Superhuman: Creating an app people can’t stop talking about

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Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs for an audience of ambitious creators who are out there creating companies. I’ve wanted to have today’s guest on I’d say for half a decade. How long ago was it when you sold Rapportive?
Rahul: That was in 2012. So we’re coming up to, yeah, seven or eight years.
Andrew: I remember meeting you soo?÷do an interview about Rapportive?” And you said, “There’s something I want to launch next at LinkedIn.” I’m not ready to do it.” And then I went through my Superhuman inbox and looked for some of our past conversations, and I think every few years I come back and say, “How about an interview? How about an interview?” And I’m so glad that you said yes to doing this interview, especially because Rahul Vohra has got the app that Silicon Valley can’t stop freaking yapping about. There are few apps that people will not stop talking about. He’s got the one that is high on that list for years now, I’d say at least two years it’s been high on that list.
And the thing that pissed me off was I couldn’t get Superhuman. I actually found old emails of me to you asking, “Is this for real?” And then you responded, answered my security questions and I said, “I still don’t know if I want to try a new email software.” Then the email switched where I go, “Rahul, can I please have access to Superhuman? I’m on the waitlist.” And for some reason I didn’t get through, I didn’t get through, then somebody introduced me through there, like, you know, in the Superhuman app. It’s kind of a ranty intro, isn’t it? But I’m excited about what you built.
Rahul: I can feel the pressure.
Andrew: The pressure is all on me, not on you. I finally was sitting next to a past guest who said, “Hey, you know, the Superhuman thing has been really helpful. Do you want me to hit the button here and refer you?” I go, “Yeah, hit the freaking button. Refer me.” And then a few months later, I got to use this Superhuman app that I’ve been super curious about and I got to see why everyone is so excited about.
When I asked Rahul, “What is the one sentence I could use to describe his software?” He said, “We like to call Superhuman the fastest email experience ever made.” Usually, Rahul, when people say the fastest whatever, I chop off the fastest. The superlative is not necessary. I do feel with Superhuman on the desktop, it is the fastest email experience I’ve ever seen. And God knows I’ve tried so many of them.
All right. So we’re going to find out how he created it, especially I’m curious about how he talks to every single customer, someone on his team, and how that influences the product, and then the virality that’s built into this thing, I’m curious about. And finally, I’m curious about why is the waitlist so long? Like, why is it that when our producer talked to him to say how successful is a company, he used the number of people on the waitlist as a success metric? I wouldn’t have thought that would be a positive thing.
All right. We can do it all thanks to one phenomenal sponsor. It is called Toptal. If you’re hiring developers, I want to persuade you to get in touch with them. But I’ll talk about Toptal later. Rahul, good to see you here.
Rahul: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Andrew: How many people are actually using the software right now?
Rahul: So we don’t really disclose those user numbers publicly, but I can share that. Let’s say, this year, we have more than 4X user base, so it’s been a tearaway year heading into 2020 here.
Andrew: Kevin Roose in “The New York Times” did an article that started out with a lot of skepticism about Superhuman and why anyone would pay to use it. And then he comes around and says, “Now I get it.” In that article, he said, there are fewer than 15,000 customers. Is that about right?
Rahul: That article if I recall is from summertime of this year. I wouldn’t want to misquote the team, so I’m not sure exactly we are with respect to that number.
Andrew: Can we say it’s roughly . . . Is that a crazy number?
Rahul: Is that a crazy number? No, it’s not a crazy number.
Andrew: No. All right. So I don’t know if it’s . . .
Rahul: What [number 00:03:55] makes a number crazy then?
Andrew: What I mean is like if I do the quick math on that, that comes out to $450,000 a month, that’s roughly where you guys are, over 400 in revenue?
Rahul: I would have to check the financials to be sure.
Andrew: Would you be able to tell me if it’s more than $350,000 in monthly revenue?
Rahul: Again, I would have to check the financials to be sure. Yeah. I mean, these all sound plausible.
Andrew: Okay. Basically, you know the number but you’re not comfortable saying and I’m not looking to get you to a place where you go, “Damn it. Why am I even talking to Andrew? The whole conversation is just him beating me up over this one number.” I just wanted to get a sense of it. People are . . .
Rahul: This is a very funny video. I like how many times . . . We can keep going. It’s like ping ping ping.
Andrew: What I’m trying to get at is how many people are actually paying you guys, and then also how many people are on a waitlist trying to pay you guys considering that I don’t think outside of, like, the Silicon Valley tech scene people have heard of Superhuman yet. So how about that? Can you give me the number of people on the waitlist to give me an indication of what you’re dealing with?
Rahul: Yeah. Yeah. So the number of people on the waitlist we can and do share. That’s north of 250,000 people right now. And I think the more interesting thing isn’t how many folks are paying, but rather the percentage. So, you know, when you and I first met, yeah, nearly a decade now, wow, freemium was all the rage, if you recall, and we were in the heyday of Dropbox, MailChimp had just gone freemium or was about to, and it was really all . . . The only business model that software as a service type companies would do. It was certainly the plan for Rapportive. But I think we’ve come full circle. And one of the most interesting things about Superhuman is that regardless of how many paying users we have, every user pays. We’re not operating a freemium model and everyone does, in fact, pay $30 a month because that’s the way that we’re building the company and that’s the kind of product that we want to build.
Andrew: So why not say we have over a couple of 100,000 people on the waitlist. Let’s just tell every one of them if they want to sign up and pay us $30 a month, they could do it right now.
Rahul: Yeah, because we want to make sure that people are successful with the product. So some percentage of that waitlist, if I recall, about 15% have Android as their primary mobile device. And we know that Superhuman is an ecosystem product. If you’re going to use it, you’re going to adopt it across your entire ecosystem of devices whether it’s desktop and mobile or maybe your tablet as well. And if it doesn’t quite click in all those areas, it’s just going to be a lot harder for you to fully engage with the product.
And so for folks who use Android as a primary device, we say, “Well, you’re on the waitlist. We’re going to get back to you. We’re actually just starting to build our Android app next quarter. And when that’s ready, we’re going to circle back and then release that section of the waitlist.” In addition, there is just this incredible demand for the product. And as you know, because you and I did this together, but we actually onboard every single customer one to one and we do that in a live concierge video call. It’s half an hour with one of our onboarding specialists.
And that’s something that, you know, lots of people have said this differently. I think Brian Chesky at Airbnb said, “Scale the unscalable thing.” Paul Graham has written a lot about doing unscalable things. Well, here’s the thing that from the outside in may appear tremendously unscalable spending that one-on-one time with every single customer, but it’s something that we’ve actually figured out how to scale and we now have a team of 14 people who do that full-time.
Andrew: I kind of assume that not being able to . . . that you didn’t have enough people to onboard your customers and that’s part of the reason why the waitlist is so big.
Rahul: That definitely is one of the rates limiting factors, but it’s fine. There is a sort of a more philosophical discussion, I think. But there is this . . . I think in Silicon Valley sometimes there’s this pressure for growth that is actually too much and too fast. And we experienced this around a year ago. So, a year ago, we had one person doing customer support. And we went from two people doing onboardings to six people doing onboardings, but we didn’t increase the size of the customer support team. And by the way, we don’t even call it customer support. We call it customer delight.
