Superhuman (with CEO Rahul Vohra)



In the season four finale of the Acquired podcast, hosts Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal, along with guest Rahul Vora, CEO of Superhuman, delve into the intricacies of creating the fastest email experience ever. Superhuman's recent $33 million Series B funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, following rapid growth, is discussed alongside the company's algorithmic approach to achieving product-market fit. Pilot, a comprehensive accounting service for startups, is highlighted as an essential tool for outsourcing non-core tasks, allowing companies to focus on what makes their product unique. The episode also explores Vora's entrepreneurial journey, from his early venture Reportive and its acquisition by LinkedIn, to the founding of Superhuman and the methodical process of refining the product before a public launch. Vora shares his insights on persistence, the importance of targeting a passionate user base, and the potential for Superhuman to become a lasting franchise in the productivity software space.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Acquired Podcast Season Four Finale

  • Acquired podcast hosts Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal discuss Superhuman, the fastest email experience ever made.
  • This episode was initially intended as a limited partner bonus show featuring Superhuman CEO Rahul Vora.
  • The episode focuses on Superhuman's algorithmic approach to finding product-market fit.
  • The timing coincides with Superhuman's $33 million Series B funding led by Andreessen Horowitz.
  • The episode is part of a trilogy on the modern productivity stack following Zoom and Slack IPO episodes.

"Today we are covering superhuman, the fastest email experience ever made. This show was originally going to be a limited partner bonus show with superhuman CEO Rahul Vora on understanding his algorithmic approach to find product market fit. But we realized that superhuman was a perfect way to round out our trilogy on the modern productivity stack on the heels of our Zoom and Slack IPO episodes."

The quote explains the episode's focus on Superhuman and its significance in the context of modern productivity tools, as well as the relevance of CEO Rahul Vora's algorithmic approach to product-market fit.

Pilot as a Sponsor

  • Pilot, a company for accounting, tax, and bookkeeping needs, is the sponsor of the episode.
  • Pilot is the largest startup-focused accounting firm in the US, backed by Sequoia, Index, Stripe, and Jeff Bezos.
  • The company aligns with Jeff Bezos' axiom that startups should focus on core product and customer needs and outsource other functions.
  • Pilot offers comprehensive financial services, including CFO services and investor reporting.
  • Pilot's clientele includes startups like OpenAI, airtable, and scale, and they cater to growth-phase companies.
  • A special offer for Acquired listeners includes a discount on Pilot's services.

"Pilot is the one team for all of your company's accounting, tax and bookkeeping needs, and in fact, now is the largest startup focused accounting firm in the US."

This quote highlights Pilot's role as a comprehensive financial services provider for startups, emphasizing its position as the largest in the US in this sector.

Rahul Vora's Background and Reportive

  • Rahul Vora's background includes being CEO and co-founder of Reportive, which was sold to LinkedIn in 2012.
  • Vora is an active angel investor and advisor to startups.
  • Reportive was created to satisfy Vora's need while fundraising for Cambridge University Entrepreneurs.
  • The tool was envisioned to provide social context within email to facilitate connections.
  • Cambridge University is recognized as an entrepreneurial hub, with notable alumni in Silicon Valley.
  • Reportive began as a Firefox add-on before transitioning to a Chrome extension.
  • LinkedIn's acquisition of Reportive started with a business development relationship over API access.
  • Vora took a year off after leaving LinkedIn, contemplating the impact of his next venture.

"So reportive was basically started to satisfy my own need. It was a classic case of scratching my own itch."

The quote summarizes the origin of Reportive as a solution to a personal need Vora faced, which is a common catalyst for entrepreneurial ventures.

Founding of Superhuman

  • Vora's responsibility at LinkedIn involved integrating LinkedIn data with other email clients.
  • Observations of Gmail's deteriorating performance and clutter led to the idea for Superhuman.
  • A McKinsey study showing that professionals spend 3 hours a day on email influenced Vora's focus on email as a significant area of impact.
  • Vora took a year off to explore ideas, including concierge health, but felt compelled to address the email problem.
  • He felt a sense of duty to leverage his experience and success from Reportive to create Superhuman.
  • Superhuman was seen as a natural evolution from Reportive, aiming to fix problems created by email plugins.
  • The decision to start Superhuman was supported by mentors, including Adam Nash, who advised Vora to take an extended break before starting the new venture.

