On Preserving Human Memory: Evernote Founder’s Impossible Mission

Stepan Pachikov, the founder of Evernote, is a Silicon Valley pioneer whose innovations include the first handwriting input for handheld computers and significant early work in 3D technology and virtual reality. Though his contributions to the advancement of technology affect the lives of millions of people everyday, the man himself has remained somewhat of an enigma. Through many hours of conversations over the span of several months, we sought to discover the human story that drives Stepan and his work.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Stepan Pachikov gazed out of the window of his Manhattan apartment and beheld a horror. He was living, as he does now, on the 44th floor of a sprawling West Side apartment complex, his ever-present camera trained on the skyline, giving him a bird’s eye view of the terror attack that was about to rock the world. He watched as a jumbo jet careened toward the second tower of the World Trade Center, his finger on the shutter. At the moment of impact, he responded instinctively. He pushed the button.

It’s not a surprise that Pachikov’s natural response to such an event would be to preserve the memory. As the inventor and founder of Evernote, Pachikov’s life work has been the human memory, untangling personal thoughts from the greater narrative of history, and then putting the particles back together again for future generations. It’s an obsession that goes back to his youth, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though he was at the forefront of the Information Age ushered in by the personal computer, Pachikov was sharply aware of another revolution in his midst. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet culture he had grown up with was deteriorating. As a lifelong fan of culture, history, and the arts, Pachikov knew that without a way to preserve memories, entire cultures could evaporate. Pachikov saw computers as a way to save those memories.

Stepan with his family. Father (Alexander), Mother (Katerina), Brother (George)
Stepan and his brother George as children

The philosopher inventor

From those murky days to his sparkling view overlooking New York Harbor, Stepan Pachikov has had a classical hero’s journey. He’s been called a visionary, philosopher, a founding father of Silicon Valley. Though at times, his ideas were deemed preposterous, they have a common wellspring. He created the software that allows computers to read human handwriting. He invented one of the first virtual reality experiences for schoolchildren, to allow them to experience history first-hand. One of his creations enables optical character recognition for the United States Postal Service. And he dreamed up Evernote, which he envisions as a physical extension of the human brain, both individually and collectively. A place to store a civilization. And for the philosopher-inventor, it represents a path to a kind of immortality.

“There is almost zero chance to appear in this world,” he says. “My mother met my father by accident. The combination of genes and experience makes us who we are, and the chance that we’re born is so minimal, it’s a statistical zero. But,” he adds, without a twinge of emotion, “there is a 100 percent chance that all of us will one day die. What will people remember about us? Who will remember what I did to make this world better? We remember Shakespeare because of what he contributed to the world. That’s the goal of life, to make the world better. My philosophy is that every human being has the chance to do that. A taxi driver, a cook, a scientist — we all contribute. But you can’t make the world a better place if nobody remembers what you did. It’s all based on the memory you have.”

“99 percent of every person is the memory of what he or she knows,” Pachikov explains. He speaks slowly and deliberately, making each word count. “What you remember about your life is what makes you you, and me me,” he explains. “Take away my memories, and what is left? My nose. My glasses. Even my jokes will not be the same if I don’t have a memory.”

The persistence of memory

“Even 30 years ago, I had already lost so much information. Names. Jokes. Phrases. Facts. I can study and re-learn what I have forgotten, but I cannot go back to my school years, my college years, and recollect what I knew. Teachers. Friends. Experiences. In the past 20 years, I have put 75,000 pictures into my photo database. But pictures from before that are lost.”

From Pachikov’s deep need to both remember and be remembered came the concept that today is Evernote. But all that was long before his own mortality came to stare him down. The dry Russian sense of humor does not miss the irony that the man who strove to preserve the human brain today suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that causes, among other symptoms, memory loss.

