Sep
15
2020
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Dropbox CEO Drew Houston says the pandemic forced the company to reevaluate what work means

Dropbox CEO and co-founder Drew Houston, appearing at TechCrunch Disrupt today, said that COVID has accelerated a shift to distributed work that we have been talking about for some time, and these new ways of working will not simply go away when the pandemic is over.

“When you think more broadly about the effects of the shift to distributed work, it will be felt well beyond when we go back to the office. So we’ve gone through a one-way door. This is maybe one of the biggest changes to knowledge work since that term was invented in 1959,” Houston told TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino.

That change has prompted Dropbox to completely rethink the product set over the last six months, as the company has watched the way people work change in such a dramatic way. He said even though Dropbox is a cloud service, no SaaS tool in his view was purpose-built for this new way of working and we have to reevaluate what work means in this new context.

“Back in March we started thinking about this, and how [the rapid shift to distributed work] just kind of happened. It wasn’t really designed. What if you did design it? How would you design this experience to be really great? And so starting in March we reoriented our whole product road map around distributed work,” he said.

He also broadly hinted that the fruits of that redesign are coming down the pike. “We’ll have a lot more to share about our upcoming launches in the future,” he said.

Houston said that his company has adjusted well to working from home, but when they had to shut down the office, he was in the same boat as every other CEO when it came to running his company during a pandemic. Nobody had a blueprint on what to do.

“When it first happened, I mean there’s no playbook for running a company during a global pandemic so you have to start with making sure you’re taking care of your customers, taking care of your employees, I mean there’s so many people whose lives have been turned upside down in so many ways,” he said.

But as he checked in on the customers, he saw them asking for new workflows and ways of working, and he recognized there could be an opportunity to design tools to meet these needs.

“I mean this transition was about as abrupt and dramatic and unplanned as you can possibly imagine, and being able to kind of shape it and be intentional is a huge opportunity,” Houston said.

Houston debuted Dropbox in 2008 at the precursor to TechCrunch Disrupt, then called the TechCrunch 50. He mentioned that the Wi-Fi went out during his demo, proving the hazards of live demos, but offered words of encouragement to this week’s TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield participants.

Although his is a public company on a $1.8 billion run rate, he went through all the stages of a startup, getting funding and eventually going public, and even today as a mature public company, Dropbox is still evolving and changing as it adapts to changing requirements in the marketplace.

Sep
01
2020
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12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Four years after the Great Recession, France’s newly elected socialist president François Hollande raised taxes and increased regulations on founder-led startups. The subsequent flight of entrepreneurs to places like London and Silicon Valley portrayed France as a tough place to launch a company. By 2016, France’s national statistics bureau estimated that about three million native-born citizens had moved abroad.

Those who remained fought back: The Family was an early accelerator that encouraged French entrepreneurs to adopt Silicon Valley’s startup methodology, and the 2012 creation of Bpifrance, a public investment bank, put money into the startup ecosystem system via investors. Organizers founded La French Tech to beat the drum about native startups.

When President Emmanuel Macron took office in May 2017, he scrapped the wealth tax on everything except property assets and introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital gains. Station F, a giant startup campus funded by billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel on the site of a former railway station, began attracting international talent. Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the iPod and founder of Nest Labs, moved to Paris to set up investment firm Future Shape; VivaTech was created with government backing to become one of Europe’s largest startup conference and expos.

Now, in the COVID-19 era, the government has made €4 billion available to entrepreneurs to keep the lights on. According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France, including BlaBlaCar, OVHcloud, Deezer and Veepee. More appear to be coming; last year Macron said he wanted to see “25 French unicorns by 2025.”

According to Station F, by the end of August, there had been 24 funding rounds led by international VCs and a few big transactions. Enterprise artificial intelligence and machine-learning platform Dataiku raised a $100 million Series D round, and Paris-based gaming startup Voodoo raised an undisclosed amount from Tencent Holdings.