And you can imagine the impacts that this influx of new customers had on this person doing customer delight. They were very quickly overwhelmed, a huge backlog built up, the quality of our service went down, and we weren’t really living or delivering, rather, an experience that’s true to our values. And so in this age and we’re still in this age of growth at all costs, that’s the usual mentality, we kind of run the opposite direction. It’s not growth at all costs. It’s experience at all costs. And whether that means scaling the onboarding team and making sure that each person has a personalized one-to-one experience, or making sure that we don’t have an instant, like a year ago and that the delight team is always staffed with capacity to respond super quickly to any inbound request. We’re all about delivering that experience at any cost.
Andrew: I liked how when you and I did the onboarding and you did it for Kevin Roose of “The New York Times” also. So I know you do it occasionally for people. I liked how you are watching what I did on my computer screen. Actually, I use the iPad. You’re watching me tap for tap asking me questions about how I do stuff, giving me guidance on how to do it. I know that you are teaching me, but I also know because you kept pointing out, “Oh, that’s good for me to know that you’re doing it.” I’m teaching you about how I’m using email and others are too. I wonder if you have an example of how Superhuman improved through a conversation with an onboarding customer.
Rahul: Yeah, I’ve got many. In fact, I can think of three off the top of my head. So many years ago, in the early days of the company, we had relatively little user data. So we were modeling after our own behavior. Now, most of us in the company at the time were either leaving emails in our inbox or we were archiving them. What we didn’t have anywhere in the company was a filer, you know, the kind of triage where you move emails into certain folders. And I must admit, at the time, I didn’t see the value in that kind of activity.
And then we started to make inroads into the venture community onboarding VCs and investors watching they’ll recognize this behavior immediately, but we saw folks who would file emails from their entrepreneurs, especially those that contain board decks into a folder for the company, and there was no quick way to do that inside of Superhuman. And we knew we wanted to be successful with this demographic. You know, if you can make investors happy, then you’re one step away from making founders happy and then you’re one step away from making entire companies happy.
And so that was a case where we checked our assumption that that was a bad way to do email and then built that feature. There was a very specific use case that filing enables which is search only takes you so far even if the search is incredibly fast as it is Superhuman. And if you want to find a set of disparate, but related emails immediately, then filing actually makes a surprising amount of sense. So that was a very early example of that.
Andrew: Because you would watch them do email and you’d see that they either got hung up on doing sorting or you’d see when they went to Gmail, they were sorting into folders.
Rahul: I would see that in trying to use Superhuman, they’d get to a point where an email had a board deck and they’d want to file it to a specific place. And I’d say, “Why?” And they’ll be like, “Well, when we’re doing our LP updates, it’s really useful and fast and time-saving to go to a folder and then you have the last two years’ worth of board decks right there.” And doing that via search would just be a big pain in the ass.
Andrew: Okay.
Rahul: On the more consumer version of that, and this is actually something that I actually now do, is tax documentation. So, when Schwab or 401(k) or whatever emails me with my 1099, I actually file that, this is the only example of filing that I do, into a tax folder so at the right time of the year, I don’t have to do searches, because think about it, there’s no one search that would solve for that, but all of the emails are collected in one place. So that [inaudible 00:12:29]
Andrew: That’s a great idea.
Rahul: Yeah.
Andrew: I should do that too. What I end up doing is downloading it and then uploading it to a folder in Google Drive so that I don’t miss it, otherwise, I have to start searching for my social security number, my wife’s. All right. I get all that and I get how watching other people would help you improve the product. Let’s go back a little bit. Do you remember the day that you sold Rapportive to LinkedIn?
Rahul: I very much remember that day. Yes.
Andrew: What do you remember about that day?
Rahul: Well, I know you know how this goes, but there is no one particular day. So are you thinking about the day when we signed the term sheet or when we signed . . . ?
Andrew: What I notice is that a lot of entrepreneurs have one day that stands out, the day that they finally signed and they knew that it was done, the day that some money was wired in, the day that a phone call happened. Was there one like that that stands out for you as especially exciting? Or was it the day that you left LinkedIn that you could finally take a breath after so many years of working on this software?
Rahul: Yeah. What an interesting and fascinating question. So there were a few days that stand out. Definitely, the day that we signed the term sheet that felt like a major accomplishment. I remember my dad sent me a handwritten letter which is an extremely unusual thing for him to do. And he was just gushing with pride and with admiration for what we’d all accomplished at Rapportive.
Then the acquisition, as many do actually, entered a rocky period. We entered due diligence and we’re like, “Well, we didn’t quite like this part at all, you know, this part about the deal. We want to revisit the terms,” which at the time I took very personally, but this is a very common occurrence in Silicon Valley. And then the next few months were quite stressful, I think, on both sides as both sides really wanted to make this deal happen, but also to make the right deal happen.
And then finally, once that definitive agreement was signed, it is such an emotional moment because the very last thing that you do as a founder is resign as a director of the company and you’ve signed, God knows, how many pieces of paper, I think, literally hundreds of pieces of paper, hundreds of signatures, thousands of pieces of paper. And the very last one is and I finally resign as a signature of Rapport . . . Sorry, as the director of Rapportive through the signature. And yeah, that felt heavy. That was like, “Oh.” It’s not the lightening feeling that you described. It was like a heavy feeling. The feeling of lightness came later where those first few months of being at LinkedIn, it was almost a euphoric feeling on a day-to-day basis.
Andrew: Because?
Rahul: It’s hard to explain why. It just the . . . . You know, I said to Jason on his show TWiST . . . He actually came up with the words, not me, he was like, “Dude, you were like living the American dream. You grew up in England, you have this idea, you start a company, you move here, you do YC, you raise some money, and then less than two years later, you sell your company to LinkedIn and just gone public. Like, that whole journey it’s the kind of thing that people dream of doing and you did it.” And I think that that led me to a certain feeling of euphoria.
Andrew: I get it. I should explain to this point that Rapportive . . . Actually, how would you explain what Rapportive did?
Rahul: Yeah. So, very simply, we showed you everything about your contacts right inside your inbox. And for those that don’t remember, we were the first Gmail plugin to scale to millions of users. When people email you, we show you what they look, where they’re based, what they do. And just over on the right-hand side of Gmail, you had like links to that tweets and their social profiles, which by the way, we’ve reimplemented as a feature inside of Superhuman.
Andrew: I saw that. Yeah, that was amazing when I first saw it. And I know Jason is Jason Calacanis, he invested in both of your companies in Rapportive. TechCrunch estimated or according to their reporting, it was $15 million exit. I think you kind of gave a smile and a wink without giving an answer to whether that’s the right number or not. Fair to say that a big chunk of that was in, like, signing bonuses to the team?
Rahul: No. So, actually, you generally don’t want to do that. That’s not a very tax-efficient way to do things. And so a lot of the fine detailed negotiation at the end of the day was to not do that, to actually do a reverse merger, to have our shares which had been held for over a year, he bought out, and to figure out how to do that with vesting such that myself, the other founders and all the employees would benefit from long-term capital gains tax. So there was no signing bonuses for employees. It all came out as actually purchasing the shares of Rapportive, which is obviously way more tax efficient.
Andrew: Then you worked for LinkedIn. You did a bunch of email integration for them. What type?
Rahul: So we did a lot of work for LinkedIn. Our team was responsible for a number of things we continued to work on Rapportive. We . . . Very interesting integration on the iPhone primarily in the native email app on the iPhone. We were able . . .