"I couldn't find, I couldn't think of anything bigger than that to do."

The quote reflects Vora's realization of the massive impact potential in improving the email experience for professionals worldwide, leading to the founding of Superhuman.

Idea Persistence and Execution

  • Persistent ideas indicate a strong motivation to pursue them.
  • The act of returning to an idea repeatedly suggests it's worth exploring further.
  • This sentiment is shared by the speakers, who relate it to their own experiences with starting companies.

"I think that's a good sign. When you can't stay away from an idea, it's a strong indication that you should probably go and do it."

The quote emphasizes that an idea you keep coming back to might be a sign that it's a compelling concept worth pursuing.

The Impact of Superhuman

  • Superhuman provides a significantly faster email experience.
  • Users of Superhuman reportedly manage their inboxes more efficiently.
  • The service has been life-changing for some, helping them achieve inbox zero for the first time in years.

"So superhuman is the fastest email experience of all time. Our users get through their inbox about twice as fast compared to in Gmail."

This quote highlights the core value proposition of Superhuman, which is speed and efficiency in email management.

Validating the Value Proposition

  • Speed was identified as a key value proposition early on.
  • Frustrations with Gmail's performance informed the focus on speed.
  • A basic landing page was used to gather email addresses and feedback.
  • Thousands of sign-ups and user interviews validated the initial hypotheses about email client dissatisfaction.

"Speed was a value prop from very early on. And I think as I introspect this, it came out of some of the frustrations developing reportive on Gmail."

The quote explains the origin of the focus on speed as a value proposition, based on the speaker's previous experiences with Gmail.

Attracting Early Users and Traffic

  • Strategic timing and content creation were used to attract early users.
  • Leveraging cultural events can insert a startup into the zeitgeist.
  • Writing evergreen content in response to relevant news can drive sign-ups.
  • The speaker's article on surviving acquisitions gained traction during the shutdown of a competing service.

"So for us, one such event was when mailbox was being shut down."

This quote describes a strategic opportunity that was capitalized on to attract early users by creating content related to a relevant event.

Pricing Strategy and Positioning

  • Superhuman's pricing strategy was developed against the backdrop of free competitors.
  • Positioning exercises helped define Superhuman as a premium product.
  • A methodical approach was used to determine the price point.
  • The van Westendorp Pricing Sensitivity Meter helped identify the price users were willing to pay.

"The only way to win, and I think it's Reed Hoffman who popularized the following statement, is to be contrarian and right."

The quote reflects the philosophy behind Superhuman's pricing strategy, which was to be contrarian by charging for what was typically a free service, and to ensure the product justified the price.

Early Product Development and Momentum

  • The speaker took time off after a previous venture before starting Superhuman.
  • Early product development included purchasing a domain, raising seed capital, and creating wireframes.
  • A design agency was engaged early on to create high-fidelity mockups.
  • The founder's job is to create momentum, which can be done in various ways depending on the stage of their career.

"I first started sketching out the concept and the business model for superhuman in February of 2014."

The quote marks the beginning of the Superhuman project, indicating the start of the concept and business model development.

Initial Fundraising for Superhuman

  • Rahul Vora raised $750,000 for Superhuman in 2014 based on a single slide.
  • The slide featured a redlined screenshot of Gmail, indicating Rahul's vision for a better email client.
  • Rahul's credibility from his previous venture, Reportive, helped convince investors there was minimal execution risk.
  • The funding was crucial for starting the flywheel of the company's growth.

"So, for example, the money, that initial $750,000 that was raised in 2014 for superhuman was raised on the basis of primarily one slide where I took a screenshot of Gmail, and I just redlined out everything I didn't. Like I said, I'm going to make this pretty and fast."

The quote explains the minimalistic approach Rahul took to raise funds, emphasizing the concept and his track record rather than a detailed business plan.

