Phil Libin- co-founder Evernote, mmhmm, All Turtles

Ep 87: Building Evernote, Startup Success is Worse than Startup Failure & Why Blockchain is Bullish*t | Phil Libin (co-founder, Evernote, mmhmm & All Turtles)

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Welcome to Episode 87!

STIMY Episode 87 features Phil Libin.

Phil Libin is the co-founder and CEO of All Turtles, a globally distributed product studio, and mmhmm, an all-in-one platform for making, watching, and talking on videos.

Previously he was Managing Director at General Catalyst, and before that he was co-founder and CEO of Evernote, which he grew to become a beloved product for hundreds of millions of users.


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    So This Is My Why podcast

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    Who is Phil Libin?

    Phil Libin was 8 years old when he moved from Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to Parkchester, New York as a refugee. His parents were both classical musicians and he lived in a fairly dangerous neighbourhood in the Bronx. 

    Despite being a self-described “punchable” kid (he was poor, very physically uncoordinated and didn’t speak English well), he did well in school, earned good money doing repair work and freelance programming and sold his first company, Perseus Data systems, for $500.

    But at the same time, he also got fired from his job selling ice-cream and took 30 years to get his Bachelors degree!

    • 3:43 Moving to New York as Russian immigrants
    • 4:52 Being fired from his job selling ice-cream
    • 6:11 Taking 30 years to complete his degree?!
    Startup failure is brutal. It's super difficult. It destroys relationships & people. It's all-consuming and it feels terrible. It could be very damaging. Yeah you can learn things from it, but you can also learn things from reading Wikipedia, which is less traumatic.
    Phil Libin- co-founder Evernote, mmhmm, All Turtles
    Phil Libin
    Co-Founder of Evernote, mmhmm & All Turtles

    Building Startups like Evernote

    Phil Libin has built many startups and most of them, with the same core group of people! We delve into what makes his group tick, how he managed to sell his company for $26 million (when they were only expecting at best, $1 million), why startup success is worse than startup failure, regret and impact. 

    • 8:15 Working with essentially the same core group of friends to build 5 startups
    • 11:13 Selling Engine5 for $26 million, Hollywood-style
    • 15:52 Building something for himself (Evernote)
    • 18:19 Startup failure is brutal; startup success is much worse & much harder
    • 20:57 Three types of regret
    • 22:48 Maintaining his principles & ethics 
    • 24:53 Metrics used to measure impact
    • 26:30 3-year game plan for mmhmm
    • 28:13 How mmhmm improves lives
    Phil Libin- co-founder Evernote, mmhmm, All Turtles

    Blockchain is Bullsh*t

    This won’t be a STIMY podcast if we didn’t touch on Web 3.0 but contrary to what now seems to be mainstream belief, Phil Libin is adamant that he hates meta verse and that blockchain is bullish*t and communist propaganda (he should have a better understanding of what that means than most; he grew up in Leningrad!).

    • 31:07 Why Phil hates the metaverse
    • 32:27 Crypto blockchain is bullsh*t
    • 33:45 The promise of blockchain is just communist propaganda?
    • 37:14 Training himself to like what he hates, including durians! 
    • 39:57 How listeners can help Phil Libin

    If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:

    • Eric Toda: Global Head of Social Marketing & Head of Meta Prosper, Meta
    • Nicole Quinn: Celebrity Whisperer & General Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners. Portfolio Companies include Goop, Haus (Lady Gaga), The Honest Company, and Lunchclub
    • Debbie Soon: Co-Founder of HUG (Web3 accelerator, discovery platform & pre-mint fund), and former Chief of Staff at ONE Championship
    • Michael Lints: Partner at Golden Gate Ventures, on raising USD 70+ million in Southeast Asia
    • Professor Robin Dunbar: Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University; formulated “Dunbar’s Number”, which dictates the number of friends you can have at any one time

    If you enjoyed this episode with Phil Libin, you can: 

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    If you’d like to support STIMY as a patron, you can visit STIMY’s Patreon page here

    External Links

    Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:

    Phil Libin- co-founder Evernote, mmhmm, All Turtles

    STIMY 87: Phil Libin (co-founder, Evernote, mmhmm & All Turtles)


    Phil Libin: Start-up failure is brutal. It's super difficult. It destroys relationships and people. It's all consuming and it feels terrible. It could be very damaging.

    Yeah. You can learn things from it, but you can also learn things from reading Wikipedia, which is less traumatic.

    So definitely recommend looking something up on Wikipedia if you want to learn something versus starting and failing. And Start-up failure is very tough. It's very difficult. It's very hard. Startup success is much worse. Startup success is much harder.

    And Evernote when you're failing, it's easy to know what to do. All you have to do to survive.

    But when you're succeeding, it's really about optimization. You still have the same, if not more emotional involvement.

    Now you have something that's worth protecting, but you're not sure what the exact best next thing is. when you're failing. You wake up every morning and you say, okay, my objective is to survive. Keep the company alive.

    When you're succeeding, there's nothing you can do that's going to kill the company, you know, right away. So it's not about survival. It's about optimization. Am I doing the right things for these thousands of people that are depending on me? Am I doing the right thing for the world? Is my product having the right kind of impact that I want it to have all of these questions?

    These are all good problems to have, you know, people will say, oh, that's a good problem to have. But the truth is, good problems with that. Really hard. In many ways, good problems are harder than the bad problems because again, the consequences are usually higher and it's harder to know what the right answer is.

    Ling Yah: Hey everyone! Welcome to episode 87 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah. But before we start, I just wanted to take a moment to say if you've been enjoying this podcast, or if you've listened to several episodes, if you've learned anything, can you do me a favor?

    Take a screenshot and share this podcast with anyone in your life who might be interested in entrepreneurship, growth and all things web three, I'd love to get this education into the hands or ears of as many people as we can. So if you do me a favor, can you make sure there's one person in your life who, you know, would enjoy this content hears about So This Is My Why?

