Rahul Vohra van Superhuman

Oprichter Koffie aflevering 037

Rahul Vohra van Superhuman

Ik ben Jeroen van Salesflare en dit is Founder Coffee.

Om de paar weken drink ik koffie met een andere oprichter. We bespreken het leven, passies, leerervaringen, ... in een intiem gesprek, waarbij we de persoon achter het bedrijf leren kennen.

Voor deze zevenendertigste aflevering sprak ik met Rahul Vohra, medeoprichter van Superhuman, het bedrijf achter de zelfbenoemde snelste e-mailclient ooit gemaakt.

After Rahul sold his previous company Rapportive to LinkedIn and spent a while there as a product manager, he decided to take on the challenge to rethink one of the most fundamental software programs of today’s knowledge worker: the email client.

Rahul’s dream as a kid was to be a game developer and he taught himself how to code starting from the age of eight, which he first did alone and then later as a professional game developer at Runescape. It’s this gaming background that he leverages at Superhuman to try create the best possible email experience in the world.

We hebben het over hoe Superhuman groeiprojecten prioriteert, over zijn omweg in zijn carriĆØre om een PhD in machine learning te behalen, hoe het spelen van Dungeons and Dragons hem geĆÆnspireerd houdt en waarom je je moet richten op ofwel groei van gebruikers ofwel groei van inkomsten, maar niet op allebei.

Welkom bij Founder Coffee.

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Jeroen:

Hi Rahul, it’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Rahul:

Geweldig. Bedankt voor de uitnodiging.

Jeroen:

You are the co-founder of Superhuman. For those who don’t know yet what do you guys do at Superhuman?

Rahul:

Superhuman is the fastest email experience in the world. We help our customers get through their inbox about twice as fast as before reply, so they’re reporting to email sooner and see inbox zero for the first time in years.

Jeroen:

Gaaf. Moet ik het zien als een e-mailclient?

Rahul:

Je kunt het zien als een e-mailclient. Ja.

Jeroen:

Ja. Dus jullie zijn hier eigenlijk om outlook of Gmail of mail op de Mac te vervangen?

Rahul:

Kind of. You don’t stop using exchange behind outlook or Gmail. Those accounts still exist. Your email address stays exactly the same, but what you do get is an interface that lets you move about twice as fast through your email.

Jeroen:

Yeah. And thinking about why you started this, is this something you were experiencing yourself— that you didn’t like any of these programs. And you were like, there must be a better experience. How did that spark exactly happen for you to start Superhuman?

Rahul:

Nou, om het oprichtingsmoment achter Superhuman te begrijpen, moeten we eigenlijk de klok zo'n 10 jaar terugdraaien, want in 2010 startte ik een bedrijf genaamd Rapportive, dat we, zoals je misschien nog wel weet, bouwden om voor het eerst op te schalen naar miljoenen gebruikers en wanneer mensen je e-mailden, lieten we je zien hoe ze eruit zagen, waar ze werkten, hun recente tweets en links naar hun sociale profielen. We groeiden snel en twee jaar later werden we overgenomen door LinkedIn.

In die vier jaar ontwikkelde ik een zeer intieme kijk op e-mail. Ik zag Gmail elk jaar slechter worden, het werd onoverzichtelijker, gebruikte meer geheugen, verbruikte meer CPU, vertraagde je machine en offline werkte het nog steeds niet goed. En daarbovenop installeerden mensen plugins zoals de onze, Rapportive, maar ook Boomerang, Mixmax, Clearbit, noem maar op, ze hadden het.

Rahul:

En elke plugin nam de problemen die ik net opnoemde van rommel, geheugen, CPU, prestaties offline, en maakte ze allemaal dramatisch erger.

Het was dus tijd voor verandering en we stelden ons een e-mailervaring voor die razendsnel is, waarbij je onmiddellijk kunt zoeken, waarbij elke interactie honderd milliseconden of minder duurt, een ervaring waarbij je nooit de muis hoeft aan te raken, waarbij je alles vanaf het toetsenbord kunt doen en door je Postvak IN kunt vliegen. En natuurlijk de ervaring die gewoon offline werkte zodat je overal productief kon zijn en een ervaring die de beste Gmail-plugins ingebouwd had en toch op de een of andere manier subtiel, minimaal en visueel prachtig was.

En dus bouwden we Superhuman.

Jeroen:

Dus ik heb het gevoel dat je eerste soort pijn de prestaties zijn, de tweede soort visuele rommel. En ten derde voeg je er misschien een soort power user aspect aan toe.

Rahul:

Exactly. It’s power-user features that help you get through email faster, spot the important email faster. And then one of the things that people love the most about Superhuman is the ability to maintain their inbox at zero.

Jeroen:

Ja. Gaaf. Zijn jullie gebruikers vooral intensieve gebruikers of meer kanaalgebruikers?

Rahul:

It’s mostly for people for whom the email is work and work is email. Our average user spends three hours a day doing email.

