In this article, we talk about Superhuman. Superhuman is a US-based startup that built an email client—in their own words “the fastest email experience ever made”. Superhuman is a great example of building brand and growth utilizing the product experience.
Why startups must use guided onboarding as an essential part of the product experience to build brand and growth
When I had my first touchpoint with Superhuman, it was not through their website or any other expected marketing channel. I was not even aware of better email clients or searching for one. I was reading through some blogs and discovered the story around a unique onboarding experience where the founder is the main actor. That made me curious and I reached out to test the product and landed on a huge waiting list.
On my Product Experience Marketing page, I describe the immense potential of the onboarding experience as a marketing asset. Marketers build positioning and tell the story around the customer’s product experience. During onboarding, customers engage deeply with the product. Product, growth, and marketing teams must work together with customer success to set the course for activation and retention.
Marketing often leaves the customer journey too early and misses the opportunity to test content, learn from customers and scale each stage of the journey. Superhuman shows how. This level of personalization may not work for every product, but the principle is transferable.
In the article, we cover three topics and check how Superhuman did it:
- Build an onboarding that delivers a 10X product experience
- Break up silos and get marketing and growth teams involved
- Leverage the onboarding experience as a marketing instrument
What can startups learn from Superhuman?
1. Build an onboarding that delivers a 10X product experience
Superhuman’s focus is on the product experience, which is more than important for this type of product. “Email Client” doesn’t sound exciting at first—what makes it exciting is the positioning in the right context.
“Superhuman is the fastest email experience ever made. It’s what Gmail could be if it were made today instead of 12 years ago. And unlike Gmail, Superhuman is meticulously crafted. So that everything happens in a hundred milliseconds or less.”
Each of us has an email tool. However, we all complain about how difficult it is to find something in the mailbox and how slow it is. And Superhuman’s email client actually feels more like a highway than Outlook and Gmail. What makes the product experience even better are the gameplay elements around search, which make email management effective in a fun way.
Don’t launch. Onboard.
Superhuman’s onboarding is not just about getting users into the product. It is an important tool to show users how to work with it and make sure that all features are understood. User adoption of products that require explanation depends on onboarding and the first phase of the experience.
Rahul Vohra, CEO and founder of Superhuman, has defined the following six onboarding steps. What’s interesting besides personalization is that Rahul did the first 200 or so onboardings himself. We will learn later what positive effects this has in addition to the 10X onboarding experience.
- Give the new user a detailed demo of Superhuman, and share what makes it magical and delightful.
- Reminder that Superhuman is a paid, premium product and test price sensitivity with the Van Westendorp Test.
- Ask how they currently do their email and take notes on all the Superhuman features they would benefit from.
- Show them how to get through email in Superhuman twice as fast as they were doing before.
- Insist that they do email with you, live, for 30 minutes. Doing it with them is crucial because every time, I would find 5 to 10 bugs that I would send back to my team. We would make sure to fix them within a week. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to surface the next set of bugs that we should address.
- Send them a personalized gift (I would send a bottle of wine or whiskey) to show them how much you valued their time. This obviously slows down as you get out to scale with many thousands of users.
Listen to the full podcast episode where Rahul speaks with Pete Flint from NFX about the onboarding.
In his article “5 Lessons I Learned From Superhuman’s Onboarding“, Gainsight founder Nick Mehta, draws attention to two important areas: the phase after onboarding when it comes to the actual formation of habits and thus activation and retention, and the needs of power users.
The onboarding experience must continue in the product for customers to make the transition from Outlook & Co. Either the product is simply 10X better than the alternatives and shows the value or it loses the users as fast as they were won.
2. Break up silos and get marketing and growth teams involved
In my Product Experience Growth Framework, I describe the declining involvement of marketing and growth in the customer journey. Marketing often leaves too early and then tries to become active again later in the loyalty phase. Superhuman is a great example of how marketing and growth extend their engagement.
There are 4 phases in Superhuman’s onboarding strategy:
- Phase 1: Testing readiness with the Founder/CEO doing the onboarding to test if the company/product is ready
- Phase 2: Testing limited scalability where a senior member of the team takes the lead for onboarding to start scaling it
- Phase 3: Testing wide scalability means building a growth team to show that somebody other than the founder and senior management can do the onboarding as well as evolve it further
- Phase 4: Scaling revenue by building a team of onboarding specialists and making the experience “delightful and magical”
The most important message from Rahul is in Phase 3 where he describes that:
“Everyone on the growth team does demand generation, lead qualification, customer support, and onboarding.”
