The hype and mystery that is Superhuman (Part 1)

“I want to take on Gmail and build the fastest email experience ever”, Rahul Vohra (CEO, Superhuman) said to Jason Calacanis (famed entrepreneur & angel investor).

“That’s great” said Jason, “But how do you plan to compete with Google’s access to unlimited servers & unlimited engineers and yet offer it free to users?”

“I can build it and users would pay $30 a month for it” said Rahul.

I am not making this up – this is precisely how the conversation between Rahul and Jason transpired when they first discussed the concept of Superhuman (source: This Week in Startups).

If the name Superhuman doesn’t sound familiar, let me quickly shed some light on why it is deemed as the buzziest startup of Silicon Valley in 2019:

  1. Superhuman competes directly against free forever email apps (read Gmail) and yet prices itself in the premium bracket of $30/ month
  2. It is an invite-only product with ~15,000 paying users and a whooping 220,000+ on the waitlist!
  3. It has raised ~$50 million till date, the last round being $33 million at a valuation of $250 million. With 15K customers paying $360 annually, that’s an astonishing revenue multiple of ~45.

What exactly is Superhuman?

At the most fundamental level, Superhuman is simply an email client that lets you view and edit your emails.

But what’s so special about an email client/ app?

1. Speed

When Paul Buchheit created Gmail in 2004, he had a rule:

Every interaction should be faster than 100ms. Because 100ms is the threshold where interactions feel instantaneous.

This was true about Gmail back in 2004 but today, interactions like ‘search’ can take even upwards of 5-10 seconds.

Superhuman commits to every single interaction being faster than 50ms. Yes, that includes search as well!

It is built from scratch with speed in mind, making it the ‘fastest email experience of all time’.

2. Forcing right habits

You can use Superhuman only through keyboard shortcuts and hence, it forces you by design to use the keyboard (as opposed to the trackpad).

The app navigation is designed such that your movements are naturally fast. For example, you navigate through emails using J and K instead of left/ right or up/ down arrows since these keys are the most accessible on the keyboard.

Superhuman in fact has an entire command line of its own which you can activate by pressing command + K (Didn’t I mention Superhuman is only available on Apple devices?)

And lastly, it almost forces you by every means possible, to get into the habit of achieving ‘Inbox Zero’.

3. Automation workflows and split inbox

Imagine a scenario where a person has connected you with someone on email. You would ideally:

  1. Thank the introducing person and move him/ her to bcc
  2. Type a polite intro message to your new connect
  3. Add one or more people (cc) in your team who need to know about this introduction

Using your usual drag and drop in Gmail, this can easily take upwards of 2-3 minutes. With Superhuman, you can setup workflows that help you master such complex use cases with just one command. Yes, just one command!

Superhuman also lets you smartly divide your emails into categories (called split inbox) so that you can prioritise correctly. For example, you can have an inbox dedicated to emails from within your team and set it to top priority so that you make sure to have this cleared first before responding to the outside world.

So what does it take to be (on) Superhuman?

Let’s say you are convinced about the benefits of using Superhuman and want to try it out.

Here’s how you can gain access to Superhuman:

  1. Superhuman is an invite-only app and you can become a user only if an existing user sends you an invite. So effectively, your first step is to get hold of a paying customer and request an invite.
  2. Once you get the invite, you have to fill a long form which asks you questions about your email usage patterns, the computer/ OS you use etc. Let me clarify at this point that if you end up answering incorrectly (e.g. if you are on a Windows laptop or are using an older version of Macbook Air), you may never hear back from the team.
  3. If you complete step 2 successfully, you will receive an email with an invite to an hour long 1-on-1 video call to onboard you. Yes, the Superhuman team manually onboards each of its users!

If you survive all of the steps above, you earn the right to pay $30 a month and use Superhuman!

But why are people so crazy about Superhuman?

Despite (or because of) all of this, Superhuman’s users are pure loyalists. They rave about the product and the experience, publicly.

Take for example, this discussion on HackerNews:

Superhuman - The Ferrari of email services

Now skeptics say that Superhuman does nothing more than force its users to follow the right habits (using shortcuts, reaching inbox, setting up workflow automations etc.). All of the features Superhuman offers could easily be done in Gmail or elsewhere, if done correctly.

But then why is there such a loyal following to Superhuman and how did Rahul Vohra achieve this feat?

There’s clearly much more going on here. One or more things that Rahul is doing so great that users are in love with the product.

Understanding why Superhuman works so well with its users will require us to delve deeper into the product’s journey. And there are huge takeaways for us, as entrepreneurs, product managers, marketers and engineers.

We will attempt to answer the why and how of Superhuman in the upcoming posts. So stay tuned!

Do reach out to me on Twitter if you would like to discuss anything.

I also write regularly about products, startups and tech. If you would like to hear from me more often, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

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