Game Design, Product-Market Fit, Positioning: Insights from Superhuman
Rahul Vohra, the founder of Superhuman, goes in-depth in discussion with Patrick from the Founders Field Guide
It's always a pleasure to listen to someone who thinks in frameworks. And Rahul Vohra from Superhuman is one of those people. You might already be aware of his Product-Market fit engine that he conceptualized and popularized. In an interview with Patrick O’Shaughnessy from Founders Field Guide, he talks about game design, product-market fit, positioning, and growth.
It was an insightful podcast that I listened to twice. I’ve summarized the key points from the talk and added my commentary. (The link to the podcast is added to the further resources section at the end) Enjoy this one!
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Build software like it is a game
Usually, when people build startups, they focus on what people want or need. Which is in itself a good thing. But one must go a step further and build it like a game and obsess about how they feel. This will make it feel less like work and more like play. And as a result, users will fall in love with the product and the reach becomes organic through word-of-mouth.
While breaking down software (or in this case email) as a game, he considers 5 key factors:
Every game has an objective. If you consider something like Factorio – there is a clear objective the game wants you to achieve. For e.g., in this scenario, it is “Build a car”.
Though Rahul didn’t directly touch upon this point, for Superhuman the goal for each user is to reach Inbox zero.
Games can evoke a multitude of emotions.
The emotion that Superhuman wants to invoke is Joy. And he has a framework which he shares later in the discussion.
This is a framework within a framework 😉
Apple was not the first company to come up with features like Touch ID and Face ID. Similarly, Superhuman is not the first company to snooze emails.
Paul Buchheit, the inventor of Gmail, had this goal of every interaction to be less than 100ms, to the point where it feels instantaneous.
Speed is the core value proposition of Superhuman. The aim is to help users go through their inbox twice as fast. This is done by using the keyboard over the mouse to save valuable time for users.
Fullscreen as focus
In Gmail, when you hit C, the shortcut for composing, it adds a tiny compose window on top of the inbox. This is multitasking by default. In contrast, the compose window in Superhuman is a full-screen experience.
Visually minimal and surprisingly powerful
The interface is clutter-free and the email window has stuck with 3 buttons for several years. This is enabled by Superhuman command - type in a few characters and you can do it easily.
Typography - Baseline rhythm
In physical magazines, there is a concept called ‘Vertical rhythm’. This layout is every 4mm and both the text and images align with this grid. This gives physical magazines, a premium look.
It was difficult to do on web design, but their team reverse-engineered the font engine of Chrome to make this possible to give Superhuman an airy, premium feel.
Rahul explains the key difference between a toy and a game. You play with toys, but you play games. For e.g., a ball is a toy, but football is a game. Playing with a toy is intrinsically rewarding, while playing a game may be extrinsically rewarding.
He then explains that in Superhuman, the natural language processing for time/date autocompletion is a toy, meaning, it lends itself to playful exploration. He gives examples of how you can write "2d" and that would mean 2 days, or write "in a fortnight" or "8 am in Tokyo" and the software would know what you meant.
Find the "toys" in your own products that are fun without a goal.
Again, not directly discussed. But the controls in Superhuman's case is the reliance on the keyboard as an input method rather than the mouse. This is done to increase the speed of the input.
You already must be knowing about this concept. Flow, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a psychological state of mind when the perceived skill matches the perceived challenge.
It is closely associated with 6 parameters:
A state of intense focus and concentration
You aren't thinking about the future or worrying about the past
It's demanding enough to not worry about what others think of you
The next step is clear
It alters our subjective experience of time
The activity becomes intrinsically motivating
How do we help people get there?
There are 5 pre-conditions:
Know what to do next
Know how to do it
Free from distractions
Clear and immediate feedback
Balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill
The question is how do you continuously engage a user who is highly skilled. For these types of users, Superhuman would actually increase the difficulty of the task, challenging users to get Inbox Zero by using only the keyboard.
Lean startup vs Keith Rabois’ Movie Production
These are the two schools of thought when it comes to building products. Although I personally feel almost everything is a spectrum, and you don’t need to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Lean startup is a way to build products by shortening feedback loops by testing a hypothesis through iterative releases and validated learning
Movie Production model (Keith Rabois)
“Building a successful product and company is like producing a movie. You have a script and vision first and film the movie. Then you sell tickets.”
