So you’re building a “Superhuman of X”?

By now you’ve probably heard of Superhuman, the invitation-only service that costs $30 a month and that promises the fastest email experience ever made. Wait, what? $30 a month — more than Netflix, Spotify, and Apple News combined — to check your email? Yup. And actually, the Ferrari of email services is so good that over 180,000 people are on the waiting list to pay for it. Many of them are even getting desperate for an access. As if it was not enough, the lucky ones to have scored an invitation don’t hesitate to add an extra layer of FOMO by publicly sharing their love for the product.

In June 2019, as a result of these early successes, Superhuman raised a $33 million investment round, led by a16z. Since then, the fascination for the SF startup kept growing. What is it that Superhuman founder/CEO Rahul Vohra and his team are getting so right? Is their secret sauce applicable to other use cases? Will other huge successes emerge on this basis?

After “X but on the internet” in 1999 and “Uber for X” in 2015, now has come the time of “Superhuman of X” era. Every week has its share of new Superhuman copycats. But which ones among them are going to succeed? And what does “Superhuman of X” even mean?

Following a couple of Silicon Valley VCs tweeting about this, it seems that the recipe to become a successful “Superhuman of X” essentially boils down to four key principles:

  1. Focus your USP on speed — claim to be “blazingly fast”, highlight that every interaction in your app is faster than 100ms, have extensive keyboard shortcuts, and most importantly allow your users to hit ⌘K from anywhere in your app to bring up the command line.
  2. Offer a minimalist design with a high emphasis on the dark mode.
  3. Make sure your product is a modern alternative to a legacy product from a big company — Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft being the obvious ones.
  4. Try to be perceived as a “luxury software” through scarcity—basically stay “Invite only” as long as you can to create hype.

Sounds like a pretty simple recipe for success, right? Just follow those four points on a use case of your choice and you might as well become the next Superhuman. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. I even think it’s quite misleading. Let me explain:

  1. Dark mode and ⌘K are not a product strategy. They are cool features which are becoming table stakes for any productivity software but they are not the bar for outstanding UX. Product teams should focus on problems to be solved for their users, not on shipping features coming from other products—unless those features solve identified user pain points.
  2. If you want to focus your USP on speed, it’s very important to consider the nature of the use case. As Des Traynor nicely puts it in the latest Intercom on Product podcast, you have to make the difference between tool time and task time: tool time being how much time you’re wasting dealing with the messiness of the product ; actual task time being how much time it takes you to get the work done. As far as it being your USP, you really have to make sure to focus on areas where the speed improvement will be notable relative to the task time. Focusing on tool speed won’t help if task time is significantly higher than tool time.
  3. Even in use cases where tool time > task time, keyboard shortcuts, ⌘K, and “<100ms” rule are not enough. Those features are ways to optimize tool speed. But they are just that: optimizations. If Superhuman feels so fast, it’s thanks to the opinionated workflows they are educating their users toward. The starting point is to understand what makes the existing process slow and identify what new workflows could make it much faster.
  4. Building an alternative to a massively successful product with a large user base sounds great. What Superhuman is doing to Gmail can in theory be done to other incumbent products. However, it is crucial to remember that Superhuman is actually honing in on a very small segment of Gmail customers: people who spend several hours a day in their inbox and need to process large amounts of email quickly. They are building their product for a small niche, which allows them to cover much less surface area, but go way deeper. So, if you’re going against a huge incumbent product, don’t try to beat them across their whole user base. It’s a recipe for failure as you’ll have to rebuild pretty much their whole feature set before you can pretend to be a decent replacement. Focus on a small subset of their users and be 10x better at what matters to them.
  5. There is nothing bad about staying “Invite only” for a long time. It’s actually great when it’s done for the right reasons, i.e. carefully selecting the right customers to ensure they are fully delighted with the current version of your product. The goal is to avoid unnecessary churn while you’re still trying to find your product/market fit. It also helps your early adopters to feel special and to become great ambassadors of your product. However, if you implement an “invite only” strategy for the hype but grant invites on a first come, first served basis, it’s definitely missing the point.

But, wait, does it mean that building a fast software with a minimalist design is a bad thing? Nope, not at all. Actually, I’m pretty sure the Next Big Thing will be very fast—slow software is rarely able to rise to greatness. It will also probably have the ⌘K feature—which could come from a “⌘K as a service” API still to be built by a company like Alfred, Command E or Lazy. It might even have a dark mode following Superhuman’s dark theme guidelines, who knows. But the point is that none of this is USP material. Superhuman’s USP was the result of their relentless focus on solving a well identified problem for a specific set of well understood people. They didn’t get there by using someone else’s playbook. They created their own playbook.

