The technology we get most excited about often involve activities that are beyond the scope of our abilities — we want jetpacks, a shuttle to the Moon, and hey, robot servants would also be nice! 

But in reality, the most life-changing products are the ones that help us overcome obstacles in our everyday lives. They’re the innovations that help us do what we do already — just better and faster. See, for example, the car, the telephone, the microwave, the lightbulb, and, now, Superhuman.

What the car did for transport, Superhuman does for email. But while pioneers like Henry Ford intentionally made cars available to the mass market, Superhuman has a very specific target audience. 

The service costs $30 a month, and new users must pass a qualification process: there’s an estimated waiting list of over 100,000. (A referral from a current user could help move things along). 

Once you’re in, you receive a 30-minute phone tutorial. In the early days, this was done in person, and the man walking you through it was Superhuman founder and CEO Rahul Vohra. 

Previously, he worked as a designer for video game developer Jagex, and founded the browser extension Rapportive, which he sold to LinkedIn for a reported $15 million

His exclusive strategy for Superhuman is paying off: in June 2019, the company raised $33 million in a Series B round. Over the phone, Rahul explained how he convinced people to pay to read their emails, and which key emotion he strives to create.

A personalized tutorial showing you how to do email ‘twice as fast’

Scott: What did you guys do prior to launch to make sure that the hand-holding experience was exceptional? And the followup question on that is going to be, how did you determine whether or not it would be scalable?

Rahul: I did the first onboardings in late 2016, and those onboardings were very different. They were one and a half hours each. They were always in person. I would turn up to the office of the potential customer, show them a product demo. Then I would watch them do their email for about half an hour, so I could find all the bugs that people would run into in those first moments of using our products. We did that over and over again so that we could make the products better for the next cohort of users.

As we were doing this, we noticed that something very strange was going on. We had sky high retention, industry-leading churn, and our users all became power users, and their virality and their net promoter scores were through the roof. We had stumbled across this incredible new go-to market that, if only you could make it scale, could completely change the course of a business, and maybe even create a whole new way of selling to customers. 

Your second question was how did we know that we could actually scale this in a responsible manner. The way that the onboarding process works today is you pre-authorize when you sign up or you get referred in. You go through a qualification process. You sign up with your credit card, we take a hold. We don’t actually charge it at that point. Then you schedule in for a consultation with one of our onboarding specialists. And today these are half an hour. They are experts, not just at email, but also at productivity in general. They’ll look at how you’re doing your email right now, and they’ll show you how to do it twice as fast inside of Superhuman. 

They can close anywhere between 40 and 50 customers per week. If you compare it to a normal SDR [sales development rep] or a normal customer success representative, they are also making in the region of that many calls, but they’re making those calls speculatively, whereas everyone who gets on the phone with us ends up being a Superhuman customer. That’s why it turns out to be scalable.

Scott: When you looked at pricing, was it — this is what the market will bear — or was it something relative to the amount of value you’re providing?

Rahul: We didn’t do value-based pricing. I think if we did, you’d end up with a much higher number. It’s much more like your first idea, which is what can the market bear? After I gave a demo, I would ask the potential customer four questions. Number one, at what price would Superhuman be so expensive that you absolutely would not buy it? And number two, at what price would Superhuman be so cheap that you would be concerned about its quality and you also would not buy it? Number three, at what price is Superhuman beginning to be expensive so 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 a bargain and really great value for the money?

What most startups should do is orient around the fourth question, the bargain question. But not so with Superhuman. Because we’re a premium company selling the best email software in the world, we actually oriented around the third question. We collected the median responses to that question, which was around $29 a month. So we chose $30 a month pretty quickly as our price point. We could potentially increase it. I think if you take value-based pricing, there’s definitely room to do that. But in the meantime, we’re laser-focused on building the best possible product.

How he’s scaling customer delight

Scott: What is your background? Have you always had an eye on design?

Rahul: I’ve always been making stuff. When I was five or six years old, I’d be designing mazes and roleplaying games on paper. I started to program when I was about eight years old. My goal, because I was such an avid video gamer, was to create my own video games. I taught myself to program growing up: Visual Basic to begin with, C, and C++. And this was all in the service of making really cool video games.

The interesting thing about making video games is that you can’t do it well unless you have both an eye for design and a very empathic way of creating experiences. To tie this into Superhuman: we make software like it’s a video game. Most schools of product management worry about what users want or what they need. We care about that, but not anywhere near as much as we obsess over how users feel, which is a different method. So whenever we’re making anything, we’re optimizing to have users feel a certain way. 

If you dive into the literature on game design, you’ll find that what most games are designed to do is to delight the player. You can define delight as ‘pleasant surprise.’ Surprise is barely even an emotion, it’s a human reaction. And when you modify it with the concept of pleasant —  a pleasant surprise — you end up with delight. You create delight. That is the number one value of Superhuman. As we’re scaling as a company, it’s less about me doing it, because there’s only so much that one person can do, and more about how do we create a culture, and how do we create a school of product design, and product management, and marketing inside of the company.

Superhuman has ambitions way beyond email 

Scott: What do you view success as looking like at the end of this? What would ultimately determine whether you feel like it’s been a successful mission?

Rahul: It’s definitely not about exits or money. Having sold a company before, I have no particular desire to do that again. As any exited founder would tell you, it’s not as attractive as it may seem the first time around from the outside. The goal here is really to make you brilliant at what you do. That is the vision of the company. And we happen to be starting with email, but you can take the same playbook, the same product philosophy that has made Superhuman a superlative email experience, and apply that to a wide variety of things. Think of all the tools that you use all day, every day: how can we rethink each one of those to a Superhuman level? That’s ultimately the long-term vision of the company. 

But for the moment, we’re going to stay in our lane and just nail email, because we do have a long way to go in order to make that possible. But there’s certainly no desire to sell this company. And success looks like when we, at the company, can say to each other, you know Scott, he’s ending every day feeling happier, more successful, more relaxed, and closer to achieving his potential. That’s how we’ll know when we’ve succeeded.