Business cards: Replaceable with Evernote?

We’ve asked online social tools guru Stowe Boyd to help us tackle the subject of business card clutter. Thank you, Stowe, for again sharing your impressive insights with us!

Business cards are essential, but the form factor — and the business practices based on it — are stuck in the 20th century in their form. They take up room, are inherently difficult to organize, and come in all manners of shapes and sizes. At the same time, who has gone to a meeting, a conference, or even a PTA meeting, and not walked away with a dozen or more cards with names, email addresses, phone numbers, titles … information that later on, down the road, you may want or need to use.

If you are like me, you have no time to fool with keying in all this hypothetically useful information, and since I have no assistant just waiting to demonstrate 60 word per minute keyboard skills, the cards simply have been piling up over the past years. [In fact, in my case, I have been amassing cards on both coasts, since I have San Francisco and DC offices.]

I am aware that there may be services that will take this off your hands for a fee, and various applications that theoretically handle scanning and OCR of business cards, automatically putting contacts in your address book. I haven’t tried the former, but if it involves me mailing stuff to India or something, it’s just too much work. I have tried the scanner applications in the past, like Scanr, but I have never gotten anything like the OCR quality that would allow me to rely on them.

Enter The Cell Phone Camera

Not too long ago, I started an experiment. Since I have a five megapixel camera in my cell phone, why couldn’t I simply take pictures of business cards and then throw the cards away? That failed as an experiment, simply because there were still too many intermediate steps:

  1. Take the pictures.
  2. Transfer pictures from the cell phone to my Mac.
  3. Move the business card pictures to an appropriate folder on the Mac, or upload to a web service, like Flickr, and in either case, name the file the name of the person on it.

This is significantly less than the headaches involved with keying in all the data, but still too much work.

my new Moo Cards

Enter Evernote

A few weeks ago, I bumped into a new application called Evernote that is the answer to my business card prayers. Evernote is both a desktop application for the Mac and a hosted website service, where users’ notes and images are synchronized between the two.

Not only does Evernote allow me to organize both text notes and pictures of all sorts of things into folders, it also has very sophisticated OCR capabilities, able to find words on pictures of oddly shaped objects — like pictures of wine bottles. This capability works handily with relatively flat things, like, no surprise, business cards.

I tested it by moving in all the business card images in that I had captured, and found an extremely high capability to find cards based on name, company name, zipcodes, and nearly anything else in the text. There are some glitches, but the success rate is very high.

Here’s my own card, discovered by searching on “stowe”:

Evernote – My Business Card

The beauty of this approach is its ease. It’s so easy that I actually take pictures of people’s business cards when they hand them to me, and hand them back! After an event — like the recent Web 2.0 conference — I simply move the pictures to my Mac, and then drag any business card images into the Evernote Mac application. If I revert to actually bringing back cards from an event, I can either snap them with my cell phone, or use the Evernote Snapshot tool, which relies on the iSight webcam in my Mac to take pictures. These are not as high quality as I get with my phone, however, and as a result the search capabilities on these images is less reliable. I was recently advised that I could email images from my phone directly to the Evernote application, which I have yet to try.

I have boxes and boxes of business cards stockpiled, and I may never actually work through those. In fact, I recently just tossed several hundred cards that stretch back to the beginning of the Pleistocene. I did fish out a few, and snapped them, but mostly they went into the recycle bin. After all, people change phones and addresses frequently enough that a three-year-old business card is probably at least 50 percent wrong.

Note that I also can use this to take pictures of whatever I find of interest, or of critical importance, on the web. I could use it to take a screenshot of a LinkedIn profile, for example, in lieu of a person’s business card. As another example, today I screenshot a travel itinerary (via Skitch) and dragged it into Evernote, and I brought it back up by searching for ‘oakland’ and ‘friday’. I am also moving my loyalty cards into Evernote — like my Jetblue, KLM, and Expedia Elite cards — so I don’t have to schlep those around with me, either.


So don’t be too surprised when colleagues begin taking cell snapshots of your business card at the next mixer you attend, and then hand it back to you. They’ve probably gotten wise to Evernote.

