20VC Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra on How 11 Customer Onboarding Can Scale Efficiently to $100M ARR, Why Gamification Does Not Work But Game Design Does & What Game Design Means For The Next Generation Of Product Managers



In this episode of 20 Minutes VCM founders Friday, host Harry Stebbings is joined by Rahul Vora, the innovative founder and CEO of Superhuman. Superhuman is revolutionizing email with its ultra-fast service, having secured over $54 million in funding from top investors like Andreessen Horowitz and First Round Capital. Prior to Superhuman, Vora founded Reportive, which was later acquired by LinkedIn, and he's also ventured into investing with a new firm co-founded with Todd Goldberg. The conversation delves into the principles of game design and how they're applied to create engaging software, the importance of user emotions, the significance of robust controls, and the concept of flow in product design. Vora shares insights on Superhuman's unique onboarding process, the company's future vision, and the challenges of scaling personalized customer experiences.

Summary Notes

Introduction to 20 Minutes VC and Superhuman

  • Harry Stebings introduces the episode of 20 Minutes VC Founders Friday.
  • Superhuman's CEO, Rahul Vora, is the guest, having had the most downloaded episode the previous year.
  • Superhuman is known for creating a fast email experience and has raised over $54 million.
  • Rahul Vora's background includes founding Reportive and being an investor.

"And so with that, I'm thrilled to welcome back a friend and phenomenal founder in the form of Rahul Vora, founder."

This quote introduces Rahul Vora as a returning guest and a successful founder.

Rahul Vora's Background and Superhuman's Origin

  • Rahul Vora founded Reportive, which was acquired by LinkedIn.
  • His experience with email led to the creation of Superhuman.
  • Superhuman was designed to be fast, keyboard-centric, offline-capable, and visually appealing.

"We imagined an email experience that is blazingly fast, where searches are instantaneous, where every interaction is 100 milliseconds or less."

The quote explains the vision behind Superhuman's email experience, emphasizing speed and efficiency.

Product Mindset at Superhuman

  • Superhuman focuses on how customers feel rather than just their wants and needs.
  • The goal is to make business software feel more like play through game design.

"But what I'm asking is, what if we could make software feel less like work and more like play?"

This quote reflects Rahul Vora's philosophy on integrating game design elements into software to enhance user experience.

Game Design vs. Gamification

  • Game design is about creating an engaging experience, while gamification adds game-like elements to non-game contexts.
  • Gamification can undermine intrinsic motivation, while true game design taps into it.

"Gamification does not really work. Game design works."

Rahul Vora differentiates between gamification and game design, emphasizing the effectiveness of the latter.

Elements of Game Design

  • Game design involves psychology, mathematics, storytelling, and interaction design.
  • Five critical factors in game design: goals, emotions, controls, toys, and flow.

"To create games, we need to draw upon the art and science of psychology, mathematics, storytelling, and interaction design."

This quote explains the multidisciplinary approach required for effective game design.

Goals in Game Design

  • Goals in games must be concrete, achievable, and rewarding.
  • Superhuman sets the goal of achieving inbox zero for its users.

"Well, games need goals. And as it turns out, goals are a defining feature of games."

The quote highlights the importance of having clear goals in game design, which is applied in Superhuman's approach.

Integration of Goals in Superhuman

  • Superhuman's onboarding process is designed to help users achieve the goal of inbox zero.
  • The onboarding includes teaching shortcuts and workflows, and sometimes cleaning the slate for the user.

"And in that call, we teach faster workflows to get to inbox zero, we teach powerful shortcuts so you never have to touch the mouse."

This quote describes how Superhuman's onboarding process is structured to help users reach their goal efficiently.## Business Software Goals

  • Business software often lacks clear, concrete, achievable, and rewarding goals.
  • Goals in software should be designed like game goals to encourage user engagement and satisfaction.

"Now, most business software does not have clear goals. And if there are goals, they are often unachievable and unrewarding. If you want to build software like it's a game, then we have to create goals that are concrete, achievable, and rewarding."

The quote emphasizes the importance of setting clear and attainable goals within business software to enhance user experience, drawing a parallel to the engaging nature of goals in games.

Onboarding Process

  • Rahul Vora's onboarding process for Superhuman was developed organically and not initially intended to create a new category.
  • The onboarding process started with detailed, lengthy individual sessions and evolved into a more efficient system without sacrificing quality.
  • The process led to low churn rates, high retention, and a high net promoter score, suggesting a successful go-to-market strategy.

"I did the first three or four onboardings by myself, and they were very different in nature... And I would insist on watching them use superhuman for about 20-30 minutes... So we did this, and in doing so, we noticed that these users had category leading metrics."

This quote describes the early stages of Superhuman's onboarding process, highlighting the meticulous attention to user experience and the positive outcomes of such an approach.

Scaling Onboarding

  • Rahul Vora addresses the misconception that personalized onboarding cannot scale to meet venture-scale revenue targets.
  • He uses back-of-the-envelope math to demonstrate that a relatively small team of onboarding specialists can support a large revenue goal.
  • The efficient onboarding process contributes to high retention and reduces future customer acquisition costs due to the product's virality.