Andrew: The one where if you . . . And I forget what it was. That you add a certificate for this or that, you were able to get information about your senders into the email app that’s built in the iPhone. That was you?
Rahul: That’s right. That’s correct. The team that built that was the Rapportive team, was the main [inaudible 00:18:13]
Andrew: Wow. Okay. It makes sense.
Rahul: . . . required. Yeah. And also we had responsibility for the Outlook Social Connector, which it doesn’t really exist these days, but back in the day, that was how you got LinkedIn data inside of Outlook.
Andrew: Okay. And then you left LinkedIn after I think a couple of years.
Rahul: Yeah, about two years.
Andrew: And then you took some time off. What did you do in that time off?
Rahul: Oh, this is where you and everyone gets to learn a little bit about me. I had a really great time. I think that, like yourself, very fortunate to make some money, very young. And what I saw in Silicon Valley is people don’t really take the time to enjoy that. And I found it weird. So I spent the entire year just really relaxing, catching up on the youth where I probably spent way too much time studying, truth be told. So, yeah. I partied pretty hard, I bought a fun car, I raced around the California countryside. Really got a lot of that out of my system before I decided to sort of settle down and say, “Okay. Now we’re going to build a big one. We’re going to build a billion-dollar company.”
Andrew: Damn. By the way, I thought the car was like my own personal insight. I just happen to know people who know you and as we were walking around, a few people were talking about how cool the car was. I said, “I got some scuttlebutt. I’m going to bring up,” and then you brought it up yourself. So I didn’t even need to bring into rumors. I’m going to come back and ask you a little bit about your youth. I’m kind of curious about what you’re like or what you were like growing up. I’m curious about what you did a little bit more in that time off, and then how you came up with the idea for Superhuman. I’m writing notes down here. People have called me out, they said, “Andrew, you said you were going to talk about this and you missed this point.” I’m not going to anymore.
Let me first talk about my sponsor, it’s Toptal, it’s a place for hiring developers. I’ve had them as sponsors now for about half a decade. Since you’ve hired developers a lot over the years, do you have any tips about hiring developers? We’ll include that in the ad here for them.
Rahul: For sure. Yeah. So I think hiring a developer is much like any other kind of process. You have to tell a story. And I think the storytelling here at Superhuman is basically our secret weapon. We have told the story of email and how we’re going to make it better than any other company so far. And I like to think that we do a really great job of telling our engineering story as well. So all of the marketing . . .
Andrew: What do you mean? What’s the engineering story and how does the marketing and the engineering story help you hire?
Rahul: I actually got asked this very question today because I’m hiring for head of talent. And so the head of talent said, “Well, how do you sell engineering candidates?” I said, “It’s very simple. There is nothing that engineers love to work on more than tooling. And what Superhuman is is the super tool, it is the tool that 1 billion people in the world could use every single day to save hours per week.” And that itself is incredibly attractive to engineers. That’s number one. Number two, it’s productivity. It’s kind of the stuff that engineers nerd out about. And I say that myself being an engineer. I grew up building productivity tools. It’s the kind of thing we do naturally anyway, and the chance to do that and give it to a customer and have them pay you for it, it’s like the dream of many engineers.
Andrew: So what you’re doing is you’re understanding their motivation. Not what does it take for them to come in and get a paycheck. But what do they get excited about? And then you’re telling them what parts of your business and your product fit in with that excitement.
Rahul: Exactly.
Andrew: That’s what you’re suggesting.
Rahul: Yeah.
Andrew: All right. With Toptal, anyone who’s interested in hiring the best of the best developers, just go to toptal.com/mixergy. You hit that big button, they’re going to introduce you to some developer . . . They’re going to talk to you first. They actually do the same thing you guys do, Rahul. They talk to every single customer. They want to understand what you’re looking for. And then that person goes back to their network and says, “Oh, who’s the right person based on what we’ve discovered?” And then they make an introduction. Do you have an example of what, like, everyone talks about that . . . Is it the 10X developer? Do you have an example of what a 10X developer was able to do for you guys at Superhuman that nobody else could have done or that 10 other developers couldn’t have even done?
Rahul: Interesting. Okay. So I’ll tell the story of my CTO and co-founder Conrad. Conrad and I have now been working with for, oh, boy, 10 years at this point. He was the first employee that we hired at Rapportive. And to give you an idea of how 10X Conrad is. When we were going through the M&A process at Rapportive, we spoke to a number of different companies. And one of the companies that we talked to at the time was Twitter. And, you know, he went in, did his engineer interviews, and he actually scored the highest engineer scores that any engineer has ever scored in the entire history of that company, literally everyone who has ever interviewed there.
So it gives you an idea. And something that he was able to do for Superhuman is on the desktop products, which is the products that he manages engineering for. He is the person that figured out how to download, store and index all of your email in the browser itself. And so that gives us this . . . Not only does it give us offline, not only is it better for privacy and security, it also gives us that blazingly fast speed that you were referring to earlier.
Andrew: I got to say, I wouldn’t have thought that I needed speed, but when I’m searching for something, especially because I’m not a filer, that speed is huge. It’s just amazing. I’ve for years stopped using the Gmail app because I think that they don’t really care about it that much or maybe it’s built for too many diverse reasons. I don’t know what it is. But the one thing that would get me to keep it on my phone was, if I need to find an email because I’m stuck somewhere and I need someone’s phone number, they were the fastest game in town and then your freaking thing is super-fast. Even on mobile, it’s incredibly fast. Are you guys storing all my email on mobile too on the device?
Rahul: As much as it make sense, you know, we try and . . . Yes. We’ll try not to take up all the space on your device, but there is a local cache.
Andrew: I’m doing it right now.
Rahul: A much bigger cache than Gmail does locally.
Andrew: More than Gmail does. Okay, hang on.
Rahul: Absolutely, yes.
Andrew: I’m going to do a search for you and let’s see how much . . . All right. The problem is that you actually have a name that is way too common for my inbox, so I get a whole bunch of email from a lot of people. All right. Okay. Impressive. I had no idea. All right. If you guys are looking for the best of the best developers, go to toptal.com/mixergy. Really, challenge them, and then once you get on a phone with the people they match you up with, see if they really are this 10X developer level that I’m talking about. And if they are, they could change your business, they can make your business more interesting to acquirers, but also change the way that you create. Go to toptal.com/mixergy, you’ll get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours. That’s toptal.com/mixergy.
Hey, what were you like as a kid? I get the sense from you that you were a very serious person, almost to the point where you intimidate friends a little bit. What were you like when you were growing up?
Rahul: This is a feedback I’ve received in the past and I’m working on being more approachable.
Andrew: Why? Be you.
Rahul: Sorry. The audio cut out.
Andrew: What were you like growing up?
Rahul: Oh, growing up. What was I like growing up? I had a relatively small number, I think 10 or 15 extremely close friends. And we would talk a lot. I’m talking about, like, spending maybe two to four hours on the phone every single evening at all with each other and, you know, developed this very close bonds. At that time when we were all still in a WhatsApp group today even 25-odd years later. So that was kind of how my social circle was. I would spend . . .
Andrew: What would you guys talk about?
Rahul: Everything and anything. We were all big video gamers, so that was a big deal. We would talk about girls, obviously. Just going through high school and like, you know, growing up.
