On this episode of Build, host Maggie Crowley chats with Rahul Vohra, founder & CEO of Superhuman. Rahul is also the founder of beloved Gmail plugin Rapportive. Shortly after its founding, the company was acquired by LinkedIn where Rahul ran email integrations. During those years, he developed an intimate perspective of the email space – and its many problems.
Enter Superhuman, Rahul’s current company, built to be the fastest email experience ever made.
Together they discuss how to measure product market fit, the problem with email today and much more. Be sure to tune in to hear from Maggie and Rahul.
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In This Episode
0:08 – Meet Rahul Vohra, CEO & Founder, Superhuman
0:35 – Rahul explains what led him to focus on email and inbox problems
2:29 – Rahul dives into how Superhuman approached the problem with his team
5:15 – How Rahul and others measure their business and project progress
6:04 – How to check if someone would be ready to switch to your product over the competition
7:41 – “Product’s market fit”
9:28 – The metrics: NPS vs the PMF
13:02 – Rahul explains the process of slow product build
14:39 – The importance of customer familiarity with the problem you’re trying to solve for them
15:52 – How the problem was solved
18:00 – Advice for first-time entrepreneurs
20:50 – Rahul shares some additional advice based on previous failed startups
21:15 – You almost certainly will have several failures before succeeding
21:39 – Put everything on the line
22:34 – Persevere. Don’t give up.
Maggie Crowley: So welcome to build. Today is going to be really good because I have an awesome guest who is a CEO, founder and operator with an absolutely incredible track record. Rahul Vohra is the CEO and founder of Superhuman, the fastest email experience ever made. He’s also the CEO and co founder of Rapportive, which was acquired by Linkedin. He’s an investor. The list goes on and on, but I actually discovered him through a Medium post that was widely shared around Drift, about product market fit and how to measure it. So welcome to Build Rahul.
Rahul Vohra: Thank you for having me.
Maggie: So I want to get into that product market fit score and measurement. But first I’d love to know how did you pick the inbox problem and sort of what led you to focus on email in the first place?
Rahul: Well, I actually had a previous company in the email space. You mentioned Rapportive. I started that company in about 2010 and we built the first Gmail plugin to scale to many millions of users. For those who don’t know it, basically when people emailed you, we showed you what they looked like, where they worked, their recent tweets and links to their social profiles. Ultimately we helped you be brilliant with people. And so we grew rapidly. Two years later we were acquired by Linkedin and there I ran our email integrations. And during those years, I developed a pretty intimate perspective of the email space and how it was going. I could see Gmail getting worse every single year, becoming more cluttered, using more memory, consuming more CPU, slowing down your machine, still not working offline. And on top of that people were installing plugins like our own Rapportive, but also things like Boomerang and Mixmax and each plugin took those problems, the clutter, the memory, the CPU, the performance offline, and made them dramatically worse.
So for Superhuman, we asked ourselves the question, what would Gmail look like if instead of being 14 years old, it were built from scratch today? And we imagined an email experience that’s blazingly fast. It’s visually gorgeous. Didn’t need a bunch of browser extensions and just work offline. And so I’m happy to say that today, as you also said, Superhuman is the fastest email experience ever made and many of our users end up getting to their inbox about twice as fast as they did by comparison to a Gmail and they see inbox zero for the first time in years.
Right. That’s incredible. Yeah. I’ve seen a couple of people around here who have achieved the Nirvana of inbox zero. So that sounds amazing and really sort of simple when you summarize it that way, but how did you get from sort of A to B, especially in terms of your product team and how you approach that problem?
Well, how would you define A and B?
Maggie: The messy, current state of Gmail and then this sort of perfect ideal state of the fastest email experience ever made?
Rahul: Oh, I see. Okay.
Maggie: Yeah. Well, I think like many entrepreneurs, it starts off with a bit of a personal pet peeve, an itch that you want to scratch. As a founder of Rapportive and as a product manager at Linkedin, I obviously did a ton of email in both Gmail as a founder, and then in Outlook at a large company. And so I was really, really familiar just personally as a user. Then on top of that, as a founder of an email company before, I was talking to all of these customers about that previous product and during those conversations, although I could see that Rapportive was helping them increase their quality of life and do their job better, they had fundamental dissatisfaction with the underlying product. In that case, Gmail, as did I. And when I dug in, some common themes came about. In fact, when we started Superhuman, we had a pretty terrible landing page, nothing like the website we have now.
It was basically just a box where you could leave your email address if you were interested to hear more. And when you left your email address you would get an automatic email from me and I would ask a question, “What do you use for email today and what are your pet peeves?” And that started a conversation and I would jump in and then when the volume was too high, other people on our team would also jump in, and we’d go back and forth talking with these people who were signing up on our webpage. And through that way I think we did north of 700 interviews with founders and CEOs and other early adopter types who we wanted to use our products just in the first year alone.
