Superhuman's Rahul Vohra says recession is the 'perfect time' to be aggressive for well-capitalized startups

Megan Rose Dickey and Darrell Etherington
·11-min read

Email is one of those things that no one likes but that we’re all forced to use. Superhuman, founded by Rahul Vohra, aims to help everyone get to inbox zero. Superhuman, which got its start in 2017, charges $30 per month and is still in invite-only mode with more than 275,000 people on the waitlist. That's by design, Vohra told us earlier this week on Extra Crunch Live.

"I think a lot of folks misunderstand the nature of our waitlist," he said. "They assume it's some kind of FOMO generating technique or some kind of false scarcity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real reason we have the waitlist is that I want everyone who uses Superhuman to be deliriously happy with their experience."

Today, Superhuman is only available for desktop and iOS. Superhuman started with iOS because many premium users have iPhones, Vohra said. Still, many users have Android, so Superhuman's waitlist consists of many Android users.

"And we don't think that if we onboard them they'd have the best experience with Superhuman because email really is an ecosystem product," he said. "You do it just as much on the go as you do from your laptop. And there's a lot of reasons like that. And so if you're a person who identifies that as a must-have, well, we'll take in the survey, we'll learn about you so we know when to reach out to you. And then when we have those things built or integrated, we'll reach out."

We also chatted about his obsession with email, determining pricing for a premium product, the impact of COVID-19, diversity in tech in light of the police killing of George Floyd and so much more.

Throughout the conversation, Vohra also offered up some good practical advice for founders. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On competition from Hey, the latest buzzy email app

Yeah, I’m not at all worried. I used to get worried about this. You know, 10 years ago, even as recently as five years ago, I would get worried about competitors. But I think Paul Graham has really, really great advice on this. I think he says pretty much verbatim: Startups don't kill other startups. Competition generally doesn't kill the startup. Other things do, like running out of money being the biggest one, or lack of momentum or lack of motivation or co-founder feuds, these are all really dangerous things.

Competition from other startups generally isn't the thing that gets you and you know, props to the Basecamp team and everything they've done with Hey. It's really impressive. I think it's for an entirely different demographic than Superhuman is for.

Superhuman is for the person for whom essentially email as work and work as email. Our users kind of almost personally identify with their email inbox, and they're coming from Gmail, or G Suite. And typically it's overflowing so they often receive hundreds if not thousands of emails a day, and they send off 100 emails a day. Superhuman is for high volume email for whom email really matters. Power users, essentially, though power users isn't quite the right articulation. What I actually say is prosumers because there's a lot of people who come to us at Superhuman and they're not yet power users of email, but they know they need to be. And that's what I would call a prosumer -- someone who really wants to be brilliant at doing email. Now Hey doesn't seem to be designed for that target market. It doesn't seem to be designed for high volume emailers or prosumers or power users.

On George Floyd’s killing and diversity in tech

You know, it's something that we took extremely seriously well before the tragic events of the last few weeks, and there's a certain number of things that we did that I think every technology company should just do. And then once all of that happened, we sort of looked again at what we were doing and said, ‘Okay, well, how can we take this to the next level?’ So stuff that we were doing previously, in order to create a diverse environment, were things like, well, let's make sure that we have at least two folks from every minority reaching a certain stage of our interview process. So for example, two people of color, two people are female, at the very least two people who, you know, are representative of different minorities. So it's making sure that we actually have the opportunity to have anyone take that role.

The other thing we did, this was probably at the start of the year back in January, was make sure that the pay didn't have any discrepancy between different groups of the company. And this isn't really something I knew how to do myself. And so one of the best tips I got from this was, you know, hire an expert in the field. We brought on board, Kristen Hayward, who was previously running people at Flexpoint. And she started to do this really interesting and intense analysis on pay, sort of slicing and dicing in every single different way, on Superhuman. And I'm happy to share that, you know, we came out equitable every single way that you could slice it. So that was all stuff that we did before. In the last few weeks we looked at that again, and sort of decided that we want to do more. So what we've done recently is launch an allyship education program. And so this is where we're sponsoring our team on their journeys to become more informed on issues of inequality and the role that we can all play in inclusion. So we're covering any and all expenses relating to the education on allyship, on inclusivity, on bias, on racial equality. And we're going to start creating training programs to make sure that you were taking what we're doing, which I would say is at a good level, and taking it to an excellent level.