Andrew: I don’t know. I didn’t feel so comfortable talking about girls back in high school. I was too embarrassed to be open about it, and then I’d hear people who I now realize were also too embarrassed and they would brag to overcome and overcompensate for their embarrassment. Did you felt like emotionally aware enough to have those kinds of conversations?
Rahul: I mean, there were definitely some of us, not me, actually, but there were some of us who were a bit braggadocious. And that was part of the fun of it, though, right? And it’s all . . . We all knew it was just entertaining. And so there was a lot of banter in those conversations. And I was doing a lot of programming.
Andrew: How did . . . You learned to program at what age?
Rahul: When I was eight years old.
Andrew: Eight. And you were entrepreneurial also from an early age, it seems.
Rahul: That’s right. From around 15 years old was when I decided that what I wanted to do was to be an entrepreneur. And I had been programming since I was eight. And looking back like this was the biggest gift my parents possibly could have given me because by the time that I went to university, and I studied computer science at Cambridge, great school, great subject, unlike many of my classmates, I had already done 10,000 hours of programming. And so I could really focus on the theory, on the background, on where it was taking me. And whilst everyone was learning the details of computer science, I was actually studying psychology and design and entrepreneurship, and all of these other things that I knew would be useful when building a company.
Andrew: All right. And so you sold that company. I think Jason Calacanis was right. You did live the American dream, right? And then just take me a little bit through the fun part of you. I found for myself, you mentioned that I had earlier in life. I had a similar situation where I could go out. I really struggled to go from being the serious working person to hanging out and talking to people. It always seemed really hard for me to talk when there’s not a point to the conversation and I had to work on it. What was it like for you?
Rahul: I think for me, it was important to find a traveling buddy. So one of my best friends, actually, just left LinkedIn at roughly the same month or so when I had left LinkedIn. And so we went to New York together and hung out there. We went to Vegas and hung out there, LA and hung out there. And you know what? I get the sense that maybe you’re a little bit of an introverted character. I definitely am. And my friends, you know, probably middle of the road, introvert-extrovert. And so if I felt like I couldn’t break into a group of people because they look very intimidating or whatever, I would just grab him and say, “Hey, can we go talk to these people?” And, you know, maybe he would have the courage that I didn’t have. And sometimes it was the other way around because, you know, I’m super comfortable just standing at a bar by myself and then occasionally people come and talk to me. And he’s like, “How did you do that?” And I’m like, “I literally did nothing. I just stood here and now everyone is talking to me.” And so sometimes it would roll the other way.
Andrew: It does help like that. It does help a lot to have a buddy for it. Today, I don’t need a buddy anymore. So I did seven marathons this year. And as I traveled, I would go out at night and I’d have conversations with people and I get to know what it’s like to be in each one of these countries. And it helped that I had gone through that period of exploration and learning how to talk to strangers and I could talk to a lot of people. Just one last thing. The car. What was that car? I’m not a car person so I probably won’t recognize it, but since we brought it up, what is it?
Rahul: There were two cars. There was an Audi R8s, classically the Iron Man car back then many years ago. And then when I left LinkedIn, this was kind of like my retail therapy, I bought a Lamborghini Gallardo. And for those who follow race cars, this is the 570 SuperLeggera. So it’s the race track-oriented version of that car. And yeah, it was a ton of fun.
Andrew: I see these cars. Now I understand why people are like wide-eyed about it. How did you come up with the idea for Superhuman?
Rahul: Yeah, so it was . . . In running all of email integrations for LinkedIn, I became very professionally aware of how professionals are doing their email and that the TLDR course is badly. And I kind of felt a little bit guilty. We’d started Rapportive, we’d shown people what you could build a real product, a real business by doing browser extensions inside of Gmail and there were so many, Boomerang, Mixmax, Clearbit. Yesware, probably many that I’m still missing. And at the same time, Gmail was getting progressively worse every single year. It was getting visually more cluttered. It was getting slower. It would develop memory leaks. It still has memory leaks. It still doesn’t work properly offline. All of these issues. And then people were adding these extensions on top of that and it made every single one of those problems dramatically worse. And I have to tell you, I felt and still feel some measure of guilt for that because I don’t think it would have happened if Rapportive didn’t happen. And so . . .
Andrew: Because Rapportive taught other entrepreneurs that there was a market of people who got excited about plugins and it taught them how to add these plugins in. And I agree. I don’t know that you should take the responsibility for it. Maybe you’re saying it tongue in cheek. It’s clearly a Gmail problem. But I understand how by opening up the floodgates, things got way chaotic in Gmail. And I also, I have to say, I don’t put plugins in Gmail, but I understand when people do, if you’re someone who sends out email a lot, you want to know is someone even opening my email? Should I change the subject line or not? And you want these other plugins, you want to know who is opening the email. Okay. So you were saying this is really cluttered. How did you know that this was a business opportunity? How did you go from that pain to knowing this is something big?
Rahul: So I interviewed in around 2014, 2015 over 1,000 people about their email. So it was a lot of [graft 00:32:14]. And I think this is a step that many entrepreneurs skip. They just like get straight to building because they’re excited to build the thing. I really think that this stuff was critical to validating the intuitions that I had.
So first of all, I have these intuitions and that just comes from working in the space. And secondly, interviewed all these people, and I asked users of Gmail, “What are your pet peeves? What do you hate about the product?” And they, without any variation, said, “The number one problem is speed. It’s got really slow, we don’t know why, over the last few years.” They said the number two problem is it doesn’t really work properly offline. And then a number three problem was around things like needing to add plugins, the design, how it made me feel. But first of all, it was speed.
And then there was a separate kind of people who use native email apps, you know, things like Airmail back in the day and Sparrow even before that. And I asked them what their problems were. And again, it was all the same. It was bugginess, stability, poor syncing, and speed. And so I just imagined this experience where it would be blazingly fast, interactions would take place in 100 milliseconds or less, search would be instantaneous. You would never have to touch the mouse, you could do anything from the keyboard, you could fly through your inbox, you would never have to add any plugins, and yet somehow, the whole thing would be subtle, minimal and visually gorgeous. And ultimately, people would actually enjoy doing their email and they’d end up doing it twice as fast. And that was really the goal.
Andrew: The enjoy doing their email I’m a little skeptical about, but maybe. What was the original domain name for it? It wasn’t superhuman.com. What was it?
Rahul: No, actually it was. It was Super . . .
Andrew: It was?
Rahul: Yeah. The very first thing we spent money on.
Andrew: I could have sworn that it was about artificial intelligence. I could have sworn that you are initially saying, “I think a lot of email could be answered with artificial intelligence.” And that’s what drew me to it.
Rahul: I think you’re thinking of Michael Galpert’s company. So he had the domain name before I did. And his idea . . . I’m sorry. He had superhuman.io. And he had the Twitter handle. And so his idea was kind of like x.ai or Clara Labs. Like, what if this thing called Superhuman could do your calendar and then just over the years, I’ve collected all the assets, so superhuman.com and the Twitter handle and getting it verified and so on. There have been many Superhumans over the years.
Andrew: No. I’m looking now . . . Actually, I just found it finally. April 3rd, 2016. I totally remember this site. Superhuman is gorgeous, blazingly fast, and comes with advanced features to make you feel superhuman. AI triage. And maybe my eye just went to AI, artificial intelligence triage and I blew it up to mean more, but it’s on the page. Was there any thought that that was going to be a part of it that artificial intelligence would triage my email and just let me focus on what was important or am I making it too big of a deal?
