People

Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra on how to run a remote company

It starts with re-thinking meetings and changing the way you make decisions, he says.

Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra

Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra.

Photo: Superhuman

The last eight months have taught everyone the same lesson: All the things we used to do at work don't really work anymore. Every company has been forced to rethink its processes, its culture and the tools that it uses to get things done.

Rahul Vohra, the CEO of Superhuman, spends a lot of time thinking about how people work, both because he runs a company that's dealing with these questions and because its product — the $30-a-month email client its users can't shut up about — is designed to make work just a little easier.

Vohra came onto this week's Source Code Podcast to talk about how he thinks about building products, what a "Popeye Company" is, and why he thinks everyone in tech should learn to think more like a game designer. He also told us how he's changed the way Superhuman operates as a company to work better in a remote world.

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Below are excerpts from our interview, edited for length and clarity.

I've talked to a lot of people about the renaissance of email we're in right now. Newsletters are a thing everybody's paying attention to, and we're all backing out on Slack and in on email. It's like the world sort of goes away from email and comes around to it again like once every five years. As you look around right now, what is the state of email at this moment? Are we finding a new love of email as a society again?

I think we are. And in a sense, we're long overdue the perennial "email is dead" piece. I'm glad you're not writing it, but someone should. Because it's wrong, but someone has to write it every 10 years or so.

And I think we're in this renaissance because of this dramatic transition to work-from-home. It's throwing a light on things that I think all of us felt, but we weren't really quite able to articulate. You mentioned this falling out that we seem to have had with Slack. And I think that's true. For all its amazing synchronicity and speed, in my opinion Slack goes against the true hallmarks of productivity. This is the case when I talk to peers and founders, friends of mine who are also running organizations: They find that in some ways, it makes their organizations less productive.

If I were to show you my Slack this morning, you would see an entire page of unread channels. And in each one of those channels, there will be maybe 10 different topics all jumbled and interspersed with each other. It's hard to make heads or tails of it. And in a sense that's kind of by design, to keep you addicted to the hamster wheel of continuously checking Slack. I think in a few years, we're going to see a massive reinvestment in the core fundamentals of productivity.

If you compare that to email, it's very different. You have different threads, threads contain messages, threads have subject lines, they have a clear start, they have a clear end, they don't intersperse or jumble with each other. You can label them, you can archive them, you can mark them as done, you get really powerful tools for triage and search. I don't want to make it sound like I'm picking on Slack, because obviously there's Microsoft Teams, there's Facebook [Workplace]. [There] are things that these new generation of chat-like tools don't really cater for; they instead cater for a more recent phenomenon of user experience built for engagement.

There's room for both, though, right? There's something about being able to talk quickly and chaotically that actually mirrors what it's like to be a person in a room more than email does. I feel like the mistake we make a lot of times is pitting all of these things against each other rather than letting different tools do different jobs.

Oh, absolutely. We use Slack internally at Superhuman, and we love it. I don't think we'd be able to run the company anywhere near as well without it. I think where people fall down is when they start using the wrong tool. If you start trying to use Slack to have thoughtful discussion, or real high-quality debates, you'll fall afoul of what I was just mentioning. That's the kind of thing where a long-form medium — such as email, or maybe even a Google Doc — is going to produce a much higher quality conversation and outcome.

What are the rules that you have at Superhuman? How do you draw those lines between all of these different tools?

It comes down to how quickly you need a response. If you want a response, let's say, in the timeframe of one or two minutes, then of course Slack is the go-to. If you need a response even faster than that, I would recommend a text message or even a phone call. But for most things that's not actually required. And for most things, it's usually better to let the other person organize their communication the way that they need [to] with their priorities, rather than you just piling it onto the end of their Slack log.

What we tend to do at Superhuman is if you need that quick response, use Slack. Otherwise, if it's more like a one-day or two-day turnaround, use email. That way the other person can snooze it, they can archive it, they can label it, they can do all kinds of other crazy things with it.

