Can Phil Libin’s Random Acts of Fun Help Us Cope with This Brave New World?
PublishedDecember 7, 2021
All the screen’s a stage.
Life in Bentonville, Arkansas, is a little different than what Phil Libin is used to. A year and a half ago, he was spending most of his waking hours in an office in San Francisco’s SoMa district. Now he goes fishing on Beaver Lake, “peacefully catching some trout.” He’s grown a respectable salt-and-pepper beard. He wears boat shoes. On some workdays, he sets up next to the pool at the local athletic club. Other days, especially if he needs to think creatively for an upcoming presentation, Libin heads over to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and saunters around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House, which he’s come to believe represents “the perfect amulet against McMansionism.”
Yet Libin, who is on the cusp of his 50th birthday and a startup veteran, says his productivity is better than ever, thanks in part to mmhmm, the creatively named (“We save money on vowels.”) video communications app that he created in May 2020 as a way to “step up my Zoom game.” His new philosophy: “You should work where you can have the best job, and you should live where you can have the best life,” Libin says. “And those two things don’t have to be rigidly connected.”
Like it did for tens of millions of people around the world, Libin’s work-life transition happened when the coronavirus pandemic ended office life as we knew it. At the time, he was living in San Francisco, commuting to the headquarters of All Turtles, the product studio that he cofounded in 2017. They immediately closed their other office in Tokyo and made its 110 employees remote. Overnight, the company was fully distributed. (All Turtles also had a Paris office that closed in 2018.)
When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t ending anytime soon, Libin and his team decided that the All Turtles workforce would remain permanently distributed. It was a liberating moment, an opportunity to rethink every facet of the way they worked. “Never again am I going to ask anybody to waste two or three goddamn hours [each day] to sit in traffic,” Libin says. “It’s shocking that we ever thought that was okay.”
Within the next five years, 40.7 million Americans will be working fully remote, according to a recent report by the freelancing platform Upwork. That’s over a 100 percent increase from pre-pandemic years and a 22.9 percent boost from the 2020 version of the same report. Libin admits that going remote is not a luxury available to everyone. But since moving to Bentonville with his girlfriend last December, after friends there convinced him it was the perfect place to hole up for the pandemic, he’s been thinking a lot about what he calls the “superpowers” of a distributed workforce.
Libin believes that remote work isn’t going anywhere, pandemic or not, so the tools that make it possible—namely video conferencing—should not simply allow us to work the way we once did, but enable us to recreate work altogether. Rosie Cogill, who has worked with Libin for more than a decade, explains mmhmm as a platform that doesn’t increase our time stuck in the digital box, but reduces it, by eliminating holdovers of the old paradigm, like the dreaded “update” meeting.
Through features that allow employees to pre-record progress updates that include navigable slide decks and the option to view at 1.5 times or more the normal speed, colleagues can catch up on each other’s work faster and when they want. Since going fully distributed, Cogill has moved to a rural part of England that she loves, and is able to both drop off and pick up her kids from school every day. “We’re now just doing the right things on video,” Cogill says, “and having the life that we want.”
It is easy to write off Libin’s hopes for the future of work as the glib musings of a privileged Silicon Valley founder—until you hear the story of his long road to arrive here.
Libin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1972. Both his mother, Galina, and stepfather, Arkady, were classical musicians. (Libin’s biological father, a filmmaker, and Galina split when he was young; Libin refers to Arkady as his father.) Although his parents were among the city’s “cultural intelligentsia,” as Libin puts it, that term bestowed little status in Soviet Russia. “We barely had hot water,” he says. They were also Jewish, and anti-Semitism was rife in the Soviet Union.
When the government lifted a ban on Jewish emigration in the mid-1970s, Galina and Arkady decided to join tens of thousands of Soviet Jews and leave Russia forever. They weren’t particularly religious; they simply desired equality. Uninterested in going to Israel, they had the option to apply for asylum in Australia, Canada and the United States. “It was like an underground railroad,” Libin says. “First, we had to go to Vienna, declare that we were seeking political asylum, and renounce our Soviet citizenship—all dangerous because there was no guarantee that we would actually get there.”