    All right, let's go to the show today. We have Phil Libin on the pod.

    Phil is a serial entrepreneur and one of the most well known companies that he's co-founded is Evernote. Yes. That note taking app that hundreds or millions of users have used and continue to use. And now he's running a new startup for making, watching, and talking a video called mm-hmm , spelled M M H M M.

    But how did all this start?

    Well, first in case you didn't know, Phil w Was the Russian immigrant. He begged for a computer when he was 11, which helped him to survive the Bronz despite being a self described punchable kid and later sold his first company for $500. Now you'd think it was all the way up for Phil, but the fact is when he was selling his first company, he also got fired from his job, selling ice cream at Carvel ice cream, and also took 30 years just to get his Bachelors.

    Other things we talked about?

    How he ended up selling Hollywood style, his company for 26 million dollars. How building Evernote felt like cheating. Why according to Phil startup failures are brutal, but startup successes are so much worse. Best advice he got from the president of Microsoft. Three types of regrets.

    Why he hates the metaverse and thinks blockchain is bull. And the tactic that Phil used to go from heating durians to loving it, the same tactic that trained him to enjoy being wrong and embracing everything.

    As you can tell, we've got lots to cover.

    So are you ready?

    Let's go.

    I understand that you actually moved to the States from Leningrad when you were age eight and your parents are both classical musicians, which is not something that I would've expected given your background.

    I wonder what it was like, just moving at such a young age and growing up in Parkchester (New York).

    Phil Libin: Well, it was exciting for me. I mean, I didn't really have a choice in it. I think my parents it was obviously a very big change for them that to give up their whole lives in the Soviet union.

    And yeah, they were both classical musicians. And they moved in their mid thirties to New York and they didn't speak language didn't really have any career prospects. So it was hard for them, but it was pretty fun for me. I just got to go along. I'm on an adventure.

    Ling Yah: Didn't you beg for your first computer when you were 11? How did that happen?

    Phil Libin: Well we lived in this really pretty dangerous neighborhood in New York city. We lived in the Bronx and I didn't really speak English at first, although I think maybe within the first year or so I had learned. But didn't really do much stuff outside. I'm kind of a giant nerd anyway. So I really just wanted a computer. I think I saw one somewhere. I don't even remember where I saw the first, my first computer because we didn't have him in school back then, but I really want to one and I begged my parents for it and they got me an Atari 800 XL back when I was 11 years old.

    And that was it. While the rest of the bronx happened around me, I just pretty much stayed in my bedroom and played around on the computer.

    Ling Yah: Didn't you sell your first computer Perseus data systems for $500, but you were also fired from your job selling ice cream.

    Phil Libin: Yeah, my first job was at an ice cream store. Carvel ice cream, which is a kind of a big chain and the east coast of the U S and yeah, I couldn't do it. I wasn't very good at it. Takes a lot of coordination to like operate all the machines and stuff, and I, I wasn't talented enough to sell ice cream.

    So I got fired from that job. And then after that, I started working as a programmer. So I started to get jobs. When I was in high school, I would get jobs at a big law firm. And then I had a few things that I was doing with computers. And then a friend I started our first company kind of a real, I mean, it was a company that we weren't taking it super seriously.

    We were putting computers together. So we would order the parts from Taiwan mostly cause we can get these big catalogs of like wholesale parts. So we order the parts. We assemble the computers that would sell local businesses for less than they could get them here. And I guess I was 16, maybe 17

    I mean, I think it's less unusual now. I think, a lot of people have, some kind of a side hustle going on. It was maybe, maybe a little bit more unusual back then, but you know, me and all my friends were immigrants. Everyone was doing something, so I didn't think of it as being particularly unusual at the time.

    It was just, some people get work at McDonald's or did other things, and I had this company. We worked pretty hard for about a year, I guess, year and a half. And then graduated than high school. Yeah. sold my share of it for $500 .

    Ling Yah: That's exciting. And I found through my research, which I thought was just really interesting. You ended up Boston university in 1989 and you graduated in 2019, which is thirty years later, what happened?

    Phil Libin: Yeah, it took me 30 years to get my bachelor's degree. Yeah, I went to BU. I was studying computer science and I got in. I had like one class left before graduating and I got into a big argument with the administration. I don't even remember what it was. Must've been some kind of financial thing I think.

    And I just got really angry and so I just left and walked out and I thought I'd never go back. I just dropped out with one class left.

    You know, I thought it would be fine cause I was already working. I had been working all through college.

    I was at a full-time job. So I honestly just didn't think I needed the degree. But no, I kind of regretted it you know, not finishing it cause I all like. And so, yeah, 30 years later, I went back and they let me finish. They let me take one class and then we finished my degree.

    And so I got my bachelor's degree exactly 30 years later and I went to graduation and it was the last in-person graduation before COVID. So I got pretty lucky. Yeah. It was fun.

    Ling Yah: And you said earlier that you had a bunch of friends and you were doing this side hustle. I imagined that these other friends that you started ancient five with, which is one of the companies.

    Phil Libin: I met a few people at BU. And erm- interested in, in, in the computer science program in the. Hang out and do a bunch of stuff together. And then we were all working together in the same company, which is called ATG our technology group. And that was, that was really one of the first kind of dot-com internet tech companies.

    And it was really, really brilliant. We were just engineers there and we decided to see what it was like starting a company. And so we started the engine five in 1997. Yeah. 19 97.

    A few friends of mine from college were working together. We were all working after college at a company called ATG in Boston it was one of the first dot com internet technology companies would go public later. And it was really kind of when the first successful things on the internet.

    And it was a great experience working . We learned a ton. And then we decided to, just to see what it was like to start our own company. So three of us started. That was in 1997, which was really, really at the heart of the dot com bubble. The whole world is being transformed.

    We started building some of the very first e-commerce software on the internet. And that was great. It was an interesting time to be to be starting a company.