Jeroen:

Well, that’s a lot of hours in your email.

Rahul:

Dat betekent veel werk.

Jeroen:

OkƩ. Je zei dat je voor Superhuman bij LinkedIn zat, neem ik aan?

Rahul:

That’s right.

Jeroen:

En daarvoor werkte je aan Rapportive?

Rahul:

That’s correct.

Jeroen:

For those who don’t remember, Rapportive was a Gmail plugin that showed you the LinkedIn profiles of contacts within your emails, right?

Rahul:

Correct. Ja, we deden LinkedIn profielen. We koppelden ook met Facebook en we toonden recente tweets en informatie uit andere bronnen. Het idee was om je alles te geven wat je maar kon weten over je contactpersonen, gewoon in je inbox.

Jeroen:

Ja. En voorafgaand aan Rapportive, deed je nog iets anders professioneel of was dit je eerste ding?

Rahul:

Prior to Rapportive, I did have a number of companies that I attempted to start probably six or seven attempts, depending on how you count them. Somewhere in the video game space – somewhere in the space that is currently occupied by Kickstarter and Patreon. And for some of them, we even raised a small amount of money, but the first to actually get any level of success and traction was Rapportive.

Jeroen:

En had je daarnaast ook nog een echte baan, zoals mensen zouden zeggen, of ging je tijd volledig op aan het opstarten van startups?

Rahul:

No, I’ve never actually had a real job. I think the closest I came to having a real job was when I was at LinkedIn. And I was a product manager there, which is usually what happens to a CEO when they get acquired.

Jeroen:

Yeah. Cool. So right after university, you basically decided you were going to startup. And that’s what you’ve been doing all along except for the little LinkedIn detour there.

Rahul:

Nou ja, soort van, dus na de universiteit begon ik aan een PhD in machine learning en computer vision en patroonherkenning. En dat deed ik ongeveer anderhalf jaar. Maar toen ik aan mijn PhD begon, realiseerde ik me dat mijn motivatie verkeerd was geweest. Ik begon namelijk aan een PhD omdat ik dacht dat het een goede manier zou zijn om een bedrijf te starten. Ik deed wat technologie en dan zou ik het commercialiseren. Toen realiseerde ik me dat de beste manier om een bedrijf te starten in feite is om gewoon een bedrijf te starten.

Dus stopte ik met mijn PhD. Daarna leidde ik korte tijd de POS van de universiteit die medewerkers en studenten hielp bij het opzetten van bedrijven. Ik hielp medewerkers en studenten bij het schrijven van bedrijfsplannen, ontmoette teamgenoten, potentiƫle medeoprichters en haalde ook hun eerste beetje angel money op. Daarna ben ik fulltime begonnen met het opzetten van mijn eigen bedrijven.

Jeroen:

Cool. So I think you’re the first person on this podcast that actually went through a PhD to then start a company. But I do recognize the pattern from when I was at university. Basically you do a PhD and you hope that will spin-off, you’ll start up a company. Right?

Rahul:

That was the hope and I should clarify, I didn’t finish the PhD. Normally it would have taken four years or more. I only managed to do it for one and a half years.

Jeroen:

Ja. Begrijpelijk. Als het je doel is om een bedrijf te starten.

Rahul:

Rechts.

Jeroen:

En droomde je er voorafgaand aan dit doctoraat al van om bedrijven te starten of projecten te doen of is dat iets dat ergens daar begon?

Rahul:

Absolutely. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur as early as 14 or 15 years old and I’d actually been programming computers since the age of eight.

Jeroen:

Eight. What were you doing in terms of projects then when you were, let’s say between eight and in your PhD?

Rahul:

Well, that’s quite a widespread of time, but at around the age of eight, the way that I got into programming is at the end of the school day, I was often hanging around waiting to be picked up by my parents, who would sometimes finish their work late. And so I would go to the school library and after I’d read all the fiction books, I started on the nonfiction books and came across a section on how to program computers. And I thought, well, this is so exciting because if I could learn how to program computers, I would be able to make my own video games. And so I read all of those books and around the age of eight or nine, I started to teach myself how to program with the intention that I would create my own video games. And then all the way through secondary school, I doubled down on that.

Rahul:

Ik ging dus van programmeren in basic naar visual basic, visual basic two. In die tijd was het erg vroeg, helemaal tot en met visual basic zes, dat geavanceerd genoeg werd om dingen als pointers en andere echte programmeertaalconstructies te hebben.

Then I taught myself C, then I taught myself C++, made all kinds of things as I was growing up. Some of which actually got reasonable amounts of traction and distribution. But actually, by the time I’d gone to university at around the age of 18, I’d already done many hours of programming.

I’m not sure if you believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. It takes 10,000 hours to become sort of competent at a thing. But I was very fortunate to have had 10,000 hours of programming by the time I went to university. And that meant at university I could focus on the theory behind computer science and also all of the other things that have made me a successful entrepreneur over the last 10 years. Things like marketing and design and psychology.

