Humanising and disrupting the email market - Issue #004

• 9 min read

Is Gmail too functional? How can new challengers create demand? A Jobs to be Done analysis of how Hey and Superhuman are challenging Google's dominance.

Humanising and disrupting the email market - Issue #004

When someone explains an idea or a theory in a different context, it's amazing how it deepens your understanding. This is what happened to me with Bob Moesta's approach to Jobs to be Done. After reading his new book "Demand Side Sales 101" (book summary here) and speaking to him about it (video interview here), I started thinking more about demand side organisations and markets.

In this post, I'm going to focus on how human-centric propositions (or demand side as Bob Moesta calls them) can disrupt dominant players in commodity markets. This analysis is not meant to be a prediction of who will succeed or fail. Instead, by analysing how new entrants, Hey and Superhuman, are generating demand we can spot strategies that can be applied to other products.

Is Gmail's dominance breeding complacency?

One of the topics that Bob and I briefly touched on is the changes happening in the market for email. Email is an interesting space right now. The market is dominated by Google and has been for a long time. Globally there are 1.5 billion active users of Gmail and the Gmail client is the second most used email application across all devices with 26% share. Like most of Google's services, Gmail is free, its' generally easy to use and broadly accepted as the defacto email service. This makes email an unattractive market with very high barriers to entry.

Despite Google's dominance, the email market reminds me of banking. A highly functional, commoditised product that has done very little to innovate over the years. You receive money/mail in, you send money/mail out and you have a never-ending list of transactions/email. Like most markets that have long-term dominant players, the products start losing touch with what customers are hiring them for. Unlike banking, Google is built on modern technology. This means Gmail is technically a good product, it's fast, simple and relative ease of use. However, and this is a big however, I would argue Google is only a provider of email. It doesn't help with managing email, nor does it create a delightful experience.

Disrupting the market for email

Despite Google's dominant position, there are two high profile challengers; Basecamp's Hey and Superhuman. Hey is challenging both the email service and the email client market. Superhuman is focusing on the email client market only. The market for email clients has had lots of new entrants over the years but none as high profile as Superhuman.

Both Hey and Superhuman have gone beyond the basic features and functions. They have focused on designing experiences around the jobs customers are trying to get done. They are placing greater emphasis on the experience of using email more than incumbents like Gmail. As Clayton Christensen said in Competing Against Luck:

“New products succeed not because of the features and functionality they offer but because of the experiences they enable.”

Email is a utility so what kind of experiences matter? Whilst it is easy to send and receive an email it is hard to manage emails. Customers don't want a big long list of emails every morning. If we look at it from a Jobs to be Done perspective it's not about email at all. It's about managing time, productivity and relationships. Focusing on these high-level jobs would form the basis of a very differentiated experience.

Motivating people to switch away from a Google product is difficult due to the stickiness of their ecosystem. Furthermore, Hey are asking customers to switch email address which will be a point of friction. Email addresses are connected to hundreds of digital accounts and shared with many friends. What levers do challengers have to activate the switch? We can use Bob Moesta's forces of progress framework to deconstruct this (there's a more detailed description of this framework here).

Bob Moesta, JTBD, Jobs to be Done, Forces of Progress, Four Forces

So let's have a look what Basecamp is doing with Hey...

Hey - how it uses the four forces

Basecamp is well known for using Jobs to be Done. Bob Moesta openly talks about his close relationship with the Basecamp team. It’s clear Basecamp are a user of Jobs to be Done too. On the Hey website there is a list of the top 22 features. This is not like an ordinary feature list, they don’t have fancy names and registered trademarks. They read like the customer would say them. They are designed to save time and cut through the noise so you can focus on what matters.

When I read through Hey's features, they provoke memories of my struggle with email. It's clever because I could read this thinking that my email service is ok but afterwards feel like I needed to switch immediately. The short description for each feature describes the struggling moment and the progress you’ll make using Hey. It’s a masterclass in research, product design and copywriting.

Hey, Imbox, Jobs to be Done, Struggling Moment, Desired Outcome

I've broken down the description of the Imbox feature (above) to highlight its Job to be Done and the push and pull drivers of behaviour change. There's nothing technical in any of the feature descriptions. As a consequence, the feature seems like an obvious solution that would help the customer make progress on their Job to be Done - focusing on only the things you care about.

They also tackle the anxieties around making the switch to Hey with a lot of social proofing displayed on the home page.

Hey, Basecamp, Social Proofing

This is a very common way to allay people's fears of making the switch to something new. It's almost become expected so it will be good to see what else they do to tackle these anxieties as the product develops.

One of the most difficult obstacles a new product faces is breaking old habits and overcoming inertia. Hey's approach to this is to target the legitimacy of the business model that underpins Gmail.

Basecamp, Privacy, Gmail, Hey, Email

Hey couple a strong belief in privacy (they dedicated a whole Podcast to this, it's a great listen) with the need to pay for your email service. Yet, Hey doesn't place the cost on the product, they position it as the cost of your privacy with all these amazing new features thrown in. We've seen over the years that privacy-focused apps struggle to find traction. Often, that's because the user experience is not on par with the products customers already use. But with Hey this is already a very differentiated service. Privacy is the hook to break the habit of using ad-supported products. It's not used as the leading Job to be Done that the core of the product experience is designed around. I'm fascinated to see how effective it is.