    Ling Yah: What I thought it was so interesting, I loved it was that this same group of friends you've built five startups with, and I wonder what it was that kept you guys together.

    Clearly it worked on, some people would say I really need to figure out who I'm going to be going into this with. Cause they're like a relationship. But clearly It worked out for you in the first go. What's the secret?

    Phil Libin: Yeah, I mean, I think I was just really lucky. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a whole bunch of really brilliant people to let me still hanging out with them.

    And then they do work together. I think part of it was, it was not intentional at first, you know, the group changes like some people leave, some people come in, but there's a core group of people that I think I'm going to do things together with, for, you know, 50 years.

    Not consecutively, not all 50, but you know, this small group sometimes we were doing stuff together sometimes for a few years, we're doing other things and we'll do stuff together again. I think partially it's just because I'm pretty introverted and pretty shy and it takes a lot of energy to like meet new people and make new relationships. So it's just like a conservation of a relationship energy or something.

    And, and probably a bunch of the people in the group are like that. So we just kind of tend to work well together. But of course, in the last few companies, there's lots and lots of new people.

    So it's nice to have that model where people that are really effective together, people can make a really effective team can stay through multiple projects while evolving and changing a little bit.

    Ling Yah: Are there particular traits you've noticed that allowed you to all gather together and that people could apply , looking to work with other people and say, okay, these are people I could probably work with for long time.

    Phil Libin: I got this advice from Steve Balmer long time ago, who was the president , CEO of Microsoft at the time. I remember I was giving some speech in Seoul. I was already at Evernote and he was the keynote speaker after me.

    And I sent him an email saying, Hey, do you know who I am? I would love to just ask you some questions if you have any time. He was very generous. He asked me to fly over to Seattle and we spend a bunch of time together. And I asked a lot of kind of CEO questions and he gave me lots of really good advice.

    But one of the things that really struck me is he said, look, everyone gets like a certain number of people let's say have a hundred people. Some people get more, some people would get less. Maybe you have a hundred people in your life that are like the most load bearing people. the most important relationships.

    These are the a hundred people that are going to be part of all of the most important things in your life. And once you got to meet a hundred, you don't get any more. And he said a lot of people, they kind of burned through like half of them, by the time they leave college.

    Cause you're kind of careless with like who your friends are. And he says, you know, I have about a hundred people and some of them, work with me and others don't, but we run the company together. They're the people that I pick up the phone and call whenever it's something I need to do, something important.

    And he said, you should just be very mindful about who is this load bearing group of people who are the most important relationships with and really try to preserve them because you'll want to do things with these people for much longer than your current company or your current project.

    And so I've tried to have that kind of philosophy. And at the same time kind of understanding that we're always looking for new people that are compatible with that philosophy. So I do think that there's room to make new relationships, but you do have to be pretty, pretty careful and pretty choosy about it.

    Ling Yah: I want to go back to engine five cause we were on that whole chronology.

    I read that three later you sold engine five for 26 million in Jan 2000. I wonder what the experience was like because a year later didn't you lose most of the money?

    Phil Libin: Yeah. Much sooner than a year later. Like we sold it in, I think in January of 2000, which was like 20 minutes before bubble burst.

    Basically we'd been working at this company for about two and a half years or so we didn't put any money. We didn't have any investors because we didn't know that there was such a thing called investors. You know, I always thought investors were like people who bought stocks.

    I got to know that there was people that would give you money for your company. So we have to be profitable from the very beginning, which back then, and, you know, '97, '98 was like pretty easy to do because there's just so much, so much work if you're working on tech. But it was super difficult.

    It was just really, really enormously difficult work. We were just working, literally seven days a week, 14 hours a day, I think with no break for two years. And so when we had an opportunity to sell a company, we decided we would do that.

    And we were bought by a company called vignette, which is a big company in Austin that did a content management. They flew us down, me and one of my co-founders, to kind of negotiate the price and they didn't have any idea how much they would offer.

    And on the way over , I was talking with my friend, Alex, one of the people who started the company with. I said, how much do you think we could sell it for? And he thought about it and he said, well, I think if they offer less than a million dollars, we definitely should just say no. And I'm like, yeah, definitely.

    And then, you know, we flew for about 20 minutes longer and I said, do think you can get $2 million? He said, maybe. It's hard to tell that maybe we can get $2 million.

    You know, we didn't know anything about what stuff was worth. So we decided that the most important thing was that we weren't going to name a price.

    We would let them name a price. But if it was less than 2 million, we would just say no. And then, you know, we got there and there's literally the scene out of a movie where we sat at this big table in a big conference room and giant table. And they said, we're going to write down a number and a piece of paper.

    And they literally wrote down a number and like slid it across the table to me. And I ended up it said 25 million and I was like, ah, we can't do this. This little. It has to be more.

    So we said, look, we'll give you 26, but that's it. We're definitely not negotiating anymore except fine.

    So we were, pretty shocked and pretty happy. We closed the deal and we got half of it in cash after it's done. But 25% of the cash, 20% of all of it actually went into an escrow account, which means we couldn't touch it for two years to make sure that there was no, legal claims against us or anything.

    And so the 75% that we got upfront lost 98% of its value or something, almost all of it, because we got into the height of stuff that the stock in the company was worth like $10 billion when they bought us. And then they think a year later, the real world. A hundred million or something. So it really literally fell by negative percent.

    And then the cash, we invested a lot of the cash in other startups. And so the vast majority of that we would end up losing. But this, 25% that stayed in for two years and earned, you know, 3% a year interest. And two years later we got it and it was still more money than we ever had in our lives before.

    So we were still pretty lucky. So the lucky thing for us is we sold the company 20 minutes before the crash. And we left 25% of it would be taken away from us and put into safe keeping. So you know, the escrow savings account that we couldn't touch.

    And so we were able to get out of that whole experience with some of the money left.

    Ling Yah: And how did core street come about? Because it's a security software. And you said before that it was so crushingly boring.