Jeroen:

Bedoel je dat je daar cursussen over hebt gevolgd aan de universiteit?

Rahul:

Ja. Een van de leuke dingen van Cambridge, waar ik heb gestudeerd, is dat studenten naar elk college kunnen komen.

Jeroen:

Leuk.

Rahul:

Nou, ik ging gewoon naar lezingen die ik interessant vond.

Jeroen:

That’s sort of a dream for people who are into entrepreneurship, I would say.

Rahul:

Precies.

Jeroen:

Wat was de coolste game die je als kind of tiener hebt ontwikkeld?

Rahul:

Het coolste spel. Neem me niet kwalijk. Ja. Ik hield toen erg van vechtspellen, street fighter of mortal combat of smash brothers. En dus ontwikkelde ik mijn eigen versie van een vechtspel genaamd Stick Fighter.

And it was pretty interesting that it was based on a physics engine, I’d modelled out the limbs, the spine, the bones in the body. And the collision between the characters was actually based on the bones that your characters have moving and how fast they were moving and where they struck the other character. And so that was actually a pretty fascinating piece of code to write. I then also briefly did work as a professional video game designer. So I worked on a Runescape which for those that don’t remember was the largest online role-playing game at the time. And I developed quite a few quests for Runescape.

Jeroen:

Is er iets dat je hebt ontwikkeld dat we nog ergens online kunnen bekijken?

Rahul:

Yeah, so the content I developed for Runescape is still very much online. The most famous quest and piece of content that I did inside of that game is called Monkey Madness. And people who’ve played the game will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s one of the legendary quests, which is rather fun to go through.

Jeroen:

Gaaf. En ik hoorde dat je al vanaf je achtste de behoefte had om dingen te maken. Is dit iets wat beĆÆnvloed is door je ouders of wat is het beroep van je ouders?

Rahul:

They’re both doctors.

Jeroen:

Both doctors. So they’re not really creative people?

Rahul:

Well, I would say actually they both are. They’re both doctors, but they’re both very prolific doctors, meaning they always have a stream of research going on. They always had entrepreneurial activities of their own going on. They were doing private practice as well as serving in public hospitals.

Soms werd er samengewerkt met militaire activiteiten als soldaten terugkwamen van de oorlog. Er gebeurde dus altijd wel iets heel interessants in huis. En ze hadden hun vingers in vele taarten, bij wijze van spreken. En ik genoot echt van de ondernemende manier waarop ze het beroep van arts benaderden. En ik dacht, okƩ, ik wil ook ondernemer worden.

Jeroen:

Yeah, that’s sort of unusual for doctors. There are doctors like that. I know a few, but they’re not like many. I mean the doctor normally works through patients but does not build anything, let’s say.

Rahul:

Precies.

Jeroen:

Je zei dat je via de bibliotheek in startups terecht was gekomen. Of waren er rolmodellen voor ondernemers die je hebt gevolgd? Waren er mensen die je in het bijzonder inspireerden?

Rahul:

Entrepreneurial role models that’s a really great question. I don’t think I had entrepreneurial role models. There were certain people that definitely inspired me along the way, however. I can think of one off the top of my head.

So when I was here in California running Rapportive, there was a period in the company where we were running out of money and I had to go out and raise more money. And I’d put together a pitch deck and I was meeting with this person. His name is Jonathan Siegel.

In die tijd had hij twee tijdperkloggingbedrijven overgenomen. Airbrake en Hoptoad, en had ze samengevoegd, verkocht aan Rackspace en was bezig als fulltime investeerder en incubator van andere startups. Ik ga graag om met Jonathan omdat hij zo'n unieke manier heeft om naar de wereld te kijken.

I went into his office, I presented my pitch deck and he was like, “Yeah, that’s fine, but it’s not very good. Here, let me show you how you can pitch it.”

Rahul:

And he took exactly the same size and just off the top of his head delivered a pitch back to me that was so full of confidence and energy and belief and I was like, “Wow, I want to invest in new students business.” And for my business, he made it sound incredible. And that was very inspirational for me.

Ik denk dat veel van hoe ik vandaag de dag bedrijven pitch, voortkomt uit dat moment, dat niveau van vertrouwen en energie en gewoon pure projectie van wilskracht in de wereld.

Jeroen:

Gaaf. Is er iets dat je met de luisteraars kunt delen? Een tip die je daaruit kunt destilleren?

Rahul:

Bedoel je tips over hoe je moet pitchen?

Jeroen:

Yeah, how you pitch because you said it’s full of energy and projecting a lot of confidence, but was there anything in there that is shareable with other people?

Rahul:

I don’t think there’s a specific tip. It’s more about the style and the vigour which he brought to that particular moment that was inspirational for me. I think the tip in order to make it actionable, what I would recommend to listeners is once you have a pitch, take it around various mentors and ask for that feedback.