46 Comments for “Business cards: Replaceable with Evernote?”

  1. posted by Ade on

    For PC users, the underated and seldom used MS One-Note that ships with office makes taking freeform notes simple and very effective. It also has OCR capabilities.

    I also understand that the upcoming Sony Ericsson G900i phone will ship with a built-in business card scanner.


  2. posted by CJ @ SaveChange on

    I haven’t quite gotten to the 21st century where taking photos of business cards is the norm, but I adore the Moo cards. I use them for promos/gift certificates for my massage business. When I get the “moo-certificate” back, I put it back in its tiny box for reuse later. The entire system stores in a box about the size of a mini deck of cards.

  3. posted by Allison on

    Handing a business card back? That seems quite rude. I particularly hope that you never try to do business in Japan, but even in North America, there’s something rather dismissive about that. I sure wouldn’t be left with a good impression of someone who HANDED BACK my business card. Sometimes being “uncluttered” shouldn’t reign above all other considerations. Just get rid of the business card later.

  4. posted by Tommy on

    Since the new version of EverNote is cross platform (flavors include: Mac, Win and Win Mobile) its become very easy to use this as your all in one storage solution. I use multiple computers and I always have my notes at hand.

    But, while this is a decent application of the program it still doesn’t solve the problem of moving those business cards from EverNote into your contact manager where they can be synced to places like phone, web address book, LinkedIn, etc. and it still has you collecting and then throwing out (or handing back) all those business cards.

    I wish we would see more phone applications similar to those available at the beginning of the PDA era, when you could transfer your business card through IR or radio. This would be the most efficient method and do away completely with old-fashioned paper cards.

  5. posted by LivSimpl on

    I’m an Evernote user as well and it works just as advertised (or at least as mentioned here). Another feature is that it syncs everything to an online version so if you’re away from your desktop and need to lookup information it’s available from any web browser. Very handy indeed.

    It definitely has the potential to reduce clutter and is certainly worth checking out.

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    I will photograph the card and the person handing it to me. It’s nice to be able to pull up a picture of a person along with the card so that I can work on committing their name to their face.

  7. posted by Gumnos on

    I have boxes and boxes of business cards stockpiled, and I may never actually work through those. In fact, I recently just tossed several hundred cards that stretch back to the beginning of the Pleistocene

    We’ve found that they’re good for note-paper (“Bake cookies for work!”), todo-lists (“Buy paint at home-store, prime walls, sand bookshelving”), and grocery lists.

    Then they get some use before they’re tossed in the recycle-bin.

  8. posted by Matt on

    I’ve found the ability to email Evernote very handy – why sync & drag when you can just email a picture to your Evernote inbox? It’s fast, it works well, and I never have to worry about the extra moving parts to the system.

  9. posted by dee on

    Erin – too funny you say that, I was just at a conference and one of the gentleman present was from overseas – I had never had anyone request this before but he asked that everyone send him a picture of themselves so that he could reference them when dealing with any of his new contacts in the future. While unusual, I thought it was very nice!

    Stowe – love the business card and love the idea. I am going to give it a whirl for all things surrounding notes and reference .. .not necessarily for business card storage. My job involves a lot of note taking and I’m thinking it would be nice to get it all in one spot. I like that its a secure site as well once you log in – many of my notes are proprietary and I’m unsure if it would be looked upon favorably to be posting them on the world wide web without protection.

  10. posted by Alex on

    It takes about a minute to enter the card data into Outlook. I have been doing it for years. Then I throw the card away.

    If I am at a conference, I either enter the cards into my Treo in the evening, or on the plane on the way back.

    I would NEVER hand a business card back. That is rude.

  11. posted by lana on

    What a great tip! Thanks, Stowe.

    I wish more people would use vCards – either on their websites or in their emails – it would help immensely with the business card clutter problem.

    Here’s a neat little app I stumbled across that lets people easily exchange vCards on a local network (OSX only):

  12. posted by E.D. on

    I agree with Allison and Alex. Handing back a business card is extremely rude.

    I type the info into an Excel spreadsheet. Sortable, with linked email addresses.

  13. posted by lana on

    I don’t think handing a business card back to someone has to be rude; just do it with a smile and explain that you have a program that organizes the info for you. I’d rather have someone take a pic of my card and hand it back to me nicely than toss it later. That’s unnecessarily wasteful (and expensive if the person has a really nice card).

