Is Superhuman worth it?

A superhero doll laying down

Is Superhuman worth it?

I’m on the permanent hunt for more Portrait Mode in my life. That’s the iPhone camera feature that lightly blurs the background, while sharpening your subject’s face. And instantly, all the photos of my kids look like they were snapped by a pro. Portrait mode is the ultimate high-leverage feature; it turns noobs into pros.

Thankfully, I’ve found a few instances. Getting your clothes tailored instantly boosts your stylishness; Clip art from Unsplash.com makes dazzling Powerpoints;. And there’s the Wavestorm (a surf board that resembles a twin-sized mattress) that lets you shred like a mini-Kelly Slater. In every case, you’re catapulted across the Pareto Principle, better known as the 80/20 rule.

Superhuman is an app with a rumored 100,000 person waiting list that costs $30 a month. Yes, you read that right – $360 a year, for the privilege of checking your Gmail. And it’s the antithesis of portrait mode: you have to struggle through the 80% on your own, to reap the rewards of the last 20%. Is it worth it?

The Audacity of $30 per month

Asking users to pay a pretty penny for something that they’re used to getting for free seems like a bad business strategy. Superhuman‘s $30 promise is that it can make you super at emailing, by enabling you to get through your inbox “twice as fast.”

Let’s examine Superhuman through the following lens:

  • What unique features does it offer?
  • Does it save you time?
  • Are there any (cheaper) alternatives?
  • Is Superhuman worth it?

The FOMO marketing strategy

Superhuman really wants to be like an annoying New York City nightclub. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose called Superhuman “a Veblen good” (an economist’s term for virtue signaling) typically reserved for “luxury products that primarily function as status symbols for the rich.”

First, it’s invite-only, with a reported waiting list of 100k users. Next, if you’re lucky enough to skip the waiting list, your next two obstacles are a really long Typeform survey (“What do you usually do with emails that do not require further action?”) followed by a 30-minute live consultation (via Zoom screenshare) where you walk a Superhuman specialist through your workflow.

A question from the Typeform onboarding survey
One of a bazillion onboarding questions

Oh yeah, and you need to enter your credit card info well before you ever step foot in the app. On the Art of Product Podcast, Superhuman’s co-founder and CEO Rahul Vora defended their on-boarding strategy against claims that it was used to inflate demand. Vora argued that it was to identify and incorporate feedback from the right users. (FWIW, this process has become a popular playbook for VC-backed startups looking to nail product-market fit.)

What are Superhuman’s unique features?

So you’ve made it past the velvet rope and sucked up your pride about the price. What lies behind the magical trap door? An email experience centered on speed, focus, and clever integrations.

True to form, Superhuman makes it hard to find their features. On their website, you’ll only find mumbo-jumbo marketing speak (“And comes with advanced features that make you feel superhuman”). But once you’re in, you get a barrage of emails (if my memory serves, daily for 20 consecutive days) explaining Superhuman’s features.

Lucky for you, I screen-grabbed them (and aggregated them into our Superhuman Guide – in Notion, ofc), which you can download below:

A list of superhuman's feature set with usefulness rankings
Are these features worth $30 a month?

1. Superhuman is built to be fast

This presumes that traditional Gmail is slow. And like fish who only know water, it wasn’t until I used Superhuman that I noticed what it was like being outside of water. Every new compose, send, and archive just felt faster. (My hunch is that Superhuman stores your emails locally on your device, versus in the cloud.)

Technical improvements on speed are not enough to convince me to pay $30/month for email. Superhuman has paired this speed with two specific features – that when used in tandem – impact the speed at which you process your inbox. These two features: Split Inbox and Keyboard Shortcuts.

Split Inbox

Gmail’s Priority Inbox splits your inbox into five categories: Primary, Social, Updates, Purchases and Forums.

A screen shot of Gmail's Priority Inbox.
Priority inbox is a step in the right direction

Superhuman takes the Priority Inbox a step further by allowing you to customize the tabs (after all, whats the difference between Promotions and Updates?) which significantly improves the speed of triaging. The “splits” as they’re called can be simple (i.e. messages from certain people or domains) or complex (files with attachments that aren’t calendar invites).

Personally, I use Superhuman’s out-of-the-box splits: VIP (for my clients), Stars (for emails that require an action), News (for email Newsletters) and Other (to combine promotions, updates, social and forums).

My Superhuman "splits"
The next time you hear “Splits” you’ll know they belong to the Superhuman cult

Keyboard shortcuts

Let’s get straight to the point. If you don’t want to use keyboard shortcuts, Superhuman isn’t worth it for you. It would be akin to buying a performance sports car without knowing how to drive stick – a total waste.

To maximize the productivity gains, you need to remember that you don’t move through your messages using the UP or DOWN keys; instead you use the J and K keys (srlsy?). You reply all by hitting ENTER (huh?). And the one that always gets me: Discarding a draft. Nope, DELETE ain’t good enough; instead it’s CMD+Shift+. (wtf?)

Here’s the full list of shortcuts (which ironically is not found on Superhuman’s website, but on Dribble):

A list of 50+ superhuman shortcuts
Get the shortcuts in our Superhuman Guide below

Here’s where the sports car analogy holds. Once you realize that the J and K keys reflect the natural positioning of your hands on the keyboard you appreciate the subtle details that are centered around speed. And, since Reply All is the default response behavior for a message, the ENTER key makes perfect sense. My (unsustained) hunch is that every shortcut was first ranked by frequency of use, then matched to the highest leverage keyboard stroke.

