Scaling with Accidental Exclusivity: Gaurav Vohra, Head of Growth at Superhuman

Posted on Mar 30, 2020

Episode: S02E04

Podcast Guest: Gaurav Vohra
Role: Head of Growth
Company: Superhuman

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Superhuman has defined a new category of luxury SaaS; taking something we all use – email – and transforming it into an incredible experience.

In this episode, I speak to Gaurav Vohra, the Head of Growth and a founding team member at Superhuman. We discuss:

  • The role exclusivity played in their growth (275K people waitlisted and counting)
  • How (and more importantly, why) it came about
  • Why startups shouldn’t follow launch playbooks
  • Why marketers of tomorrow will not be just looking at marketing.

As you know, I’m a huge fan of productivity tools. As you would expect from someone at Superhuman, Gaurav does the same. His productivity must-haves?

  • Sublime for note-taking and coding
  • aText for quick snippets. Gaurav’s favorite is ‘ymd’ to insert the current date (2020-03-23) for date-stamping
  • Spectacle for window management
  • Vimium for navigating the web with your keyboard – “It’s like Superhuman for the browser!”. This one was new to me and I’m obsessed.

Oh, and if you’re reading this, you want more. Which is good. Other things you should know:

Episode Transcript

Eytan Buchman In 2005, I got an invite for Gmail. It was in beta and I got the invite from my mom.Then I set up an email address of coolethan@gmail.com, mostly because I was an idiot.

But there’s two things that stuck with me.

That exclusivity – how hard it was to get a Gmail invite – made me crave it Something I learned much later, that the exclusivity wasn’t a marketing trick. When Gmail launched in 2004, it was running on old pentium 3 computers and they just didn’t have enough storage. So while you’re trying to remember what a Pentium 3 is,I’m Eytan Buchman, you’re listening to Marketers in Capes with GCMO, Israel’s community of awesome marketing executives, and today, we’re talking how acquisition comes second, why an incredible exclusivity marketing strategy had nothing to do with marketing, and how marketers need to look beyond their nine yards. Lets dive in

Gaurav Vohra 0:01 So to introduce myself, and what I do at Superhuman, my name is Gaurav Vohra, and I’m the head of growth at superhuman. I’m part of the founding team here at superhuman, and I’ve been with the company since the very beginning.

Eytan Buchman

Superhuman is basically a SaaS tool that makes you incredible effective with your teams. But looking at Gaurav’s role, t he first thing you’ll notice is that this is not a typical job.

Gaurav Vohra The definition of growth at Superhuman and what I focus on, is what does the company need next in order to grow? In my role I’ve worked across and straddled product and engineering, customer support, which we call customer delight, customer onboarding, marketing, as well as analytics.


It’s a strange role combination, right.?

Gaurav I agree. My role, indeed is quite a typical. But I do see all of those functions as extremely intertwined. It really comes back to the customer funnel.

There’s intertwinement between the acquisition process and the onboarding process and, in turn, between the onboarding process and the support and the product process. And then finally, when it comes to actually reaching more customers, we want to reach customers who are likely, ideally to be those customers who have a problem and for whom the product could be relevant. And so again, your marketing is extremely linked to your acquisition. And so, I realized I’ve just described a growth funnel here, but every single step of that growth funnel is linked to the next step and to the step before it.


The grand connectedness of everything is interesting. It’s also one of the things that Bill Maciatis, marketing guru at Slack, Zendesk, and Salesforce pushed. And it deserves more attention. But first, let’s talk about the Superhuman’s launch. It worked like gangbusters, for Superhuman, exclusivity was an unintended byproduct.


We never really thought about Superhuman’s growth or go to market specifically as I launch, like other companies often do.

And what we very early saw was other companies that launch do so because other companies recommend that that’s the right thing to do. Not because it is the best thing for the business. Is a launch for a startup that barely has a product or an experience necessarily a good thing from first principles? Sometimes it is, if what you need is more customers to talk to and you’re having a hard time finding those customers. But many times, it’s not the right thing to do. And for us, it definitely wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

Specifically, the advice that we got early on was optimize the growth funnel, and start at the very bottom.


Two reasons for this.


When you start at the bottom of your funnel, the experiments cycle is much, much faster than if you’re making tweaks to the top of your funnel. As an example, if you change the way you activate a customer, you might learn within a day or two if that change was successful, whereas if you change the way that you market content to your customers, it might be a few weeks before you even see that customer using your product. And so your learning cycle goes from a few days with one shift to a few weeks with the other shift…

Eytan Buchman

Number two? Revenue

Gaurav Vohra It’s also the right thing to do because that is where your business is going to potentially be making or losing money. If you have a leaky funnel at the bottom of your company, no matter how much you pour into the top of that funnel, you’re going to continue to have that leak at the bottom of the funnel until you fix it. And so we didn’t really think about a launch or acquiring too many customers until we really had a solid funnel at the very bottom.