If it's a really, really thoughtful thing, use Google Docs. We have adopted a whole decision-making framework that I can talk about, if you're interested, that sort of revolves around a cadence of meetings and the RAPID decision-making framework by Bain & Company. That all takes place in Google Docs. And then when something has to be memorialized, it turns out even Google Docs isn't particularly good. Actually it's not Google Docs, it's mostly Drive. Drive makes it next to impossible to find any documents that you might want, so that's when you want to turn to a wiki-like solution. We tend to memorialize our decisions, once they've been made in Google Docs, into Notion.

The kind of decision-making you're talking about is the stuff that everyone is trying to sort out right now, especially on a virtual basis. So walk me through the framework.

It's two different things. The first thing that we did when we went remote is create a staggered calendar for the company. And then the second thing was to make a hyper-efficient decision-making process, because you do need one when you're remote.

So first of all, the calendar. Most people run really inefficient calendars. Their one-on-ones will be randomly dispersed throughout the week, team meetings happen whenever anybody happens to be free, there is very little time to focus and to do deep work. So here's my recommendation: If you run a team, do your team meeting on Wednesdays, and stack all of your one-on-ones on Tuesdays. If your reports run teams, ask them to do their team meetings on Tuesdays, and stack one-on-ones on Mondays. And if you have a bigger organization, if your reports have reports and their reports run teams, you can stagger this whole thing by a day.

The staggering has three really big benefits. Number one, information moves through the company very quickly and efficiently. Problems are discussed between individual contributors and managers one-on-one on Monday, in specific departments on Tuesday, and if necessary can be resolved by leadership on Wednesday. And it takes at most two days for information to travel that way. Number two, problems are usually solved along the way. In your Wednesday team meeting, you might hear, "Well, this problem came up on Monday, we discussed it as a team on Tuesday, and here's the solution we'd like to go with."And then all you have to say is "OK, sounds good, let's go ahead with it." And then number three, and maybe this is the thing that is the most appealing, it leaves Monday, much of Wednesday, and all of Thursday and Friday free to do deep work. And this is the stuff that only you can do and which requires your full concentration.

In order to make all of this work really well, you do also need to create a hyper-efficient decision-making process. That was the next thing that we changed. Most teams run very inefficient meetings, where certain issues are discussed to the exclusion of others. And this, by the way, is doubly dangerous, because not only do you spend so much time talking about these hotspots and issues, other problems become starved of attention.

We ended up using the decision-making process outlined in this really great book called "The Great CEO Within"by Matt Mochary. He was a very successful CEO and has become a really popular CEO coach here in Silicon Valley. And the process, which we've tweaked slightly, has three ingredients that make it super effective.

I'll describe our tweaked version. So number one: If somebody wants to bring something up in your team meeting, they must write it down beforehand and share it with the team by 6 p.m. on the day before. No exceptions. And the idea behind this is, we should avoid talking about things that were not written down. We can all read so much faster than we can speak.

Second thing is the other side of the same coin. If someone wants to speak about something in the team meeting — and obviously it would have been written down — they must have read and commented on the document beforehand. This is out of respect to everything else: If you're commenting on something where you didn't put the time in to get up to speed, it needlessly wastes the time of those who did, because you'll then start spending time explaining stuff that if only you'd read it properly, you'd actually understand.

And the third thing — and this is the thing that really makes it work — is that when something is discussed in the team meeting, it is discussed for at most five minutes. I actually keep a timer as the CEO in my staff meetings. If consensus is not reached within five minutes, then the conversation stops, and a decision-maker is quickly identified.

We use the Jeff Bezos rule of thumb to identify this decision-maker. For reversible decisions, it should be anybody other than the CEO. For non-reversible decisions, which are relatively few and far between, then the decision-maker should be the CEO. And that's when we use Bain & Company's RAPID Framework to assign any other roles in the decision-making process. RAPID stands for, who is recommending the decision? Who's approving it? Who is performing it? Who are inputters? And who are deciders?

After the team meeting, the decider will gather any required information, and — this is important — make the decision before the next team meeting. You don't want to just keep kicking the can down the road and discussing it for five minutes every Wednesday. That's not going to help. You actually really do have to make the decision before the next team meeting. Now here's the really cool thing: Because everyone [within] this scheme is always up to speed, and each item takes at most five minutes, in one hour you can get through 10 really gnarly decisions with plenty of room for fun and banter. So that's how we changed our process.

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