It’s a fate that Pachikov takes with a scientist’s stoicism and a philosopher’s resignation. “I’m not angry about it,” he says. “I’m not even much upset. I’m a little unhappy that people have to see me not as I would like to be seen.” He looks down. “I had ideas I wanted to bring to the world, and they won’t be realized,” he murmurs. When he compares himself to someone like Stephen Hawking, though, Pachikov feels lucky. When he types slowly on his computer with hands that tremble, he thinks about Hawking, who cannot use his fingers to type at all. “He controls the mouse and keyboard with his eyes, and he recently wrote a few books,” Pachikov muses. “There is a Russian saying: ‘What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist believes things are so bad, they couldn’t get any worse. An optimist knows that they can.’” He smirks. “I am an optimist.”

“The only way for human civilization to survive is to find a way to make our brains a million times more effective than they are now.”

Pachikov’s optimism drives him today to look at the future of the company he created to preserve human memory. To him, Evernote is only a stepping stone to a future that will allow the essence of a person, community, or civilization to remain vibrant in perpetuity. He urges people to understand his vision. “We have to realize that computers become twice as powerful every 18 months,” he says, referencing Moore’s Law, which has proven to be relatively true over the decades. He envisions a time in the near future when humankind will be in a race with machines — and will lose. He’s not making a dystopian prediction, in fact, he sees this race as an opportunity to improve humanity. “Computers do nothing to make us smarter, better, or faster,” he observes. “The only way for human civilization to survive is to find a way to make our brains a million times more effective than they are now.”

The visionary’s dream

He sees this future technology existing as a literal physical extension of the human brain, perhaps as an embedded chip. It’s a vision that he shares with other tech leaders like Elon Musk, and it’s been a staple of science fiction stories for decades. When it’s pointed out to him that Evernote has no plans to turn anyone into a cyborg, he’s unfazed. “We have no choice,” he shrugs. “It’s just another type of integration. You already use a lot of technology to make you more powerful,” he points out. “You wear glasses to make you see better, don’t you? I put my glasses on; I have no vision issues. It’s the same with Evernote or your smartphone. You don’t need to bring it to your ear if it’s just a part of your body.”

To understand Pachikov’s vision for the future, one must understand his past. As a young scientist in the Soviet Union, trained in the economic applications of mathematical methods and with a Ph.D. in fuzzy logic from the USSR Academy of Sciences, his life was comfortable, if not satisfying. He says everyone had to learn to live with a ‘double mind.’ “I had friends; I was reasonably well-paid, I was able to buy a car, I had a three-bedroom apartment, nice children, a library, LP records,” he says. “But if you were asked ‘do you respect the government?’ you couldn’t say no. You had to say ‘Yes, I respect it,’ and you couldn’t say ‘it could be more perfect.’ It was like 1984. Orwell could describe it very well, how we had to think one thing and say something else.” One of the things he thought of, but could not do, was travel the world. “There is a saying: you can live in a country as long as you’re able to leave it,” Pachikov observes. “For me to think that one day I would be able to travel to the US, Britain, Italy, or Mexico — it was an absolutely unbelievable dream. It was the same as believing that one day you would walk on the moon.”

Where art and science meet

Stuck in the Soviet Union, Pachikov allowed his mind to travel. His love of theatre and opera gave his imagination wings, and his steadfast belief in the future of computers helped him to understand that anything was possible with enough ingenuity. Knowing the type of innovation he had in mind would require open minds, he decided to entrust the future — his future — to the very open minds of children. In 1986, with the help of his friend, Soviet chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, he started the country’s first computer club; at the time, it was the only place in Moscow where ordinary people could access computers. There was a catch, however, that Pachikov imposed on its members. They had to teach children how to use computers, too. As a result, Pachikov quickly found himself surrounded by, as he puts it, “dozens and dozens of shining people.”

“With such a concentration of talented, entrepreneurial people, we could start a company,” he remembers. By this time, he adds, “It was not really the Soviet Union anymore.” In the era of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the political movement to reform the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, it became possible to open some semi-private businesses. Pachikov’s first effort, borne of the chess club, was Paragraph, a commercial effort to allow computers to recognize handwriting for the first time.

