Resurgent Unicorn: How Evernote proved critics wrong by embracing customer centricity

Fifteen months ago, Business Insider called Evernote the first dead unicorn. While some might despair at such criticism, Evernote took it as a challenge.

In the last year, Evernote added their 200 millionth user, doubled the number of paying users, moved three petabytes of data to the Google Cloud Platform, redesigned their Windows app and Evernote for iPhone, and began winning awards again.

And how did they do it? By tuning out the noise and focusing on what users expect from them, a great example of a company that is really embracing customer centricity and experience.

We interviewed Andrew Malcolm, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Evernote, ahead of his international keynote session on marrying technical innovation with customer insight for great product vision at Corinium’s Chief Customer Officer Melbourne, April 4-5,2017.


Corinium: You have been in the CMO role for just over 12 months.  For those about to embark on a similar journey, what have been the key lessons learned in the first 12months as CMO of a startup in a world where customer centricity is becoming more and more important?


Andrew Malcolm: Just before I joined, Business Insider ran an article calling Evernote the first dead unicorn. Since then, we’ve added our 200 millionth user, doubled the number of users paying us, delivered a cash flow positive second half of 2016, integrated with Google and migrated to their Cloud Platform, and launched redesigned versions of our flagship apps Windows 6 and Evernote 8 for iPhone/iPad/iPod. The only way we’ve achieved so much in so short a period of time is by operating as a team devoted to Evernote’s success, not concerned about individual functions. As an employee, that’s your top priority. We always have to remember that what we do is cool, but what our customers do with Evernote makes their dreams come true. From building a record store run using Evernote to research labs that store their work in Evernote, our customers’ successes are our real successes. (Read more about this in Evernote’s blog)

Marketing’s role on that team is to inject the voice of the customer – e.g. understanding what our users value most (cross-platform access) in order to align our packaging strategy to customer wants – and then tell the world about the success our customers have had with our products.


The most powerful thing a CMO can do (at least in the tech start-up world) is not to tell the company story to the world; it’s to tell it to the employees.


Corinium: You will be speaking on “Making great products Into great business”, a really interesting topic as we move more towards customer centric design. How can organisations make sure they marry technical innovation with customer insight to create a great product vision?


Andrew Malcolm: I wish there was a guaranteed way to turn great products into great businesses every time, but all you can do is increase your chances of success at every opportunity. The best way to do this is by building deep connections between marketing, product and technical teams. When these people sit next to each other, share incentives, and work toward common goals, that’s when the magic happens of an engineer inventing a piece of a technology and a marketing person marrying it to the unarticulated need it could address. Venture Capitalists call this Product-Market-Fit

Of course, there are tools that marketing should bring to the table such as:


Data-driven customer segmentation – Too many segmentations use personas that are created qualitatively. This approach leads to erroneous beliefs that life events drive more decisions than daily experiences. Cluster analysis and other statistical tools can remove much of the human interpretation and identify the root causes of actions … figuring out what to do with that information is where marketers need to get involved.

Competitive landscape and Migration Trends – As start-ups, we’re always looking for what we can disrupt and not often enough understanding who might come disrupt us. In 2009, Skype was debating building Group Video calling or two-way SMS. Had we looked at trends like the shift of speech minutes to a-sync, chunkable comms like texts, the answer should have been obvious and WhatsApp might never have gotten traction where we rightfully should have won.

Positioning statement – One sentence that answers who your product is for, what job it was hired to do and why it does it better than anyone else. If the product team (i.e. Product Manager, Product Marketing Manager, Design and Engineering) can’t articulate that in a single sentence, they aren’t crystal clear on what they are building and why. As Pascal said: I would have written a shorter letter but didn’t have the time.

System economics – Products generally must give more than they take, and to do so, you must understand what your customers/users value in order to give it to them. A lot of times that’s understanding how their economics work (e.g. CAPEX vs. OPEX for IT) which aren’t always obvious. This understanding can lead to pricing, packaging and promotion insights that maximize what the company and its users care about.

User journey mapping – Product marketing is all about getting products in the hands of the right customers, at the right time, with the right offers. To do that, you have to understand what channels users will learn about your products through and how they will be most successful. Frequently, this is not by introducing a bunch of features at once but by progressing revealing the easiest to adopt features to create “aha moments” and then introducing others so as not to overwhelm the user.

Corinium: What do you think are the biggest challenges organisations face when it comes to using customer insight for product development?


Andrew Malcolm: Doing what customers say can often lead companies (especially technology companies) down the wrong path; hence the old adage that a farmer in the late 19th century would have asked for a faster horse, not a car. The truly customer-centric organizations are those that attempt to understand their customers better than customers understand themselves. Techniques like Deming Motion Studies and empirical research let marketers realize that many times, customers don’t know why they do something. If you can figure out the underlying why, you can build products that address the root causes of pain points, not the symptoms.


Corinium: Are there any lessons/key takeaways in terms of how the startup community addresses product innovation and customer experience?


Andrew Malcolm: Embrace failure and keep trying. Giant companies like GE are hiring start-up gurus like Eric Ries to inculcate these cultural norms in their organizations. In the end, whether your 300 employees or 300,000, the key to success is amazing people with refuse to lose attitudes. Great people and culture will make up for any mistakes leaders make as far as organizational structure, strategy, etc.


Corinium: How do you see the role of the CMO evolving in the age of the customer?


Andrew Malcolm: CMOs are being asked to play and more active roles in the exec suite than ever before, all while the traditional tools at their disposal are being weakened by media trends like time shifting and a greater likelihood of getting struck by lightning than clicking a mobile ad. Most companies are realizing that everyone from sales to customer support has to be a brand ambassador, not just marketing. The most powerful thing a CMO can do (at least in the tech start-up world) is not to tell the company story to the world; it’s to tell it to the employees.


(Image credits: Evernote Facebook page)




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