Now, most of the time the feedback’s not going to be that great or it’ll be fairly hollow. Like yeah, I think this is fine, but every now and then you’ll find someone who’ll be like, “This isn’t very good.” And they’ll give you their version of the pitch and if you’re lucky, their version of the pitch will be fantastic and that will inspire you to make it even better.

Jeroen:

Ja. Gaaf. Je zei dat zowel Rapportive als Superhuman VC gefinancierde startups zijn, toch?

Rahul:

That’s right.

Jeroen:

Is dat iets waar je bewust voor kiest? En waarom heb je dat gedaan?

Rahul:

Rapportive was een venture-backed bedrijf om een aantal redenen. Ten eerste wisten we dat we het hier in Californiƫ moesten opbouwen en toen ik het bedrijf begon, zaten we in het Verenigd Koninkrijk. We moesten dus financiering vinden om die overgang te maken.

Ten tweede moesten we een behoorlijk aantal ingenieurs inhuren om een product te kunnen bouwen.

And number three, we didn’t know when we started it, how we were going to monetize it. And so that’s the main reason that we raised money for Rapportive.

For Superhuman, it’s all of those things. Plus, in order to actually build an email experience that not only do people want to use over Gmail but does significantly better than Gmail. You need a big team, you need to raise tens of millions of dollars. And you need to work at it for a good period of time.

So we’ve so far raised $51 million and we have a team of about 40 plus people here at Superhuman working on what we do.

Jeroen:

Wat is precies jullie ambitie met Superhuman? Is het om alle e-mailclients in de wereld te vervangen of is het iets specifieker dan dat?

Rahul:

We definitely don’t want to replace all the email clients in the world. I think down the line we’ll become a multi-product company. You see for us, email is just a starting point. We potentially want to take on all of the things that professionals do that isn’t the direct meat of their work.

Whether it’s tasks, calendaring, scheduling. There’s lots of incredible things that we can pull together. And number two in the next few years, I love to see a Scrooge become a billion-dollar organization and I think we have a really great shot at doing that. And personally I’d love to become the kind of CEO that can facilitate and lead that kind of growth.

Jeroen:

Yeah, so it’s sort of, you want to become a leader in let’s say B2B productivity apps?

Rahul:

Almost. Superhuman is one of those interesting companies where the way that our users think about the product and the way that we go to markets and the brands that we have, is actually closer to a B2C company than a B2B company. However, the way that it’s paid for and the work that it’s used for is definitely B2B. We charge $30 a month and it’s used to make companies move faster and more effectively.

Jeroen:

Got it. Just a bit more about how this all evolves for you personally? And you mentioned you have a 40 plus person team right now. What role do you play in the company currently? I mean you’re the founder and CEO, but what does that role mean right now?

Rahul:

Op dit moment komt dat neer op een paar verschillende dingen. Nummer Ć©Ć©n, en dit is de belangrijkste, is het uitbouwen van het team. Dit kan van alles zijn, van het aannemen van leidinggevenden en nieuwe leiders in het bedrijf.

For example, right now we’re building out how a marketing organization, even to this point, we don’t have anyone other than me and one or two other people in the company working on marketing. And so it’s time to actually build that organization from scratch. So I’m hiring for a head of marketing, a lead of demand generation and a lead of content.

Apart from hiring, the rest of my role falls into setting strategy and direction. So that’s one of the really big things that we’re going to do this year in order to inflect harder than we even are. And thirdly— and I think this is important for a product founder— retaining the head of product role to make sure that we keep on doing the things that made us successful in the beginning.

Rahul:

We keep on building a product that’s exceptional and over makeable quality and that creates delight for our users.

Jeroen:

Yeah. If I hear it well, you’re working on product marketing strategy and hiring.

Rahul:

Precies.

Jeroen:

Ja. Is dat een beetje overweldigend of is dat iets wat je makkelijk aankunt?

Rahul:

I think it becomes more and more manageable over time. So there is this period at the start of any company when it’s just you and maybe a handful of other people and everything is fine because very few people are asking for your time. You can only do what you can do in those hours and it’s actually a fairly relaxed period. And then if you’re lucky, you’ll find something that works. In other words, you’ll find product-market fit and now you’re on the other side of product-market fits. And to use a metaphor— in the early days, you’re sort of pushing this boulder up a Hill.

When you find your product’s market fit, you reach the top of the Hill and now you’re trying to chase the boulder down the Hill and it’s running away from you. And that’s when things can begin to feel overwhelming because you have to hire it as fast as possible. You have to scale as fast as possible and you have to do those things without sacrificing the usually non-scalable things that made the company special.

Rahul:

And so that’s the period where it can feel overwhelming. And what will happen is you will start to hire and scale and bring in more people, more individual contributors and great leaders. And ultimately you should be delegating as much as possible away from the day to day. So you can once again focus on strategy, direction and picking the next great thing.

Jeroen:

Yeah. So you’re actually ahead of hiring versus scaling right now?

Rahul:

I wouldn’t say ahead of hiring. I think we’re on pace with where we need to be. My goal is to get ahead of hiring versus where we need to be.