Acquiring the Superhuman Domain

  • Rahul faced challenges in acquiring the Superhuman domain name, dealing with an unpleasant seller.
  • He hired an expert broker to negotiate a deal for the domain.
  • Spending a significant portion of the initial investment on a domain name was seen as risky but was justified as a signal of commitment.

"He took a perverse sense of enjoyment out of sending me abusive and insulting emails. But fortunately, I didn't have to deal with this myself. I hired an expert broker to go after the domain."

This quote illustrates the difficulties Rahul faced in securing the domain, highlighting the importance he placed on the domain name for branding and signaling seriousness to stakeholders.

Importance of a Strong Domain Name

  • The domain name purchase was a strategic move to show the world that Superhuman was serious.
  • It was particularly important for attracting potential co-founders and investors.
  • The investment in the domain name was seen as a commitment to compete with established email clients.

"Most importantly, this is a sign to the world that this flywheel is moving."

The quote signifies the domain name's role as a symbol of momentum and credibility in the early stages of Superhuman's development.

Market Positioning and Competition

  • Superhuman's market positioning was compared to Tesla's, as it aimed to compete with established competitors.
  • The conversation touched on the importance of a good name and branding, referencing Tesla's early names like EV1 and T Zero.
  • Rahul emphasized the meticulous crafting of Superhuman's landing page, iterating on every sentence and investing heavily in design.

"You are the Tesla. Not the. What was Tesla before it was Tesla? What was the name of the company? The e one or something?"

This quote contextualizes Superhuman's strategy to position itself as a premium, high-quality alternative in an existing market, similar to Tesla's approach in the automotive industry.

Product Development and Launch Strategy

  • Superhuman took a methodical approach to product development, spending over two years before shipping.
  • The strategy was contrary to the common startup advice of launching early and iterating based on feedback.
  • Rahul believed that due to the complexity of email clients, a longer development period was necessary to create a product people would want to use.

"It is a very, very difficult thing to build an email client that people actually want to use. And it does take more than two years. I challenge anybody to do that faster."

The quote emphasizes the complexity and challenge of developing an email client that meets high user expectations, justifying Superhuman's extended development timeline.

Product Market Fit and Growth Strategy

  • Superhuman's approach to product market fit involved holding back from a public launch until the product was truly ready.
  • The company focused on growth by onboarding a specific number of users each week.
  • Rahul shared a framework for launching: only do so if you need more users, capital, or candidates.
  • Superhuman's growth was driven by a referral system within the product, with a qualification process to ensure the product was a good fit for new users.

"Every single week we just pick a number of users that we will onboard the following week, and that's how we grow."

This quote explains Superhuman's controlled growth strategy, which involves a deliberate and measured approach to user onboarding to maintain quality and fit.

Measuring Product Market Fit

  • Rahul developed a four-step process to measure product market fit based on the need to articulate the company's readiness to the team.
  • He referenced various definitions of product market fit from industry leaders like Paul Graham, Sam Altman, and Marc Andreessen.
  • Rahul found Andreessen's definition vivid but post hoc, and sought a more actionable approach.
  • The process involved continuous improvement and clear communication with the team about the product's status and the steps needed to achieve product market fit.

"I remember staring at this definition through tears in the summer of 2017, thinking, oh, no, oh boy, we don't have this. And we are so far away from having this."

The quote reflects Rahul's realization that despite the progress, Superhuman still had significant work to do to achieve true product market fit, which required a systematic and measurable approach.

Board and Investor Relations

  • Rahul Vora explains the structure and dynamics of their board and investor relations.
  • They had a board, but no formal board meetings were conducted.
  • Bill Trenchard from First Round and Ed Sim from Boldstart were key figures, with Ed being in frequent informal contact.
  • Investors were supportive and trusted Rahul's direction for the company.

"So, our board formally at the time, was Bill Trenchard from first round, who's been incredible to us and informally. I would speak basically every two or three days with Ed Sim from bold start."

This quote highlights the informal yet supportive nature of the board relationship, particularly with Ed Sim, who was in regular communication with Rahul.

Fundraising Strategy

  • Rahul adopted a strategic approach to fundraising by initially accepting a smaller check and then raising more capital at higher valuations as progress was made.
  • This approach reflects his experience and confidence as a second-time founder.