And this is before you had a product and anything that they could actually use?
Rahul: Exactly. It was definitely before there was anything they could use. We were building the products at the same time, but during the course of these interviews, we learned what kinds of things were annoying people and we confirmed the hypotheses that I had. So the two main things that we learned were people were frustrated with Gmail because it was slow and it slowed them down, and people were frustrated with third party email clients because they were also slow, but in addition, they were unreliable, they were buggy, they didn’t sync properly and so on. They’re in it. It was pretty easy to arrive at the idea that, well perhaps if we built a thing that was incredibly fast, was really pretty and just worked, that people would really love it.
Maggie: Awesome. How did you know that you had hit that? So I think I’m trying to get into the product market fit score obviously, but I think it’s one thing to say, “I want to build the tool that does exactly this thing,” but then how did you measure your progress along the way?
Rahul: Progress is fairly difficult to measure before you’re ready to have external users. And especially for a product like ours, where email is mission critical. It’s how people do business. For our target market, email is work and work is email. You have to be pretty darn sure you have a high quality product before you invite users to use your product. And so before that time you have to measure progress internally and for me it was relatively simple. I’m fortunate that I am a perfect example of the kind of person that we wanted to use the product, and so everyday I just did a simple gut check. Am I actually ready to switch from Gmail to Superhuman? And for the longest time I wasn’t. And the reason for that was any number of things. We were just working down that list. Sometimes it was reliability, sometimes it was speed. Once we knock those things out, it became features.
And then we got to the point where at least I, perhaps the most forgiving simultaneously the most demanding of users, but certainly forgiving because I’m working on it, could use the product. So up until that point, it was a daily gut check. After that point, we started adding a trickle of users and we started really slowly, like we’re talking maybe one user every month or two. And then it was one user a month and then it was a few users a month. Then we worked up to a few users a week. And with each new user we were learning so much. Bugs that we didn’t know about or features that we didn’t think we had to build or edge cases that we hadn’t considered. And so we just started to make sure that for each new user, we could actually accommodate them and be their daily driver email clients. And once we got past that phase, then it starts to get into what you just mentioned, which is the product market fit score phase, where we have a stable email experience. It is really fast. It does a lot of things really great. Now how do we start to iterate to a measurable definition of Product Market Fit?
Maggie: Right. So then if I remember correctly in the article, which we’ll link to in the show notes, but in the article you talk about how the goal of a product team is to get product market fit, but it’s really hard to know when you actually have it. So did you start off with a hypothesis on this question itself or how did you guys come to this as a team?
Rahul: We were pretty clear from the foundation of the company that getting to product market fit was going to be one of our biggest challenges, and one of our most important endeavors as a founding team. It wasn’t the first thing that we did. The first thing that we did, as I said, we just make the thing I could use that. Then it was a thing a few friends could use, a few investors could use. But once we’d ramped past that point, yeah, we all knew the plan was to get to product market fit. Now it wasn’t exactly clear how we were going to measure it and I had to do a lot of reading and a lot of talking to experts and a lot of figuring stuff out to come up with the 40% metric that’s mentioned in the article. And then there was a lot of thinking on top of that as well, to come up with the whole product market fit engine.
Maggie: At this point, did you have a team of product managers who were running the survey or was just one survey all for Superhuman, all at once?
Rahul: It was just one survey, and even to date, we don’t actually have a full time product manager that’s not myself. So we are of course hiring for that role as we are hiring for many other roles. But the whole team just came together in a big effort. One of our team members is a bit more bizops and analytics minded. I asked them to pull together the survey and to instrument it and to connect it up to type form and to make sure it goes out to users once they hit a certain activation threshold. And it was one survey for the entire product.
Maggie: Awesome. So then we also talked a little bit about, in our previous chat about NPS versus this score, because I think something that I’m sure a lot of product people and other people in startups and I guess really anywhere are thinking about, how do I know when I’m at the right point? How do I measure myself, especially if the thing that I’m working on isn’t necessarily super measurable? Like I want to build the most usable, the most useful, the most amazing product in the market. How do I measure that? How do you think about those two types of metrics between NPS and this product market fit score?
Rahul: I think that’s a really great question. It’s one I get asked a lot actually. Now it turns out that they’re both very different scores. They measure different things, and different levers move them. The one thing that they share is that they’re both incredibly useful, and I would say that they’re both even necessary. So the PMF score measures a level of dependency on a product, either because there’s such a strong emotional connection or because nothing else exists quite like it. The MPS score on the other hand measures how strong your word of mouth effect is. In other words, how strong or how viral rather your product can be in the real world. In practice, one is not better than the other. You need both to build a meaningful company. One is gonna determine the fundamental success of the product, and the other is going to determine your distribution success, but if you have one and not the other, it’s unlikely you’ll build a successful company.