Instead of handing over from Marketing to Sales to Customer Success, there is a Growth Team that accompanies the complete Journey. From here, it’s just a small step to extend this to the Rate and Share phase, scaling each stage in the Customer Journey from a Brand and Growth perspective.
These seamless transitions help to understand how customers interact with the product, whether and how expectations are met. At the same time, it provides the basis to process the experiences into stories to use them for brand and growth. Whether with a team or alignment of product, sales, customer success, and marketing—both are feasible depending on the product, model, and company.
3. Leverage the onboarding experience as a marketing instrument
I wrote it at the beginning but I’ll say it again: onboarding is a completely underestimated asset in the marketing toolbox. The closer marketing and growth are to the product, the better they can leverage the product experience. Superhuman’s strategy has been personalized onboarding from the beginning. To make this work in the phases described earlier—and to provide the best experience—superhuman worked with limited access. In the first months, there were thousands of customers on the waiting list, which fueled the euphoria.
Superhuman’s onboarding adds friction to the process, absolutely. And those who rely on self-serve will argue that it’s too much friction. But with Superhuman it is positive friction that leads to stronger activation and higher retention. And is not only a user activation and customer success tool but became a part of the marketing and growth strategy. Always with the product experience in focus, looking at Net Promoter Score and Customer Satisfaction. Let’s have a look at five elements Superhuman used:
Positioning the CEO to create surprise
The surprise must have been big for some early users when Superhuman founder Rahul Vohra suddenly appeared in the onboarding call. or software, we think of automated onboarding (which doesn’t have to be worse) or if need be, a standardized call. The surprise was successful, which brought Superhuman the necessary attention to start the viral machine. And it also helped to understand what customers really need and how they work with existing alternatives. Invitations to events, podcasts, and interviews were the results. Media, bloggers, and PR on a silver platter.
Onboarding for Differentiation and Product Defensibility
Who thinks of onboarding in terms of positioning? Superhuman, and many other successful hyper-growth startups. Onboarding is not just a means to an end, but a differentiator that is directly linked to the product experience. Product defensibility in the marketplace also benefits from Superhuman’s Onboarding Experience by building a barrier for competitors.
Word-of-Mouth: Viral Loop to grow the product
The onboarding story and the personal involvement of Rahul Vohra were the basis for viral growth. In the first weeks and months, the surprise effect generated numerous posts on social media. What had worked as an initial feed quickly turned into a viral loop, driven by positive user posts and accelerated by contributions in the media and from thought leaders.
Superhuman gained awareness, using word-of-mouth for brand building and growth at the same time. Even the debate around the scalability of personalized onboarding or whether it’s too much friction is paying dividends for the brand. The result was a huge waiting list because Superhuman only gave access to the tool after onboarding, adding another limitation that created even more demand.
Media coverage to fuel the engine
Media like TechCrunch and numerous influencers are the fuel that increases velocity. Startups often care little about media and PR. Except that everyone wants to appear in TechCrunch. Yet the media and thought leaders can be excellent amplifiers to amplify the story. Superhuman got attention because of a unique experience, not because of a pitch email. The credibility of user and media stories is higher than that of our own marketing channels.
What we can learn from the Superhuman story
The importance of onboarding will increase—for creating a 10X product experience as well as for product-focused and user-centric marketing and growth strategies. At this point, it is important to note that the Superhuman model does not work for every product. Those who are fully self-serve will find this type of onboarding to be negative friction. More complex products in sales-assisted and sales-led models can benefit from a guided onboarding experience. A guided onboarding experience can be established for self-serve products too—as Miro successfully demonstrates.
Startups like Superhuman or Miro achieve differentiation more through elements around the product experience instead of feature battles. For startups, it should be food for thought to think about their onboarding. For marketing and growth teams, it’s a call to stay involved throughout the customer journey, working with sales and customer success to create a unique product experience.
Dirk Schart is CMO of the No. 1 Enterprise AR startup RE’FLEKT. He is a Product-first Marketing pioneer and focuses on B2B software and SaaS models —from zero to hero. Dirk is the former Director of SaaS Products at HyperloopTT, and helped scale SkyWork from 30 to 200+ in less than 18 months. He mentors startups at the German Accelerator in the Silicon Valley. Dirk is the author of “Augmented and Mixed Reality for Marketing”.