We asked 12 Paris-based investors to comment on the state of play in their city:

Alison Imbert, Partech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

All the fintechs addressing SMBs to help them to focus more on their core business (including banks disintermediation by fintech, new infrastructures tech that are lowering the barrier to entry to nonfintech companies).

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

77foods (plant-based bacon) — love that alternative proteins trend as well. Obviously, we need to transform our diet toward more sustainable food. It’s the next challenge for humanity.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact investment: Logistic companies tackling the life cycle of products to reduce their carbon footprint and green fintech that reinvent our spending and investment strategy around more sustainable products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
D2C products.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% investing in France as I’m managing Paris Saclay Seed Fund, a €53 million fund, investing in pre-seed and seed startups launched by graduates and researchers from the best engineering and business schools from this ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Deep tech, biotech and medical devices. Paris, and France in general, has thousands of outstanding engineers that graduate each year. Researchers are more and more willing to found companies to have a true impact on our society. I do believe that the ecosystem is more and more structured to help them to build such companies.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Paris is booming for sure. It’s still behind London and Berlin probably. But we are seeing more and more European VC offices opening in the city to get direct access to our ecosystem. Even in seed rounds, we start to have European VCs competing against us. It’s good — that means that our startups are moving to the next level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
For sure startups will more and more push for remote organizations. It’s an amazing way to combine quality of life for employees and attracting talent. Yet I don’t think it will be the majority. Not all founders are willing/able to build a fully remote company. It’s an important cultural choice and it’s adapted to a certain type of business. I believe in more flexible organization (e.g., tech team working remotely or 1-2 days a week for any employee).

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality sectors are of course hugely impacted. Yet there are opportunities for helping those incumbents to face current challenges (e.g., better customer care and services, stronger flexibility, cost reduction and process automation).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Cash is king more than ever before. My only piece of advice will be to keep a good level of cash as we have a limited view on events coming ahead. It’s easy to say but much more difficult to put in practice (e.g., to what extend should I reduce my cash burn? Should I keep on investing in the product? What is the impact on the sales team?). Startups should focus only on what is mission-critical for their clients. Yet it doesn’t impact our seed investments as we invest pre-revenue and often pre-product.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There is no reason to be hopeless. Crises have happened in the past. Humanity has faced other pandemics. Humans are resilient and resourceful enough to adapt to a new environment and new constraints.

Aug
27
2020
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COVID-19 is driving demand for low-code apps

Now that the great Y Combinator rush is behind us, we’re returning to a topic many of you really seem to care about: no-code and low-code apps and their development.

We’ve explored the theme a few times recently, once from a venture-capital perspective, and another time building from a chat with the CEO of Claris, an Apple subsidiary and an early proponent of low-code work.

Today we’re adding notes from a call with Appian CEO Matt Calkins that took place yesterday shortly after the company released its most recent earnings report.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Appian is built on low-code development. Having gone public back in 2017, it is the first low-code IPO we can think of. With its Q2 results reported on August 6, we wanted to dig a bit more into what Calkins is seeing in today’s market so we can better understand what is driving demand for low- and no-code development, specifically, and demand for business apps more generally in 2020.

As you can imagine, COVID-19 and the accelerating digital transformation are going to come up in our notes. But, first, let’s take a look at Appian’s quarter quickly before digging into how its low-code-focused CEO sees the world.

Results, expectations

Appian had a pretty good Q2. The company reported $66.8 million in revenue for the three-month period, ahead of market expectations that it would report around $61 million, though collected analyst estimates varied. The low-code platform also beat on per-share profit, reporting a $0.12 per-share loss after adjustments. Analysts had expected a far worse $0.25 per-share deficit.

The period was better than expected, certainly, but it was not a quarter that showed sharp year-over-year growth. There’s a reason for that: Appian is currently shedding professional services revenue (lower-margin, human-powered stuff) for subscription incomes (higher-margin, software-powered stuff). So, as it exchanges one type of revenue for another with total subscription revenue rising a little over 12% in Q2 2020 compared to the year-ago quarter, and professional services revenue falling around 10%, the company’s growth will be slow but the resulting revenue mix improvement is material.