But as I know from crappy birthday parties at bowling alleys, even if five people show up and stay, it’s still a crappy party. So at some point, the Superhuman gang did need to drive top of funnel traffic.


So we did a little bit of launching, albeit in a very stealthy and kind of closed system sort of way, to events that come to mind from early on in superhuman. One was when Mailbox which was acquired by Dropbox was formally Sunset by Dropbox. We actually launched websites. And it’s still the same website that you can visit today superhuman calm. And that garnered over the order of about 10,000 signups or so. That was enough of a launch.


Pay attention. Marketers at companies tend to forget that they exist within a broader ecosystem of news, competitors, and customer needs. Figuring out where you can converge with those, instead of forcibly inserting yourself, makes all the different. When they tapped out those 10K signups.


And that’s when we launched on Product Hunt Upcoming. And again, this was not even a proper launch. This was more like announcing that Superhuman was a thing that eventually would be good. to customers, and that gone gone at us over the order of 50,000 signups, again, it was enough for us to be able to reach customers and continue to prove or disprove, are we able to retain those customers and keep them happy. So I would say that launching, at least for us, was about 5% of the work. 95% of the work was the funnel optimization work.

Again, from first principles, you know, the right thing for Superhuman to do is to benefit the customer. All we want is to bring delightful experiences to customers.


This is baked deep into the company. When their founder, Rahul, got started, he invested 25% of funds raised into product design and the domain name. So they care about the experience and the look, and mostly about the customer but, as Gaurav says,…


exclusivity isn’t necessarily part of that. Really all that we cared about was we didn’t want to acquire customers faster than our product could support and delight them. …

we realized early on that our bottleneck was, in fact, that ability to retain, and the ability to respond rapidly to customer feedback, and to fix bugs that were being reported and to ship features at a rate that matched user expectations. So we focused in on exactly that for nearly a full 24 months, just fixing bugs responding to customer feedback, and shipping features at the required rate. And we did that at the expense of all other activity.


But the exclusivity thing, even if unintentional, worked.


Notably at that time, and this was when the team was around five to 10 people, we didn’t have enough bandwidth to respond to our top of funnel customer interest. folks were signing up on our website, they were signing up on Product Hunt, but we just didn’t have the bandwidth to even respond to those signups. So the best we could do at the time, we say thanks. We’re invite only For now, please get a referral.


And, of course, this helps them clean up on the marketing side.

Gaurav Vohra No from a marketing perspective, there are benefits to that perceived exclusivity, the waitlist that we have of over 275,000 people is very real. And it certainly helps that our product is very high quality. All of those components lean towards a vibe of early access and exclusivity. But the first principles reasons at the end of the day, are 100% to do with giving customers the best experience that we can imagine.


And even when your number comes up, you just get a five minute form. I, for one, was rejected after that. Because Superhuman is more picky about their customers than their customers will ever be of them.

Gaurav We do actually have way more friction in our acquisition process than most companies. But what that achieves is it helps us only reach customers who are extremely motivated to be on boarded, to learn the product and to be successful. And when you consider the billion people who use email, those customers who make it through our funnel are typically the ones who have the biggest email problem and are the ones who we want to be talking to first of all the people we could be talking to.


Let’s get back to marketing though. Word of mouth and Product Hunt are good, even when a channel works, you’re going to need to diversify beyond it, eventually.


Referral and word of mouth is just one of many channels that we’re using to acquire new customers. We also heavily on thoughtless readership and content in order to reach new audiences, and press and PR is another source of growth for us.

We think about good marketing channels and our strategy for marketing as follows. Any given channel should last around 18 months at the very least, and maybe longer if you’re lucky, and you’re able to optimize and improve that channel. And word of mouth is exactly a channel like that. If your product and experience is really good, and can generate those positive referrals, word of mouth can literally sustain your business for about 18 months. After that time, you either need to continue to receive that word of mouth, but more likely, you’re going to want to have one or two more growth channels spun up and continually being optimized by your growth team. …

At any point in time, you should have two, but ideally, three or four growth channels, simultaneously fueling your business One of which may be growth through word of mouth or virality.


I was recently rereading Competing Against Luck by Clay Christensen and came across his concept of a Big Hire – when a user chooses your product – and the Small Hire – when they actually use it. What I loved about Superhuman is that they are so focused on the Small Hire – making sure that the product just does exactly what it’s supposed to do – that the Big Hire just happens.

Again, my name is Eytan Buchman, you’ve been listening to marketers in capes with GCMO, and, lest I forget, the folks at Superhuman have some amazing articles on their strategies that I’ll leave in the show notes. If you enjoyed this, leave a review on iTunes. And, if you in the review you don’t call me Cool Ethan, I’m more than okay with that.