"So I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you can't scale one to one concierge onboarding to the amount of revenue... you only need in the region of 60 to 70 onboarding specialists to get to that level of revenue."

Rahul explains how a personalized onboarding process can indeed scale effectively, countering the common belief that such an approach is not viable for large-scale growth.

Integration of Product and Emotion

  • Emotions are fundamental to memory and must be analyzed with a rich vocabulary to design impactful products.
  • Rahul Vora uses the Junto Institute's emotion wheel to guide the design of Superhuman, aiming to evoke specific nuanced emotions.
  • Superhuman focuses on eliciting joy, enthusiasm, excitement, optimism, hopefulness, pride, triumph, and surprise through their product experience.

"Well, the best games create strong emotions, because strong emotions are the foundation of our memory... We design for enthusiasm and excitement... optimism and hopefulness... pride and triumph."

This quote discusses the importance of integrating emotion into product design and the specific emotions that Superhuman targets to create a memorable and engaging user experience.

Surprising User Emotions

  • Users of Superhuman have exhibited a wide range of emotions, with some unexpected ones like the feeling of "higga," a Danish concept of coziness and security.
  • The diversity of emotions experienced by users has been surprising, particularly emotions related to the imagery used in the inbox zero feature during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I think that the most surprising thing has been the breadth and variety of the emotions that we've come across... higger, and it means something like cozy and secure."

Rahul expresses surprise at the range of emotions elicited by Superhuman, including the specific and culturally unique feeling of "higga," showing the depth of the product's emotional impact.

Importance of Controls in Game Design

  • Controls are a critical factor in game design and can be the main reason for a game's success, as demonstrated by the popularity of the Nintendo Wii.
  • Business software often has fragile and slow controls, which can lead to user frustration.
  • Superhuman aims to create rapid and robust controls to enhance the user experience, similar to the responsiveness expected in games.

"Controls can be the main reason why a game succeeds... But games require much more robust controls than we typically make for business software."

Rahul highlights the significance of responsive and reliable controls in game design and the need for business software to adopt similar standards.

Toys vs. Games

  • Toys and games are distinct; toys are played with, while games have structured play and goals.
  • The best games incorporate toys because they add an additional layer of fun.
  • Superhuman includes playful elements, like the time autocompletor, to engage users and encourage exploration.

"This difference turns out to be fascinating because we play with toys, but we play games. A ball is a toy, but football is a game."

Rahul explains the conceptual difference between toys and games and how incorporating toy-like features into a product can enhance user enjoyment and engagement.## Playful Exploration and Delight in Product Features

  • Products should indulge playful exploration and be fun without a specific goal.
  • Features should create moments of pleasant surprise, which can be a sign of a toy-like experience on the path to building a great game.
  • Time zone math in products can be an example of a feature that delights users by simplifying complex tasks.

"For example, they type in 08:00 a.m. In Tokyo, and they realize that time zone math happens without them ever really having to think about it."

The quote illustrates the concept of a product feature that unexpectedly simplifies a complex task, like calculating time zone differences, enhancing the user experience through playful discovery.

Siri's Playful Interactions

  • Siri's responses can be delightful and playful when it understands the user.
  • Designing toys within technology should avoid frustrating experiences, as frustration can detract from the enjoyment and engagement with the product.
  • British accents may cause misunderstandings with Siri, highlighting the importance of accommodating diverse users.

"And perhaps it's our british accents, Harry, but at least for me, Siri doesn't understand me anywhere near as much as some of its competitors."

Rahul Vora points out that despite Siri's playful nature, the technology's limitations, such as accent recognition, can lead to frustration and hinder the user experience.

The Concept of Flow

  • Flow is a deeply researched psychological state characterized by six factors: intense focus, absorption without concern for past or future, disregard for others' opinions, ease of knowing what to do next, altered perception of time, and intrinsic motivation.
  • Five conditions are necessary for flow: knowing what to do next, how to do it, freedom from distractions, clear and immediate feedback, and a balance between challenge and skill.
  • Achieving flow in product design can significantly enhance the user experience.

"Number one, flow is an intense and focused concentration on the present. Number two, flow is so absorbing that we don't think about the future or worry about the past."

This quote provides an explanation of the first two factors of flow, emphasizing the deep concentration and present-mindedness that characterize the state.

Building Flow into Products

  • Knowing what to do next can be facilitated by product decisions that guide user actions, such as automatically moving to the next email after archiving.
  • Teaching users how to perform tasks, such as through a command palette, can help them know how to do things and enhance their skills.
  • Reducing distractions, such as by hiding the inbox while viewing a conversation, can help maintain focus and flow.
  • Providing clear and immediate feedback, like quickly showing the next conversation, contributes to a seamless user experience.
  • Balancing challenge and skill is crucial; for example, setting the goal of inbox zero can provide the right level of challenge to match the user's increased skill from using the product.

"In superhuman, when I archive an email, I automatically advance to the next email. I don't have to take any decisions at all. That creates flow."

Rahul Vora explains how Superhuman's design choice of advancing users to the next email after archiving helps maintain flow by removing the need for decision-making after each action.

