Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra on waitlists, freemium pricing and future products

The “Sent via Superhuman iOS” email signature has become one of the strangest flexes in the tech industry, but its influence is enduring, as the $30 per month invite-only email app continues to shape how a wave of personal productivity startups are building their business and product strategies.

I had a chance to chat with Superhuman CEO and founder Rahul Vohra earlier this month during an oddly busy time for him. He had just announced a dedicated $7 million angel fund with his friend Todd Goldberg (which I wrote up here) and we also noted that LinkedIn is killing off Sales Navigator, a feature driven by Rapportive, which Vohra founded and later sold in 2012. All the while, his buzzy email company is plugging along, amassing more interested users. Vohra tells me there are now more than 275,000 people on the waitlist for Superhuman.

Below is a chunk of my conversation with Vohra, which has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: When you go out to raise funding and a chunk of your theoretical user base is sitting on a waitlist, is it a little tougher to determine the total market for your product?

Rahul Vohra: That’s a good question. When we were doing our Series B, it was very easily answered because we’re one of a cohort of companies, that includes Notion and Airtable and Figma, where the addressable market — assuming you can build a product that’s good enough — is utterly enormous.

With my last company, Rapportive, there was a lot of conversation around, “oh, what’s the business model? What’s the market? How many people need this?” This almost never came up in any fundraising conversation. People were more like, “well, if this thing works, obviously the market is basically all of prosumer productivity and that is, no matter how you define it, absolutely huge.”

Superhuman seems to be pretty focused on single-player, but have you looked at building out a dedicated teams product?

Yeah, I think we’ll do this down the line, but we very deliberately started with single-player and we did that because since the runaway success of companies like Slack and like GitHub, there has really been a massive over-investment in collaboration.

And I think we over-invested in collaboration at the expense of investing in productivity. My perspective there is that collaboration is just one kind of productivity, it’s not the whole story. And so we’re going back to basics with Superhuman and we’re starting with what I think is the much harder question, which is, how do we make individuals brilliant in what they do? And the answer is focusing on productivity and building the best “single-player mode,” if you will.

What’s the advantage to doing it the way you have, going from single-player to teams as opposed to the other way around?

Whatever you start with becomes the company DNA and kind of guardrails you, sometimes negatively. So the companies that start with multiplayer mode, I think, will almost never figure out a compelling single-player and so they almost never end up building a tool that individuals actually end up using.

For Superhuman, this was a very philosophical choice, it was like, do I want to build software that people are told to use or they have to because the rest of the team is using it? Or do I want to build software that people wholeheartedly, enthusiastically say, “yes, I want to use this because I love using this,” and the latter is much more exciting to build even if it is a harder business to build.

Superhuman has been a poster child in some ways for premium pricing, but when you look at startups that adopted freemium models to entice individuals to onboard that they theoretically could later sell their teams products to, what do you see as the trade-offs with avoiding freemium pricing?

So, you know, as an industry I think we’ve learned a lot about freemium. I remember, back when I was getting started 10 years ago with Rapportive, it was all the rage. There were some really good examples like Dropbox that had really crushed it with that strategy and I think collectively we all misunderstood what it actually is. Freemium is not business model, it is a marketing strategy that can sometimes work. But, what happens is, it often ends up cannibalizing the ultimate potential for the company to actually generate revenue, and growing revenue is what drives valuation, and that’s what attracts the best talent and what generates momentum and lets you build more and more cool stuff.

So, on the flip side, we’re now in a new wave where prosumers are ready and able to buy. We previously sold the consumerization of the enterprise, where consumer software has become more polished and delightful — we expect the same of our business software, but this new wave I call the “prosumerization of the enterprise.” It doesn’t really matter if you’re a CEO, an executive or a manager, our prosumer needs have been ignored for years. There are tens of millions of power users just like you and me out there that are willing to buy software and they’re willing to pay a premium for the best, and that’s why folks pay $30 a month for Superhuman.

As Superhuman gets older and some features start to get copied and cribbed by Gmail or other apps, do you worry that Superhuman will appear to be more mainstream?

No matter what Gmail — or any other company for that matter — does, it doesn’t really change our focus on our customers. And the reason for that is that Gmail has well over 1.5 billion users at this point, whereas Superhuman will be a billion-dollar company with just a few hundred thousand subscribers. And so we have the incredible luxury of asking ourselves well, what do our ideal few hundred thousand customers want? They all have very similar email needs and can we solve for that? And yeah, we absolutely can in a way that’s way more targeted than any other company because this is our focus.