Rahul: You know what? You’re absolutely right. And we have that today. We’ve had that for a while. So different email apps have their own version of this. Gmail has their categories, primary, social, promotions, forums, updates. The Outlook iOS app, which used to be called Acompli, had that focused inbox idea. And we simply have important other where we separate out the personal to personal email from social networks, marketing, and promotional emails.
Now on top of that, we have this thing that we’re very proud of, it is super effective. I can give you a demo, actually, if you like on the video. But it’s called split inbox. And it’s designed for folks who have complicated days or streams of emails that they need to care about. So if you think about me, I’m a founder CEO. Forty people in the company, I still have a lot of streams in the company that I’m very directly involved with, that could be unblocking an engineer when they asked me things on GitHub, it could be unblocking the growth team when they ping me in a Google Doc, it could be keeping a pulse on the customer sentiment with our satisfaction surveys, it could be dealing with team emails ahead of external emails, and I’m able to configure my inbox to give me the streams of information so I can inbox Zero GitHub before I inbox Zero Google Docs before inbox Zero satisfaction surveys before I attend to the team and then only then do I attend to the outside world. And that’s made me a dramatically more effective CEO, by the way, because as you know, the number one . . . Our jobs eventually become unblocking everybody else and becoming a highly efficient router of information so nothing ever grinds to a halt.
Andrew: Got it. I was imagining that it was going to be . . . I see so many of my emails are people asking the same thing multiple times and I thought, “Well, artificial intelligence is adding it in.” I get now that I was magnifying it, especially now that I see the page and I remember it was one small section and it was more than just what I read, but it was a section that was less important than speed on the page, just that I did was looking at speed. I actually never said email was too slow. I didn’t realize it was a problem until I saw what fast was like. Do you find that people . . . I remember even Paul Buchheit who . . . Isn’t he an investor in Superhuman?
Rahul: Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah, right. And he was an investor in Rapportive I think.
Rahul: He was. A good memory. Yes.
Andrew: The creator of Gmail. I remember years after he created Gmail, we sat down and he told me . . . He would talk to customers too to users of Gmail and they, at one point, said, “Can you please make it so when we mouse over an email, it opens up a big thing that shows what’s in the email?” And I said, “So why didn’t you build it?” And he said, “Well, I wanted to understand why they wanted it.” And as he talked to people, it turns out that when they were clicking an email to open it up, it took too long to open up. And he said, “Ah, that’s the problem. They just want to click to open it up and I’m making it too slow. I’ll speed it up.” And once he sped it up, people stopped asking for it. I’m wondering as you were interviewing 1,000 plus people, were you finding that they expressed one problem and one need, but really it was masking another problem that they weren’t even aware of?
Rahul: Yeah. I mean, that happens all the time whenever you do customer interviews. So people would sometimes talk about speed. Sometimes that’s the literal speed of the UI, sometimes it’s the speed of the network, sometimes the speed of search. Sometimes it’s the AI stuff, it’s the fact that they can’t get to the things that matter the most fast enough. Sometimes it’s that they just have too much email and they’re suffering from email overload and that’s manifesting as, “I wish this whole thing was faster,” and really what they needed better workflows or better tooling around dealing with vast swathes of email. Perhaps they need to unsubscribe from everything that is possible to unsubscribe from, you know, things like that.
So I think that we have to as entrepreneurs get really nuanced around interpreting the commentary that we get from our users. And this is where I leverage my previous experience as a video game designer. So I used to make video games growing up and then professionally for a bit. And it’s really fascinating. It’s fascinating because, you know, it’s a completely different school of product management. No one needs a video game. There are no user requirements. And so you don’t approach it by asking users, “Hey, what is fun? Can you write down what fun is and then I’m going to try and engineer fun?” You very intuitively, empathetically your work your way towards this thing that then people hopefully enjoy. And this is how you end up with experiences that you didn’t know you needed.
Like, you didn’t know you needed speed until you experienced it. And I have to imagine, this is what Elon Musk does with Tesla. And anyone who has a Tesla will know this. When you floor, even a base model Tesla, and you experience that naught to 60 in three seconds or if you have a fast one, less than three seconds, at that point, you’re like, “I’m done. I can never drive a gas car again. This is clearly the future. I am never going back.” And maybe if you’re not a car person . . . A version of this that everyone would be able to relate to, is that step from the pre-retina iPhone to the retina iPhone. And you go back and you’re like, “Oh, my eyes is fucking broken here. What happened?” And you just can’t look at that screen anymore. Right?
Andrew: Yeah.
Rahul: That is the kind of step-change that we’re trying to design for in Superhuman and that’s what speed really is. Once you’ve experienced it, you can’t go back.
Andrew: Yeah. I was so skeptical about the need for retina iPhone. Who cares? I was living in Argentina at the time and then somebody brought one from the U.S. and I go, “Now I can’t use my phone anymore and I feel like such a chump for saying that it made no sense.” I get it. How did you know people would actually pay for this? Because like you said, you mentioned a bunch of software that was really good. I think Sunrise was another one that had a lot of fans. Nobody paid. How did you know that people would pay?
Rahul: I think the difference between calendar and email, Sunrise and Superhuman is how much time we spend in the tool and how much we enjoy it or hate it. Now, the average professional spends three hours a day doing their email. I don’t think we spend anywhere close to three hours a day in our calendar. Sure, it’s not the best and there’s still a market for tools like Sunrise, but three hours a day on average? Sure, $30 a month is cheap at that point. And we actually get that feedback a lot from the people who really love it. They’re like, “Guys, you could charge a hell of a lot more for this. This is now how I do my job.”
And so I think that was the insight. I don’t think that . . . At least to my knowledge, no other company had come at it like this. Salespeople have Salesforce. Customer support people have Zendesk. What do people like you and me have? Like, nothing. Andrew, no one is building software for people like you and me specifically in the kinds of work that we do. And our work and many people like us, it tends to revolve around email. So we asked ourselves . . . Or a way of thinking about is, “What is the equivalent to Salesforce but for an executive or a manager or a recruiter or like an account manager, like someone who’s very email-centric?” And nothing existed. And so that was why we realized we could charge for Superhuman. Like you’ll medium Salesforce seat is $150 a month, your medium Zendesk seat is $50 a month. At that point, when you know that Superhuman saves you hours per week and many hours per month, $30 a month begins to seem like a bargain.
Andrew: I guess I feel like people . . . I would have thought people don’t value productivity tools enough to pay more than the 99 cent and 9.99 that the App Store charges. But for some reason, I would feel better paying for Help Scout a couple of hundred bucks a month. I don’t even think it’s that, but you feel like it’s a no-brainer, it’s solving a customer need, other people’s needs I could pay for on my own, I should just suffer or deal with it. I guess there’s no test for you to have known that they would be willing to pay other than to create the product, have an intuition that they would pay, hear that they spend a lot of time in it, and say, “If we do it right, they will pay.” Is that right?
Rahul: Pretty much, although, we did as with anything else, we approached it very methodically. So I did do some analytical work ahead of time to pick the precise number. So there is the test called the Van Westendorp pricing test. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with this. This is super cool. It’s lightweight so I’ll explain it for our listeners here.
But basically, you ask four questions. Number one, at what price would Superhuman be so expensive that you just wouldn’t buy? Number two, at what price would Superman be so cheap that you would be worried to its value and quality and you wouldn’t buy it? At what price, number three, would Superhuman be expensive so that you’d have to think about it, but you would still actually buy it? And number four, at what price would you consider Superhuman to be value for money?