Jeroen:

Ja. Waar werk je nu het meeste aan? Van alle dingen die we net hebben genoemd?

Rahul:

Well, currently we’re at the start of the year, so my big project is setting strategy. We’re looking to inflect the company even harder than we otherwise would. And so me and my staff – that’s the people that work directly with me, our big project currently is to figure out what those things are that are going to inflect the company.

Jeroen:

Ja. Voor degenen die nu hetzelfde doen, hoe pakken jullie dit precies aan?

Rahul:

Yeah, great question. So first of all, I think you want to start with a goal. Let’s say that, in this hypothetical startup, you started the year at zero revenue and you got to $1 million of ARR by the end of the year. And right now, your projections are telling you that by the end of this year you’ll get to $3 million of ARR. And that’s good, that’s nice and fast.

But if you want to raise venture funding, you really need to get to $4 million or $5 million. And how are you going to do that? Well, now we have framed the question. The question is how can we add $2 million of annual recurring revenue to this year’s plan? And what I would then do is have a brainstorm. And this can be done just with leadership or you can do it using everyone in the company.

Rahul:

The key is to leave the office and to go to some other new location. The location where it’s not familiar to anybody. Take the time, get relaxed, get settled in, have a coffee or have a Coke or whatever and then get brainstorming. And now the key thing with a brainstorm is that no idea is a bad idea, and everyone should have the opportunity to throw in whatever idea they want. You should be having fun, you can play music in the background. If the energy gets stale at some point anyone should be able to shout switch or some other keyword. And then everyone can swap seats just to keep the momentum flowing throughout the room.

Ideally, you want to get to hundreds of ideas and most of those ideas will be terrible and that’s fine. But getting to hundreds of ideas means that there will be a few gems in there. And then afterwards leadership, usually the CEO or the head of strategy should take those ideas and assign them scores.

Rahul:

And what I like to do is I assign each a cost and an impact, high, medium, low. And this allows you to stack rank the ideas. So you’d be able to say, well, this is a low cost, high impact idea. Well obviously we should do that and maybe we’ll save the high cost, high impact ideas for later when the team is larger. So then you have a list of stack ranked ideas.

Then later on in the company, maybe next week you can have people vote on those ideas. And there’s various ways you can do voting. You can one that we’re doing right now is give everyone a $100 of voting currency and you can split those hundred dollars of those concurrency up between the ideas, depending on how much you care about each of them. And then you’ll get a sense of how the company is feeling about all the ideas.

Rahul:

And then you probably need to do some analytics work. So previously you have estimated the costs, you’ve estimated the impact. You probably actually want to do some real analytics work to come up with not just an estimate of impact, but a real prediction of how many dollars each idea is likely to add to your end goal.

And you’re going to want to ask the engineering team to have a more detailed estimate of how expensive something will be to build beyond just high, medium, and low. And then once you have your estimates, both of the costs to build and also of the impact to revenue, you would then actually be able to make real trade-offs in terms of how much time you have and what impact those projects will add to the end of year revenue. And that’s the process that we run and it’s rather a good process and it’s what I would recommend to anybody else.

Jeroen:

Ja. Dit zijn een soort aanvullende projecten, toch?

Rahul:

Ja. Dit zijn dus allemaal projecten die aanvullend zijn of in plaats daarvan deel uitmaken van bepaalde aspecten van ons huidige plan.

Jeroen:

Ja, het klinkt als een geweldig proces. Een vraag die bij me opkwam toen je het uitlegde, is de initiƫle scoping voor de ideeƫn. Zeg je tegen je mensen dat we twee miljoen aan inkomsten nodig hebben, geef je daar meer ideeƫn voor of is het specifieker dan dat?

Rahul:

Je kunt de vraag op verschillende manieren formuleren. EĆ©n manier is: hoe genereren we $2 miljoen aan extra inkomsten? Een andere manier is: wat kunnen we doen om $5 miljoen aan inkomsten te genereren? En ik denk dat beide manieren prima zijn.

Jeroen:

Yeah. But that’s how you frame it.

Rahul:

Precies.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I think what we do, instead of focusing fully on the end goal, we like to make the sessions more focused by choosing a specific part of the funnel within which we find ideas. Because otherwise, we find that we have this enormous amount of ideas and it’s very hard also for people to think without limits.

It’s very easy if you do set some sort of a framework in which people can think like if you limit something, then they will be more ideas within a certain area is what we found. And we then do sort of multiple sessions throughout the year and always around one of these that could get some improvements. That doesn’t necessarily go bad, but where we see room for improvements.

Rahul:

Right. I couldn’t agree more about the constraints. And that’s actually a technique that we use in our brainstorming every time. So we had constraints like, well, what if we have to achieve the goal in just one week? What would we do? Or what if we had to achieve the goal without spending any money at all? And then opposite constraints. What if we had 10 years to achieve the goal? Or what if we had infinite resources to achieve the goal?

