20VC Evernote CEO on Why You Play For The Front of Your Jersey Not The Back, Why Success Is A Team Sport & Why Leadership Should Accept The Negative Consequences In All Situations



In this episode of the 20 minutes VC, Harry Stebbings interviews Chris O'Neill, CEO of Evernote, discussing his transition from a decade at Google to leading the productivity platform that has raised over $160 million in VC funding. O'Neill shares insights on the importance of a mission-driven approach, building a strong team and culture, and setting audacious goals—drawing parallels between sports and business leadership. He also touches on the challenges of scaling a company, the significance of having a North Star for guidance, and the delicate balance between short-term execution and long-term transformation. O'Neill emphasizes the need for self-awareness, a growth mindset, and the concept of 'first team' within leadership. The discussion also covers the role of radical candor in fostering a feedback-rich environment and the criticality of prioritizing people over market size in angel investing. Harry Stebbings also endorses Zoom and Viewed, two tools for enhancing business communication.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the Episode

  • Harry Stebbings welcomes listeners to a special episode of Founders Friday featuring Chris O'Neill, CEO of Evernote.
  • Chris O'Neill's background includes over ten years at Google, with roles such as managing director of Google Canada and global business operations at Google X.
  • Evernote, led by Chris, is a productivity platform that has raised over $160 million in VC funding.
  • Acknowledgment of Jason Lemkin for introducing Chris to the show.

Welcome back to the 20 minutes VC in this very special episode of Founders Friday with me, your host Harry Stebings, found on the old Snapchat at H. Debbings with two b's. It would be fantastic to see you there, but to the show today and I'm thrilled to welcome Chris O'Neill to the hot seat.

Harry Stebbings introduces the special episode and expresses excitement about having Chris O'Neill on the show.

Harry Stebbings' Tools for Calls and Interviews

  • Harry Stebbings uses Zoom for video and web conferencing, praising its ease of use and straightforward pricing.
  • Zoom's partnership with Sequoia and their latest funding round is highlighted as a testament to its value.
  • Vuedit is recommended as a free video recording tool for personalized communications in business.
  • Vuedit's built-in tracking and immediate playback notifications are emphasized for their usefulness.

My response Zoom, the number one video and web conferencing service providing one consistent enterprise experience that allows you to an array of activities including online meetings, video, webinars, collaboration enabled conference rooms and business im, just to name a few. And it's the easiest solution to use buy and scale and for sure the most straightforward pricing.

Harry Stebbings shares his preference for Zoom as a comprehensive and user-friendly conferencing service.

Chris O'Neill's Foray into Technology

  • Chris O'Neill grew up in a small town in Canada and moved to the Bay Area in 1998, initially for a short period before graduate school.
  • He fell in love with the Bay Area and entered the technology sector as a consultant before joining Google.
  • Chris likens entering the technology industry to going down the rabbit hole of the Matrix, implying it's a transformative and all-consuming experience.

Sure. Grew up in Canada, a very small town in Canada, and found my way to the valley way back in 1998 for what was supposed to be just a few months before going to graduate school, and really fell in love with the Bay Area, first and foremost, and then dabbled into technology, first as a consultant and then soon thereafter working at what was a relatively small company, but fast growing company called Google.

Chris O'Neill shares his journey from Canada to the Bay Area and his initial experiences in the technology sector leading to his role at Google.

Takeaways from Google and Application to Evernote

  • Chris O'Neill reflects on the privilege of working at Google during its hypergrowth phase.
  • He maintained a list of practices to take with him to future ventures and those he would leave behind.
  • Key takeaways for Chris include the importance of a mission that matters, team and culture building, hiring diligently, transparency in communication, setting audacious goals, and implementing OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).
  • These practices from Google are what Chris strives to integrate into Evernote's operations.

But really, the first was really about having a mission that matters. Google clearly has a mission that matters, and we've brought that here. Team and culture. So the notion that the team you build is really the company you build and the culture, the countless things that you do that contribute to culture, really building your tribe.

Chris O'Neill discusses the significance of having a meaningful mission, building a strong team and culture, and how these principles have been brought to Evernote from his experience at Google.

Implementing Audacious Goal Setting

  • Chris emphasizes starting with setting any goal as a change in behavior and acknowledges the journey, which may include setbacks.
  • He believes in rooting goals in a "North Star" to provide context and a sense of purpose, which is essential for success.
  • The process of setting goals should begin modestly and gradually become more ambitious over time.
  • Chris applies these principles of goal setting both in his personal life and at Evernote.

I also think that the most important thing is to actually root goals in what I call a North Star. Really, that is the number one thing that people fail to do. If you do not articulate something greater than the individual or instill a sense of purpose and contextualize a goal, it's really, really hard for that goal to ultimately succeed because it just lives in the abstract and it doesn't have that context.

Chris O'Neill discusses the importance of aligning goals with a greater purpose to ensure they are meaningful and achievable.