Most importantly, inside of its larger subscription result for the quarter ($41.4 million) were its cloud subscription revenues, worth $29.6 million for the quarter and up 30% compared to the year-ago period. Summing, the company’s least lucrative revenues are falling as its most lucrative accelerate at the fastest clip of any of its cohorts. That’s what you’d want to see if you are an Appian bull.

Shares in the technology company are up around 45% this year. With that, we can get started.

Aug
27
2020
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Salesforce confirms it’s laying off around 1,000 people in spite of monster quarter

In what felt like strange timing, Salesforce has confirmed a report in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that it was laying off around 1,000 people, or approximately 1.9% of the company’s 54,000 strong workforce. This news came in spite of the company reporting a monster quarter on Tuesday, in which it passed $5 billion in quarterly revenue for the first time.

In fact, Wall Street was so thrilled with Salesforce’s results, the company’s stock closed up an astonishing 26% yesterday, adding great wealth to the company’s coffers. It seemed hard to reconcile such amazing financial success with this news.

Yet it was actually something that president and chief financial officer Mark Hawkins telegraphed in Tuesday’s earnings call with industry analysts, although he didn’t come right and use the L (layoff) word. Instead he couched that impending change as a reallocation of resources.

And he talked about strategically shifting investments over the next 12-24 months. “This means we’ll be redirecting some of our resources to fuel growth in areas that are no longer as aligned with the business priority will be now deemphasized,” Hawkins said in the call.

This is precisely how a Salesforce spokesperson put it when asked by TechCrunch to confirm the story. “We’re reallocating resources to position the company for continued growth. This includes continuing to hire and redirecting some employees to fuel our strategic areas, and eliminating some positions that no longer map to our business priorities. For affected employees, we are helping them find the next step in their careers, whether within our company or a new opportunity,” the spokesperson said.

It’s worth noting that earlier this year, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff pledged there would be no significant layoffs for 90 days.

The 90-day period has long since passed and the company has decided the time is right to make some adjustments to the workforce.

It’s worth contrasting this with the pledge that ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott made a few weeks after the Benioff tweet, promising not to lay off a single employee for the rest of this year, while also pledging to hire 1,000 people worldwide the remainder of this year, while bringing in 360 summer interns.

Aug
21
2020
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Box CEO Aaron Levie says thrifty founders have more control

Once upon a time, Box’s Aaron Levie was just a guy with an idea for a company: 15 years ago as a USC student, he conceived of a way to simply store and share files online.

It may be hard to recall, but back then, the world was awash with thumb drives and moving files manually, but Levie saw an opportunity to change that.

Today, his company helps enterprise customers collaborate and manage content in the cloud, but when Levie appeared on an episode of Extra Crunch Live at the end of May, my colleague Jon Shieber and I asked him if he had any advice for startups. While he was careful to point out that there is no “one size fits all” advice, he did make one thing clear:

“I would highly recommend to any company of any size that you have as much control of your destiny as possible. So put yourself in a position where you spend as little amount of dollars as you can from a burn standpoint and get as close to revenue being equal to your expenses as you can possibly get to,” he advised.

Don’t let current conditions scare you

Levie also advised founders not to be frightened off by current conditions, whether that’s the pandemic or the recession. Instead, he said if you have an idea, seize the moment and build it, regardless of the economy or the state of the world. If, like Levie, you are in it for the long haul, this too will pass, and if your idea is good enough, it will survive and even thrive as you move through your startup growth cycle.

Aug
19
2020
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A pandemic and recession won’t stop Atlassian’s SaaS push

No company is completely insulated from the macroeconomic fallout of COVID-19, but we are seeing some companies fare better than others, especially those providing ways to collaborate online. Count Atlassian in that camp, as it provides a suite of tools focused on working smarter in a digital context.