Dus door beperkingen toe te voegen en ze dan snel weer weg te nemen, hebben we gemerkt dat dit de creatieve spieren spant en dat er veel nieuwe ideeƫn ontstaan die er anders niet zouden zijn.

Jeroen:

Right. So it’s one sort of brainstorming session, but within that session you do part sessions in which you say, “Now we’re thinking, what if you have to do it in a week?”

Rahul:

Ja, precies.

Jeroen:

Dat klinkt als een goed idee. Bedankt voor het idee. Als ik jou zou zijn en jouw baan voor een dag zou overnemen, wat zou ik dan doen? We begrijpen wat jouw verantwoordelijkheden nu zijn, maar hoe zou mijn dag eruit zien?

Rahul:

Yeah, so the vast majority of my time goes into, as I said, recruiting and scaling the team and that’s usually 30 to 40% of my week. So depending on which day you take over will determine how the time plays out.

A lot of this is internal work such as specifying roles or working on interview plans. And a lot of it is also external work such as selling, interviewing, and closing candidates. The next 30% goes into product and design. This is everything from commenting on product specs and high-fidelity designs through providing feedback on prototypes and works in progress to something like we just talked about – working on overall product strategy and company direction.

Rahul:

Then the last 30% goes into management and that’ll be one to ones with my direct reports. That’ll be my staff meetings. And anything ad hoc that I need to take care of. We also on top of that, have board meetings every six weeks that provide useful rhythm throughout the year and the remaining times such as it is, gets splits between a few other activities – being the face of the company on Twitter, doing the occasional support, email copy editing, blog posts and product updates and occasionally spending time in person with customers.

Jeroen:

Zit hier een soort vaste structuur in of is het een complexer schema dan ik zou denken?

Rahul:

Some of these things have a fixed structure. So the management aspects, the one to ones with my direct reports and the staff meetings, they’re pretty fixed. Other things such as the product strategy and the interviews get scheduled around those.

Jeroen:

Got it. Similar here. A bit of a different question perhaps. What do you think are the skills that you as a Founder bring to Superhuman? What is it exactly that you’re known for?

Rahul:

Got it. So a few different things. Over time I’ve developed, I think a fairly tuned intuitive sense of what people want. What consumers want out of their products, how they will feel when they’re using them, and how to choose and tweak those products to create positive emotions and ultimately delightful product experiences.

Dus producten en design zouden het eerste zijn. Hoe maak je iets wat mensen willen hebben?

The second thing would be marketing. Once you’ve made something people want, how do you help them realize they want it? And I knew to go into Superhuman that we would have to be half a marketing company and half a products company. Because you can build the best email experience in the world, but unless you get the story out there and help people realize they need it, the company isn’t going to be successful.

Rahul:

Dus het vertellen van een groot verhaal en het vermarkten van een bedrijf, gebruikers helpen zich te realiseren dat ze het product nodig hebben is iets anders waarvan ik denk dat we het op wereldniveau doen.

And then the third thing, and this is really key for anyone building a company like Superhuman is fundraising. I’ve been doing venture back startups for quite some time now and have been an investor as well on the other side of the fence for quite some time now.

De combinatie van deze twee activiteiten geeft me een enigszins oneerlijk voordeel als het gaat om het werven van financiering, omdat ik de denkwijze van investeerders begrijp. Ik denk dat ik daardoor een voorsprong heb als het aankomt op het gesprek over fondsenwerving. En als het gaat om het delen van het verhaal van Superhuman met venture investeerders die erg enthousiast zijn om in het bedrijf te investeren.

Jeroen:

Ja. Dus als ik het in het kort moet samenvatten, heb je een grote mate van empathie ontwikkeld voor gebruikers, zowel op product- als op marketingniveau en ook voor investeerders.

Rahul:

Yeah, exactly. That’s a good summary. If you were to boil everything down to one word, it would just be empathy. Whether it’s for users of the products or potential customers or potential investors.

Jeroen:

Ja, dat klinkt als iets dat elke oprichter, of in ieder geval elke CEO, zou moeten hebben als een van de belangrijkste vaardigheden. Of denk je dat je zonder kunt?

Rahul:

Er zijn verschillende wegen naar succes. Ik ben toevallig de klassieke producttechnologie-georiƫnteerde oprichter, maar er zijn ook verkoopgeoriƫnteerde oprichters die mij waarschijnlijk honderd tegen ƩƩn zouden overtreffen als het gaat om hun vermogen om erop uit te gaan en agressief inkomsten te vinden en te verwerven.

There are also management and execution-oriented founders, folks who can drive such high levels of products and efficiency through the company. That’s how they win. And then there are also relationship oriented founders, management who are just so and beloved by their company and that’s how they win. There are many ways to build a company and trying to do all of the above I think is impossible.

Rahul:

De sleutel voor een oprichter is om te begrijpen waar hij goed in is en zich daarop te concentreren en dan leiderschap aan te nemen om de gaten op te vullen.

Jeroen:

And if you understand your own basic skill let’s say, should you align the company that you’re trying to fund to that?

