How to (and how not to) respond to criticism as a leader – Evernote vs. Stone Brewing

Submitted for your approval, we have two recent examples of public responses of CEOs to public criticism. In both situations, the criticisms come, not from professional critics, but from actual customers/clients. The companies these CEOs lead: Evernote – the personal productivity app that aims to help people remember everything, and Stone Brewing – the San Diego-based wunderkind brewery and restaurant.


Let’s start with Evernote. This software is designed to provide users with a repository for storing anything and everything that one might want to remember for whatever reason. It is an incredibly useful tool for those of us that subscribe to David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology for managing personal productivity. The role of Evernote in that type of framework is to provide “a trusted system” that one can rely upon, without having to store such information in the “RAM” of our brain.

I have enthusiastically recommended Evernote to others for several years now. Up until about six months ago, I was also a very enthusiastic user of Evernote. But I’ve noticed that in the last six months, I have created/saved only a small number of notes in Evernote, compared to the over 100 notes I would produce in a typical month. In trying to understand why, I happened to come across an article written by Jason Kincaid called, Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant. His piece summed up a lot of the frustrations that I too was experiencing. Here’s an example:

None of this has been life shattering, but given how reliant I am on Evernote it is deeply unnerving — now each note I instinctively leave myself is tinged with anxiety. I’m concerned that as I dig through my Evernote archive I’ll encounter more corrupted audio notes, and, worse, my paranoia is increasingly convinced that there may have been notes that never were saved to the archive at all.

That pretty much nullifies the use of Evernote as a “trusted system” in my book. Here is more:

What’s worse, it isn’t consistently improving. When iOS7 launched, Evernote was one of the first applications to overhaul with a new, ‘flat’ design, and as a result benefitted from being featured prominently within the App Store. But functionally, it was clearly a downgrade from the old app, with extra dollops of sluggishness, crashes, and glitches…

We’ll come back to Evernote in a minute. But first, let’s discuss Stone Brewing – arguably one of San Diego’s most successful micro-breweries in a town that has come to be known for its thriving craft beer scene.

While I have no complaints about the quality of Stone’s beers, their fine dining experience falls well below acceptable standards. I wrote about my experience in an open letter to Stone’s CEO, Greg Koch. In summary, despite an incredible venue and architectural design of the establishment, the overpriced food is hit or miss, and the service is embarrassing.

Take pride and responsibility in what you do as a leader

After Jason Kincaid published his article about Evernote, the company’s CEO Phil Libin responded. Not only did Libin contact Jason directly to personally discuss the issues, he took the time to write a very heartfelt and genuine response on the official Evernote blog, called On Software Quality and Building a Better Evernote in 2014. Here is the opening paragraph:

I got the wrong sort of birthday present yesterday: a sincerely-written post by Jason Kincaid lamenting a perceived decline in the quality of Evernote software over the past few months. I could quibble with the specifics, but reading Jason’s article was a painful and frustrating experience because, in the big picture, he’s right. We’re going to fix this.

After immediately owning up to the situation, Evernote’s CEO very publically describes some of the struggles the company has faced, and how he plans to lead the company forward to address those problems. He continues:

Our new philosophy is to find every spot in our products where we’ve been forced to make a trade-off between doing what’s simple and doing what’s powerful, then rethink it so that the simplest approach is also the most powerful. We know we’ve found a good design for something when that conflict disappears. It feels like magic when that happens, and we’ll have several bits of magic in the coming months.

By contrast, here is how Stone’s CEO responded after reading my article:


Just so we’re clear here, Greg, I’m not just some “armchair quarterback.” I am a customer. Someone that really wanted to pay you money to enjoy your fine establishment, but was unable to because your staff is not properly trained in basic customer service. I wrote that piece with the hope that it might trigger a positive response. Clearly I am not the only one who sees potential that goes unrealized amidst quality and customer service problems.

What’s the Point?

When you are the leader of a company, the buck stops with you. Being the CEO also means being chief of customer service, and chief spokesperson. How you respond to the criticism of your company’s products and services from paying customers says a lot about who you are as a person.

For me personally, I still pick up the occasional bottle or six of Stone, but I will usually give preference to one of the other awesome San Diego-based breweries, and I probably won’t be back to the restaurant ever again. As far as Evernote is concerned, I will not be looking to migrate my “trusted system” anywhere else anytime soon and I will trust the process that Phil Libin and his team will be engaged in over the coming months. After all, it isn’t like Evernote is going anywhere soon – if Libin has his way, Evernote will be around for at least 100 more years:


Images courtesy Heisenberg Media and edwin