At a time when many employees are working from home, Atlassian’s product approach sounds like a recipe for a smash hit. But in its latest earnings report, the company detailed slowing growth, not the acceleration we might expect. Looking ahead, it’s predicting more of the same — at least for the short term.

Part of the reason for that — beyond some small-business customers, hit by hard times, moving to its new free tier introduced last March — is the pain associated with moving customers off of older license revenue to more predictable subscription revenue. The company has shown that it is willing to sacrifice short-term growth to accelerate that transition.

We sat down with Atlassian CRO Cameron Deatsch to talk about some of the challenges his company is facing as it navigates through these crazy times. Deatsch pointed out that in spite of the turbulence, and the push to subscriptions, Atlassian is well-positioned with plenty of cash on hand and the ability to make strategic acquisitions when needed, while continuing to expand the recurring-revenue slice of its revenue pie.

The COVID-19 effect

Deatsch told us that Atlassian could not fully escape the pandemic’s impact on business, especially in April and May when many companies felt it. His company saw the biggest impact from smaller businesses, which cut back, moved to a free tier, or in some cases closed their doors. There was no getting away from the market chop that SMBs took during the early stages of COVID, and he said it had an impact on Atlassian’s new customer numbers.

Atlassian Q4FY2020 customer growth graph

Image Credits: Atlassian

Still, the company believes it will recover from the slow down in new customers, especially as it begins to convert a percentage of its new, free-tier users to paid users down the road. For this quarter it only translated into around 3000 new customers, but Deatsch didn’t seem concerned. “The customer numbers were off, but the overall financials were pretty strong coming out of [fiscal] Q4 if you looked at it. But also the number of people who are trying our products now because of the free tier is way up. We saw a step change when we launched free,” he said.

Aug
03
2020
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Amid pandemic, returning to offices remains an open question for tech leaders

As COVID-19 infections surge in parts of the U.S., many workplaces remain empty or are operating with skeleton crews.

Most agree that the decision to return to the office should involve a combination of business, government and medical officials and scientists who have a deep understanding of COVID-19 and infectious disease in general. The exact timing will depend on many factors, including the government’s willingness to open up, the experts’ view of current conditions, business leadership’s tolerance for risk (or how reasonable it is to run the business remotely), where your business happens to be and the current conditions there.

That doesn’t mean every business that can open will, but if and when they get a green light, they can at least begin bringing some percentage of employees back. But what that could look like is clouded in great uncertainty around commutes, office population density and distancing, the use of elevators, how much you can reasonably deep clean, what it could mean to have a mask on for eight hours a day, and many other factors.

To get a sense of how tech companies are looking at this, we spoke to a number of executives to get their perspective. Most couldn’t see returning to the office beyond a small percentage of employees this year. But to get a more complete picture, we also spoke to a physician specializing in infectious diseases and a government official to get their perspectives on the matter.

Taking it slowly

While there are some guidelines out there to help companies, most of the executives we spoke to found that while they missed in-person interactions, they were happy to take things slow and were more worried about putting staff at risk than being in a hurry to return to normal operations.

Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder at Incredible Health, a startup that helps hospitals find and hire nurses, said her company was half-remote even before COVID-19 hit, but since then, the team is now completely remote. Whenever San Francisco’s mayor gives the go-ahead, she says she will reopen the office, but the company’s 30 employees will have the option to keep working remotely.

She points out that for some employees, working at home has proven very challenging. “I do want to highlight two groups that are pretty important that need to be highlighted in this narrative. First, we have employees with very young kids, and the schools are closed so working at home forever or even for the rest of this year is not really an option, and then the second group is employees who are in smaller apartments, and they’ve got roommates and it’s not comfortable to work at home,” Abuzeid explained.

Those folks will need to go to the office whenever that’s allowed, she said. For Lindsay Grenawalt, chief people officer at Cockroach Labs, an 80-person database startup in NYC, said there has to be a highly compelling reason to bring people back to the office at this point.

