Rahul Vohra is founder and CEO of Superhuman, a company that’s trying to change the way we use email. Having begun his career in game design, he went on to found contact management service Rapportive, which gave Gmail users social media information about their contacts and was later acquired by LinkedIn. Vohra believes that email, so often seen as an enemy of productivity, could in fact turn out to be its saviour.
WIRED: During the pandemic, a lot more people have been using collaborative tools such as Slack. Is this the future for productivity?
Rahul Vohra: For all its amazing synchronicity and speed, I think Slack goes against the true hallmarks of productivity. In the last ten years we’ve seen a massive over-investment in collaboration at the expense of productivity. This is because two companies, GitHub and Slack, have both become decacorn success stories and so founders have really chased the dream of building the next collaboration tool.
But these tools are built at the expense of personal productivity. If I were to show you my Slack this morning, you would see an entire page of unread channels, and each one of those channels will contain maybe ten different topics all jumbled and interspersed with each other. In a sense that’s kind of by design, to keep you addicted to the hamster wheel of continuously checking Slack. In the next few years we’ll see a massive re-investment in the core fundamentals of productivity, like email, calendaring, task management and so on.
WIRED: And you believe that email will become a collaborative tool in itself?
RH: Yes. Think about how you actually use your email right now. It’s a very basic medium, but we’re doing these very complicated things. For example, we’re giving and receiving tasks, we’re sending quick status updates by saying how we’re getting on with something, we’re scheduling by arranging meetings, we’re sharing files. I could go on, but even if you just took those use cases, you could imagine building more powerful collaborative tooling around each of them and so changing the way that email looks, feels and plays.
WIRED: It seems an obvious step to add collaborative elements to email. Why has nobody done it before?
RH: Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator, came up with a concept he called “schlep blindness”. Our brains protect us from seeing problems that seem too large and too scary. With email, we’ve had two generations of founders who looked at the problem and subconsciously at the back of their minds they thought, no, too hard. I’m about seven years into Superhuman and have previously sold a company in the email space, and I think we’ve now managed to overcome that schlep blindness. Even if you’re going up against Gmail and Microsoft, you can actually change the way that email feels. And this is something founders have just assumed was not possible in the past.
WIRED: Which brings us to Superhuman. How are you changing email?
RH: We’re actually starting on a much more fundamental level, which is to help you do your email faster. When we set out to start Superhuman, we had the goal of getting you through your inbox twice as fast, and now we’re able to do that. Many of our customers are seeing Inbox Zero for the first time in years, which is pretty life-changing for them.
WIRED: And they’re willing to pay $30 a month for the privilege?
RH: This is another big trend that’s happening: the prosumerisation of the enterprise. Five years ago, if you’d suggested to people that they should pay $30 a month for an email tool, they would have thought you were crazy. And yet that is now actually happening, and it’s happening at an increasingly rapid scale. It’s going to be an incredibly powerful force in changing the nature of productivity software in the next ten years. You can use the tools that Google and Microsoft give you for free or nearly for free, or you can pay to use, say, Airtable or Notion or Figma. Or Superhuman. Enterprises are now buying the best possible tools, because they’ve realised that software can truly be a competitive edge.
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