In conversation with
The lead iOS and founding engineer at Superhuman talks about building a successful startup
Getting into the world of engineering
Hi, My name is Sanket Firodiya. I had always found tech fascinating, so I got a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at the University of Mumbai. When I went to grad school, I ended up studying Information Systems, which was a mix of computer science courses, business classes, and project management. As you can see from my journey in education, I was also interested in exploring the business and product side of building great software.
Idea generation and inspiration
I love to brainstorm ideas and am constantly thinking about possible interesting products or services to the point where I get so excited that I need to see if they work. Hence I’ve worked on many different projects over the years.
A lot of my inspiration comes from my surroundings and what I am currently involved in. For example, when I was in school in 2012, we worked on this idea called Co Fundus, which was like a kickstarter for doing social work as a way to raise money for something in your community. Most social networks were still primarily on desktops, so it was a way for people to leverage their social networks to fund projects they were interested in.
Another idea that I developed before I joined Superhuman was when I was preparing for a large amount of mixed software engineering interviews. I discovered that there was a set, repeatable process to crack interviews, especially at big companies. From that realization, I started to build a program and construct a curriculum where mobile engineers could get mentorship and training for interviews. In my head, it was a marketplace where engineers could be connected with potential mentors and get help to prepare for everything, from technical skills to negotiation.
When I started at Superhuman, I wanted to completely focus on my new job, so I put aside this idea. All that means is that I have 4 years’ worth of ideas to build someday.
Advice from one big thinker to another
Something I had to pick up fast is that most of the learnings happen once you build something and start talking to people. I used to spend a lot of time intensely building the product, debating with my team about different design elements, making an official roadmap, etc. But, unfortunately a lot of these ideas that I thought were really great wouldn’t always work. It’s hard, because when you are passionate about something, you want it to succeed.
My main advice would be making sure you don’t wait too long before validating whether your product is going to be valuable to someone or not. It’s better to come up with lots of ideas and test them quickly to see which ones generate any traction, and then build onto that.
The key: doing user research
One of the biggest benchmarks of a problem is the level of traction and interest from others for a product that would solve it. The book, The Mom Test, has a very thoughtful approach and framework for user research that I always recommend. Once you’ve found a spark of something people find useful and want, within a few weeks there could be hundreds of people interested. When you’re the one who made it, you usually know when something is there, even if it is a byproduct or aspects aren’t optimised in terms of design. One example is I’ve used my Twitter to drive engagement with the engineering marketplace idea that I worked on, and it's great because a lot of people engage and provide feedback; that’s how you can learn and iterate quickly.
Sometimes I do get ahead of myself, and an old project I cofounded, Tuity, is a good example of this. We had a vision of helping small businesses and bringing a new level of transparency by making receiving tips completely cashless. However, it didn’t take off as we had hoped because it turned out to not be a burning problem for these businesses. Once you go through the process of not hitting the mark a few times, you know how much it sucks to put in time and effort for something not to work out. I’ve learned that the hard way.
Equal parts conviction and curiosity
The startup narrative usually involves the founders having a vision of how the product should be and exactly how it’s going to impact the user. But that doesn’t leave room for the opportunity to evolve. You definitely have to have conviction around what you want to present and have a mental model of who the user is, what the problems are, all of the research, and so on. You need to combine this initial conviction with an equal amount of curiosity.
One thing I’ve seen with many friends that are pre-seed or haven’t raised a round of funding yet is that they’re obsessed with the thing they want to build. Because of that narrow focus, they miss out on all the learnings and what the product could be. This has happened to me too very often, but it is imperative that you understand the bigger picture outside of your own plans.
The path to Superhuman
Before Superhuman, I was at MyFitnessPal and I had just finished working on Tuity. I admired Mike, MFP’s cofounder, and his ability to truly understand the fitness market, build a differentiated product and inspire the team. Thinking back now, it was at this point that I realized that if I had the opportunity to work with people like Mike—really high caliber founders—it would be one of the best ways to learn about building a successful business.
After MyFitnessPal sold to Under Armor, my new focus when I was interviewing was to explore working at smaller places with five to ten employees so I could learn from and work closely with the founders. I interviewed with a bunch of companies, but didn’t really resonate with any of them. It seemed like everyone was pursuing something that was supposed to be “the next big thing” versus having experience or a good understanding of a specific domain.