Libin and his parents waited in limbo in Vienna and Rome for about four months, before they received an invitation to immigrate to the United States. The family arrived in New York City in 1979, when Libin was eight, and found an apartment in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx. They had no possessions or money, and were sustained by government assistance and food stamps. Rats swarmed the apartment. Galina and Arkady’s careers as classical musicians were over; Galina took a job at a factory, where her nimble “candle fingers,” as Libin describes them, once happiest weaving together movements for her beloved piano, were resigned to turning gloves right side out for eight hours a day. Arkady, a violinist, worked as a security guard at a warehouse.
Despite the hardship, Libin says, his mother and father constantly reminded him that they were far more fortunate than others who had never made it out of the Soviet Union. Still, they couldn’t protect him completely from the poverty, crime and desperation outside their doors. So Libin turned inward. He became, as he once described himself, “a dedicated indoorsman.” He studied a Thor comic book until the gibberish in the speech bubbles turned into words and then meaning. He started playing Dungeons & Dragons, where he discovered a knack for performative storytelling. He learned magic and became adept at card tricks. In high school, in the 1980s, he began tinkering with computers and programming, which took him to Boston University to pursue a computer science degree.
It was at BU that Libin and a few friends started their first software company, Engine 5, that was soon building online stores for huge brands like Nokia. Within a few years, Libin and his cofounders sold the business to the Vignette Corporation for $26 million. They’d rode the dot-com bubble to its apex and exited just before it burst.
In a stroke of rebellion, and with only four credits left to go, Libin dropped out of school to start another company with his friends. (He decided to go back in 2019 and finish his degree: “I was holding out for an honorary bachelor’s, but they made me do the work.”) Core Street, which developed security software for governments and banks, would sell for $24 million. When the crew began work on their third venture, a digital note-taking platform, they moved to Silicon Valley, where they teamed up with another group led by Stepan Pachikov and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin. Eventually Libin and Pachikov would launch Evernote, the productivity app that now has some 225 million users and is valued at $2 billion.
“You should work where you can have the best job, and you should live where you can have the best life. And those two things don’t have to be rigidly connected.”PHIL LIBIN
Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital, initially had been uninterested in Evernote, because of the seeming monopoly that large companies like Google and Microsoft had over productivity software. But after meeting Libin early on in his time as the company’s co-founder and CEO, Botha was impressed. “Phil is an absolute fountain of ideas,” he says. Such a relentlessly turning mind, Botha adds, however, “is also a negative—the danger is you build too much, that you accelerate past the ability of your customers to keep up.”
When Libin became CEO of Evernote in 2007, his primary challenge was transforming a software product into an app—a tech segment that was still in its infancy. He was endlessly thrilled by the possibilities of mobile, creating a deluge of features for the Evernote app. But the secret of a great app is its simplicity of use. “I tried to do too much,” Libin says. “And I wasn’t able to sustain interest once things were in a purely execution and polish stage and out of the creative stage, which I think you absolutely need to do as a company and as a CEO.” By 2015, Evernote’s board, which included Botha, convinced Libin to step down. “Being in a startup is very physically and emotionally taxing,” Libin says of the experience, and of entrepreneurship in general. “You’re constantly fight-or-flight; it’s brutal.”
After his departure, Libin fell into a sort of existential listlessness. He tried his hand as a venture capitalist, but it quickly became apparent that he trafficked best in idea generation. This was the impetus behind All Turtles, which fosters new products and services that directly and indirectly impact those working and living a distributed life. Once the mopey, introverted child of Soviet immigrants, Libin had come to love leading crowded meetings at All Turtles, where ideas for new AI solutions were shouted out, like in a Hollywood writers’ room. “There’s a delight that Phil brings into his products and ideas that you might not expect from somebody who’s deeply technical and grew up in communist Soviet Union,” says Botha.
Then the pandemic silenced those boisterous meetings, and the video conferences began. “By May, everything was ghastly and boring and dull, and all the meetings were inefficient,” Libin says. To liven things up, he created a makeshift greenscreen out of a camping towel and asked his friend and co-founder Steve White to write code that allowed him to project animated backgrounds in Zoom. He performed live magic tricks. The gags, and the laughter they provoked, were an antidote to the fear and anxiety hanging over everyone’s lives just outside. The meetings became havens—they also became more productive. Maybe there was a product, a company, hidden inside these random acts of fun.