    Phil Libin: October 11th, 2001, so a month after September 11th, we were sitting around and you know, we really wanted to, start another company. Same cool people. That close to September 11th, like a lot of people felt like we wanted to do something more meaningful. It didn't seem that e-commerce was all that important that, you know, we want to do something that was, more important for the world.

    And we thought, yeah, security is something that's going to change a lot. And so we had this great co-founder of this famous professor at MIT Sylvia, McCauley. Would invented this really brilliant cryptography that we thought could really enhance security a lot. So we started this company called core street focused on the security systems for, governments, for banks kind of pretty big stuff.

    All ultra photography based. Back when the crypto meant the actual, you know, math and cryptography now I've put it currently means. It was kind of very important for work, but yeah, and I think I ran that company for six years, seven years or something.

    Yeah. It must've been 2001 or 2007. I got really boring because all of our customers were, military, banks. And so we got to do cool stuff, but everything took so long. Every sales cycle was like 18 months and it took forever. So towards the end of that, I was like, yeah, I'm done with caring about what customers want.

    Like fringe and five, you know, our customers were big retailers. That's what we always have to think about. Like, well, what are the retailers want? For course three, the customers were like governments and banks. It's weird to think about like, well, what does the bank want? What does the government want?

    So in 2007, when we sat around thinking about what we want to do next, we just said, we just don't care about what the customer wants anymore. We want to build something. The third one let's build something based on what we want. that's how Evernote came to me.

    Ling Yah: And what was it like working finally on something that's for yourself?

    Phil Libin: It feels like taking a shortcut. it felt like a cheat code. You find your video game and you punch in a cheat code and everything goes faster and you're more powerful. That's what I was like building a product for ourselves versus always thinking about what the customer wants. But it's a shortcut and that shortcut has consequences too.

    It's not all good. There's a price you have to pay for it, but undoubtedly it's much, much faster. right now the way the world is set up.

    I remember when I started my first company people used to always tell me usually older people, they would say, remember Phil, the best product doesn't always win.

    And this was like very common advice. The best product doesn't always win. And what that meant was that you can have the best product, but you also have to have the best marketing and logistics and partnerships and distribution and access to capital. And that all of those things were much more important than having the best product.

    But that's not true anymore. It hasn't been true probably for 10, 15 years, because of the internet, because of social media, because of the platforms, because of the, you know, venture capital.

    If you have the best product, you're going to have infinite marketing and distribution partnerships and capital, so you really need to spend, you know, 98% of your time working on the product. And 2% and everything else.

    Whereas before, you know, 20 years ago you would have probably been like 80%, everything else, 20% of the product.

    And so since making the best product is the most important thing. Well, the only way you can make the best product, it's the only way to make a great anything.

    You just have to keep iterating. You have to keep multiple iterations and at core street and we were selling to the department of defense, it would take 18 months to iterate, cause you have to like sell a pilot and contracting and then they have to run it and then they give you feedback.

    It takes 18 months before you can give them the next product. So let's say you need 10,000 iterations to make a really great product. Well, if you have to wait 18 months for each one, that's 10,000 times, 18 months. 15,000 years, that's going to take you 15,000 years to make a really great product. I don't have 15,000 years. But remember now, we're making it for ourselves.

    You know, we could iterate every 20 minutes. So the same 10,000 iterations, you can do in a year or so. I guess, depending on how many days a week you work. And that's a lot, so it's still hard, but now it's possible right now, it's possible to get through your $10,000.

    So that's why I think it's almost like cheating, like building something for yourself. It's really a superpower. And I definitely recommend to everyone to do that for their first company. Like if you're really trying to learn, you're starting your first company one of the ways that you can really increase your chances of success is to really just build something for yourself, because you'll be able to go much faster.

    It doesn't mean that that's always the best thing to do. And later on my career, I stopped doing that.

    But it's a very good way to get started.

    Ling Yah: What would you say was the most difficult period for you when building Evernote?

    Phil Libin: It was all difficult.

    There's this common advice that you get as an entrepreneur that says, oh, you know, don't worry about failing because you know, startup failures is no problem.

    You learn a lot from failure. And actually it's just not true at all. Start-up failure is brutal. It's super difficult It destroys relationships and people. It's all consuming and it feels terrible. It could be very damaging.

    Yeah. You can learn things from it, but you can also learn things from reading Wikipedia, which is less traumatic.

    So definitely recommend looking something up on Wikipedia if you want to learn something versus starting and failing. And Start-up failure is very tough. It's very difficult. It's very hard. Startup success is much worse. Startup success is much harder.

    And Evernote when you're failing, it's easy to know what to do. All you have to do to survive. It's easier to have a fitness function plus, you know, when you do fail it and then it's done, it's over. Yeah. There's that there's a specific attendance site.

    But when you're succeeding, it's really about optimization. You still have the same, if not more emotional involvement.

    Now you have something that's worth protecting, but you're not sure what the exact best next thing is. when you're failing. You wake up every morning and you say, okay, my objective is to survive. Keep the company alive.

    When you're succeeding, there's nothing you can do that's going to kill the company, you know, right away. So it's not about survival. It's about optimization. Am I doing the right things for these thousands of people that are depending on me? Am I doing the right thing for the world? Is my product having the right kind of impact that I want it to have all of these questions?

    These are all good problems to have, you know, people will say, oh, that's a good problem to have. But the truth is, good problems with that. Really hard. In many ways, good problems are harder than the bad problems because again, the consequences are usually higher and it's harder to know what the right answer is.

    You know, Evernote in the beginning was failing constantly because we were constantly running out of money and the most difficult it's very, I think talk to over 200 investors before we got money. We almost went bankrupt at least twice in the first couple of years, but then the end, it really succeeded.

    It really took off and then it became much harder. So it was, difficult to hold up the whole time. But everything is like running a company. Starting a company is an intensely difficult experience. Often intensely unpleasant. It's not a thing that people should do because whether you succeed or fail, you pay a heavy price.

