Disclaimer: NFX is an investor in Rahul Vohra’s angel fund.
While most companies are focused on building a beautiful machine — a 100% tech-driven, algorithmic, human-free experience — by contrast and even by name Superhuman is oriented in the opposite direction. The email company is known for its personable, high-touch onboarding, requiring significant human interaction. When others talk about automation and breakneck scale, Superhuman talks about spending time with customers and launching small.
It’s a counterintuitive approach to building product. My experience at Trulia was similar. While our initial vision was full automation, when we combined great software with human touch, our conversions skyrocketed.
I wrote in a recent piece on 28 Moves to Survive and Thrive in a Downturn that the only way to break through in a crisis — or to beat the competition under normal circumstances — is to 10x your product by offering a dramatically better product experience. 10x product outcomes are a result of how you as a Founder think, and it’s almost always counterintuitive to the conventional approach. It’s a matter of conviction.
Rahul Vohra is one of the rare Founders and product builders with this conviction. He is the Founder and CEO of Superhuman, where he and his team are building the fastest email experience in the world. Rahul was previously the Founder of Rapportive, acquired by LinkedIn in 2014.
I recently spoke with Rahul for a special NFX “keynote” podcast. His strategic thinking on product-market fit is verging on legendary.
In this NFX podcast episode and essay, Rahul shares the frameworks he wants every Founder to know about:
With any email client, task manager, or calendar app, you have an especially massive surface area for bugs, because you have wide variability in how users want to use the product.
If you run a traditional Launch and sign up tens of thousands of users quickly, they will find thousands of bugs and quickly overwhelm your team. You won’t be able to fix the issues fast enough. Your users will then be disappointed and churn out of the product — and tell everyone about their poor experience.
Instead, do a measured, rolling, Founder-led launch in 4 distinct phases that involves onboarding your earliest users:
Caveat: By all means, do a traditional launch if you need one of the three Cs quickly: capital, candidates, or customers.
I myself did the first 200 new user onboardings in Phase One. I wasn’t concerned with how long each onboarding took; many took two hours. Each onboarding had six parts.
We have a product philosophy of using game design to make our software more fun to use and help our users move faster.
Here’s how it works. We start with a philosophy that is different from most of Silicon Valley. Rather than focus on features that users need, we focus on how software makes a user feel.
Business (and most productivity) software feels like work. We design our products to work and feel like games; this is the core of why people fall in love with it. Nobody needs a game to exist. There are no requirements. For that reason, when you make a game, you don’t worry about what users want or need. Instead, you obsess over how they feel.
When your product is more like a game than work, people don’t just use it. They “play” it, they find it fun. They tell their friends, they fall in love with it. Game design turns out to be an altogether different kind of product development.
I learned to code to make games and worked as a game developer. It turns out there is no unifying principle of game design. We are building those principles, drawing upon the art and science of psychology, mathematics, storytelling, and interaction design.
We’ve identified 5 key factors to consider:
Across these, we further identified many principles of game design as we built Superhuman.
For example, “Are toys the same as games?” We play with toys, but we play games. A ball is a toy, but football is a game. And as it turns out, the best games are built with toys. Because then they are fun on multiple levels, the level of the toy and also of the game itself.
As a single example, consider our autocompleter which you use to snooze emails:
a) You type whatever you want. It does its best to understand you. For example, “two d” becomes two days and “three h” becomes three hours. It is fun because it’s a playful exploration. Users find this feature — this toy — and start to ask,“What can it do? When does it break? How does it work?” This becomes a game for them.
b) They might ask “I wonder what happens if I keep typing 10?” It turns out that is October the 10th at 10:00 PM. Or how about a sequence of twos? That’s February the second, 2022 at 2:00 PM. And then we see people start trying more complex inputs like in a fortnight and a day.
c) Users keep finding pleasant surprises. For example, time zone math happens without you ever thinking about it. You can type in 8:00 AM in Tokyo that turns out to be 8:00 PM Eastern time. We weave the surprise through the product.
d) Sometimes the surprises have no real purpose. For example, you can snooze emails until never; you can literally type in the word “never.” Then that email will never come back. If you are thinking about this from a “feature’ mindset, why would you have that option? It’s the same as deleting an email. But from a game mindset, it’s fun and playful so it makes users happy and keeps them engaged.
Consider all the features of your own product and ask yourself these questions:
If so, you have a toy and you’re on the way to building a great game… even if it is productivity software.
We first started by thinking about positioning. We were heavily influenced by Madhavan Ramanujam and his book Monetizing Innovation. For those who don’t know Madhavan, he’s a partner at Simon-Kucher & Partners, the preeminent pricing firm in the valley. The thing that I got from that book was before you figure out pricing, you must first figure out your positioning.
Then we talked to Arielle Jackson who was the first Product Marketing Manager on Gmail at Google. She advises using a simple but effective 6-part formula to determine positioning:
Then we started to ask ourselves questions. Are we the Ford of email? No, not really. Are we the Mercedes of email or the BMW? Maybe, but not quite. Are we the Tesla of email? We’re getting there, but it’s not quite right.
In 2015, we came up with the following positioning for Founders, CEOs, and managers of high growth technology companies who feel like their work is mostly email.
“Superhuman is the fastest email experience ever made. It’s what Gmail could be if it were made today instead of 12 years ago. And unlike Gmail, Superhuman is meticulously crafted. So that everything happens in a hundred milliseconds or less.”
The positioning makes it clear Superhuman is a premium product. From that, we moved on to pricing.
We asked 4 questions:
Since we were building a premium product we paid most attention to the third question. The median answer to this question actually turned out to be $29 per month. A few conversations with some pricing experts later, we rounded up to $30 per month.
Rounded prices signal quality; prices that end in a 9 signal a bargain.
That’s how we picked our price.
To learn more about Superhuman, visit www.superhuman.com. Subscribe to the NFX podcast for more insights from top Founders on how they built iconic companies.
As Founders ourselves, we respect your time. That’s why we built BriefLink, a new software tool that minimizes the upfront time of getting the VC meeting. Simply tell us about your company in 9 easy questions, and you’ll hear from us if it’s a fit.