“Who would need it?” Pachikov asks, then answers his own question. “Children, of course. We wanted to motivate children not to lose handwriting skills. To convince parents that handwriting is important for brain development. To make children believe they were playing a game, but they were really developing handwriting.” The idea was so far ahead of its time that its true application wasn’t apparent even to the creators. It caught the interest of Apple, however, who asked Pachikov to work on developing handwriting recognition for a new, hand-held computer that would come to be known as Newton.

Portrait of Stepan by the late Alejandro Santiago (2012)

A launchpad for freedom

“The offer came with a condition,” Pachikov remembers. “They had an idea that if we all stayed in Russia, that they would pay us and we would disappear. Apple said they’d pay $6 million for the technology, but we all had to move to California. They wanted to protect their investment.” The following year, Pachikov moved his family to Cupertino. He never intended to stay. But California opened up the world that had been previously closed to him. Theatre and opera in New York. Sunbathing and tennis in Mexico. California was a launchpad for travel, freedom, and most of all, innovation.

The failure of the Newton project was an early loss for Apple. Hand-held devices, then called PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) with handwriting input, wouldn’t be merged into phones for almost a decade. Pachikov put away the idea of computers reading handwriting for the moment. He’d come back to it later.

Instead, Pachikov returned to his intellectual roots, with a burning desire to develop the minds of children. He shifted the focus of his company to the idea of helping kids understand history through a virtual time machine called Alter Ego. “We developed this on our own with a particular technology for 3D,” Pachikov says. “We were pioneers in VR (virtual reality). We developed VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) so that children could use technology to travel back to ancient Rome and Greece. They could meet Archimedes. They could protect Syracuse.”

But the forward progress of Silicon Valley in the mid-nineties once again paused Pachikov’s educational aspirations. Silicon Graphics (SGI) was working on similar technology, and they bought ParaScript, the latest incarnation of Pachikov’s company. Pachikov opposed the deal but was overruled by the board. The sale went through, and Pachikov, by this time an American citizen, was by most measures a success. However, it left him deeply depressed.

A little more than ten years ago, Pachikov was profiled by Snob, an American Russian-language magazine targeted to Soviet ex-pats. It explored the idea that money doesn’t bring happiness. “That was true,” Pachikov says. “I was rich, but I was unhappy because I wasn’t doing anything.”

He has “learned to be fair” about money, and sees it only as a tool for life planning. “Some people make too much of out of it, some make too little of it, but they have to realize, money isn’t the goal.” For him, it’s activity and contribution that matter. With ParaScript gone, it was clear that he needed another project.

Stepan with Bill Gates (1990)

Starting with an ‘impossible vision’

Pachikov had been obsessed with the human brain, and particularly with developing software that would ensure that children go through the essential stages of brain development faster. This, he believes, would make them potentially smarter as they grew. From those questions about the brain came yet another idea: what if you could make a copy of your brain? What if he could develop a system to have your brain backed up? “The idea was that if you die, you could be resurrected, maybe in a few hundred years. It was easy to come to that idea because we can already replicate genes, but when we die, we lose our memory.” He knew that such an idea would be a tough sell. “When you start a new company, you build a shining goal, and after that, you can scale it back to something more realistic. I always use the same approach. To create an impossible vision.”

From the impossible vision of a full brain backup, Pachikov scaled back to a product that could extend human memory to make things easy to find. He went back to his beliefs about the importance of memories, and his pressing need to preserve them. “Can you imagine a smart guy with a bad memory?” he asks. “When you can’t remember somebody’s name, you look stupid. Memory and smartness are integrated.” But, he cautioned, the human memory is fragile, not very reliable, and it’s fleeting. “We all have hundreds of thousands of pieces of information, but it’s useless if we can’t find any of it. In business, the worst thing we can say is, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot your name.’” He smiles. “This is a product I need myself,” he says.

A company rooted in memories

The result, of course, was Evernote, which Pachikov started in 2002. The company produced the first prototype in 2004, with the first beta for Windows in October of that year. This original EverNote (with a capital “N”) was far from the cloud-based, synced service that exists today, but Pachikov used it to resurrect a previous invention: the handwriting recognition technology that hadn’t reached its full potential with Apple’s Newton. In Evernote, people could still write notes the old fashioned way and they would be searchable. It was also important to Pachikov that Evernote had the ability to find any word in a note. “I hate keyword search!” Pachikov exclaims, making the point that he can’t always remember which language he wrote something in, and feels he shouldn’t have to remember countless search terms to retrieve information.