Jul
14
2020
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Recurrency is taking on giants like SAP with a modern twist on ERP

Recurrency, a member of the Summer 2020 Y Combinator cohort, was started by a 21 year old just out of college. He decided to take on a highly established market that is led by giants like SAP, Infor, Oracle and Microsoft, but instead of taking a highly complex area of enterprise software in one big bite, he is starting by helping wholesale businesses.

Sole founder and company CEO Sam Oshay just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a dual degree that straddled engineering and business, before joining the summer batch. Oshay is bringing a modern twist to ERP by using machine learning to drive more data-driven decision making.

“What makes us different from other ERPs like SAP, Infor and Epicor is that we can tell the user something that they don’t already know.” He says these traditional ERPs are basically data entry systems. For example, you could enter a pricing list, but you can’t do anything with it in terms of predictions.

“We can scan historical data and make pricing recommendations and predictions. So we are an ERP that not only does data analysis, but also imports external data and matches it to internal data to make recommendations and predictions,” Oshay explained.

While he doesn’t expect to remain confined to just the wholesale side of the business, it makes sense that he started with it because his family has a history of running these kinds of businesses. In fact, his grandfather immigrated to the U.S. after World War II and started a hardware wholesale business that his uncle still runs today. His dad started his own business selling wholesale shipping supplies, and he grew up in the family business, giving him some insight that most recent college grads probably wouldn’t have.

“I learned about the wholesale business at a very deep level. And what I observed is that so many of the issues with my dad’s business came down to issues with his ERP system. It occurred to me that if someone were to build an ERP extension or a better ERP, they could unlock so much of the value that is currently locked inside these legacy systems,” he said.

So he did what good entrepreneurs do, and began building it. For starters, his system plugs into legacy systems like SAP or NetSuite, but the plan is to build a better ERP, one step at a time. For now, it’s about wholesale, but he has a much broader vision for his company.

He originally applied to YC during the Fall 2019 semester of his junior year, and was admitted to the winter batch, but deferred to the Summer 2020 group to complete his studies. He spent his remaining time at UPenn sprinting to early graduation, taking 10 classes to come close to finishing his studies (with just a dissertation standing between him and his degree).

With this batch being delivered remotely, he says that the YC team has taken that into account and is still offering a meaningful experience for the summer group. “All of the events that YC would normally be doing are still happening, just remotely. And to my knowledge, some of the events we’re doing are designed specifically for this weird set of circumstances. The YC team has put quite a bit of thought into making this batch meaningful and I think they’ve succeeded,” he said.

While the pandemic has created new challenges for an early-stage business, he says that in some ways it’s helped him focus better. Instead of going out with friends, he’s home with his head down working on his company with little distraction.

As you would expect, it’s early days for the product, but he has three customers who are operational and two more in the implementation phase. He also has two employees so far, a front end and back end engineer.

For now, he’s going to continue building his product and his business, and he sees the pandemic as a time when businesses might be more open to changing a system like a legacy ERP. “If they want to try something new, and you can make it easier for them to try that, I’ve found that’s a place where you can make a sale,” he said.

Jul
10
2020
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What do investors bidding up tech shares know that the rest of us don’t?

The biggest story to come out of the post-March stock market boom has been explosive growth in the value of technology shares. Software companies in particular have seen their fortunes recover; since March lows, public software companies’ valuations have more than doubled, according to one basket of SaaS and cloud stocks compiled by a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Such gains are good news for startups of all sizes. For later-stage upstarts, software share appreciation helps provide a welcoming public market for exits. And, strong public valuations can help guide private dollars into related startups, keeping the capital flowing.


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For software-focused startup companies, especially those pursuing recurring revenue models like SaaS, it’s a surprisingly good time to be alive.

Indeed, after COVID-19 hit the United States, layoffs and rising software sales churn were key, worrying indicators coming out of startup-land. Since then, the data has turned around.

