we did that we’d forget about what we want to do,” she says. “We kinda like the idea of not having to get up in the morning worrying about who we need to compete against.”
That may be the case, but keeping its trunk ahead of the competition will always be a top priority for the company. Though challenging, when you’re an elephant the size of Evernote, it’s far from an impossible tusk.