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🦸Superhuman of x
+ Next-gen productivity stack
Hey hey 👋,
Welcome back to Consumer Startups.
Just over two years ago, I came across this tweet from Todd Goldberg, where he detailed the core product elements of Superhuman and his thesis on “Superhuman of x” startups.
Superhuman, known for creating the fastest email experience, is the category-defining company in the productivity space. Not only did they revolutionize how to build a superior user experience, but they also pioneered the frameworks for how to build product-market fit and onboard customers in a delightful way.
Since that tweet, many “Superhuman of x” startups have entered the space - they are using superior design, better collaboration, and useful integrations to disrupt old-school productivity tools that had not changed much for the past decades.
In this piece, I will dive into:
The brief history of productivity tools
Next-gen productivity stack
Case study - Cron
The brief history of productivity tools
In this modern era, productivity commonly refers to the personal productivity of knowledge workers. However, it had a different meaning just over a couple of hundred years ago. It was about how much a worker could physically produce in a fixed period of time, in a factory or a farm. Even the concept of a to-do list was far from prominent. One of the earliest recorded forms of the to-do list was from Benjamin Franklin in 1791, when he famously started using to-do lists to detail “what good shall I do this day?”. It was around this time that society started to shift from the survival model to seeking a higher level of aspirations, such as monetization and convenience.
In the 1950s, the US economy began to move toward cognitive work from manual labor. One of the influential figures in this era is called Peter Drucker who is regarded as the creator of modern management theory and coined the term “knowledge work”. In his book The Effective Executive, Drucker wrote that the corporate profits would rely on the mental effort of each knowledge worker, who would need to understand how to apply their knowledge and monitor their own productivity. He introduced the idea of management by objectives which means managers set clear goals and workers decide how they want to achieve those goals, establishing the foundation for the modern-day KPI system.
With the advent of personal computers and the World Wide Web in the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of productivity started becoming more digital. In 1988, Microsoft unveiled its famous Microsoft Office suite, which is a bundled set of productivity applications. The first version contained Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft, which many people are still using today.
The massive success of Microsoft attracted many contenders, such as Google. In 2006, Google Calendar was launched, making it significantly easier to set up meetings by using technologies to allow users to share their schedules with others. Google soon followed up on the massive success and released its own version of “office suite”, Google Suites, providing businesses with an all-in-one solution, including email, document, spreadsheet, and other productivity tools.
In the 2010s, the next evolution of productivity comes as we enter the next phase where we are constantly getting bombarded with new information and notifications from countless software we rely on for work and personal tasks. Knowledge workers are no longer just content with functionality, but they are seeking a new product experience that allows them to be more productive with their limited time. These next-gen productivity tools are creating user experiences that give time back to their users. One of the pioneers is Superhuman. They have made it 10x easier and faster for users to get through its inbox. David Ulevitch from a16z had a good quote on why people use Superhuman.
“Once I started using Superhuman, the idea of using anything else melted away. You don’t realize how slow Gmail is until you use an experience focused on speed. Since the product is meticulously crafted so everything happens in 100ms or less, everything from search to triage and response is blazingly fast. Every element of Superhuman helps you move faster, stay in flow, and experience joy.”
Many “Superhuman of x” products have followed suit. Let’s dive into them 👇.
Next-gen productivity stack
There are horizontal productivity tools that all knowledge workers use for their day-to-day job and vertical productivity tools that are unique to the specific work type. For the horizontal tools, here are some example categories:
Below is a market map of the category incumbents and their respective “Superhuman of x” disruptors.
The vertical productivity stack depends on the specific type of work. For example, there are many “Superhuman of x” tools in the software development space. Linear is an issue tracking tool for software teams to streamline sprints, tasks, and bug tracking. Hyper is a terminal tool for developers to improve their coding productivity.
Regardless of the type of productivity tool, horizontal or vertical, their main goal is to help the user to complete their tasks faster while having a delightful experience. To deliver on that promise, productivity tools have three main levers - design, collaboration, and integration.
Design is not just about the user interface but also the interactions a user has with the system to accomplish their intended actions. For example, keyboard shortcuts are a great use of the design lever. First, they allow the system interface to stay clean by reducing unnecessary menus and buttons. Second, they allow users to stay in the flow by eliminating the need for clicks and context switching. Another underrated design feature is the interaction speed, which is often measured by load time. By having a system that simply loads quicker, the user will have a much better experience blazing through their tasks in seconds rather than minutes.
Collaboration is another important aspect of productivity. With the exception of a small handful of productivity categories such as desktop search, the majority of categories require a certain level of multiplayer capability. Some can be synchronous, such as writing a brainstorming document on notion with your team. Others are more asynchronous, such as email and calendar. It is crucial for the productivity tool to create the workflows and services that enable and support the right types of collaboration.
Finally, integration is the third axis productivity tools can optimize for. With the rise of workplace apps, knowledge workers are using ten apps and software programs per day. By connecting with other apps, the productivity tool can enable new workflows and save time, which will make the tool a lot more valuable for the user. For example, Superhuman has integration with Google Calendar. Superhuman users can quickly open their calendar on Superhuman as a sidebar, thus significantly reducing context switching and time waste.
Case Study - Cron
Cron is the modern calendar app for professionals and teams.
Calendar is a great productivity vertical to focus on for multiple reasons:
It hasn’t changed that much for the past decades
It is a tool that a knowledge worker uses frequently
It is inherently viral - people send invites to each other all the time
“We're building the time layer for the workplace of the future. Time is our most precious resource and calendars are essential to how we spend our time. Yet, calendar software hasn’t changed since Outlook (90s) or Google Calendar (2006). At Cron, we aim to reimagine time tools and their infrastructure for the modern age.
Starting with Cron Calendar, we streamline workflows, integrate other productivity tools, and build collaboration right into the core. In crafting the next-generation calendaring experience, we’re making the modern workplace and life more efficient and joyful. It’s about time.” - Raphael, CEO of Cron
How Cron approaches design, integrations, and collaboration
The core design principle behind Cron is that superior user experience is critical for such a personal tool we use all day, every day. A good design can put people in control of their time. Similar to Superhuman, Cron has a dynamic keyboard shortcut system and command menu that allows users to quickly perform the workflow they desire, such as press “command+J'' to instantly join a zoom meeting. Many of Cron’s design decisions come down to whether it could save a user’s time. For example, when creating an event, the user can simply drag and select a time slot without the need to click on save (big pain on g-cal). That event can be duplicated, moved, or deleted with just one or two keyboard actions. Each feature might not save that much time for a user, but in aggregate, Cron’s superior user experience can save a ton of time and make the experience of using a calendar a lot more enjoyable.
On the other hand, the calendar is inherently a multiplayer experience built on top of the time layer. A meeting is often a starting point to achieve some goals. Cron aims to make the meeting experience a lot more collaborative and productive before, during, and after the meeting. For pre-meetings, Cron has already built an easy workflow to share availability and a meeting booking link. It’s as if Calendly and Google Calendar had a baby. Raphael and his team are also thinking about ways to create a collaborative workspace for people during the meeting. Many opportunities exist for post-meetings as well.
In terms of integrations, Cron is currently focusing on supporting video integrations and has onboarded 11 video conferencing platforms ranging from Zoom to Around. The big vision is to enable more tools to build on top of this time layer that Cron is creating.
Superhuman has inspired many startups to build delightful productivity tools that put users in control of their time. It started with more horizontal productivities such as the calendar and has expanded to vertical categories such as project management for software development. Which category will get Superhumanized next?
See you soon 👋,