Game Design Principles in Product Development

  • There are seven principles of game design that can be applied to product development: creating concrete goals, designing for nuanced emotion, robust controls, fun toys, obvious next actions, clear feedback without distraction, and balancing skill with challenge.
  • The last principle, balancing skill with challenge, is often misunderstood; making a product too easy can be counterproductive to engagement.
  • These principles can lead to products that are not only functional but also intrinsically motivating and satisfying to use.

"Balance high perceived skill with high perceived challenge. And this may counterintuitively mean making your product harder to use."

Rahul Vora discusses the counterintuitive principle that increasing a product's difficulty can enhance user engagement by providing a more satisfying and challenging experience.

Angel Investing and Game Design Considerations

  • When assessing companies as an angel investor, Rahul Vora does not explicitly focus on game design but looks for various qualities in founders and their approach to product design.
  • The underlying principles of game design may still influence the assessment process indirectly.

"I actually don't ask specific questions oriented around game design, or at least it's not obvious that I'm doing."

Rahul Vora reveals that while game design is not a direct focus in his angel investing, the principles of engaging and satisfying product experiences are still relevant in evaluating companies.## Ideal Qualities of a CEO in Product Design

  • The CEO should possess exceptional product design skills.
  • They should have an intuitive understanding of creating flow in the product.
  • A CEO should have a gut sense of the emotions their product elicits.
  • Enjoyment in the craftsmanship and attention to detail is crucial.
  • Understanding and practicing the principles of game design, even unknowingly, is beneficial.

"Is there someone on the team, ideally the CEO, who is an incredible product designer."

This quote emphasizes the importance of having a CEO or a team member with outstanding product design skills, which encompasses a deep understanding of user experience and attention to detail.

Evolution of CEO's Role Post-Product Market Fit

  • Before product market fit, the CEO's primary job is to find it.
  • After achieving product market fit, the CEO's role transitions to hiring the best people for every part of the company.
  • The goal is to continually make themselves redundant by building a strong team.

"After products market fit, the CEO's job changes. It becomes to continually put themselves out of their job by hiring the best people in the world for every part of the company."

This quote outlines the shift in the CEO's responsibilities from finding product market fit to focusing on assembling a world-class team to ensure the company's growth and success.

Resonant Truth in Product Design

  • Resonant fantasy and resonant truth are two types of resonance in product design.
  • Resonant fantasy aligns with our dreams and desires.
  • Resonant truth is more powerful and aligns with deep-seated beliefs.
  • The movie "Titanic" is compelling due to its resonant truth about love.
  • Finding a product's resonant truth can deeply move people and create a powerful connection.

"If I work hard enough, I can achieve anything."

This quote represents the resonant truth behind the product Superhuman, which is a belief that resonates deeply with its users, illustrating the concept that identifying and tapping into a universal truth can greatly enhance a product's impact.

Silicon Valley's Changing Landscape

  • Silicon Valley is experiencing a shift due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Early-stage valuations have dropped, and investment behaviors are changing.
  • Companies should support each other and help those in need during these times.
  • Superhuman is providing its service for free to those affected by COVID-19.

"I think a tremendous amount is about to change, and it's not clear how far the ramifications will go."

This quote reflects the uncertainty and significant changes occurring in Silicon Valley's technology ecosystem as a result of the pandemic and the anticipated recession.

Investor Value Add

  • The most valuable thing an investor can offer is availability for quick advice.
  • Advice should be nuanced and backed by experience to help foresee and prevent mistakes.
  • Avoiding mistakes post-product market fit is crucial as the company is in a race to grow.

"Number one, being highly available for those hopefully rare moments when you just need a quick piece of advice or a second opinion on something."

This quote highlights the importance of investors being readily available to provide timely and experienced advice to help steer the company away from potential pitfalls.

Vision for Superhuman in the Next Five Years

  • Superhuman aims to become a billion-dollar company with multiple product lines.
  • The CEO's challenge is to scale and lead the company through various transformations.
  • Navigating an upcoming recession will require a different approach to company building.

"In five years time, we'll be a billion dollar company, and I think we'll have multiple product lines."

This quote conveys the ambitious growth plans for Superhuman over the next five years, including scaling the company and expanding its product offerings.

Wartime vs. Peacetime CEO

  • The concept of wartime versus peacetime CEOs is relevant in the current crisis.
  • The speaker performs better in wartime situations, which require quick action and a focus on survival.
  • The current environment in Silicon Valley is changing rapidly, with companies discussing their existence.

"I definitely perform better in wartime. I definitely perform better when there's a crisis."

This quote reveals the speaker's self-assessment of being more effective during challenging times, which is pertinent given the changing dynamics in Silicon Valley due to external crises.

Equity Management and Startup Support

  • Carter simplifies equity management for startups and investors.
  • Switch is an initiative to connect laid-off talent with startups looking to hire.
  • Brex offers a corporate card tailored for startups with no personal liability and high limits.

"Carter simplifies how startups and investors manage equity, track cap tables and get valuations."

This quote describes the services provided by Carter, which are designed to help startups and investors efficiently manage equity-related matters.

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