Even though I was really keen on joining a startup, I was about to give up and sign an offer letter from Google. But then I heard about Superhuman, and I had a great conversation with them about building out their iOS product. The idea and the product deeply resonated with me, so I thought, might as well interview with this company. I ended up loving the team, and my whole framework was, and still continues to be, optimize for learning as I continue my work with Superhuman and beyond.
Building a successful startup
Learning how to build a successful startup is learning how to go from zero to one: going from nothing to something valuable. That is where most new products and teams fail. It is always great to have experience building products on the engineering side, but before any of that, you need to refine how you think about users and understand what they want.
It goes back to the framework of developing enough conviction to build what you’re picturing. Then you can evolve it by talking to potential users, and from there continuously edit your mental model of what the product is and could be. Then comes positioning and GTM for your product, which is something I think that most engineers underestimate. My thinking was that, if I join a high caliber team, I will pick up some of these skills, which is what happened to an extent. It starts to become second nature.
Product-market fit and company milestones
Back in early 2017 when we had very few users, we wanted to develop a new framework by measuring how delighted our customers were with the product and building around that. That was a pivotal moment in Superhuman’s development because most people would have considered it over-engineering, but it was useful because it provided the mindset behind the organization of Superhuman.
The year after that, we achieved the product-market fit (PMF) that we had been striving to reach before we focused on growth. We were all getting a little impatient, because, of course, we wanted to get out into the world, launch, and get going. But in our PMF approach, we had to have that in place before growing. After that is when we really started to focus on onboarding lots of new users and scaling. While it wasn’t the traditional approach, it was important for our success and our plan to get to the next level.
Because we focused on customer satisfaction and PMF, we knew that customers were loving our product before we even started to scale. This goes back to the importance of being honest with yourself. Sometimes with growth, you can use it to mask anything that’s not working for you. When you have 100 customers, it’s easy to keep track of the positive feedback and which customers love you and which ones are disappointed. But, as you start growing and there is more feedback coming in, it becomes hard to measure all of these things if you don’t have the correct systems in place.
It’s easy to fool yourself and think it’s fine if some people complain while your revenue is growing. The driving force behind this is discipline and holding yourself to really high standards. Once you go beyond the early adopter group, people won’t be as big of a fan.
At Superhuman, we looked at industry benchmarks and then set ours higher than other bigger companies because, at the end of the day, retention is especially important for SaaS products. Creating delight and customer happiness is our #1 company value, so that was the focal point when thinking about this process.
Scaling a holistic mindset over time
When we started out, we were a small team of three co founders, four engineers, and one designer. We didn’t really have a product manager or customer support person. Fortunately, our team was very entrepreneurial and interested in learning all the different aspects of the startup, so everyone was happy to do about an hour a day of customer support and working without requiring a lot of product input.
Now we have a customer support team and a product management team. But initially, when we did customer onboardings, we would go meet our customers in-person and spend an hour onboarding them to the product. This helped us understand the nuances of what a great onboarding should entail and it laid the foundation for our current onboarding process. The same initial inspiration is also true for our customer delight and support. We used to send all of the emails directly and see the best ways to word something with the right emotion, things like that. These learnings became the foundation of the customer support playbook we have today.
I’ve been following Bitcoin and several other cryptocurrencies for a long time and I’ve gone back and forth on whether they hold any long term value. Now we are seeing a lot of compelling use cases offered by several of these currencies and we could see them play a significant role over the coming years.
The importance of UI
One thing that I personally think is quite overrated in Silicon Valley and tech is the advantage that design and beautiful UI can give you, especially for a new product. Of course there are examples of really well designed, successful products, but there is still a difference between causation and correlation. I see a lot of people spend an enormous amount of time tweaking their product’s design, whereas what they should be doing is going out and talking to potential users and understanding their pain points.
An inspiring product that caught my eye is a video app called mmhmm. I was using it with a friend, and I think the way they’ve positioned it and the way they’ve put it together using existing technology is really cool.
I’ve been using that and Clubhouse a lot recently as a result of staying at home and not meeting people in person very often.