  14. posted by Cyrano on

    I have to agree with handing a business card back as being at least a little rude. Sure, you can explain your photo-taking system to the person giving you the card, but it will still feel a bit dismissive.

    I feel you’re better off just taking the pictures in your hotel room afterwards and throwing it away.

  15. posted by Corey on

    Evernote is an amazing tool, but I still use and recommend 37signals Highrise for business cards. It’s more work than taking a picture but not much more work than entering receipts into a budget worksheet. All the data you need is taggable and cross-referenced with other employees from the same company. You can also add notes and create “cases” with your contacts, such as when you’re dealing with an insurance claim or a new business venture.

    By the way, before any more accusations of rudeness get thrown his way, I’m sure Stowe was just kidding around when he said to expect people to photograph your card and hand it back to you. 🙂

  16. posted by lana on

    It’s not like he’s being all Willy Wonka and tossing the card over his shoulder! What’s the big deal?

  17. posted by Christina on

    I think handing back a business card is rude. I take them, then at home, type the info I want to keep into my contact manager. It takes less time then the process above, btw. For some reason, I enjoy the ritual of exchanging business cards and I hope to not encounter the above process.

  18. posted by Melissa on

    I just started entering business cards into the Mac Address Book program. Very easy and I tossed all the cards into the trash. I will def. check out the Evernote though, sounds interesting.

    I don’t like the idea of handing back cards or taking photos of them. Handing them back is weird and could be seen as rude, and taking pictures might weird some people out too. Who needs a photo anyway? All I need is the contact info. Just take a card, enter the info, and throw it away in private.

  19. posted by Catherine on

    I agree about not handing back business cards. I recycle them later after I’ve pulled the relevant information from them. Even in our culture, the act of offering a business card is a gesture that should be accepted out of politeness.

    I also really dislike the idea of meeting someone and instantly snapping their picture with a camera phone. I hate having my picture taken and I would be incredibly put off by this. I just met you and now you want my mugshot? Not cool.

    I, too, am on my way to check out Evernote.

  20. posted by Prolific Programmer on

    I use prsnl to replace business cards. Especially now that it has basic email address and URL recognition.

  21. posted by Erin Doland on

    I can’t tell you the last networking event I went to that didn’t have people walking around taking pictures. Having cameras at these events is very normal, and having your picture snapped is to be expected. In the world of the internet, the assumption is that half the crowd will blog or twitter about the event before it’s even finished.

    If this isn’t the experience in your profession then, yeah, I guess it would be weird to whip out the camera.

  22. posted by Mer on

    Some social niceties will remain timeless. Until people stop printing and using business cards, handing back a card is rude and dismissive, and stopping to explain how they don’t fit into your hyper-efficient and clutter free system just compounds the faux-pas. Just take it, say thank you and put it in the shredder later.

  23. posted by lana on

    @Mer: I disagree; it’s a business card, not a calling card. In business, efficiency rules. If someone has a system that works for them, I’d be more inclined to ask them about it rather than get offended over something so silly.

    As a society, we could all stand to re-examine our wasteful ways, especially when it comes to archaic traditions like these.

  24. posted by Mer on

    @lana: I disagree with you in that I don’t think efficiency trumps relationships in business.

  25. posted by lana on

    I didn’t say that it trumps relationships, just that it’s more important than retaining outmoded habits, especially habits that contribute to waste and clutter.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  26. posted by el on

    I still enter all the info from the business cards I get into my outlook. I don’t find it that time consuming… but as a publicist, half the business cards I get are from people I’ve been working with; so I already have most, if not all, of their information from e-mail signatures.

  27. posted by David on

    Hand me back my business card and you’ll never get any business from me. Other people will hear about it too, because I’m quite open when it comes to sharing my “customer service” experiences.

  28. posted by Erik on

    Don’t you think you’re being rather silly, David? The person isn’t saying your card isn’t important or you’re not important, they’re saying they care enough to take your information but want to save you time and money of ordering more business cards.

    This is not something to be threatened by.

  29. posted by Katharine on

    Wow. I just put business cards in my rolodex, by business if i don’t know the person, or by name if I do. This is all really high tech for me.