Rahul:

Yes, I think so. So in my case as product design, marketing and fundraising and the way that we’ve built Superhuman is very much aligned to take advantage of those unfair skill sets.

Jeroen:

Slightly different angle again. We talked about what skills you’re known for. What are actually the things that give you energy, when working on Superhuman, what is the thing that keeps you going, gets you in a flow state?

Rahul:

We werken zeker aan het product.

Productspecificaties lezen, erover nadenken, commentaar achterlaten, workflows ontwerpen, ontwerpen beoordelen, vooral ontwerpen aanpassen, dingen mooier maken. Dit zijn allemaal dingen die me veel flow geven.

But also working on press provides me with a great deal of flow. I was in New York earlier this week doing a TV interview with Yahoo Finance, a radio interview with Bloomberg. The opportunity to tell the story, to evangelize, to share with the world what we’re doing. That also provides me with a great deal of energy.

Finally it’s scaling the team. And there’s nothing more rewarding I think than the feeling that the company grows more and more effective and can do more and more every single month because all these fantastic people are joining the team and I can literally feel the velocity of the company pick up as we grow who we are.

Jeroen:

Ja, zeker weten. We hebben het al een beetje gehad over je dag en wat je doet. Hoe moet ik me jouw werktijden voorstellen? Bijvoorbeeld van hoe laat tot hoe laat werk je?

Rahul:

It really depends on what phase of the company we’re in and if I personally have a project that depends on hours versus depending on decision making and all being creative.

So for example, let’s say I’m fundraising. Well, that’s an hours driven activity. I might be working from nine in the morning till nine or 10 in the evening. On the days I’m pitching and I’m working on the deck, it could be mornings only and then in the evenings I’m having coffee or drinks with various investors.

But that’s an activity that probably takes a month in any given year. It’s not normal for me to be doing that.

More normal hours for me would be starting at nine or 10 in the morning and then rolling through to six or seven in the evening, taking a break for dinner and then maybe doing another hour on the other side. And that is a little bit less intensive, but it’s a lot more sustainable and that allows me to take higher quality creative and strategic decisions all the way throughout the rest of the year.

Jeroen:

Ja. Als je minder uren werkt, bedoel je?

Rahul:

Exactly. I think that us, Founders, can easily fall into the fallacy of – well all I have to do is work harder. And there is some truth to working harder, meaning that you’ll end up being luckier, but only if you can preserve the quality of your thinking and decision making throughout those hours. Most people actually can’t do that. And I’m included in that set of most people. I know that if I push myself to my limits, then after about three weeks or so, the quality of my thinking will start to deteriorate. And so I can only do it for short stretches at a time.

Jeroen:

Zijn er naast het beperken van het aantal uren dat je op een dag werkt nog andere manieren waarop je dit probeert te behouden?

Rahul:

Energie behouden?

Jeroen:

Ja. Bewaar deze energie inderdaad.

Rahul:

Yeah. So the key thing here is to set up an efficient calendar. I batch all of my one-to-one meetings on Tuesday and I do my staff and group meetings on Wednesday and I advise my direct reports to do the same, or shift it one day earlier so they can get ahead of any issues. They batch all of that one and one’s on Monday and their staff and group meetings on Tuesday.

This way we’ve solved the most critical things by Wednesday and we all have as much unbroken focused time as possible. And I actually put blocks of focused time on my calendar, so that is time for high-quality deep work. So that’s the first thing.

Rahul:

The second thing of course is to use Superhuman and I use it to blaze through my email. I’ve never had to touch the mouse. I set up snippets to automate repetitive emailing and I use a feature in the product called ‘split inbox’.

That makes the inbox mirror the structure of my day. So for example, I have a split for GitHub so I can unblock all the engineers first thing in the morning. I have a split for Google docs that allows me to quickly get to any comments on documents that we’re collaborating on right now. And then I have a split for my tasks that allows me to process my tasks without being distracted by new incoming email.

Jeroen:

Okay. Is there anything you do next to work to preserve that? Let’s say, a few things that you could do. For instance, sleeping along doing yoga, sporting, I have no idea.

Rahul:

Sure. So in my free time, I love to do things that keep me a creative storyteller and keep me inspired. And so right now, I’m loving playing D and D or Dungeons and Dragons and I’m currently playing in one campaign and I’m also running another. And I find that D and D gives me a wonderful creative outlet. I can further skills, I already have so much for storytelling, but in an entirely new setting and I can work on skills that are much more nascent, such as acting and improvisation.

Jeroen:

You’re part of any acting and improvisation groups?

Rahul:

Not outside of the D and D campaigns. And I think that’s good enough for now, but I’ve toyed with the idea of taking some acting classes.

Jeroen:

Cool. What else do you like to spend your time on when you’re not working? Is there anything else or is mostly D and D right now?