    And so usually my advice to entrepreneurs is don't do it. Don't start a company. If you go into anyway, then you have to work on something that is worth the price to pay. I would never ever start a company that was doing something that I didn't care passionately about that I didn't think was the most important thing of all for me, because then it wouldn't be worth it.

    It would be ridiculous. But if you're starting something that you really think is your best opportunity to improve the world and you're willing to pay that price because whether you succeed or fail, there's going to be very heavy price. Then sure, there's a lot of things to know, we can talk more about tips and tricks.

    Ling Yah: Maybe we talk about paying a heavy price. It makes me think of a question that was once asked of you which was, surely it's easier for you to be a CEO now, since you've been CEO for past 30 years and you said not at all, because I've been bashing my brain for the past 30 years.

    I wonder just looking back in a power of retrospection, would you have done anything different if you were to say, at Evernote or any of your companies, because you have to put in your all as well. But there's a price to pay.

    Phil Libin: Yeah. I mean, of course we would have done a lot of things differently. I think there's a lot of lessons that I probably would've, had I learned them earlier, it would've been differently. But look, I think when you ask a question like that, I think looking back there's maybe three types of things that one could regret. If you say, like do you regret anything?

    I think this is like three types of classifications of things that you could regret. One is if you feel that in the past, you acted in a way that was like unethical. That was like bad. You feel guilty about it. I don't really have anything like that. I don't think I've done anything. I'm very fair. I'm very pleased to say that when I look back on the choice I've made, I don't think I've done anything that I feel guilty about that, which is great. Cause I think that's the thing that tortures people the most.

    And there's a second category, which is mistakes that you made at the time, knowing what you knew at the time you should've made different. There's some of those, not that many. There's some.

    And then there's a third category, which is like, decisions that you made that at the time were probably the correct decisions that just didn't work out.

    Those aren't really mistakes. Those are just bets that you took that didn't pay off those. I don't think you can regret it at all. And of course there's thousands and thousands of those. So it's not useful to say, well, if I knew, then what I know now, what would I do differently?

    What's the point of that? It's more useful to say, well, what should I have done differently with the knowledge that I had? And there's just a few of those.

    And they mostly revolve around people.

    About keeping people around for longer than I should have you know, not realizing that we had to really part ways with someone soon enough working on things that were maybe too many things not ending projects.

    I would say most of the things that I regret are things that fall into the category of not ending things soon enough.

    Ling Yah: And this is where the distinction between difficult and unpleasant decisions come into play.

    When you were talking about ethical decisions, you made me think of this digital canary that you said you were building at Evernote and now at mmhmm might as well. And I wonder, were you always clear on your principles and where you were going to stand? Because it's quite easy to say you had those three rules of data production. right. And it's very rare for people to take that on and say, I'm willing to ignore this potential revenues and just stay focused.

    Phil Libin: I think I was pretty clear for a pretty long time.

    Certainly by the time when we started Evernote which was 2007. So Evernote I had a team in Boston and and then there was a team led by Stepan Pachikov in California, and we kind of combined the two teams and we created the company. Certainly by then it was very clear. And I would say even a few years before that, but it's easier for me maybe because I'm fundamentally not motivated by money.

    I am not motivated by greed. I just don't. I find it kind of boring. I just never been able to really hold my, my interest. I think it's important to know how to make money, because I think it's almost kind of like a deal that you can make with the universe.

    It's like, you get good at making money for yourself, but more importantly for other people. And then the universe gives you the chance to work on cool things and things that really matter. So I think it's easier for people who are just intrinsically not motivated by money to be clear on these things, because money does tend to cloud things quite a bit.

    I don't think inherently wrong with being motivated by money. It's just not a thing I was born with, it's like sports. I don't care about sports. I can't care of our sports. I'm not interested in it. I'm not capable of like watching a game of sports for more than three minutes without falling asleep.

    I just find it the most boring, uninteresting thing in the world. But I understand that that makes me weird because you know, there's 7 billion people on this planet who, for some reason find sports to be fascinating. So I was just born without the gene that makes me care about sports or that makes me care about money.

    Luckily, I don't have to be good at sports to get to work and pull things, but I do have to be good at money. I'm okay with money, but I'm not motivated by it.

    Ling Yah: So the next natural question is what are you motivated by?

    Phil Libin: Um, Well, impact. Meaning I think I want the world to be better because I've lived in it. I want to have as many people as possible, have a more defined in the higher quality of life. And I think it makes me feel better. I think it's a cool project to work on.

    Ling Yah: Do you have some kind of idea in terms of how do you measure something like that?

    Phil Libin: Yeah, I mean, I don't think there's a single perfect way to measure it, but I think there's many pretty good ways to measure it. you shouldn't let the fact that there's not a single way. That's perfect. Get in the way of bettering it all.

    A pretty good way of measuring it is health span. So, you know, United nations definition it's the number of years the average person lives without a medical condition that materially worsens the quality of their life. It's not your life span.

    It's your health span. Like how long can you live without something that takes away from the quality of your life. And there's a specific measurement, I think on a national level, I think Singapore does the best. I think US is pretty poor.

    US is not that bad in terms of lifespan, but usually last 10 years in person's life in the U S they're not all that much fun. You have all sorts of medical conditions.

    So that's a measurement. It's obviously not perfect, but that's a measurement and it's quantifiable and you can say, well, I want to work on things that improve people's health span.

    So a couple of the projects that we do are about that. There's all sorts of happiness scores that you can also work on. There's all sorts of equity and inclusion scores that you can measure. There's just, you know, there's just satisfaction.

    I mean, there's lots of frameworks that you can pick depending on what you're doing. Having impact is to me, that's the goal. You can have very deep impact on a small number of people. You can have a pretty shallow impact, but on a large number of people.