On navigating COVID-19

We've seen this dramatic acceleration of a trend that was already happening. We will all start to increasingly work more remotely, more from home. We've had possibly 10 years' worth of that trend squashed down in just a few months. And so people's email behavior does seem to have changed. And this isn't a good thing, but our workdays are now longer. And what we've noticed, just looking at our overall aggregate analytics is that our days are starting earlier, which kind of makes sense. We're no longer commuting. And they're working later because we're not going home at the end of the day. And so email behavior seems to have shifted as well. We're now sending significantly more emails from desktop, significantly less emails from mobile phones. But the interesting thing is there seems to be no reduction in demand to do email. I think now that people are increasingly remote, we're all also increasingly aware of how Slack and similar tools -- brilliant though they are -- can oftentimes be another an impediment to productivity.

On how Superhuman is reacting to the current economic landscape

As you enter a recession, it sort of polarizes what startups end up doing. Many startups have had to layoff significant parts of their workforce, which is extremely unfortunate. But for companies who have strong revenue streams, or like ourselves, are extremely well-capitalized -- we raised a very large Series B last year -- it's actually the perfect time to aggressively pursue innovation and pursue a roadmap. So in the last few months, we've doubled down on R&D, hiring, engineering, product and design so that we can build all the things people want, but even faster.

On finding the right pricing for your subscription product

Most startups are just trying to get all the users as fast as possible. But if you're entering a space with gigantic incumbents, like Outlook or Gmail, then consider having a premium positioning, because that's an excellent way to find your own segments, or niche – and it actually turns out [it's most useful to consider] at what price would Superhuman be expensive. So you'd have to think about it, but you'd still actually buy it because at the end of the day, you spend three hours a day in email and your time is worth way, way, way more than $30 a month. The median answer to that question for us was $29 a month, but it turns out that we then went and spoke to a bunch of pricing consultants, they all unanimously advised if you're building a premium product, do not end your price on a nine because ending on a nine actually conveys value – it conveys in a sense, cheapness. That's sort of for bargain hunters.

Rahul’s recommended bibliography and commentary

Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Before you address pricing, my big belief is you have to address positioning first. And there's a really great book on the topic– Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind – I'd heartily recommend it to any founder who's interested in the topic.

Positioning Your Startup is Vital — Here’s How to Nail It by Arielle Jackson

[Arielle Jackson] is an expert in the field. She also happened to be the product marketing manager at Google that launched Gmail. We got to work with her in the early days of Superhuman, which was amazing. She helped us with this positioning exercise, a sort of a Mad Libs exercise where you're trying to fill in the blanks, and the blanks are something along the lines of ‘For a tight targeted definition of your audience, your product exists in a certain category. It has the following primary benefits, it is differentiated in the following way,’ and you end up filling in those blanks. And so we worked with her on Superhuman and we ended up with the following extremely tightly targeted definition: For executives, managers, founders of high tech, fast growing companies, Superhuman is the fastest email experience ever made.

Monetizing Innovation: How Smart Companies Design the Product Around the Price by Madhavan Ramanujam and Georg Tacke

When you're ready to worry about pricing, the best resource that I know for this is a book called Monetizing Innovation. And in Monetizing Innovation, the author covers any number of different ways to do a pricing sensitivity analysis. The easiest and the one that I would recommend for most startups is the Van Westendorp methodology. This is where you ask four questions – four very easy questions. Number one, at what price would Superhuman be so expensive that you would not consider buying it? Number two, what price would simply be so cheap that you would be worried as to its quality and you also wouldn't buy it? Number three, at what price would Superhuman be expensive, so you'd have to think about it, but you would still buy it? And then number four, at what point price would superhuman be a bargain for the money?

RIP Mailbox, or: Founders, how to stop worrying and love being acquired by Rahul Vohra

It was clear to me that this was going to be a really interesting PR story. And this is one of the skills, by the way, to develop as a founder, is just pre-empting what news cycles are likely to happen and how can I be relevant? And yet you always want to aim for evergreen content. So I wrote down a really widely-read essay on the top ways to survive being acquired by a company, and how as we as founders and CEOs in particular, have to transition from being the sort of formidable people who would like dropkick a mountain and crawl through a sewer to being a more sort of gentle, consensus-building diplomatic Product Manager inside a much larger company. It's almost like left brain, right brain, and you have to turn on a dime. Most people don't get that right. I certainly did not get that right at LinkedIn. So I had a lot of relevancy to bring to the news cycle.

You can check out the full episode below.