Maggie: Right. So then as a PM, what would your advice be to a PM who’s thinking about, you know, “Okay, it’s 2019, I want to set new goals. I want to make sure I’m measuring everything.” Would you suggest product market fit first and NPS second, or how would you think about that?
Rahul: I would definitely measure both simultaneously. On the survey that we send out, we have both the PMF questions as well as the MPS questions.
Maggie: Oh, so you’re asking them both at the same time?
Rahul: Correct. They’re in the same survey. We ask the PMF questions first and then we asked how likely are you to recommend the product later on in the same survey. I’m always a fan of collecting the data. I think we should always be collecting data. But we should be careful and thoughtful about what we choose to focus on and my inclination would always be solve product market fit first, and then solve for MPS. Now if the organization has the capacity to solve for both things, then by all means go for it, because it’s different levers that drive MPS. It’s how great your customer support is, how great your brand is, how smart you make your users look or how cool you make them feel, and there’s a ton of non product stuff that you can do to drive MPS. It’s a question of resources, and for most startups I’d say don’t worry too much about it, just get the PMF score really high.
Maggie: Right. Because if you can get your product to be the absolute best solution for whatever problem they’re trying to solve, in theory the MPS would take care of itself in some respects.
Rahul: I think you’ll have a good foundation, but I don’t think MPS just takes care of itself from a great product. It’s definitely the start, but there are also other things like I mentioned, there’s things like design, there’s things like scarcity can drive MPS as well, interestingly. There’s lots of tactics and strategies that one can deploy to pursue MPS. I would say if the organization is small and resources are constrained, do PMF only. If you’ve got PMF, then also solve for MPS. And if you have lots of resources, then why not swing for the fences and try and move both needles.
Maggie: Right. So I have another question about the process that you went through sort of along the way, as you were building Superhuman. So I think you might’ve touched on this a little bit earlier. What kinds of products do you think this super slow rollout have to get it right, really sort of hyper focused on all the details. At least that’s what it looks like from the outside. What kinds of products do you think that works best for and what types of PMs should be listening to this and thinking, “Okay, that’s the approach I should take.”
Rahul: I think it works really well for products where the influences and taste makers in the industry really feel the pain. So if you think about email, the people who feel the pain most intensely include CEOs, founders, executives, managers, investors and so on. And those people are also very influential and effective at spreading the word about great new products, and in many cases have the ultimate buying power or authority within their organizations. So I would say if you have a product like that, where in it’s industry, it’s exceptionally great for the influencers and tastemakers, then the kind of go to market strategy that we’ve used is likely to work exceptionally well.
Maggie: Cool. So if you’re building for someone whose standards are really, really high and maybe where there are other options available, sort of in the market that are solving for that problem, all that not well, that’s when you need to be focused on this type of go to market strategy.
Rahul: When the standards are high, yes.
Rahul: And also where the customers are really, really influential.
Maggie: Do you think there’s also an aspect of it where the customers are very familiar with the problem that you’re solving?
Rahul: Familiarity is … I think that’s, yes, that’s definitely part of it, but it also has to be a really painful problem.
Rahul: Right? I mean obviously email is a painful problem for the constituents I just listed out, the executives and the managers and so on. Never have you ever heard an executive or manager say, “I really love doing my email.” I literally don’t remember the last time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that actually.
Maggie: Well, are you getting it now with your users have Superhuman?
Rahul: Yeah. We have have people turn around and say, “You know what, it’s really weird to say this, but I actually kind of enjoy doing my email now. It’s crazy. So good job guys.” But before that, it’s just not a thing that people would say and so you know, maybe we stumbled across a perfect storm, kind of the fact that we found a market where the incumbents have scared off most new entrance, where the products that exist already are really old, were the most influential people also feel the most pain and maybe it’s just a perfect storm, but I think it is actually replicable in other industries.
Maggie: So that’s a good point that you made, that the incumbents had scared off some of the other possible entrants. How did you know that you were going to be the one to solve the problem? How were you able to sort of look at Gmail, that huge, huge, huge elephant in the room and say we can do better.
Rahul: I had a very interesting lunch once at LinkedIn. I was coming towards the end of my time there and a good vc friend of mine took me out to lunch and he sat me down and he said, :Hey Rahul, you sold a company now. That changes things for you a little bit, especially when it comes to fundraising. You are now able to take on really capital intensive businesses.” And I laughed and I said, “Of course you would say that because you want to invest a ton of money and stuff and that’s how you own large, large parts of [crosstalk 00:16:41].” He was like, “No, seriously. You can raise money on a dream, and no one will question your ability to put together a team that executes.” And for first time entrepreneurs, that’s a real consideration that investors have all the time. Is this team actually able to do the world dominating plan that they’ve laid out?