One of the encouraging signs for Hey is that the most requested feature is supporting other email services, like your work email account. This is a good sign that the experience and workflows they've created are resonating. Hey's barrier to customer acquisition is more Hey i.e. managing all email in one place. Which leads us onto Superhuman.

Superhuman - creates demand through social status

Superhuman pitch themselves as the "fastest email experience ever made" and that it is "not just another email client". On first look, the Job to be Done Superhuman is focused on is: helping customers get through email twice as fast. There are some secondary Jobs around bringing you closer to your contacts but Superhuman's product is designed for speed. Looking beyond the product, the most interesting aspect of Superhuman is their onboarding. By design, it's very exclusive and difficult to get access to Superhuman (luckily someone has put together a visual overview of the user journey). The concierge focused onboarding experience is central to the luxury feeling and the exclusive status the user gains. This is the real driver of demand for Superhuman.

Superhuman, luxury email, design

The product looks very slick, it needs to for the type of audience it's targeting. Rahul Vohra, the CEO, talks about bringing power user functionality (keyboard shortcuts) into its users' everyday email workflow (this podcast goes deeper on the topic). As a result, there is a big learning curve for new customers to get started with the product. This means there's a functional need for good onboarding. Without it, their customers' anxieties to adopting something new and the strength of their old habits will create a huge drop off in usage. This onboarding could be done digitally. The choice to concierge it could be to get a Minimum Lovable Product (MLP) out and design the onboarding later. The Superhuman team would also learn a lot speaking to users and talking them through the product. However, Superhuman has been available for a long time so, I would contend that this is more of a commitment to human servicing for a luxury audience. And also building up a huge waitlist.

The waitlist is ostensibly due to Superhuman's commitment onboarded everyone manually, creating a long backlog. But, waitlists are commonly used to drive up demand by artificially throttling supply, it's a common technique. With reportedly 275,000 people on the waitlist, and $33m of investment from a16z last year, Superhuman has a lot of momentum and have created a lot of demand to take on the market.

How are they generating so much demand? I would argue that it's mostly through emotional and social pull forces than anything uniquely different about the product (huge caveat here, I haven't used it and only read reviews and seen screenshots of the user experience). That might sound like a criticism but it's not. It is hard to create a desirable luxury brand, especially around a utility like email. When a product generates strong emotional and social pull forces, they accelerate prospective customers through the purchase timeline.

Superhuman, Onboarding, Demand, Waitlist, Jobs to be Done

Thinking about Superhuman through the lens of Bob Moesta's "four forces" and on the "timeline of progress" we can see how they're generating demand and potentially helping to form new habits around their product. There five areas of interest:

1. Activating demand

There are strong pull forces at the passive looking phase. The phase when people think that email is annoying, they are unconsciously looking but probably think it's something they have to live with. They start to see other people talking about something new. And it's not just a new email service, it's an exclusive club. I suspect the strength of the social motivations will mean many sidestep the active looking stage eliminating many of the trade-off decisions with other products.

2. Status signalling

The acceleration of the customer from "passive looking" to deciding to sign up is driven in large part to status signalling. This is a big part of Superhuman's marketing strategy. The type of audience tweeting about Superhuman (influential and successful business and tech people), providing testimonials or using "sent via Superhuman" are all forms of status signalling. They are amplified by Superhuman because they act as triggers for further virality and thus heightened demand.

3. Eliminating competitor comparisons

When people land on the website it feels luxurious. The combination of high-end design, the waitlist and the social proofing elevates this above anything else in the market. It reminds me of Vertu, the luxury version of Nokia phones back in the naughties. It's an email app with extra digital diamonds but the product is not too dissimilar from other minimal email clients (have a look at Polymail and Airmail). Like Vertu, there is no competitor in luxury products so Superhuman's market positioning elevates them above products like Polymail and Airmail. People aren't buying the product they are buying luxury because luxury is desirable. Luxury that is exclusive and has a waitlist is irresistible.

4. The concierge experience

The human onboarding is playing a part in generating desirability and demand. The concierge is a big part of a luxury experience. But the human element is also suppressing any anxiety about making the change to something new. Especially when something new is built for power users and uses a different interaction model, keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts could be a huge obstacle to getting started. But with the right level of handholding, this potential area of friction can be transformed into a unique experience that drives delight.

5. Building new habits

Keyboard shortcuts are a very different approach to optimising productivity than the predefined workflows in Hey. What the keyboard shortcuts do is create a distinctive user experience that differentiates Superhuman to alternative products. This does two things. Firstly, it strengthens the feeling of being part of something exclusive and new. It's like learning a new language or a secret handshake. Secondly, it helps rewire old patterns of behaviour into new ones that will help drive stickiness and form new habits with the new product.

What's clear is that Superhuman's customers are not paying $30 per month for the product they are paying for the experience. There's some functional and design benefit too, but this is secondary to the social status of being a Superhuman user.

Both Hey and Superhuman have the potential to disrupt the email market. A market dominated by big tech. In part, they have the opportunity to do this because Gmail hasn't moved on for some time. The biggest opportunity to disrupt this market is to offer an experience that helps customers make progress on the Jobs to be Done they hire an email service/client to do.

← Growth with a human-centric ecosystem strategy - Issue #005
Bob Moesta - Demand Side Sales 101 Book Summary →

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