As TechCrunch reported in June, startup layoffs have declined and software churn has recovered to the point that business and enterprise-focused SaaS companies are on the bounce.

But instead of merely recovering to near pre-COVID levels, software stocks have continued to rise. Indeed, the Bessemer Cloud Index (EMCLOUD), which tracks SaaS firms, has set an array of all-time highs in recent weeks.

There’s some logic to the rally. After speaking to venture capitalists over the past few weeks, notes from EQT VenturesAlastair Mitchell, Sapphire’s Jai Das, and Shomik Ghosh from Boldstart Ventures paint the picture of a possibly accelerating digital transformation for some software companies, nudged forward by COVID-19 and its related impacts.

The result of the trend may be that the total addressable market (TAM) for software itself is larger than previously anticipated. Larger TAM could mean bigger future sales for and more substantial future cash flows for some software companies. This argument helps explain part of the market’s present-day enthusiasm for public tech equities, and especially the shares of software companies.

We won’t be able explain every point that Nasdaq has gained. But the TAM argument is worth understanding if we want to grok a good portion of the optimism that is helping drive tech valuations, both private and public.

Jun
18
2020
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Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra says recession is the ‘perfect time’ to be aggressive for well-capitalized startups

Email is one of those things that no one likes but that we’re all forced to use. Superhuman, founded by Rahul Vohra, aims to help everyone get to inbox zero.

Launched in 2017, Superhuman charges $30 per month and is still in invite-only mode with more than 275,000 people on the waitlist. That’s by design, Vohra told us earlier this week on Extra Crunch Live.

“I think a lot of folks misunderstand the nature of our waitlist,” he said. “They assume it’s some kind of FOMO-generating technique or some kind of false scarcity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real reason we have the waitlist is that I want everyone who uses Superhuman to be deliriously happy with their experience.”

Today, the app is only available for desktop and iOS. Superhuman started with iOS because most premium users have iPhones, Vohra said. Still, many users have Android, so Superhuman’s waitlist consists mostly of Android users.

“We don’t think that if we onboard them they’d have the best experience with Superhuman because email really is an ecosystem product,” he said. “You do it just as much on the go as you do from your laptop. There’s a lot of reasons like that. So if you’re a person who identifies that as a must-have, well, we’ll take in the survey, we’ll learn about you so we know when to reach out to you. Then when we have those things built or integrated, we’ll reach out.”

We also chatted about his obsession with email, determining pricing for a premium product, the impact of COVID-19, diversity in tech in light of the police killing of George Floyd and so much more.

Throughout the conversation, Vohra also offered up some good practical advice for founders. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On competition from Hey, the latest buzzy email app

Yeah, I’m not at all worried. I used to get worried about this. You know, 10 years ago, even as recently as five years ago, I would get worried about competitors. But I think Paul Graham has really, really great advice on this. I think he says pretty much verbatim: Startups don’t kill other startups. Competition generally doesn’t kill the startup. Other things do, like running out of money being the biggest one, or lack of momentum or lack of motivation or co-founder feuds; these are all really dangerous things.

Competition from other startups generally isn’t the thing that gets you and you know, props to the Basecamp team and everything they’ve done with Hey. It’s really impressive. I think it’s for an entirely different demographic than Superhuman is for.

Superhuman is for the person for whom essentially email is work and work is email. Our users kind of almost personally identify with their email inbox, and they’re coming from Gmail or G Suite. Typically it’s overflowing so they often receive hundreds if not thousands of emails a day, and they send off 100 emails a day. Superhuman is for high-volume email for whom email really matters. Power users, essentially, though power users isn’t quite the right articulation. What I actually say is prosumers because there’s a lot of people who come to us at Superhuman and they’re not yet power users of email, but they know they need to be.

That’s what I would call a prosumer — someone who really wants to be brilliant at doing email. Now Hey doesn’t seem to be designed for that target market. It doesn’t seem to be designed for high-volume emailers or prosumers or power users.

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