There is only one source of figuring out what works: your users. No shortcuts. If you want to build The Next Big Thing, my recommendation is to pick your own superpowers. Superhuman’s superpowers are a great fit for Superhuman use case. Find out the ones that will work for your use case. Actually, don’t try to build “Superhuman of X”. At least not in the common sense it’s understood.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to take away from Superhuman’s approach and their brilliantly crafted product. I’ve been myself a happy user gladly paying $30 per month for more than six months now, and I’m not likely to churn any time soon. They hooked me from Day 1. They are doing things in such a novel and unconventional way. Here are some of the areas where I believe we should all get inspired by Superhuman as entrepreneurs:

  • Solve your own problems. Rahul Vohra is himself highly representative of his targeted buyers — if you’re solving your own problem in a way that you’d be paying for it and there are enough “you” in the world, you might be onto something.
  • Make user research a core focus from the start—In Acquired podcast, Rahul Vohra explains that he met with 300+ people very early to validate the pain and all his assumptions. He applied “The Mom Test” principles and focused on getting a deep understanding of the problem before even talking about the solution.
  • Focus on a small subset of users of a widely adopted existing product. Don’t just try to beat an incumbent product at everything it does for all its user base. They’ve been there for long time shipping a lot of features. You’ll lose.
  • Take product prioritization very seriously. Superhuman’s sophisticated product/market fit engine (see interactive version here) will help you ship the right stuff for the right people. Talk to your users. Ask them the right questions. Segment them. Leveraging this information, spend half your time doubling down on what users already love and the other half on addressing what’s holding others back. Don’t just try shipping everything you’re being asked.
  • Design the product around emotion through an immersive gaming experience. As wonderfully explained in Cristian Graziano’s tweet thread, Superhuman really makes you feel proud to be part of their game. Goal of the game: To reach inbox zero. Players: users. Rule of the game: On-boarding. Controller to the game: keyboard shortcuts. Ask yourself the question: what game can you create for your customers?
  • Make user education core to everything you do. The product can be as great as you want, if customers don’t use it well, they may not see the value and churn. To make sure their customers use the tool in a way that actually makes them blazingly fast at processing email, Superhuman leverages subtle in-app user education. They do that not only with ⌘K but also by making you look like an idiot every time you use your mouse instead of a keyboard shortcut. Dare to do the same with your product: teach your users how to get their job done faster.
  • Think through the ideal workflows that will make your users brilliant at what they’re buying your product for. In Superhuman’s case, it’s all about entering flow mode. One email at a time. Try reach inbox zero. Don’t mark unread. Make use of reminders. Send later. And much more. Superhuman has strong opinions about how to be brilliant at email and the product forces you into its opinionated way of doing it. They are training their users at being email wizards, independently of which tool they use. Theoretically, you could go back to Gmail after you’ve learned Superhuman’s best practices—some people do it. Most people don’t, though!
  • Pay attention to product-led virality from the start. Superhuman brought virality in three ways: 1/ Just hit Inbox zero? Share on Twitter ; 2/ “Sent with Superhuman” in users’ signature ; 3/ Genius in-app referral strategy where users can see who in their network are on the waiting list and make them jump the queue—in one click!
  • Take monetization seriously from the beginning. Superhuman didn’t guess their subscription pricing as so many other SaaS companies do. They quantified their product’s perceived value thanks to underutilized value-based pricing techniques such as Van Westendorp. They dared to talk about their price very early on and it helped them maximize the value they could extract. I bet Rahul has read “Monetizing Innovation” from Madhavan Ramanujam—I strongly recommend you do the same. If you don’t feel like reading a whole book about pricing (which I can understand 😅), you can at least watch this video from First Round Capital.
  • Last but not least, even though controversial, one of the most genius things about Superhuman is their 1:1 concierge on-boardings. They make a lot of sense. By ensuring that every user actually becomes a super user, on-boardings are one the reasons behind Superhuman’s extremely high retention and industry-leading churn. It may seem like it won’t scale as it requires a lot of effort. But if you think about it, Superhuman’s on-boarding experts don’t make more calls than normal Sales Development Representatives. However, everyone who gets on the phone with them ends up being a Superhuman customer. If you want to be the next Superhuman but don’t feel like doing the concierge on-boardings, you might miss out on one of their most remarkable secrets.

In conclusion, my advice for startups is to get inspired by Superhuman in the right way. Applying those principles won’t lead you to build “Superhuman of X”. It will lead you to go beyond ⌘K and pick your own superpowers. That way, you’ll be able to build SuperYOUman! 😊

In case we don’t know each other: I’m the co-founder of Cycle, an all-in-one tool dedicated to product-centric teams 🚲 If you’re looking to build a SuperYOUman, you can sign up to our beta and manage all your product exploration, delivery, and communication with Cycle. We’re invite only, for now 😉

Thank you to Thibaud Elzière, Axel Le Pennec, Jonathan Costet, and Lola Wajskop for reading drafts of this post.