    You can't exactly just multiply depths of impact by scale and compare the two. It gets a little bit wobbly, but you can speak intelligently about the impact. I think that that, that you're having positive and negative. And I think a lot of companies in tech have had a pretty negative impact.

    I think if you get to the point where you're not exactly sure how to measure it, then that's already okay. Because for a lot of companies, we don't have to be exactly sure. We know that they're bad for the world, so we can at least do better than that.

    Ling Yah: How would you measure the kind of impact that 'mmhmm' is having?

    Phil Libin: Well, I think it's a little bit early to say that we're having March. Cause we just got started. We just turned two.

    We have this four year plan that we came up with when we started the company. You know, We pitched to investors and we kind of raised all of our money on this idea that we have our four year plan.

    Basically there's one word per year. So the idea is in year one, and this is literally the only slide I had when we were fundraising the goal of year one was to get started put something in the world, raise some money, you know, Basically Nika.

    So there's something rather than nothing.

    Goal of year two was to work on product market fit. And the idea there is we needed to get some people to say that our product that mmhmm really fundamentally improves their lives, that it's become like materially important to them.

    How do we know?

    Well we, we set some thresholds?

    The first one we sent was 30 people. I said, I want there to be 30 people that say that is indispensable to us. It solves an important problem. It's an essential. And how do we know? Well, I wanted to talk to 30 people say that to me. If we did that and we got a 30, you know, we talked for like 60 and 30 different we're like, yeah, totally indispensable.

    And then, you know, we had other measurements to scale that. We've just entered year three. And the focus there are scales to make sure that now that we know we've got something and it's pretty good for somebody that it solves real problems for somebody.

    Now we need to get into the hands of as many people as possible for whom we'll have that impact. And then, you know, in the distance scifi future of your, for its profit, put something in the world. We know it's pretty good. We've gotten to the hands of a lot of people. Okay. Now how do we make sure that it can be self-sustaining as a business?

    We're just at the beginning of year three. So far it's going really well. I think the idea is that It basically lets you do the work you want to do and live the way that you want to live. It basically makes you no longer a slave to everything having to rotate around the office.

    And that improves, you know, many, many things.

    Ling Yah: So many people listening have never heard mmhmm. What do you mean by that? How does it actually improve their lives?

    Phil Libin: Well, the main philosophical way that we think about all of the projects I'm currently involved with, I really kind of fall into this into this rubric.

    We call it the out of office loop.

    Basically the idea is that for people who work on laptops, for creative people, for knowledge workers, if you improve their quality of life that directly leads to improvements of the quality of work, right?

    If you let people live in a nice place, spend time with their kids and their friends and be healthy and choose hours to work, if you do those things, you let people really improve the quality of life.

    For creative people, it leads to a higher quality of work. And when you improve the high quality of work, you get more success, more money, and that you can put directly back into improving quality of life.

    And so you wind up with this virtuous feedback cycle where improved quality of life improves quality of work, improves quality of life, improves, quality of work and so on. So that's the loop, right? The goal is to get the spinning for as many people as possible.

    All of our projects are connected to this loop. This idea that in a distributed world, you could just have higher quality of life, higher quality of work, higher quality of life, higher quality of work as a feedback cycle, because once you get feedback cycles going, you know, they become very scalable.

    And specifically the way mmhmm does that is, it gives you communication superpowers. It's what I'm using here, but this is obviously just a tiny example of it.

    But the main idea is you can decide what sorts of things you want to do. What sorts of interactions or communications you want to do live in person, what sorts you want me to do on live video and what sorts of what you wanted to do in recorded video.

    It kind of lets you easily transition from one to the other. So you make sure that when you're doing something in person, when you're at the top of this pyramid, right when you're here, you're like. With someone, this is not scalable. Right? So like whenever you're actually in the same physical location with someone it's very expensive, it's very hard to make more of this.

    This is very precious. So like, you got to make sure that whenever you're like in person with someone, you're not wasting time.

    You're having a great meal. You're looking them in the eye. You're bonding. You never want to waste time, like being in person with someone in a meeting and showing each the slides. Cause that's a waste of time.

    When you're doing what you and I are doing right now, which is live video. This is not quite a scarce, but it's still pretty scarce because everyone has to be paying attention at the same time. And then more people, the harder. With two people, it's a little bit easier. With five people it's very hard.

    Then you have to worry about time zones and locations and everything else. So the only thing that you should do here is have a conversation. Well, we take turns talking and listening and asking questions and already what's happening now is, we're almost violating this rule because I've been talking too long.

    So really this is sounding more like a lecture. So 80% of what we do at work is really down here, it's recorded video. So all of that, you know, lectures, updates, status reports, board meetings, whatever you'd like to record them ahead of time. Everyone watches them when they, when they need to watch them at the best possible time.

    And then you, talk synchronously on video when everyone already knows the information, just to have an interactive conversation. And then you get together in person once in a while, but those things are really precious and really important. That pyramid is what the product what is he doing.

    Ling Yah: I find it so interesting that you clearly creating a tool that allows people from all over the world to just connect. But then there's this thing called web three, which goes very, very strong proponent against, and you've even said it was reminiscent of the Soviet propaganda. And I wonder why that is.

    Phil Libin: I'm not a proponent against it. I just think that it's stupid and isn't going to work. I don't think that it's like you know, like the metaverse I hate and against you know, metaverse is like a dumb on creative idea that is like harmful. Web three I think has some beautiful concepts.

    And I agree with a lot of the philosophy and a lot of the goals of a decentralized democratic, fair systems, less exploitative systems. I just think that the technology that it's built on this whole idea of the blockchain is kind of a bad joke. And it's never going to work and it's terrible by design and it's going to destroy the planet. Well, it's not gonna destroy the planet because it will fall apart before that. If it went much further, it would destroy the planet.

    So basically web 3 I think is like very disappointing. I'm very disillusioned by it. I think 80% of the scam and 19% just uh, impractical. And 1% like beautiful, good ideas, but 1% is not enough. The other 99% are going to drag it down.

