Chris O’Neill

Former CEO, Evernote

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.”

Continue Reading

Related Stories

Owning Her Career Path: Meet Lucile Chung T’08

YouTube Chief of Staff/Product Operations Lucile Chung T’08 has leveraged her curiosity and zeal for problem-solving to build a successful career in tech. 

Read More

How to Be a Successful Operations Leader

To succeed in operations, says ZOE COO Nicole Xu T’11, you need the short-term vision to run the business day-to-day, but you also need to be able to think three to five years ahead to build for the future. 

Read More

Greg Maxwell

After spending eight years in the military, Maxwell says Tuck’s general management curriculum gave him the foundation in business he needed, and he still relies on what he learned in his business strategy, communications, and negotiations courses. “Those soft skills courses really stay with you because they’re timeless.”

Read More

Technology Rules

The next generation of operations leaders looking to drive growth and optimization will need to be students of technology, says Peter Giordano T’11.

Read More

Making the Impossible, Possible

A conversation with Vincent Wu T’11, COO of NewsBreak, about the broad skillset it takes to become a “full stack COO” at a rapidly growing media company. 

Read More

Answering the Call

How Tuck and Amazon prepared Cem Sibay T’05 to embrace change and navigate disruption.

Read More

Caryn Nightengale

With the potential to become the world’s first self-flying air taxi service, Chief Financial Officer Caryn Nightengale T’02 says the company is poised to become a game-changing disruptor in the aerospace industry.

Read More

Driven by Wanderlust: Peter Sisson T’94

For serial entrepreneur Peter Sisson T’94, life has been one big adventure.

Read More

Laura Scott

At Wayfair, Tuck alumna Laura Scott completely transformed the company’s operations. Now she’s dipping her toes into the startup world with Takeoff Tech.

Read More

Work Hard, Dream Big

From Buffalo to the boardroom, Yancey Spruill T’97 has found the formula for success.

Read More

How to Keep Your Company Data Secure

What Alison Connolly T’11 finds fascinating, most corporate leaders find terrifying. The director of strategic partnerships at DarkOwl is an expert on the darknet.

Read More

Juliet Horton

With Everly, Juliet Horton T’14 is changing how couples plan their wedding

Read More

Marketing a Disruptive Brand

Together, two Tuck alumni, Kate Jhaveri T’03 and Michael Aragon T’01, led marketing and innovation at the growing global brand Twitch.

Read More

Susan Hunt Stevens

In 2006 Susan Hunt Stevens T'98 started a blog as a "a guide to going green without going berserk." Years later the idea evolved into WeSpire, a platform that uses technology and social media to promote sustainable living.

Read More

Betsabeh Hermann

Before you know what she is, you first need to know what Betsabeh Hermann T’13 is not: She is not an astronaut. Or at least, not yet anyway.

Read More

Sprague Brodie

Sprague Brodie T’14 works in the heart of Silicon Valley at the sprawling Mountain View, California, campus of tech giant Google.

Read More

Torlisa Jeffrey

One size does not fit all—that’s the philosophy of Torlisa Jeffrey T'12 , a senior product manager for Williams Sonoma. 

Read More

Chris Weasler

As director of global connectivity for Facebook, Chris Weasler T'97 is helping to bring online the 60 percent of the earth's population currently without internet access.

Read More

Gibson “Gib” Biddle

NerdWallet's Gib Biddle T'91 came to Tuck as a marketer, but then realized he was more of a builder.

Read More

Elisabeth Hartley

As head of strategy and product development for Beats Electronics, Elisabeth Hartley T'05 is on the cusp of creating what the future of music could look like.

Read More

Eric Spiegel

People call Eric Spiegel T'87 the most natural leader they’ve ever met. Now CEO of Siemens USA, a global electronics and engineering powerhouse, he gets to lead on the issues that matter most. To his company and the country.

Read More

Roger McNamee

Investor. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Roger McNamee T’82 is all of these and more in a career that has taken him to the top of the tech world.

Read More