Big data? Evernote thinks small data is the key

CNET Australia spoke to Ken Gullicksen, Evernote COO, about setting Evernote apart from the competition and using data intelligence to only benefit each individual user.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
4 min read

CNET Australia spoke to Ken Gullicksen, Evernote COO, about setting Evernote apart from the competition and using data intelligence to only benefit each individual user.

(Credit: Evernote)

Remember everything

There's no easy answer to the question "What is Evernote?" To say it is a note taker is selling it short. To call it an all-encompassing information capture and archiving tool makes it sound too hard to swallow. Evernote's official slogan is simply "Remember everything".

Evernote lets you type notes, record audio, take pictures, make lists, organise notebooks and even read the text in images you've captured. Then everything becomes searchable. It's all synchronised through its cloud service that makes all your notes available on your desktop, your tablet, your smartphone or through the web. It's all there in the software. But that doesn't make for an easy one-line pitch to customers.

So how does Evernote itself aim to sell the product in a way that gets the message right?

"Well, you know, that's been the biggest challenge for Evernote from the beginning," said Ken Gullicksen, Evernote's recently appointed COO and long-time investor and board member. "People would say, 'Hey, this is a great product, but what would I use it for?' Getting them to understand how they would actually get value from it has from the very beginning been our biggest challenge.

"Turns out if you know somebody who's using Evernote for a similar thing," Gullicksen continued, "the chances of you actually sticking and using Evernote yourself are very, very high. 80 to 90 percent become real users. Whereas if somebody just randomly discovers it without any context, it's harder for them to make that leap. Our first job in marketing is actually to help empower our user base to bring their friends on-board. That's what makes us grow."

Be everywhere

Evernote has around 50 million users worldwide, and 800,000 in Australia. So there's a good chance that you'll know someone you can ask to give you an introduction. It has beaten off other young competitors to become the go-to app for synchronised information capture since it debuted in 2008. But what was it that set the product apart?

Ken Gullicksen, COO of Evernote.
(Credit: PRNewsFoto/Evernote)

"The original beta launch of Evernote was March 2008. The Apple App Store opened in July the same year. The biggest strategic decision we made, and that we've duplicated since then that really set us apart, was to go all-in on the iPhone with a custom version for it," said Gullicksen. "The luck involved with that was we were one of the first really high-quality applications of any type on the iPhone. So we got visibility just by having something that was good."

Since that time, Evernote has continued to quickly embrace new platforms and new platform features as they have launched. You can download Evernote to your iPhone, iPad, Android phone, Windows Phone, Blackberry and even webOS. You can also run it on Mac, Windows and in a Windows 8 touch-optimised version. There are add-ons for Firefox, Safari and Chrome. Plus through the web, where you cannot run it direct. Being wherever any user would like to use it seems to have served the company well so far.

Big data, small data

(Screenshot by CNET Australia)

It's one thing to have all your stuff in one place. It's another to make it useful and be able to effortlessly capture what you need. Evernote has been adding some clever new tricks that aim to make things that little bit easier, like recognising when you are attending an appointment, and automatically naming a new note with the meeting details. Or simply using your GPS location to put a default address into the title so you can just get down to business. The first time you see it happen, it comes off as helpful rather than creepy, and creepy is something a lot of data services seem to be getting better at by the day.

"People have been talking about big data, and we said 'we're not going to do big data, because that's all about serving people ads, and kind of using your data to benefit somebody else," said Gullicksen. "We're going to do small data, we're going to do stuff to benefit you and we're not going to show it to anyone else."

Evernote tasked a team of machine-learning specialists to work on adding more automated intelligence to the Evernote system, and automatic note titles were one of the first tools to go live. Related notes is another recent addition, which checks the content of the current document to find other documents that are likely to be relevant.

"This is a big thing for Evernote Business, because if you're sharing notes across lots of people all over the place, you could start working on something, and Related Notes might show you that a co-worker is also working on the same thing. That serendipitous discovery aspect is a really big deal."

Evernote has been extending this machine-learning utility into other parts of the business, including automated classification of recipes for its Evernote Food app.

Evernote has built a portfolio of applications that support and complement the core Evernote product: Evernote Food for foodies, Penultimate for incorporating handwritten notes on tablets into your Evernote collection, Skitch (originally an Australian product) for screen captures, Evernote Hello for capturing details off business cards and more.

If you've never taken it for a spin, it's worth a look. Just make sure you ask a friend to show you how they use it.