"Yes. They actually wrote the first check in. Yeah, that 1st 750 was from them... And then I went away and made some progress and I came back like, I'll have another 250 now, but it's had a more expensive price. And then the next 250 was at an even more expensive hashtag."

The quote demonstrates Rahul's strategic fundraising method, where he incrementally raised funds at increasing valuations, reflecting his savvy as an experienced entrepreneur.

Product Market Fit Measurement

  • Rahul discusses Sean Ellis's method for measuring product market fit, which involves asking users how disappointed they would be if they could no longer use the product.
  • The "very disappointed" metric is predictive of a company's growth potential, with a benchmark of 40% indicating initial product market fit.

"You simply ask your users, how would you feel if you could no longer use the product? And you measure the percentage that say very disappointed."

This quote explains the core question used to gauge product market fit, which is central to Sean Ellis's method and pivotal for startups to understand their user base's commitment.

Building a Product Market Fit Engine

  • Rahul outlines the process of building a product market fit engine using the metric from Sean Ellis.
  • The process involves surveying users and systematically analyzing their feedback to guide product development.
  • The four-step engine consists of Segment, Analyze, Build, and Repeat (SABER).

"You can use it to come up with a systematic methodology to numerically optimize product market fit. Which sounds crazy, but it's true. You can actually build this thing."

The quote captures the innovative concept of creating a systematic approach to optimizing product market fit, emphasizing its feasibility and potential impact on product development.

Applying the SABER Method

  • Rahul details the four-step SABER method: Segment users, Analyze feedback, Build accordingly, and Repeat the process to improve product market fit.
  • This method is used to guide feature development and product changes based on user input.

"So we then have a four step engine to systematically generate your roadmap and increase product market fit. And the four steps that you go through are, number one, segment. Number two, analyze. Number three, build. And number four, repeat."

This quote outlines the SABER method, which is a structured approach to evolving a product based on user feedback to achieve better market fit.

Challenges to Achieving Product Market Fit

  • Rahul acknowledges that not all startups will achieve product market fit, citing reasons such as running out of money, co-founder disagreements, and fatigue.
  • He advises that startups with a very disappointed score between 5-15% should consider pivoting, while those with 15-25% have a chance to iterate to success.

"Many startups will run out of money before they finish this process. Many co founding teams will have disagreements and fall apart. And many teams will just get tired and go, you know what? I can't do this anymore."

The quote highlights the harsh realities that startups face, which can prevent them from achieving product market fit despite having a methodical approach like SABER.

Persistence in Startups

  • Persistence is emphasized as a critical trait for founders, with Rahul describing it as an unofficial value within his company.
  • He references Paul Graham's concept of "grimly determined founders" who persist through challenges to succeed.

"Every single founder needs to exhibit unnatural levels of persistence, I think. Again, to quote Paul Graham, he talks about grimly determined founders and how during the days when he was operating YC, he would see these people come out of college and they're like, they're super nice and bubbly, and then like a year or two later, they're just these sort of grimly persistent people who will stop at nothing."

This quote underscores the importance of persistence for founders, drawing on Paul Graham's observations of the transformation startup founders undergo as they face and overcome challenges.

Targeting a Narrow User Segment

  • Rahul cites Paul Graham's advice to initially target a small group of users who have a strong need for the product, rather than a large group with a mild interest.
  • He argues that good startup ideas often emerge from focusing on a niche market and that adjacent opportunities can lead to broader market appeal.

"Choose the latter. Not all ideas of that type are good startup ideas, but nearly all good startup ideas are of that type."

The quote relays Paul Graham's guidance, which Rahul endorses, on focusing on a narrow user segment with a significant need for the product, as this is a common trait among successful startups.

Hiring and Company Growth

  • Rahul shares that they are hiring for their first product manager and various engineering roles.
  • He encourages interested candidates to reach out and join the company's mission to build the fastest email experience.

"You get to work with me, for better, for worse, all day, every day, on building the fastest email experience of all time."

This quote reflects Rahul's invitation to potential candidates to join the team and contribute to the company's ambitious goals, emphasizing the opportunity to work closely with him on product development.

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