In 2007, Pachikov met Phil Libin, a Russian-born American more than twenty years his junior. He was impressed by Libin’s business acumen, a trait Pachikov felt he himself lacked. “I chose Phil,” Pachikov remembers. “He was smart, educated, and I was completely confident that he would be a much better CEO than I was. His Russian is better than my English. I believed he would transform the company and make it successful.” Under Libin, Evernote grew from a nascent company based on Pachikov’s vision to a solid company that produced the product millions know today.

“Today’s workers have expectations for the equipment they use on the job that are incredibly high,” observed Evernote’s current CEO, Chris O’Neill. “There’s a place in the workforce for something that blends function and beauty,” he said. “Phil benefitted from Stepan’s insight, added a lot of hard work, and, with the help of serendipity — Phil steered Evernote directly toward the iPhone at the time it premiered — brought it all together and provided something people want and need. That’s Phil’s legacy.”

Throughout it all, Pachikov remained on Evernote’s board of directors. He wanted to continue developing the product, but eventually decided that giving the reins to Libin was the right move. He believes a company needs one leader, not two. “Phil didn’t need my participation,” he said. “He hired many new people, and developed the Apple version and the iPhone version, but he didn’t need my help.”

Libin stepped down from Evernote’s helm in 2015, but Pachikov’s affection for him hasn’t dimmed. “He taught my son about business,” Pachikov explained. “He was a second father to him. His contribution to the company was significant.”

Stepan with his son Alex at an Amstrad personal computer, circa 1985. Credit: Dima Ershov

Reconciling the importance of the past

Even now, at 67, Pachikov believes the essence of life is memories, so he’s satisfied with the legacy that he’ll leave in the form of Evernote, which he hopes will continue to evolve. “I don’t believe in God,” he claims. “What stops you from committing crimes if you’re not afraid of God’s punishment?” As always with Pachikov, it comes down to memory, with what survives when the body dies. His eyes become steely as he stares straight ahead. “I am afraid to leave a bad memory of myself. When we decide about good and evil, it’s really about memory. Civilizations are so easy to destroy. It’s our mission, our goal, to protect life, and all we have is memories, so we have to protect them.”

Pachikov, who had been commuting between Silicon Valley-based Evernote and the apartment in Manhattan with his wife Svetlana, settled down permanently in New York to engage in his passion for the arts. He can walk to the Metropolitan Opera. Over time, he says, he’s learned to be happy. “There is a saying that wisdom comes with age,” Pachikov says, “but sometimes, age comes alone.” He says that for him, age came alone, but wisdom came from confronting his illness and its accompanying physical limitations. “It’s made me come to terms with life,” he says. “It gives you a new dimension, a new way to see yourself and your achievements from a different angle. You don’t pay attention to what’s not important anymore. It’s a question about understanding what in life has real value. And for me, I’m still trying to figure out.”

Pachikov still visits the company he founded to participate as an active member of the board, and he shares his vision for the future with them and with O’Neill, with whom he’s developed a friendship. O’Neill said his first order of duty when he took over Evernote from Libin was to listen to both of them. Returning to Evernote’s roots, O’Neill credits Pachikov’s vision for giving him a roadmap for where he’ll take Evernote in the future. “Stepan foresaw a world in which we could capture ideas at the speed of thought,” he said. “He taught me that the way we shift stories in time is a fundamental part of what makes us human beings. Stepan had the foresight to understand that what we do, what we know, and what we remember transcends culture, religion, and generations. He wanted to preserve it with technology. With that wisdom, I knew how to take Evernote into the future.”

Written by Pamela Rosen on June 27th, 2017. To read Evernote CEO Chris O’Neill’s tribute to Stepan Pachikov, head over to the Evernote blog.