Evernote founder Phil Libin left Silicon Valley for Arkansas and thinks remote working may be the biggest societal change of his lifetime

  • Evernote cofounder Phil Libin recently quit San Francisco for Arkansas.
  • He told Insider salaries should not be based on where employees live.
  • He also says the advent of remote working will be a “massive and profound” societal change.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Phil Libin has left San Francisco and he isn’t coming back any time soon.

Best known for cofounding productivity app Evernote, Libin packed up his car late last year and moved to Bentonville, Arkansas.

He’s now surrounded by trees in a rented home that he says probably costs a tenth of its Bay Area equivalent.

“There was really little thinking behind it other than that I was looking for a lower-stress place to go and basically hide out until I got vaccinated,” he told Insider in an interview.

Libin is the latest in a line of high-profile executives to join a so-called “techodus” from Silicon Valley in recent months.

Oracle chair Larry Ellison and Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian moved to Hawaii and Miami respectively. Meanwhile Elon Musk has led a raft of techies to Austin, Texas.

For Libin, the decision to leave was a relatively straightforward one.

“San Francisco was becoming stressful,” he says over Zoom against a dramatic virtual backdrop of alpine trees engulfed in mist not dissimilar to his actual surroundings.

“I was locked up in my apartment anyway so I thought I’d rather have, you know, trees and stuff around me to do that.”

Now based in Bentonville, Libin is now running his latest business Mmhmm, a videoconferencing app that started out in life “as a joke”. The company was named largely because it’s something you can pronounce while eating.

But that joke recently attracted $36 million in a Series A round that was led by tech investing royalty Sequoia.

Mmhmm allows users to place the likes of slide decks and filters into video calls meaning presenters no longer have to choose between showing their presentation or themselves. Among the main goals of Mmhmm is to make presenting on video much better than it is today.

Libin insists the company will never have a central HQ — a remarkable U-turn for a man who had banned video meetings at Evernote back in 2004.

Even at the start of lockdown, Libin described himself as “very skeptical about all this video stuff”. That skepticism has completely washed away and now he’s more focused on the “new superpowers” that remote and hybrid working has granted both him and his staff.

“For example, the fact that no one in any of our companies commutes, no one, 0% of the employees waste two hours a day doing this high-stress, totally unproductive, bad-for-the-environment thing of sitting in traffic,” he says.

“I can hire people from anywhere in the world, all of our positions now say global. We’re never going to put a geographic constraint on a job listing again, we’re never going to give that up.”

Between Mmhmm and his startup studio All Turtles, Libin employs around 70 people, none of whom are likely to enjoy the surrounds of an office again. All Turtles shut the doors of its three physical offices last year.

The former Evernote boss says the hardest thing for a successful company was “hiring people”. He says the solution is simple: “massively expand the number of people that were capable of work”.

The pandemic-driven shift toward remote working has led to the creation of a new motto at Mmhmm, which is that people should work where they have the best job and live where they have the best life.

“This is a momentous change, maybe the biggest one that I’ve ever lived through,” he says.

“There are probably 40 to 50 million workers in the US and a further few hundred million globally whose job has been decoupled from where they live for the first time ever.

“In my entire life, where I live has always been 100% about where the job was.”

Libin says the advent of hybrid and fully remote working will be a “massive and profound change to society”. He says it’s one of the main reasons why VCs like Sequoia are betting so big on the future of videoconferencing.

“Modern industrial logic has been based on this idea that you have to make all sorts of compromises when you’re younger for your job so that you can earn money, retire, and have the life you want,” he says.

“And that’s stupid, if you don’t have to do that, why not have the life you want while you’re still working, why suffer and save up and retire.”

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Libin is not the only tech founder banking on the prospects of remote working. Twitter told its workers last year that they could work from home for as long as they liked. Elsewhere, crypto exchange Coinbase — in the news for its huge public debut — operates on a “remote-first” policy. Dropbox has also ushered in a permanent work-from-home environment, while Facebook has committed to allowing half its employees work remotely forever.

He concedes that some things are better done in person and indeed Mmhmm staff will meet one another despite the fact they will have no centralized office. The way they’ll do that? Twice-yearly company holidays.

In October, Mmhmm is heading to Memphis where there will be no work done. Instead, team members will be encouraged to bond in a “low stress, social setting”.

One of the oft-voiced criticisms of widespread remote work is the potential for companies to outsource jobs to countries where salaries are lower.

Indeed, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg moved to dampen the enthusiasm for remote working in May when he confirmed the company would “adjust salary to your location”. This effectively meant those dreaming of landing enormous houses in rural surrounds with their Silicon Valley salaries had their ambitions quashed.

Libin meanwhile, wants to allow his workers to do exactly that if it’s what they want.

“I moved out of the Valley, I don’t feel like getting a pay cut and I’m certainly not gonna ask anyone else to take a pay cut,” he says.

“Where you live should have no impact on how much you make, your compensation should be based on your contribution to the company, not who you are or where you live.

“So yeah, people in San Francisco will make the same as people in Kansas.”

While Libin has moved from the Valley he hasn’t entirely ruled out returning someday. Though that isn’t planned any time soon.

“We have fire season now every year over there and like, is that going to be an every year thing?

“Because if it is, maybe I don’t need to go back there. But if not then I’d love to go back at some point but not immediately.”

Instead, Libin is going to spend the next few years “auditioning” different places to find where he wants to live.

“Arkansas is nice, I didn’t really have much expectation, but I really like it. I also want to check out a few other places,” he says.

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