So with that in mind, when I was thinking of what I was going to do next, I deliberately focused my attention on ideas that would actually require a reasonable amount of capital. Especially ideas that would scare away first time entrepreneurs, because they seemed impossible or not doable, and one of those ideas was this observation that no one had really tried to build a better front end experience for email than Gmail. No one had tried to do it in a very well capitalized manner with a veteran, team and at that time no one was doing it on the desktop, especially with the angle that we would taking, which is it’s all about speed. It’s all getting you through your email twice as fast. And I made that choice, because I knew there’d be very little competition and even today no one has built or to my knowledge is building a product quite like Superhuman.
Maggie: Right. That’s incredible. But for people who are listening who are maybe in that bucket of wanting to be first time founders or they are first time founders, or maybe people who are sort of considering being an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to them sort of having been through that process yourself a couple of times now?
Rahul: So being the founder, the metaphor that I like to use is imagine this great gigantic flywheel made of really, really dense materials, with the densest material on earth. It’s a really, really heavy object and your job as a founder is to get that flywheel moving. And the good news is once it’s moving, because it’s so dense and heavy, it’ll actually keep moving all by itself. Now, the second time founder, I can come back and I can do things in a weird order, I can raise money and then hire a team and then build a product, right? That option isn’t available to everybody. The first time around, I couldn’t do that at all and you know, you just can’t do that.
So for Rapportive, it was much more of the classical way of doing it, which is I had taught myself to be a a semi incompetent web developer, let’s put it that way, built a prototype. I identified a problem, sort of single handedly got this thing out the door, somehow it barely did anything. The core idea of information in your Gmail was so resonant that that quickly got to tens of thousands of users. And then used that traction to recruit some wonderful co-founders and we then use that team to get into Y-combinator and we then used that branding to raise some seed funding and then we were off to the races. And so if you pull that apart, if you imagine this flywheel, the very first thing I did there was build a prototype. And then it was launch it. And then it will show that people really loved it. And then it was used that to build a team. And then it was use that to get into an accelerator. And then it was use that to raise some seed funding. And so that is a much more typical journey for a first time entrepreneur.
Maggie: I love that you started with prototype and then you have launch and then that you need to get your users loving it, and then you can build a team and I think you can really sort of understand that flywheel. And I would imagine that your second time around, you can look at the flywheel and you know where the right points are to build that momentum much faster than you probably did the first time around.
Rahul: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s faster. In many cases, Superhuman has been a much slower company than Rapportive. I started, scaled and sold Rapportive in 20 months from writing the first line of code.
Maggie: Wow, okay.
Rahul: [crosstalk 00:20:36] Superhuman. Now they both have very different orders of magnitude for ambition. Rapportive was a tiny little feature inside of Gmail, whereas Superhuman is the entire email experience of which Rapportive is just a tiny little feature.
Maggie: Right. True. Okay. Fair enough. So this has been incredible. Thank you so much for taking us through this journey and what you’ve learned about product market fit and NPS along the way. Do you have any other advice that you would give for people who are considering sort of going out on their own and trying their own thing?
Rahul: Yes. Especially having had seven failed companies product to Rapportive.
Maggie: Okay, so you had seven. You had seven companies before you hit on your big first thing. I love that, because I think the narrative of, “Hey, had this idea, I tried it out and I had this amazing success sort of overnight,” is almost never proves to be true.
Rahul: Every time anyone ever says that, if you dig into what happened, it almost certainly didn’t happen that way and they had many failures beforehand that they just sort of, for expedience probably did not say. My advice would be don’t try and do a startup in your spare time. Maybe there are people for whom that works. I tried. It definitely did not work for me. I had to go all in. I had to put everything on the line and I had to say, “You know, I need to make this work. I need to focus my 10 productive hours a day or whatever it is on building products that people really want and will love.” And when I tried to do that alongside having a job, my attention was too divided. And in order to make ends meet. I definitely did some consulting here and there, but I would do it in a very bursty way.
So for example, I would consult for 30 days, which would pay my way for the next six months and then I would do another month of consulting, which would pay my way for another six months. And that’s how the early days of Rapportive took off and that’s how I survived in the years prior. And then the second piece of advice I would have is persevere. Do not give up. It may feel like with each failure you’re not really making progress, but if you’re smart, then you actually are and you’re learning things and you’re gaining lessons that you can apply to the next iteration. And you never know which iteration is going to break out, but it will happen if you keep on trying. That I know for sure.
Maggie: Awesome. Well thank you so much again. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast. And so for everyone listening, you just got absolutely gold advice on how to start a startup if you want to. So do it full time. Don’t give up and don’t be fooled by the people who say it just happened to them overnight. So everyone, please leave a six star review for Rahul, give him a shout out in the comments and let me know if you have any feedback. Thank you so much.
Rahul: Thank you, Maggie.