Along with White, Libin began building the platform that would become mmhmm. (“The word itself is really easy to say without thinking about, but when you try to say it intentionally,” Libin says, “it’s like a little performance.”) In search of funding, he turned first to someone who might be considered an unlikely partner—Roelof Botha. “He said he was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome,” Botha jokes. “But, it says something about a founder whom you essentially fired from their job as CEO, that they want to work with you again.” Botha, Libin says, “is just a very load-bearing person whom I absolutely wanted to work with again.”
Because of their past experience together, Botha says, he and Libin had built a friendship that allowed them to have a “very candid, very direct” conversation about what Libin wanted out of mmhmm. Libin’s boundless creativity felt like the perfect fit for a product that allows users to change their background and present next to their slides. Botha immediately agreed to having Sequoia be mmhmm’s first investor, offering the company $4.6 million in seed funding. For Botha, there was another enticing ingredient, too: “Phil also has an uncanny ability to see the future.”
While mmhmm remains an add-on to enhance Zoom, Google Meet or Webex meetings and presentations, Libin and his team recently released a mobile and web app that goes beyond conferencing and dives into standalone features, like video calls that allow users to appear side-by-side in the same room. It’s these creative innovations, coupled with Libin’s proven track record as a founder, that have now attracted a total of $136 million in funding from Sequoia, Softbank Vision Fund, Human Capital and World Innovation Lab.
Those are big numbers for a plug-in that was essentially created as a gag. But these are uncharted waters for the global workforce. For better or worse, video is where hundreds of millions of us will conduct our careers, so the question becomes: Is stepping into this new era with the mindset and tools of a previous one the best way forward? Investors like Botha are betting on entrepreneurs like Libin, who have lived the full spectrum of life experience—from penniless and stateless to having the luxury to take meetings at the local museum before an afternoon of trout fishing—to find the best answer. “Quality of life improves quality of work” is something Libin says he discovered while working on mmhmm in Bentonville. “And quality of work improves quality of life. The question is how to get that flywheel spinning.”
For a small but dedicated cadre of converts, mmhmm is providing at least a partial answer. Larry Gioia, a senior director at a large consulting firm, once spent much of his work life on airplanes, bouncing between cities, pitching company leaders on his firm’s technology. Now he bounces from one digital box to the next from his home office in Pittsburgh—for six or more hours a day. Gioia’s professional survival depends on standing out within the bromidic confines of video conferencing. “These executives are being pitched by vendors every day,” he says. “They’re getting death by PowerPoint.”
Last spring, Gioia discovered mmhmm and started incorporating its products into his presentations, using multiple backgrounds and ricocheting his profile image around his screen. Several times, he was stopped mid-pitch and asked, How the hell are you doing this? Followed by, Please send a proposal. “The challenge, I think, we as professionals will continue to have now in a digital world, is how do we differentiate ourselves when we show up?” he says. “You become memorable by differentiating the experience you create.”
That’s something Libin, as both a serial entrepreneur and a born salesman, understands better than anyone. “The world right now is the ‘changiest’ it’s ever been,” he says. For someone who’s had a front-row seat for some of the biggest sociopolitical and technological moments of our age—from the fall of the Soviet Union to the dot-com boom and bust to the pandemic retrenchment we’re witnessing now—“changiness” can represent both instability and opportunity.
But after all he has experienced, he prefers to see this time as one for discovery and possibility. The adage that comes to mind is one Libin learned as a boy. He thinks it comes from Lenin and he initially heard it in school in the Soviet Union, but then again, maybe he picked it up from someone in the Bronx. Anyway, the meaning is universal. “It goes, ‘Sometimes decades go by and not much happens. And sometimes weeks go by, and decades happen,’” Libin says. “And that’s what we’re living through now.”
“There’s a delight that Phil brings into his products and ideas that you might not expect from somebody who’s deeply technical and grew up in communist Soviet Union.”ROELOF BOTHA