Embracing Failure and Learning

  • Companies should encourage taking risks and be comfortable with the possibility of failure.
  • Leaders must provide support and not punish failures but rather celebrate them as part of the growth process.
  • Kim Scott's concept of "whoops the monkey" from her book "Radical Candor" highlights celebrating failures in a public setting.
  • It's essential to anchor such practices within a company's overarching objectives or 'North Star' to provide context.
  • Begin with smaller challenges and gradually increase the level of difficulty, giving employees the space to fail and learn.

"There's a great chapter in Kim Scott's book on radical candor, and she talks about whoops the monkey, and this is an award that she found actually at her time at Google that was awarded in all hands meetings for the person that actually screwed up and made it not just okay, but you celebrate the failure and literally view it as price of admission to doing great things."

This quote emphasizes the importance of recognizing and celebrating failure as a critical component of innovation and growth within a company, as exemplified by practices at Google.

The North Star: Balancing Vision with Execution

  • The North Star represents a company's clear vision and mission, which helps guide decisions and maintain focus amidst distractions.
  • Articulating a North Star involves defining the company's vision, mission, strategy, culture, and values.
  • Balancing short-term and long-term objectives is one of the most challenging yet crucial tasks for companies and individuals.
  • Having a clear North Star helps navigate both good times and challenging periods.

"Really being clear about a vision and a mission and strategy and culture and values, like really being intentional and clear about those things and really spelling them out and investing as a team in that journey."

This quote underlines the importance of having a well-defined and articulated set of core principles that act as a compass for a company's actions and decisions.

Frameworks for Balancing Short and Long-Term Goals

  • Jeffrey Moore's "Zone to Win" provides a framework to manage both immediate performance and future transformation.
  • Companies should execute their current business while setting goals for and investing in transformative long-term bets.
  • Regular team check-ins help ensure discipline in pursuing both short and medium-term objectives and transformational goals.
  • It is crucial to establish a common vocabulary and set clear goals within the framework to guide the company's direction.

"We actually have a framework for it. We set goals against each. So we have a vocabulary and then we remind each other, literally, we just had our quarterly off site this week, and at the end we go around and we basically ask each other, are we being disciplined across the shorter or medium term bets, as well as funding some of the longer term, more transformational bet that we've agreed to as a company?"

This quote explains how the company uses Moore's framework to balance and review progress on both short-term and long-term objectives, ensuring a disciplined approach to growth and innovation.

Strategic Thinking in Product Expansion

  • Leaders must anticipate future trends and be proactive in shaping the company's direction.
  • Time and space outside of daily operations are necessary for contemplating future strategies.
  • Discussions about the company's role, akin to Clay Christensen's concept of "jobs to be done," help in understanding the purpose and direction of product development.
  • Regular meetings to assess product health and prioritize tasks are critical for managing existing business while considering potential new features and updates.
  • Leaders must make tough decisions and filter out noise to maintain focus on strategic priorities.

"So it's really anchoring that. The other concept I like is the job that we're hired to do. So Clay Christensen's, of course, done a whole bunch of work around this is asking a deceptively simple question, like, what job is evernote hired to do in the world?"

The quote reflects on the importance of understanding the fundamental purpose of a company's products in the market, which guides decision-making in product development and expansion.

Understanding Metrics and Accountability

  • Importance of understanding which metrics matter for the job and time horizon.
  • Differentiating between vanity metrics and meaningful metrics.

"And you have to really understand the job that you're hired and the metrics that really matter and the time horizon that you're talking about."

This quote emphasizes the necessity of recognizing the appropriate metrics that align with the job responsibilities and the strategic timeframe being considered. It's a reminder to focus on what truly contributes to success rather than getting distracted by less significant indicators.

Evernote's Growth and Challenges

  • Evernote's transition from startup to mature company.
  • The challenge of scaling a global team with a limited budget.
  • The importance of evolving the team while maintaining the company's core mission.

"This is a company that literally exists in every country in the world, including regions like the Vatican."

The speaker is highlighting Evernote's global presence, indicating the vast scope and reach of the company which presents unique challenges in maintaining consistency and quality across diverse markets.

Scaling a Team for Growth

  • The need for a growth mindset and long-term thinking among team members.
  • The concept of 'first team' where the leadership team prioritizes collective goals over individual functions.
  • Intentional hiring focused on essential strengths rather than the absence of weaknesses.

"Team you build is the company you build."

This quote underscores the direct correlation between the composition of a team and the overall company culture and success. It suggests that the qualities of the team members define the trajectory of the company.

Characteristics of Successful Scaling

  • Self-awareness and a growth mindset are critical for scaling.
  • Leaders need to plan strategically for the short and long term.
  • The 'first team' principle fosters trust and collaboration among leadership.

"Everything about people need to balance both the short and the longer term."

The speaker is advocating for a balanced approach to decision-making that considers immediate needs while also preparing for future challenges and opportunities.

Hiring for Scaling

  • Hiring should focus on essential qualities necessary for world-class performance.
  • As a company grows, the hiring criteria evolve from resourcefulness and grit to specific skill sets and expertise.