Now, most startups and, you know, I’m an active angel investor so I work with a lot of other companies besides Superhuman, I would advise, think about question number four. What price would this be considered a bargain for the money? Because they tend to be in land-grab mode, they’re often entering a new market when no one else is yet and the name of the game is grab all the customers and then maybe increase prices later as Uber and Lyft are doing to all of us right now. However . . .
Andrew: But.
Rahul: But for Superhuman, it’s very different, because prior to working on your pricing, you should work on your positioning. And Superhuman is one of those rare companies that’s taking a premium approach to the markets in exactly the same way, actually, that Elon is taking with Tesla, all of his cars enter at the premium end of their bracket whether it’s the Model 3 or the Tesla S, or the Roadster. And we deliberately price so we’re towards the high end of that bracket. Not only does this signal to the market that we know we have the best product, it also tells the user that if you buy this, you can be super confident that it’s going to make you faster.
And as a side effect, by the way, and I mentioned this because a lot of our customers really do care about this, it helps us build a sustainable business. I think one of the things with Sunrise where they struggled was they were only charging $10. And many email clients before us only charged a one-time fee. I remember talking with the founders of Sparrow at the time and they charged like $10 a one-time activation, I was like, “Guys, you are not going to be able to build a sustainable business. And at the end of the day, it is your customers who will suffer.” And so for a whole variety of different reasons, we picked this price point to signal to the market to find the right users to build a sustainable business such that we can actually set out, rather, achieve what we set out to do, which is to build the fastest email experience in the world.
Andrew: First set of customers were . . . First set of users included the investors that you mentioned earlier. You gave it to them for free and then at one point you said, “It’s time for us to charge, pay up or you can’t use.” How did you know . . . At what point did you know it was time for you to charge them?
Rahul: Well, actually, no one got it for free.
Andrew: Never?
Rahul: Never. This was one of the ways to keep ourselves intellectually honest. Even our investors had to pay so that they could feel the cost of pain and the value they were getting and we can have an honest conversation as to whether or not that exchange felt good.
Andrew: From the very beginning, they couldn’t use it . . . Oh, wow. All right. And then, at first it was you going after people who you knew and saying, “Would you try this and tell me what you think?” Then where did the next batch of customers come from?
Rahul: It was all word of mouth. It was all referral. One of the untold truths about any consumer’ish product, and I use the word “ish” because we’ve built a product for work and actually, the vast majority of our subscriptions are either paid for by companies or expensed. But we spread like a consumer company. And the untold truth about most consumer’ish companies is that growth happens through word of mouth. And this was actually a lesson that was taught to me at LinkedIn. So I used to work for the head of growth there at the time. And looking back honestly, one of the most incredible career opportunities of a lifetime. Imagine, like, joining LinkedIn and working for the head of growth at the point when they were growing their product.
Andrew: Right.
Rahul: And so in my first one-on-one with him, I sat down and I was like . . . His name is Elliot. I said, “Hey, Elliot, can you please teach me everything you know about growth?” And he said, “Lesson number one, it always comes back to word of mouth and brand. You can do all the viral mechanics that you like, you can do all the growth hacks that you want,” although at that time no one was using that phrase. And he said, “At the end of the day, it’s always word of mouth and brand.” And that really stuck with me. And so Superhuman today is as much a brand company and to my recruiting advice, a storytelling company as it is a product company.
Andrew: I’ve noticed that, though I have to also say that LinkedIn was really aggressive about their virality. They were so aggressive to the point where they turned people off because they would suck in their contacts and send it out. So there’s something to those viral mechanics also. Looking at Superhuman, you’re not nearly that aggressive though. You could be. I think I . . . I don’t know if I gave you, guys, access to my contacts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. I need it. What you do, though, is you put the footer on the email, which is the first viral technique possible, right? The first viral technique ever invented was for Hotmail. It says, “Sent via Superhuman.” The other thing that you do is, I see next to some people’s names, but not always on the right margin of the app that I could invite them to Superhuman. I guess that . . . Are you looking to see who’s using Gmail? Is that what triggers it because I’m trying to trigger it here and I haven’t found one yet?
Rahul: Oh, no. It’s when someone is on the waitlist. And so one of the ways that you can move faster through the waitlist is if you are referred because then you jump to the top. And that’s one of the ways that people can move faster through the waitlist is another Superhuman user notices they are and then they can bounce it to the top.
Andrew: Why do you do that? Why not have it next to every . . . Now I see it. Actually, when I mouse over it says, “Lena is on the Superhuman waitlist. Refer them and they skip the line.” And that’s why I got to the top of the waitlist.
Rahul: Right.
Andrew: So then why do you do it that way? Why not have it next to everyone?
Rahul: So why not invite people who aren’t on the waitlist? I think eventually we’ll do that, but, I mean . . .
Andrew: You just want the super slow growth. You want to talk to every single person. That’s what it is, right?
Rahul: Pretty much. It’s funny you say super slow because we’ve had like a breakout year. But yes, the super slow growth that’s also hyper-growth and venture-backed.
Andrew: Compare . . . I mean, I feel like super growth compared to the demand. I mean, I am an example. I wanted to be on there for a long time. I talked to other people. They want to be on there for a long time. All right. I get now what you’re going for. You said a billion-dollar company, which, all right, if you’re charging $30 per user, I can imagine eventually, you get me to use it and then I say, “Well, Andrea is doing email with me too. She better have this so that she’s faster. And how about everyone at the company so we’re not creating this two-tier system? We’ll all get it. I just signed up for it for my company.” It’s going to probably cost me about the same price as Help Scout but it’s going to help all of us sell more. And so I’m great. Got it. Where’s the billion . . . That I could see would get you to a billion-dollar valuation, but why a billion people? How does that fit into your market, to your business plan?
Rahul: Yeah. But that’s more of a . . . I mean, you’re absolutely right. So let me talk to the valuation first and then the sort of number of people impact second. So the valuation math is really easy. You can do basic VC math. You want a billion-dollar valuation, you need 100 million dollar run rates at $30 a month. How many people is that? It turns out that for us, it’s about 300,000 subscribers. And so every VC who’s ever considered investing in Superhuman and all those, of course, who did have done a version of that math and they’re like, “Well, 300,000 people.” Can we imagine 300,000 people paying for Superhuman? Actually, that’s a shockingly low number compared to the number of people who could pay for it. So, yes, obviously, there’s a billion-dollar market cap potential here.
But we’re not just an email company. If you think about the name Superhuman, it’s about being the best possible version of who you are. It’s about living your best life. It’s about coming home every day and feeling happy and productive and relaxed and closer to achieving your potential. So there are so many products that we might want to build that go beyond email. We know we talked about Sunrise and I think there’s still a big gap left where Sunrise left off. And I think that there are interesting and amazing things that we can build off . . .
Andrew: Like what? What do you imagine would be helpful with email? And I imagine you’re going to integrate it into, sorry, not email but calendar. I imagine you’re going to integrate it into the Superhuman app as I see it now.
Rahul: Yeah. Well, just simple things that you can do when you have both pieces of data. Imagine having the full context of your email and the thread about someone as you’re scheduling with them in your calendar, or as we already do today, seeing your calendar when you’re doing your email, and then just bringing these worlds closer together. And I think there’s a holy grail here, which is the data that we have, I’m going to use a very old-fashioned term here. Maybe it’s just you and me that will remember. But our PIM data. Remember that?
