As a leader, I’m communicating 80 percent of the time I’m awake.
For much of the decade that Chris O’Neill T’01 worked at Google, his daily commute took him past a gleaming office building with a grey elephant-head logo: the headquarters of Evernote in Redwood City, California. O’Neill himself happened to be an Evernote customer, using the productivity and note-keeping software for meeting notes, travel agendas, and family goal-setting.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Evernote was approaching a textbook transition in the lifecycle of any successful startup: Its founding team had grown the company to 400 employees and 150 million users, raising $290 million and retaining a deep passion for the product. For the next phase of growth, however, it was time for a CEO with a different skillset.
And that’s how the venture capitalists found O’Neill, who joined the company as CEO last August. He brought with him a different type of experience, which began with a consulting career at Oliver Wyman. There he met numerous Tuck alums who espoused a passionate enthusiasm for the school that was, as O’Neill puts it, “at first a little off-putting to my Canadian sensibilities.”
Nevertheless, as an MBA candidate Tuck’s charms ultimately won him over and he set his hopes on joining the Bay Area tech scene upon graduation. The downturn of 2001 delayed those plans until 2005, when he joined Google’s sales and operations team, helping to, among other things, manage Google’s relationships with large retailers like Amazon, Target, Best Buy, and the Gap.
From there he was tapped to lead Google’s Canadian operations. O’Neill describes that time as the three or four best years of his professional career. Under his leadership, Canadian operations grew from “hundreds of millions” in revenue to “billions” and his staff tripled.
Amazing as that experience was, he says, he still felt he had a lot to learn. In 2014, O’Neill returned to California to run business operations for Google X, home to the company’s “moonshot” tech projects: self-driving cars, internet balloons, contact lenses that can read your glucose levels, and wearable tech like Google Glass.
“It was an incredible run at an amazing company,” O’Neill says of his time at Google. “I talk a lot about strategic serendipity. My parents used to say, ‘You’ve got to be good to be lucky, and you’ve got to be lucky to be good.’”
In thinking about his next challenge, O’Neill realized from his Google Canada experience that he loved scaling companies and building them—forming teams and cultures that can make a good company even better.
In Evernote, he saw a fast-growing company that had begun to do too many things. It had, for example, opened an online store for Evernote-branded physical merchandise like scanners, notepads, and even socks.
The focus, O’Neill says, is now squarely on products that help knowledge workers save time on mundane tasks to free more time for creative, high-impact work. Its core product helps people organize their notes and internet clippings into digital “notebooks,” and provides collaboration tools to share that information with others.
O’Neill finds himself thinking back to his time at Tuck a lot these days. “In the last three weeks, I’ve asked, ‘Where’s Herbie?” in two different meetings,” he says, laughing. And working through “gnarly multivariable regressions” as he thinks through pricing strategy, he’s reminded of his strategic communications classes. “As a leader, I’m communicating 80 percent of the time I’m awake.”
Restructuring has necessarily brought some growing pains; just a month into his tenure, O’Neill announced layoffs and the closure of three global outposts. (And suffice it to say, Evernote socks are now collector’s items.)
But already the company is back in hiring mode. O’Neill’s LinkedIn profile even lists his employer as “Evernote (we’re hiring!).”
As we chat, O’Neill notes that his seven-month anniversary at Evernote will be the following day. How is he celebrating? “By interviewing six people,” he laughs. “Nothing happens without great teams.”
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