    On the topic of handing back cards…I had a guy trying to get me into a pyramid scheme at a work event. After I was very clear that I was not interested, he asked for his card back. Sounds like he had a really successful business plan going!

  30. posted by Business Card Printer on

    As a business card printer, I am personally insulted that you hand business cards back. If everyone does this then I will never make any money 🙂

  31. posted by Mer on

    @Erik – Obviously you’ve never had any Japanese clients.

  32. posted by lana on

    Other options:

    Costco has a business card scanner on sale for $99 while supplies last. What’s cool about it is it imports the info directly into Outlook 2003/2007 or Act 2007. (Windows only, unfortunately) Link:

    Tape as many business cards as you can onto a blank sheet of paper and scan it with a mobile scanner like this:

  33. posted by lana on

    Btw, there are several business card scanners available at Amazon and other places; I just mentioned the Costco one because they currently have the best price.

  34. posted by green your apartment on

    That is so insanely cool and makes me want a Mac even more!

  35. posted by peteling on

    The Eten Glofiish x800 PPC/3G cellphone has a built in business card and text scanner that works pretty well and automatically stores card info to contact list

  36. posted by Brian on

    Evernote is great, and the new Mac desktop app is fantastic. I also appreciate the ability to view my notes on the desktop, the web, or on my iPhone.

    The text recognition is fantastic; it was able to recognize most of my lousy handwriting from cell phone pic of a letter sized sheet of paper.

  37. posted by Beth from Avenue Z on

    I discovered Evernote when I was looking for an alternative to One-Note, which I loved but didn’t want to buy. I hadn’t thought about using it for business cards. Way cool.

  38. posted by Stowe Boyd on

    I am surprised that the notion of handing back a business card after snapping a picture of it causes such emotion! I guess I have only done this in a low key setting, with people that are fairly tech savvy. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it in a culture like that of Japan, where the card has to be handled almost reverently. I have just been doing this with techie geeks who think it’s fun.

  39. posted by InfoMofo on

    I can second the accounts of business card etiquette standards being very high in Japan. I met co-workers in Tokyo who all presented me with their business cards, and after the first meeting, a fellow expat told me afterwards that if I didn’t have a proper case to put the cards into, it was best to hold them in my hand until out of sight rather than stuff them in my pockets.

    Then again, non-Japanese business people are not held to the same standards of etiquette in business settings, for example, wester expat workers are not really expected to follow the complex seating or elevator arrangement protocols that Japanese native salarymen would be expected to follow.

  40. posted by Laurent on

    I’m working for a Japanese company which has a branch here in the US. While it’s true that handing back a card might be seen as disrespectful, people’s perceptions can change. In the 90s, email was also perceived as rude. But if it ends up being more efficient, more environmentally friendly, or whatever, then people will change.

  41. posted by Tami on

    You can also look into a service called scanR. You take a picture of a business card with your mobile phone. Then it uses OCR technology to read it and will automatically send it back to your email in a Microsoft Outlook format or if you use, then that format. It can be very useful if you get lots of business cards, especially away from the office.

  42. posted by Carl McKinney on

    Very interesting post. I have heard very good things about this Evernote. Now that there is a native web app for iPhone this make all the more sense to employ.

    Thank you

  43. posted by Rob McCall on

    I’m surprised I haven’t heard anyone talk about the Evernote iPhone app. It has access to all your saved notes and it also allows you to take snapshots or even record voice memos that can be synced across the Evernote system. Great App!

  44. posted by anna on

    I would love to see 2D barcodes such as the QR Code (widely used in Japan9) used to read and store contact data. scanning software for mobile deviceswith a camera is available for free & it makes data transmission so easy. just print the code, which can be also be generated for free on several internet sites, in a corner or on the back of the card, and then you can scan it and transfer the data so easily to whatever application you want. No unreliable OCR involved.

  45. posted by Moof on

    Remember that by conserving someone’s business card you can then pass it on to others as and when you need it. It’s happened before, to me, and it’ll happen again.

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    […] Optimiza tu sistema de almacenamiento: tarjeteros organizados por categorías, orden alfabético, etc. Si lo análogo no es lo tuyo, puedes optar por sistemas de organización online como Evernote. […]

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