Andrew: Personal Information Manager.
Rahul: You got it. Yes.
Andrew: Yeah.
Rahul: So belie our ages here. But yes, our contacts, our email, our tasks, our notes, they’re so siloed right now. Now imagine if they just sort of lived in this sort of magical floating space and whatever experience you were in, whether it was email, or tasks, or calendar, or notes, or really it doesn’t matter, whatever productivity thing you were trying to do, the context was right there for you. So you get an email, press a keystroke, boom, you turn it into a task, and you now in Superhuman task, let’s say, and you can see all the context of that task, the email right there, and then you mark it done, and when you’re back in your email experience, you can see the task marked done. It’s not rocket science, but yes, it doesn’t exist.
Andrew: Oh, you’re saying even my email gets turned into tasks. So I have to tell you, when someone hears that, they’re going to think, “That sounds very messy and chaotic. It’s been tried before.” Gmail has got it, right? To some degree you can connect an email into a task and others have. I feel like the reason Superhuman can get it right is because I see the product. Unless people see the product, it sounds like bull and that you’re going to overcomplicate the product just to increase evaluation.
One example that I have, and I had to test it here as I’m doing. If I type in on my desktop “January 26th” to my wife, instantly, to the point where I don’t even notice it, the right margin which is where I would see my wife’s contact information and her tweets and all that. It gets replaced with the calendar of January 26th and immediately underneath it, I see the keyboard shortcuts to add a date to it or reduce the date so I could see it all in context and I could say, “Actually, January 26th is too busy. Let’s say, can we do a January 27th? Boom, schedule it.” It’s that simplicity and elegance of product that makes me feel like, “Oh, these guys could do this. I get it.”
Rahul: Yes. Let me add on to that, because I think, you know, I always like to get a little bit philosophical and I sense that you do too. There is this phenomenon called Conway’s Law. And I first came across this in a classic of software engineering, “The Mythical Man-Month” and I’m not going to talk about that. But in that book, Fred Brooks references Conway’s Law. And Conway’s Law states the following, that any product or service will grow to represent the structure of the organization that made it. Now if you imagine the UI of Gmail, and I know this to be true because I worked on LinkedIn and LinkedIn had a big political product management sort of hierarchy. In any big company, the product ends up sort of being divided into little fiefdoms, and you know that some product manager is defending their piece of turf against some other product manager. And I make it sound very competitive. Of course, it’s collaborative. But also people are looking out for their own careers and the metrics that they manage as well.
And so that task email integration that you talked about in Gmail, yes, it exists. It’s also super janky and not actually that productive. And I’m not surprised that basically nobody uses it. And so there is a reason why Steve Jobs at Apple ran his company with a hub and spoke model. It brings clarity of vision, it coalesces the organization into tiny units that can build things with a holistic point of view, and it avoids the negative outcomes of Conway’s Law. So at Superhuman, we’re planning to organize our teams such that we have small tiger teams collaborating very closely and avoiding the sort of Frankenstein products so we can keep it as simple and as honed as you just described.
Andrew: Everything sounds like it’s so . . . And I think it’s partially your accent and how calm you are and confident you are. I think you’re in a good place in life, but as I understand from your conversation with our producer, there was a period there where the thing wasn’t working, where there wasn’t product-market fit, you weren’t sure how to tell the team, and then you had to figure it out? Can you talk about that? I want to see you, like, stress to understand how you dealt with it.
Rahul: This is just a calm facade. And internally, I’m always incredibly stressed.
Andrew: Is that actually true? Do you feel internally stressed?
Rahul: For sure.
Andrew: About what?
Rahul: Everything. I mean, you wouldn’t be a founder or CEO if you didn’t have that. And the trick is not to get . . . Double negatives are hard. I think it’s very hard, perhaps unhealthy to avoid stress. I think the healthy thing to do is to learn the tools such that we can manage and deal with our stress. And if you’re a CEO and you’re telling me that you never get stressed, like, you’re probably doing something wrong. If you tell me you get stressed because XYZ happened and such, such fire, but you actually got it under control because you’re practicing self-care, and be like, “Great. Good.” That is the way to deal with it.
So I think that the story that you were alluding to back in the day was when we were two or three years into Superhuman and we still had no customers, we barely had a handful of users outside the company and it wasn’t working, or rather, I believed it wasn’t going to work. And I was getting a lot of intense pressure from the team to launch, but I knew intuitively as an example of our target demographic that people wouldn’t resonate, that we did not have product-market fit for the product.
And so, you know, product-market fit is jargon. It’s also before sort of last year a concept that I think people found it hard to wrap their heads around. There wasn’t really a widely accepted numerical definition of it or a way to increase it. And so I embarked upon this crazy long quest to figure out a numerical definition of product-market fit and figure out how to increase it. And I spoke to Paul Graham who’s famous for saying, “Just make something that people want,” and I think that’s a great start.
Sam Altman who took over Y Combinator after him. He had a slightly different definition. It wasn’t make something people want. He’s like, “You have product-market fit when users love your product so much that they spontaneously tell other people to use it.” I thought, “Well, that’s a great definition, but it’s more about distribution than it is people desiring the thing.”
And then I found Marc Andreessen’s definition which was super interesting because he, in fact, coined the term “product-market fit.” And he said, “You know it when you don’t have product-market fit.” You can almost always feel it. Customers aren’t quite getting value from your product. Users aren’t quite growing fast enough. The press we use are kind of blah, and the sales cycle is taken too damn long. But you can almost always feel it when you do have product-market fit.” Money is piling up in your checking account, you’re hiring sales and support as fast as you can, investors are camping outside your house. I can confirm all of these things do in fact happen.
And I was like, “Well, this is a great definition, but it is a lagging indicator. By the time investors are camping outside of my house, I already have product-market fit.” My situation was different. What do you do if by that definition, you don’t have product-market fit? And that was my lowest moment where, you know, I was staring at this definition through tears or paralyzed, not knowing what to do next.
So I spoke to everybody I could find. I read everything that was written on the topic. I found Sean Ellis who was able to turn product-market fit into a numerical metric. Essentially, you ask your users, “How would you feel if you could no longer use the product?” And they can either answer, “Very disappointed, somewhat disappointed or not disappointed.” And what Sean found is that if 40% or more of your users would be very disappointed without your product, then benchmarked against hundreds of venture-backed startups, you actually do indeed have product-market fit and you should invest heavily in growth. And if you’re below that, you shouldn’t invest heavily in growth, you should invest heavily in increasing some aspect of the product and potentially even consider changing market.
And so what I then did was take that and we built an entire algorithm sort of an operating system for running a company, if you will, around that idea for systematically increasing product-market fit over time. And back in that day, I remember when we did that survey, it was 22%, only 22% growing . . .
Andrew: And you did it within the app?
Rahul: No. We just used Typeforms. So we send . . . I mean, I guess we did because, like, we send people an email.
Andrew: Because you would email it and then they’d open it up and it has that multiple-choice question. And then do you ask a follow-up, “What would make it better?” or do you just leave it there?
Rahul: That’s right. So part of the algorithm, there are four key questions. How would you feel if you could no longer use Superhuman? What is the main benefit of Superhuman to you? Who do you think Superhuman is best for? And how can we improve Superhuman for you? And there’s a very specific analysis that you can then do on this one numerical question and these three open-ended questions. And this literally can automatically generate your roadmap for you and this roadmap is essentially guaranteed to increase that number.