There are countless YouTube videos of productivity geeks (like me) blazing through their split inboxes without ever touching the mouse. If you invest in learning the shortcuts, you will feel absolutely feel the productivity bump.

2. Superhuman helps you focus

David Allen’s time tested Getting Things Done (GTD) system believes that stress-free productivity comes from: identifying your next action then immediately doing it, delegating, or deferring it. This is incorporated into Superhuman’s DNA.

Let’s look at a few features that enable this:

  • Follow-up reminder: Set a reminder to follow-up
  • Instant Intro: Thank the introducer, move them to BCC, and start responding with CMD+SHIFT-I
  • Send Later: Schedule an email’s send time to maximize the likelihood that they read it.
  • Tab-to-dates: Instantly opens your calendar in the sidebar when a date (even tomorrow) is recognized.
An animated gif of how Instant Intro works on desktop and mobile.
Instant intro in the wild

Now, in isolation, there’s nothing unique about these features. Send it later and follow up reminders are now part of Gmail (the former only on desktop, and the latter never seems to work), tabbed calendars via MixMax and instant intros via CRM plug-ins like Better BCC.

Determining how regularly you use these features will confirm (or decrease) the value of a $30 monthly subscription.

3. Superhuman’s integration

Superhuman integrates functionality that power emailers typically pay for in the form of helper apps or plug-ins. For me, there are two specific examples: Text Expander and Contacts Plus (fka Full Contact).

Text Expander

I cannot live without Text Expanders – small utilities that take frequently typed bits and let you reuse it. I use them for:

  • Addresses and phone numbers
  • Links to all my blog posts (> 100)
  • Common email responses (“I’m sorry I can’t meet right now, my daughter just started Kindergarten and I’m really focused on getting our family situated.”)

In fact, my TextExpander app believes that I’ve saved 5.87 hours from not having to re-type these aforementioned notes. I pay $5 a month for this app.

My text expander statistics show 5.87 hours saved
Superhuman incorporates text expansion

Superhuman incorporates this functionality into both the desktop and mobile app. For me, the cost instantly decreases to $25/month.

ContactsPlus (fka FullContact)

I used to pay $10 a month for FullContact, which threw a sidebar into my Gmail to show me richer contact information (such as location, social profiles, and recent tweets). When they rebranded to ContactsPlus, my subscription fell away.

And while this clearly isn’t worth $10/month, there’s value to having this information displayed seamlessly on the sidebar (and I find myself referring to it often).

The superhuman sidebar contains rich profile info
The Sidebar resembles Vohra’s last startup (Rapportive)

What about read receipts and privacy?

In a viral post (times right around Superhuman’s splashy NY Times launch) Mike Davidson wrote about how Superhuman was using read receipts to spy on unsuspecting email recipients. Specifically, Superhuman was passing along specific location and device data that could be used nefariously

Superhuman went on to remove the location and device tracking, but kept read receipts. There’s still an ensuing debate as to whether that was enough.

This more elaborate debate about privacy and the responsibility of all the players in the ecosystem is beyond the scope of this post. But I do have two personal fixes:

  • I always disable read receipts from my personal email (I can’t do it for my newsletter which is sent via Convertkit)
  • I disable automatic image loading (to know who’s tracking me)

Are there any cheaper alternatives?

Absolutely. As described above, many of the features either need to be turned on in Gmail or can be purchased via helper apps and extensions.

I created a flow chart to help you determine if Superhuman is worth it for you:

A flowchart explaining the decisions to determine if Superhuman is worth it
Can you make it through the Superhuman maze?

If you’re looking for the highest lever to pull (without signing up to Superhuman) I recommend the Google Auto-Advance feature. This feature was first introduced to me via RadReader Tiago Forte in his epic piece One-touch to Inbox Zero. Forte explains the subtle power of this feature:

The greatest challenge in checking email methodically is distractions from new emails. It’s very hard to make a decision on each message, one at a time, in order, without postponing a decision or skipping ahead, when every time you archive a message it kicks you back to your inbox, where you see the more recent stuff with its tantalizing bolded subject lines.

Our Superhuman Guide (below) links to all the settings and apps to create a quasi Superhuman experience for yourself.

So, is Superhuman worth it?

If you’re going to commit to keyboard shortcuts, yes. But as Techcrunch reporter Lucas Matney concludes during his six months with Superhuman: “the app just trains you how to use email more effectively.” Matney adds:

Since cancelling my subscription, I’ve dialed in my Gmail keyboard shortcuts and shifted how I flag and archive messages and I’d say I’m operating fairly close to the efficiency I pulled off on the premium service.

Conversely, if you’re a power user trying to go from 80% to 100% – it may be worth more than $30 a month. Here’s a16z investor David Ulvetich (who led the monster $33 mm funding round in Superhuman, so clearly has a horse in the race):

Today, Superhuman costs $30 per month. But being twice as productive is worth much, much more to me than that. I can imagine almost every manager feeling the same about themselves and their teams, and every company too.

To me, Superhuman’s promise of cutting my email time by 50% is unfulfilled. But it’s definitely saved me 20%, while creating a more enjoyable experience.

So for now, I’ll keep paying. And I’ll continue to scour the earth on your behalf for more instances of Portrait Mode.

You know what productivity app does have an insane personal ROI? Notion, and I’m teaching a course on how it can Supercharge your Productivity beginning on 9/21. Sign up at www.notion.courses.

Khe Hy
[email protected]

Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.