Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra explains how to optimize your startup’s products for lasting growth

Superhuman co-founder and CEO Rahul Vohra joined us last week at TechCrunch Early Stage to provide an in-depth look at how he and his company worked to optimize and refine their product early to create a version of “growth hacking” that would not only help Superhuman attract users, but serve them best and retain them, too. Vohra articulated a system that other entrepreneurs should be able to apply to their own businesses, regardless of area or focus.

The only good hack isn’t a hack at all

Vohra started off by explaining that he’s happy to discuss anything relating to the early stages of startup growth (and welcomed DMs to his Twitter if you have any specific questions). He identified a number of key areas of concern early on in company-building, including growth, pricing and even traditional growth hacking, but he noted that one area of focus is more important than any other:

The most important of these is product-market fit. And this is sort of the standard disclaimer that anyone who you would ever talk to about growth would ever give you, which is you shouldn’t try and grow a thing that isn’t yet ready to grow.(Timestamp: 01:11)

Product-market fit is the No. 1 reason why startups succeed. And the lack of product-market fit is the No. 1 reason why startups fail. (Timestamp: 02:02)

Strong stuff, but Vohra backs up this assertion with endorsements from startup industry heavyweights like Paul Graham, Sam Altman and Marc Andreessen underlying the key importance of product-market fit — and prioritizing it early in a startup’s existence. Also, he points out that it can be easy to mistake the “feeling” of having good product-market fit as a leading indicator, when in fact it’s usually a lagging one.

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Vohra cites growth leader Sean Ellis (author of “Hacking Growth”) as having discovered a better leading indicator than either intuition or an uptick in revenue for truly identifying product-market fit.

By the time cash is piling up in your bank account, guess what? You already have product-market fit. Sean found a leading indicator, one that is benchmarked and predictive; just ask your users this: How would you feel if you can no longer use the product? And measure the percent who answeredvery disappointed.” And after benchmarking hundreds of startups, Sean found that the companies that struggle to grow always get less than 40% “very disappointed.” And the companies that grow the most easily almost always get more than 40%. In other words, if 40% of your users or more would bevery disappointed” without your products, you have initial product-market fit. (Timestamp: 06:27)

Narrow your market and convert those on the cusp

One thing that Vohra advised that seems counterintuitive when it comes to achieving product-market fit is actually changing the market portion of that equation, rather than the product itself. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves — the first step to optimizing that sweet PMF is identifying who really loves your product because they have excellent, discerning taste.

We really want to understand who are the people who love our products. And here I like to use the concept of thehigh expectation customer,” which is a concept from Julie Supan. Julie led early marketing at Dropbox, Airbnb and many other great companies. Now the HXC is the most discerning person in your target demographic — they will enjoy your products for its greatest benefit; they will help spread the word. And most importantly, others want to be like them because they see them as clever, judicious and insightful. That’s key when it comes to growth. (Timestamp: 08:44)

You also want to figure out what the main driving benefit of your product is.

To understand why people love our products, we go back to our survey and we focus only on the users who would be very disappointed without it. And … that answers question number three, which is, what are the main benefits you receive from our products? (Timestamp: 12:21)

In addition to the main benefit, it’s also important to identify the issues that are holding people back from joining that group by identifying people who share that main benefit but answered that they would only be “somewhat” disappointed if they lost access to your product. Most importantly, though, Vohra says you should not pay any mind to the group of folks who answered that they wouldn’t be bothered at all if your product went away tomorrow.

As painful as it is, we have to ignore thenot disappointed” crowd. They are so far from loving the products that they are essentially a lost cause. This is important because they’re going to ask for all kinds of distracting things, and as counterintuitive as it may feel, do not act on their feedback. (Timestamp: 13:29)

You can read the entire transcript here.