Evernote is spinning out its Chinese business and it plans to take it public

Here’s a unique approach to Western companies doing business in China. Today, Evernote — the U.S. note-making service — span out its China-based unit into an independent entity with “full autonomy” over its business and services.

Evernote introduced its Yinxiang Biji China-based service in 2012, but now it is transitioning to a minority shareholder with the Chinese management team taking day-to-day control. As part of its move to independence, Yinxiang Biji has raised an undisclosed Series A round from the Sequoia CBC Cross-border Digital Industry Fund.

The terms are not disclosed, but Raymond Tang, CEO of Yinxiang Biji, said ownership of the business is split roughly equally between Evernote, the Chinese investors and the startup’s management team — while Yinxiang Biji itself has raised “several hundred million RMB.” (For comparison, 100 million RMB is roughly $15 million.)

Evernote and Yinxiang Biji have inked a two-year deal that will see them cross-license IP, and Tang and Evernote CMO Andrew Malcolm told TechCrunch in an interview that the duo will continue to work closely. The IP deal could also be extended, according to Malcolm, who added that the spin-out has been a move that he and Tang have discussed since they both joined Evernote in 2015.

Yinxiang Biji claims to have more than 20 million registered users who have created over one billion notes. Tang said that note creation in China per user is 50 percent higher than Evernote’s other customer base, while the business has grown at a 60-percent rate annually.

More broadly, Malcolm said the China entity accounts for some 10 percent of Evernote’s global revenue but he acknowledged that, despite adopting a local strategy since it launched, Yinxiang Biji will have the freedom to push its business harder as an independent entity. That chiefly includes building out features that apply more directly in China, such as social integrations and more.

“Even without having done some of the basics that [Chinese] users would expect, we’ve found product-market fit. How much more impactful could we be if we allowed the Chinese market team to think about their brand, technology and innovation?” he said.

The company has arguably been one of the most successful U.S. tech companies to venture into China — LinkedIn, which is mired in some controversy, might be another. Yet still a change is needed since the existing approach “doesn’t satisfy what we have learned about how Chinese users want to use Evernote versus those in the rest of the world,” Malcolm summarized.

That sentiment was echoed by Eric Xu, partner of the Sequoia fund.

“I am convinced that Yinxiang Biji will further unleash its potential and pick up development after the spin-off, as technical and decision-making autonomy is gained and fully localized operations are on the way. Moreover, its business model is a frame of reference for future cross-border Internet partnerships,” Xu said in a supplied statement.

Beyond impact on the service, there is a major business reason, too. The move frees Yinxiang Biji up for a potential listing, which Malcolm and Tang both acknowledged is part of the plan since Chinese financial regulations are strict, including clauses such as two years of profitability. Part of that planned approach includes the new management structure, which makes Yinxiang Biji majority-Chinese owned thus satisfying another regulatory requirement.

“We are very much aware of how far ahead you need to be thinking” in order to go public in China, Malcolm said. “It’s top of our minds when we speak.”

Tang, meanwhile, suggested that the company might look to tap exchanges in Shanghai or Shenzhen, but there’s no immediate timeframe for that at this point. Both executives pointed out that the Chinese market requires a unique approach and, in this case for certain, Evernote is adopting one.

Evernote, once valued at over $1 billion, has been in a period of transition over the last few years after the exit of co-founder and CEO Phil Libin in the summer of 2015. A slew of over executives followed Libin, a ‘changing of the guard’ as perhaps might be expected when a founding member departs. Since then, the company has quietly solidified its business in the years since then under the helm of CEO Chris O’Neill, who previously spent a decade with Google.

Under that context, the Chinese move makes plenty of sense since it happened under the previous Evernote management regime, but it also raises questions about Evernote’s own immediate future, and a potential IPO. The company isn’t saying anything on that now, but it would be quite something if the business unit it set up in China went public before the mothership.