This was the thing that I came up with in order to sort of get the company over the hump. I was like, “Folks, we’re already at 22%, but don’t worry because here is an algorithm that we can run that will systematically increase this number every single quarter.” And that’s actually what we saw. And then, I mean, I sat on this for about two years and then the good folks at First Round encouraged me to talk about it and they were like, “Everybody needs to know how you did what you did because literally every single company should run in this fashion.” And so I ended up writing it up at First Round and then I think last year, it became their most widely shared entrepreneurship article of that year. So that was pretty exciting to see.
Andrew: It’s on First Round’s blog. It’s called “How Superhuman Built an Engine to Find Product/Market Fit.” And you also record a podcast with them on it, the 25-minute thing?
Rahul: No. What they do, which is pretty smart, actually, they have a voice artist reading out every single article. I was like, “Hey, I work on my accent. I could totally do this.” But they wanted a professional to do it, which is fair.
Andrew: I thought maybe that was . . . Okay. Got it. All right. I get it. I see it. One last question that I’m personally curious about which is, I noticed that Spark went from a one-person email to saying, “Maybe we can’t get people to pay for it, but we could if it’s a collaboration tool. Get Andrew then to get Stephen at his company to use it by collaborating on an email. And now he’s spreading it and getting more customers for us.” You’re definitely not going in that direction from what I could see. Why?
Rahul: Yeah, great question. So I think there’s a lot of . . . And I don’t want to speculate what Spark folks are doing. I mean, they’re wonderful folks. We run into each other all the time. But in general, in technology, there’s a lot of knee jerk reactionism. And we had, obviously, the runaway success of Slack which sort of redefined how the investment community and also the entrepreneur community thinks about the collaboration space. We had companies like Front achieve a good degree of escape velocity with collaborative email. And I think people looked at that and said, “Well, let’s give collaboration a go. What if we do it?”
And I totally see it. I think that Mixmax is doing collaboration and email for salespeople. I think that Front is doing collaboration and email for customer support and success people. And I think there are totally companies to be done there. However, I tend to believe that those are vertical companies. I think that when you start to sell to the enterprise, what ends up happening is you get pulled down feature request after feature request, complexity after complexity, and it’s what you just said. The thing that makes Superhuman special is the product design and the thoughtfulness and the simplicity and how you can feel like it’s designed for you, not for you and every other company in the world.
So I think what will happen is these collaboration companies will end up becoming vertical. They’ll support specific teams. And one of my personal dreams, and actually, I think an order of magnitude bigger business is to build a horizontal company, is to build an email experience that multiple different job types can use to become twice as fast at doing their email.
Andrew: You’re saying these other email apps that are more collaboration, like, let’s all chat about this one email that we got before somebody responds or pass assignment to who to respond to it from one person to another in the organization. They’re all going to take on one type of customer and be super for them, but they’re not going to take on a broad collection of customers. Am I right?
Rahul: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: Got it.
Rahul: And you can see that happening. I think this is a very natural outcome. Mixmax going down sales. Front going down customer support for success. And of course, these aren’t clear cut definitions. We all have some of each other’s markets. There are plenty of salespeople that use Superhuman and success people that use Superhuman and we’re all going to keep on making our products better for the entire ecosystem. However, I think that it’s really interesting to build a horizontal tool that maybe later on verticalizes. In other words, what I’m saying is, I’m not done, Andrew, with productivity. I’m not done with it yet. And maybe collaboration comes later, but there’s still so much more we can do for single-player productivity.
Andrew: All right. I’ve got to say, this is a product that lived up to all the expectations, except for one. I’m an iPad-first person which I know is . . . I’m the only one that I know, in real life, who’s an iPad-first person. I know people who are into obsessive technologies. I don’t know a single person who uses an iPad first. And by the way, it’s not lack of computers. You’re on one desktop computer. Here is my laptop computer right here. I’ve got a ton all over the place. I just enjoy the iPad. And I know that the experience there isn’t the same as a full-on desktop.
Having said that, when I email people, your tech support people and I say, “Well, can I have this feature? What about that?” every time within five freaking minutes I get a response back from someone who knows what I’m talking about. There’s not like some BS script, number one. Number two, will clearly say, “It’s on our roadmap,” if what I’m asking for is too nichey for me, “It’s on our roadmap at some point in the future, but to be honest, we’re not there yet.” Not a long-winded message that apologizes. “Here’s a clear answer. It’s on our roadmap, we’re not there.” or, “Here’s the thing that you’re trying to do. Just hit this one keyboard command and you’ll get it.”
So I’m amazed by the company, but I’m even . . . I’m amazed by the product. I’m really into the people that you’ve got working for you even right down to the person who responds to my email asking for a request that you have to say no to. I feel a human touch there right down to that.
Rahul: Thank you. I mean, it’s something that we have deliberately worked towards.
Andrew: And I’ve got . . .
Rahul: And we don’t even call that team customer support, we call it customer delight.
Andrew: I know. I wrote down the word “customer delight” so that I can include it here. It is kind of a delightful experience. I feel like the app is a delightful experience, getting on a call with somebody to walk me through it is a delightful experience. I’m just amazed by the company. I’m glad that you came here to do this interview with me. I feel like there’s an artist behind it, not an artist in the sense of, “I’m going to create what I like,” but an artist in the sense of, “I care about every freaking pixel in front of your face and we’re going to spend a lot of time obsessing on that.”
So my friend Dave, over at Proof, did a podcast on where he mentioned Superhuman helping him and he said, “If anyone wants an invite, just ask me and I’ll do it.” I’m not going to do it. If you guys want an invite . . . I don’t want all the inbound. I remember how persistent I was to get in. I don’t want the inbound from other people. I’m just going to say, if they go to superhuman.com, can they get it?
Rahul: Yeah, absolutely, go to superhuman.com. Wait. How about I do it? If anyone wants an invite, email me at rahul@superhuman.com and I will see what I can do.
Andrew: And you’re going to respond to the email yourself?
Rahul: Magic Superhuman makes me amazing at email.
Andrew: I know why because . . . I know on the iPad it’s Command, semicolon and I get to type in . . . I get to respond with something that I’ve previously written. Actually, I got to . . . I should shut up right now and end it, but I’ve got to say, one of the nice touches, a lot of other apps will let you do canned responses. That’s not the magic, Rahul. The magic is, I can also assign it to Andrea, my assistant, and I could do more than just type in a canned response. I could hit a canned response, assign it to . . . Like, cc someone else and have it go out to her. Boom. Like, every step is in.
All right. Now I’m going to shut up. Go to superhuman.com or email rahul@superhuman.com if you want access to the software. And I want to thank the sponsor who made this interview happened, Toptal. You guys know Toptal as a company you can go and hire phenomenal developers. Right now you see how amazing it is when somebody cares to this degree. Go to toptal.com/mixergy and hire somebody who cares about your company to the degree that will freaking shock you. Thank you, Toptal, for sponsoring. And Rahul, thank you for doing this interview.
Rahul: Thank you so much, Andrew. Long-time coming.
Andrew: You bet. I’ll see you in 2029.
Rahul: Yeah, buddy.
Andrew: Another 10 years. Bye.
Rahul: Bye.

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