"Being really intentional about the one or two, sometimes three areas that are required for any role to really be world class and hiring for the presence of those two or three things, as opposed to the absence of weakness."

This quote suggests a strategic approach to hiring, where the focus is on identifying and securing the key strengths that are crucial for a role, rather than trying to find candidates without any weaknesses.

Lessons from Sports Applied to Business

  • Success in any field, including business, is a collaborative effort.
  • The importance of team roles and collective victory over individual achievements.
  • The concept of lateral accountability, as seen in sports and military, is applicable to business.

"You play for the front of the jersey, not the back, O'Neill."

The speaker is relaying a lesson from his sports coach that emphasizes the importance of team success over individual glory, a principle that translates well into the business environment.

Leadership and Responsibility

  • Leadership should embrace negative consequences.
  • Honor in the military is seen as accessible to all, emphasizing the importance of integrity for every role.
  • Walking the talk is crucial regardless of position in a team.

so talks about this concept of officers eating last, that leadership should accept the negative consequences in all situations.

This quote emphasizes the leadership principle that leaders should be willing to face the brunt of negative outcomes, a concept derived from military practices.

And then lastly is this notion in the military that honor is an equal access.

This quote highlights the military belief that honor is available to everyone, suggesting that all members of a team should act with integrity.

So everybody has access to honor. So that you need to walk the talk, whether you're the coach or whether you're the goal scorer or whether you're a defender.

The speaker reinforces the idea that every team member, regardless of their role, should demonstrate honor and integrity by aligning their actions with their words.

Quick Fire Round: Personal Insights

  • The quick fire round is a segment where rapid responses are given to short statements.
  • Chris O'Neill's favorite book is "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving for its humor and setting.
  • His latest favorite book is "Shoe Dog" by Phil Knight, connecting with its themes of perseverance and grit.

Yeah, my favorite book of all time is prayer for O and Meanie by John Irving.

Chris O'Neill expresses his admiration for John Irving's book, citing its humorous characters and its New England setting as reasons for his preference.

My favorite latest book is Shoe Dog, about the rise of Nike and really the why.

O'Neill appreciates "Shoe Dog" for its portrayal of the challenges in building a valuable company like Nike and the determination of Phil Knight and his team.

Radical Candor at Evernote

  • Radical candor involves caring personally and challenging directly.
  • Establishing a culture where feedback is welcomed and seen as a gift.
  • Leaders must model the behavior they want to see in their teams.

But it starts with giving a damn.

Chris O'Neill's approach to radical candor begins with genuinely caring about the people involved, which is fundamental to the concept.

From there, you basically invite criticism and you invite feedback and you model it yourself.

He explains that by inviting criticism and feedback and modeling these behaviors, he fosters an environment of open communication essential for growth and improvement.

Favorite Blog or Newsletter

  • Benedict Evans' work at Andreessen Horowitz is highly regarded for its insightfulness and curation.
  • Chris O'Neill enjoys the content, which is usually released on Sunday nights.

I love Benedict Evans work at Andreessen Horowitz.

Chris O'Neill praises Benedict Evans for his insightful work, which he follows regularly, indicating the value he finds in well-curated industry analysis.

Investment Philosophy

  • Chris O'Neill prioritizes people over the total addressable market (TAM) or product in his angel investments.
  • This approach has been a common thread throughout his investment decisions.

It's the people, and I almost don't care what the market looks like, and I almost don't care what product they have initially.

O'Neill shares his belief that the quality of the people behind a venture is more important than the market or the product at the early stages, which guides his investment choices.

Evernote's Future Roadmap

  • Evernote plans to enhance its capabilities for individual and team productivity.
  • Chris O'Neill is committed to devoting his time to Evernote's growth, barring family commitments.
  • He expresses a desire to increase his philanthropic efforts and angel investing in the future.

We have so much work to do to unlock the full potential of a note.

Chris O'Neill acknowledges the work ahead for Evernote to fully realize its potential, implying a focus on continuous improvement and expansion.

And I hope towards the end of that five year thing to dial up my giving back in the form of nonprofits and boards and certainly a little bit more angel investing.

O'Neill looks forward to increasing his contributions to nonprofits and engaging in more angel investing as part of his long-term goals.

Acknowledgments and Resources

  • Harry Stebbings expresses gratitude to Chris O'Neill for his participation in the show.
  • Acknowledgment of Jason Lemkin for introducing Chris O'Neill to the podcast.
  • Promotion of Zoom as a reliable video and web conferencing service.
  • Introduction to Viewedit, a video recording tool for enhancing personalized communications.

And I really want to emphasize again how fantastic it was to have Chris on the show, and I can't thank him enough for giving up the time to join us today.

Harry Stebbings thanks Chris O'Neill for his time and contribution to the podcast, highlighting the value of his participation.

And you can find out more and download viewedit for free@vidyard.com.

The discussion includes a recommendation for Viewedit, a tool for creating personalized video communications, indicating its utility for business professionals.

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