    Ling Yah: Are there any particular, 1% that you would mind sharing that you think could have potential?

    Phil Libin: Well, I think the motivations are important. So for example, this idea that traditional centralized finance systems are very exploitative and you want to make a decentralized finance that lets people transfer money without these exorbitant fees and delays.

    That's great. Of course it should do that. I just don't think you're going to do that with crypto blockchain. Bullshit. I think you're going to do that by making non-expert. You know, financial systems.

    I think the ideas behind DAOs, of rethinking ways that stakeholders can participate in governance and decision-making in organizations is really important and elegant idea.

    I just don't think that you're gonna achieve that with scammy vulnerable hacky crypto stuff. I think a lot of the ideas are really, really worthwhile. But in, in any entrepreneurial endeavor, the ideas are like 1% of what's important. It's never about the idea. It's always about the execution.

    So the idea is like 1%, everything else is 99%. In crypto, the ideas for the most part are good, but then they're surrounded with this, like impracticality where the actual technology will never work. And that's surrounded by all of the people who were just scamming each other for money.

    So it's like a toxic environment, I think. I wouldn't call myself against it in the sense that I'm not doing anything to be against crypto, I just don't care about it. I guess I wish people wouldn't waste their time, but you know, there's a lot of people, it was a lot of time.

    So if people want to waste their time on it, I guess it's okay.

    Ling Yah: How would say that the whole idea of blockchain is that ultimately all these decisions that could be exploited by humans are actually coded and people know what the code is. And so there is an element of exploitation. So we haven't reached that ideal state on what it's supposed to be, but we could get there.

    Phil Libin: No you can't. This reminds me of communist propaganda in the Soviet union is that, those are the same thing we heard all the time. I went to school first grade in the Soviet union. Then we talked about communism and we looked around and we said, but look, we don't have anything.

    We have to stand in line for literally for toilet paper. It's a terrible place. Every other country lives better. Communism doesn't work. And we would be told, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, this is not communism. We haven't achieved that yet. We're working towards it. When we achieve it, it's going to be this amazing beautiful thing.

    And then we'll shut it. Of course you never going to achieve it because it just fundamentally doesn't work with human nature, basic economics. Same thing for crypto.

    The blockchain is in itself an elegant but bad idea. Kind of like communism. Very different, but it shares the concept.

    It is philosophically beautiful. It is ideologically very worthwhile. Who doesn't want a fairer world where everyone can get according to their need and give according to their abilities. I mean, that sounds great. That sounds very star Trek. It's just never going to work because of all sorts of things.

    And it's the same thing with this idea of blockchain. A system where humans cannot reverse decisions easily is a horrible unjust system. That doesn't make it immune from human meddling that entrenches you in the metaworld. And that means that people can force you or coerce you into making a decision now have a much harder time being challenged or reversed.

    A contract that's like encoded on the blockchain that can't be reviewed by a court is a horrible dystopian thing because anytime you're like deceived or coerced, that's it.

    It's set in stone and we see the amazing amount of theft and criminality and scamming as it's happening with crypto right now. Many people have had their life savings stolen, and I'm not even talking about like the crash.

    The crash is a force, you know, wipe out fortunes all the time. I'm talking about the crash. I'm talking about the outright theft. The blockchain and crypto are the least secure systems that we've made. They're much less secure than traditional finance systems.

    It's a fantasy that they'll ever not be. They are brittle by design an essential way of any kind of secure or trustworthy system is the ability for humans to intervene and correct it.

    If you pretend that you're going to get rid of that, you just kind of make it much, much worse. I share the goals of a lot of web three companies, but I am extremely skeptical about their ability to get there with the current technology stack.

    There's two quick things to say about this. One, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. Or I'm just old and I don't understand. I think I understand.

    you know, I have a background in cryptography and computer science. I think I get it, but it's possible that I don't I'm going to be proven wrong.

    And I'll tell you in this case, if I'm proven wrong, if two years from now, you can come to me and say, look at all this beautiful stuff has been built on about three that actual people are getting value from. It's not just people stealing money from each other.

    Right now there's nothing right now, there's nothing in web three that millions of people are using and getting value from.

    But let's say you come to me in two years and you're like, look at, look at this stuff. Look at all this amazing stuff people are getting value from. I will say I was wrong and I'll be very happy. I would much rather that the web three succeed and make the world better than me being right.

    So if that happens, have me back on your podcast, I will say I was wrong. I promise that would be happy to be wrong in this case.

    The second thing is of course there will be a web three of some kind, because three is the next number after two. And if you say that the past stuff that we all built up is web two, there's going to be something else and it's going to be called web three.

    It's very possible that whatever it is going to be, it's going to be invented by a lot of the people who are currently thinking about web three stuff, because there are a lot of brilliant people. So there'll be something called web three. I just don't think it's going to have any relation to like blockchain or the nonsense that's going on right now.

    Ling Yah: Completely fair.

    What I noticed when I was researching into your life was that you were actually very open about what you're not good at, for instance, when you were CEO of Evernote, and then you realized that, oh, this is not something that I enjoy not good at.

    You have also said before, I'm not good as a VC. And I wonder how difficult is it to be so open about the fact that this is something you're not good at because it's not normal for people to be so open and share publicly.

    Phil Libin: Well, yeah, I wouldn't say it's not normal. I would say maybe it's not common. It's unusual.

    Look, honestly it's a cultivated taste like anything. So I think one of the most important things I did in my twenties was I made a list of all the food that didn't. And I forced myself to eat something from this list every day. Because I was trying to understand what gives my brain the right to not like something. Like I didn't like sardines, I hated sardines.

    And I was like, well, what gives me the right? Not to like sardines. There's lots of people love sardines. Why I'm not allergic to them. I just don't like them, but why, why did I make this arbitrary thing? And it wasn't trying to like them. I was just trying to understand. And so I had a bunch of different sardines for years and it still didn't like them.

