Business strategy

Phil Liben, CEO of Evernote, on the 100 Year Startup

By Nicholas Gracilla  ·   March 12, 2013  ·  2 minute read

Topics: Strategy Conference

What does it take to create a startup that would last 100 years?  Phil Liben, CEO of Evernote, talks about how this epic quest guides his company.

Phil Liben, CEO of Evernote, gave a great talk this morning: “Chaotic Good: The Right Alignment for Your Company.”

Or: everything I ever needed to know from business, I learned from Dungeons & Dragons. That classic role playing game for nerds in the 80’s teaches a lot about business:


  • A believable narrative is essential
  • Life isn’t a zero sum game
  • Probability and statistics run the universe
  • Having an Epic Quest is critical

The more epic your [business] quest, the easier it is to get alignment between founders, employees, customers, investors, users, partners, and the community.

Unlike so much startup talk, Phil dared to ask a different question at Evernote. After selling his first two businesses, he wants to ask: how do we make a 100-year startup?

Evernote made many explicit long term decisions that sacrificed short term gains for longer term alignment:

  • No advertising: eliminates customer and partner conflicts
  • Rejection of consistency: with products on 26 different platforms, Evernote rejects consistency, which leads to mediocracy, and embraces creating the best possible product for each platform. “When you strive for consistency you achieve mediocrity.”
  • Strong point of view: Evernote Business is targeted to businesses that trust their employees. Businesses with complex access requirements? They’ve chosen to not address that market.

Some other big ideas:

The startup emphasis on Disruption is bullshit fetishism: it embraces a zero sum game mentality. Disruption should not be the goal: it’s a side effect, perhaps, of a successful company.

Measured over the life of a 100-year company, it’s the culture of the company that is the product. 

Phil’s talk was a real refresher for me. Too often the startup culture is overly focused on the funding, the exit strategy, “disruption,” and the temporary, rather than the culture of the company, the excellence of the product, and alignment of all its stakeholders. Phil’s focus on the 100-year company as his Epic Quest changes all that. He says it well:

There is no exit strategy for your life’s work. 

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