Rahul:

It’s mostly D and D, which is a fairly time-consuming hobby. And long periods of vacation. For example, over the Christmas period, I will take time to catch up on whatever the biggest video game hits of the year were, especially the Indie Hits. I like to see how small scale developers are creating these amazing, delightful video game experiences. Because I think there’s a lot that we can learn as product designers from how the best video games are put together.

Jeroen:

Cool. Slowly wrapping up. What is the latest good book you’ve read and why did you choose to read it? We didn’t establish whether you read books but still!

Rahul:

So the latest good book I’ve read is The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. I think I mentioned earlier that I used to be a game designer, and that’s actually really important. Because at Superhuman, we built software like it’s a video game because when your product is a game, people don’t just use it, they play it, they find it fun, they tell their friends, they fall in love with it. And The Art Game Design is by far the best book I found on the topic.

Jeroen:

Wat kun je precies leren van dat boek, denk je?

Rahul:

Het boek gaat dus in op een aantal onderwerpen. Allereerst het definiƫren van wat een game is, het verschil tussen een game en speelgoed. Het verschil tussen game design en gamification, en dan een heleboel verschillende manieren om na te denken over het proces van game design.

A game, for example, needs a goal. That’s one of the things that differentiates a game from a toy. And those goals have certain properties they need to be rewarding. They need to be actionable, they need to be concrete. Good games are made out of toys. And the book will explain how to construct toys.

Rahul:

For example, a toy should indulge in playful exploration. It should be fun even without the goal. The book will also go into what fun is. And it turns out that fun involves the elements of a pleasant surprise. It’s actually not possible to have fun without the element of a pleasant surprise.

Het boek gaat in op vele, vele andere dingen, zoals wat is flow en hoe creƫer je het en wat zorgt voor een goede besturing van videogames en wat zorgt voor een goed verhaal in videogames. En er waren zoveel van deze dingen waar we van kunnen leren en die we kunnen toepassen in onze bedrijfssoftware.

Jeroen:

I’m just adding it to my good reads, want to read list. Is it The Art of Game Design, book of lenses by Jesse Schell?

Rahul:

Precies.

Jeroen:

All right, cool. Then I’ve added it. Final two questions. If you were to start over with Superhuman, it sounds like you kind of got it together, but if there was one thing you could change, what would that be?

Rahul:

I think I would have scaled the team a little bit faster. The only thing that has slowed us down has been not having quite as large of a team as would’ve been ideal. And so that’s the only thing I would’ve changed.

Jeroen:

Is dat vanaf het moment dat je product-markt fit bent of zelfs daarvoor?

Rahul:

Waarschijnlijk een jaar eerder.

Jeroen:

A year before that. But how do you know you’re going to hit the product-market fit?

Rahul:

I mean that’s the million-dollar question quite literally in retrospect. It’s easy for me to say that we should have done that. I think the difference is we should have realized we hit it sooner than we did. So we should have scaled faster than we did.

Jeroen:

And if you would give advice to early founders on when you know you’ve hit it, what would you say then?

Rahul:

On how to know whether or not you’ve hit it?

Jeroen:

Yeah, when you’ve hit product-market fit because you say we should have known earlier that we’ve hit product-market fit. How would you see that?

Rahul:

Right. So I’ve written fairly extensively about this and the question that we use to measure this, is how would you feel if you could no longer use Superhuman?

This is a question that is benchmarked, it’s predictive. It predicts success better than the net promoter score. And it turns out that a 40% or more of your respondents would be very disappointed without the product, then you have initial product-market fit and you should put energy into scaling the team and scaling the customer base.

We definitely heard that in the past and we didn’t scale the team as fast enough after hitting that as we should have.

Jeroen:

Yeah. So you’re saying as soon as you see you hit that metric, you should start hiring?

Rahul:

Precies.

Jeroen:

Gaaf. Laatste vraag. Wat is het beste zakelijke advies dat je ooit hebt gekregen?

Rahul:

The best piece of business advice I ever got. Wow. I’ve received a lot of business advice over the years. I’m fortunate to have done so. So I’m sifting through my mind right now. Best business advice.

Jeroen:

Het eerste wat in je opkomt.

Rahul:

So the first thing that comes to mind is from very early when I had landed in San Francisco in the earliest days of Rapportive. I met up with James Lindenbaum, who was the founder and CEO of Heroku at the time. And for those who don’t remember, Heroku was an on-demand hosting platform, specifically for Ruby on Rails.

He said to me, “Be clear in your own mind whether you are aiming for growth of users or growth or revenue because they will take you down two entirely different paths.” And it was excellent advice, which I then immediately ignored, which turned out to be the wrong decision on my part because at Rapportive, we vacillated between chasing growth of users and growth of revenue. And as a result, didn’t do either one of them particularly well. I think had we listened to Jame’s advice, we would have focused on one and then really crushed it.

Jeroen:

Ja. Nogmaals bedankt, Rahul, dat je bij Founder Coffee was. Het was echt geweldig om je te hebben.

Rahul:

Hetzelfde. Bedankt voor de uitnodiging.


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