Rahul says that Superhuman is somewhere in the middle. Superhuman started in 2015, kept coding, and didn’t launch for 2 years because he didn’t think he had product-market fit. He felt it was important to raise capital and think long-term.
Don’t create a minimally viable product, create a maximally delightful product.
But at the same time listen to your customers and work on the feedback. And by listening to customers, you don’t always need to change the product, sometimes you need to change the market. And that's where his Product-Market fit engine comes in.
Product-Market fit engine
This has been discussed in detail and I'll link the full post in the Further resources, but here's a quick summary:
Rahul spoke with Sean Ellis, who used to run Growth at Dropbox and who has been extremely influential in the space. The one question that you need to ask the users is, "How would you feel if you could no longer use the product?" and measure the percentage of those who respond with "very disappointed". This value should be above 40%.
This predicts success better than NPS.
He adds a few more questions to this survey to all your users:
How would you feel if you could no longer use the product? The options are not disappointed, somewhat disappointed, and very disappointed.
What type of people would most benefit from the product?
What is the main benefit that you would receive?
How can we improve the product for you?
Initially for Superhuman, the percentage for “very disappointed” was 22%.
So then, he proposed to assign a persona to each of the respondents and segment the users - these are the people who really love the product, and called them High Expectation Customers. These are also influencers and tastemakers.
Next, narrow the market to the most loved segment, which in the case of Superhuman was Founders, Managers, and Executives. He calls this process Resegmentation. This impacted the metric to go from 22% to 32% and eventually to 58% in a span of a few months.
Pricing and Positioning
Rahul says that before pricing, you must first figure out positioning. He cites the works of Ariel Jackson as a key influence into understanding positioning, especially, "Positioning your startup is vital, here's how to nail it" and the book ‘Positioning, the battle for your mind’.
He also gives the example of Harley Davidson. The target market for this product is macho wannabes, who want to live like a gang of cowboys in an era of decreasing personal freedom.
They started thinking whether Superhuman was the Ford of email, Mercedes of email or Tesla of email. Tesla of email is closer to the positioning. It's a premium tool for a premium market.
Once he had the positioning nailed down, he moved onto Pricing. A resource that he mentions is the book "Monetizing Innovation" by Madhavan Ramanujam.
In the book, there is a pricing model called "Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter". According to this model, you have to ask your users four questions:
What price is so expensive that you would think it is absurd?
What price so low - that the quality wouldn’t be very good?
What price would you consider getting expensive but you will buy it anyway?
What price would you expect to be a bargain?
Most startups go with the fourth question, but he went with the third question. The median answer of his users was $30 per month. And this defined the pricing.
Once he had this number, he did a gut check on the market size. To reach a billion-dollar outcome at 10x ARR, it would mean $100M of revenue. To reach there at $30 price month, Superhuman would need 300,000 users. Was this possible? The answer from the team was yes!
Growth and Distribution
When his previous startup Rapportive got acquired by LinkedIn, he reported to the Head of Growth at LinkedIn. He asked him what makes the product viral.
I would like to add that we now know intuitively with the global pandemic that an R0 of >1 means that the virus is continuing to spread. Similarly, there is a concept of Lifetime virality.
For LinkedIn, the Address Book import was 0.4 and for Facebook, in its peak growing years, was 0.7. No particular feature results in perpetual virality. It is always word of mouth and brand. When people talk about your brand in real life, then it is viral.
How do you create a brand deliberately?
Rahul suggests (in a pre-pandemic world) for you to go to cocktail parties and listen to people talk about your product and overhear them. "You have to really try it, it is so fast"
Find the one word that your customers refer to your product with. That’s the brand. In this case, it was 'speed'.
He suggests that first, you need to have word of mouth and then amplify with other channels.
The 3 Core pillars of Superhuman are:
New customers come from existing customers.
Talk to the press, especially if the product touches everyone’s life like email.
Superhuman is not a High volume content production house (but for some other product it would make sense).
Once every year, he aims to write evergreen content that will be relevant for the coming 5-10 years. First, it was the Product-Market fit engine, now it is Game Design. And since it includes Superhuman, it builds awareness of the product.
That's it for today. Thanks for making it to the end of this 2000 word piece! Did you like the concepts in this newsletter? Reply or leave a comment and let me know.
Talk to you soon!
Link to the podcast (80 mins) - Founders Field Guide
Product-Market Fit engine - First Round Review
Positioning Your Startup is Vital, Here’s How to Do It - First Round Review
It’s Price Before Product, Period - First Round Review
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