    But then one day I had sardines in Sardinia. And they were really good. They were so good they named the place after it. From that point on, I understood what sardines were now, when I have sardines, even if they're only pretty good, I can enjoy them. Same thing for like peanuts. It got to the point where there was nothing left in the list. Everything I tried, once I truly really understood it I started to like it.

    One of the last foods was durian. The first time I had durian, I hated it. But I forced myself to eat it many times. And now, durians may be my favorite food. Whenever I go to Singapore, I eat my weight in durian. I love durian. I can't imagine why you wouldn't love it. It's so good. But in the beginning you don't.

    So I trained myself to enjoy being wrong. Just like you can train yourself to enjoy anything. It's a choice. Most people are told that they're supposed to enjoy being right. They're supposed to not like being wrong, but that's just an arbitrary choice.

    Like you can, you can enjoy being wrong, just like you can enjoy eating durian. I trained myself to enjoy it and now I genuinely enjoy it because it's so much more scalable, right.

    By company is so much more likely to succeed if I can be wrong. And the company still succeeds because other people cultivated that kind of a culture.

    Then if the only way for my company to succeed is I have to be right all the time, I mean, that sounds exhausting, right?

    So I really take a lot of pleasure by saying something like, I think web three is complete bullshit, and then if it turns out I'm wrong, fantastic. I love it.

    Won't be the first person to come out and say that I was wrong. Look at all this stuff. It doesn't hurt me.

    kind of like a mind trick. It's a mental hack to teach yourself how to get good at something.

    There's only one thing you have to do. You have to learn to like it. You have to teach yourself how to enjoy it. If you want to like work out, you have to teach yourself to enjoy it. If you want to eat well, you have to teach yourself to enjoy it.

    I think being open about what you're wrong, about what you're not good at is a really crucial skill. It's like a very important life, survival skill. So if you don't naturally do it, then teach yourself, teach yourself how to enjoy it.

    Ling Yah: You should definitely come to Malaysia because we have lots of durians and I'm very happy that you love durians as well.

    Phil Libin: Absolutely.

    Ling Yah: Before we wrap up, I wonder for listeners who are listening, how can they help you?

    Phil Libin: That's a really good question. I think well, very selfishly the main thing is we're always hiring.

    We're always looking for people and all of our jobs are global. So We hire people from everywhere in the globe. The thing that would benefit me most directly is come to our website. Come to the job section and see what we're looking for and apply.

    And those come and go. And some ones there's a lot more you know, a job listings and someone's, there's fewer, but we're always doing that. And that's always the hardest thing. That's always the most important thing.

    I want to expand that circle of people. That a hundred people that you get, I think maybe we can grow it by a few every year. I'd love to do that from some of your listeners.

    Ling Yah: Beyond your job description, who are you looking for in terms of joining your company?

    Phil Libin: Well, we're always looking for designers. We're always looking for engineers. We're always looking for writers. We're looking for people who are very good on video, So we were looking frequently to make video, to tell stories. So it's, a pretty broad description.

    The personality type we're looking for is someone who believes that what they're doing in this company is the most direct way to improve the world.

    Since we're fully distributed that these are the people that have to be pretty intrinsically motivated. Like you're not going to get very careful close supervision. So it has to be people that are comfortable working in a distributor environment and being productive.

    And yeah, anyone like that please apply.

    Ling Yah: Phil, given your entire journey of going through so much, you've done so much, do you feel that you have found your why?

    Phil Libin: I think I've known about the why for a long time. I think since I was a kid I had this idea that I wanted humanity, consciousness to survive. That I wanted there to be a universe that had something rather than nothing that had this idea of culture and beauty and intelligence and not just atoms moving around.

    And that's a very crazy ambitious thing that obviously no person can accomplish . But we can all actually very explicitly move towards it.

    My why has been pretty clear. I am just trying to do a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny part to make sure that the spark of humanity and consciousness never gets distinguished in the universe.

    Ling Yah: And what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

    Phil Libin: I don't care. I'm not that interested in thinking about like my own part in it. I just wanna like move towards helping it. I don't care if nobody remembers me, a minute after I die, it doesn't matter. I want the effects to be there.

    Ling Yah: What do you think are the most important qualities of a successful person?

    Phil Libin: I dunno. It's a really good question. I think one of the most important books I've ever read up in my life was a really stupid book. It's called, 'How to survive in the woods'. I think it's from the fifties. It's literally a book about if you get stranded in the woods, how do you survive?

    It's just like a straight advice book. But the advice is terrible.

    If you do any of the things in this book, you'll probably die. Like they tell you to like throw rocks at birds for food. I was like, what? That is really dumb.

    Like if you're ever stuck in the woods and you want to survive, like don't waste your time throwing rocks at birds.

    But anyway, this book in spite all of that, it has this one brilliant piece of advice which the author says, the first thing to understand is you have what you need.

    Whatever you have, you have what you need. He means to survive in the woods, but I think in general, that's a very interesting quality, a very important quality. The success of any kind is just to realize that you have what you need.

    You don't need to get something else before you can be successful. You have what you need, so you can start now.

    Ling Yah: And where can people go to connect with you, sign up for mmhmm and all these other things?

    Phil Libin: If you want to download otherwise I am easy to find on Twitter and everywhere else, so we'd love to connect and chat with who's interested.

    Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 87. The show notes can be found at

    If you've enjoyed this episode, don't forget to take a screenshot and share it on your social media and tag us at, so this is my why.

    And do stick around for next Sunday, because we are meeting a renowned web three strategist.

    Yes. We've heard Phil lamenting about how he hates the metaverse and thinks blockchain is bull. So we are flipping the script next week to talk to someone who's worked with many fortune 500 brands actively entering or have entered into the space like Adidas, Prada and Salesforce.

    So, if you want to know more about what brands are thinking, and how that can influence the way you run your own business, stick around, subscribe to So This Is My Why and see you next Sunday.

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