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Better Done Than Perfect · Season 7 · Episode 3

Virality & Word of Mouth with Gaurav Vohra

You'll learn why they decided to focus on a specific set of channels, the mechanics of virality, how you can measure it in the early stages, and more.

Gaurav Vohra

How can virality and word of mouth help with your SaaS growth? In this episode, we talk to Gaurav Vohra, a startup advisor and a member of the founding team at Superhuman. You'll learn why they decided to focus on a specific set of channels, the mechanics of virality, how you can measure it in the early stages, and more.

Show Notes 📝

Thanks for listening! If you found the episode useful, please spread the word on Twitter mentioning @userlist, or leave us a review on iTunes.

Key Learnings 💡

Gaurav took up economics in university. And while it isn't exactly related to tech, dealing with qualitative and quantitative data was crucial in his tech career:

"Economics was a perfect blend of quantitative and qualitative. Little did I know that was going to be my life in my professional career: sitting in the growth field at the intersection of quantitative and qualitative."

His internship at Redgate was an eye-opening experience in the world of tech:

"From that moment on, I realized that I wanted to do something pretty technical. But I also felt like I didn't really understand business and how companies actually worked. So I wanted to spend some time learning more about that side of things."

He then went into management consulting at Oliver Wyman:

"I had the opportunity to work for some massive and well-known companies all across England and Europe at the time. I was mostly doing analytics and fairly deep data work, but I also had the opportunity to do super high-level strategic and commercial work related to marketing, sales, effectiveness, and others.

But what I was really doing was cutting my teeth and getting pretty deep into technology. Because every company actually needed more data, more insights, and more technology in order to do things better."

After about five years of consulting, he realized that his heart was in the technology space:

"Now that I learned about the business side of things and how companies operated, I wanted to get even deeper into the tech side of things. So at that time, I moved from London to San Francisco and promptly found myself as part of the founding team of Superhuman."

Gaurav has worked at Superhuman in various capacities over the last eight years. For the first five years, he focused on everything growth-related. Later, he served as the head of product, marketing, and analytics.

Outside Superhuman, Gaurav also became a startup advisor to share the lessons he learned in his own startup journey.

Superhuman's product development thesis

Superhuman has a very specific product development thesis that has separated them from their competitors:

"We don't rush to market to get the very first version of a feature or a product out there. In many ways, we have a similar strategy with Apple where we're quite happy to take our time to build the highest quality and the best version of a feature."

But the "building in silence" approach isn't for everyone:

"You really can't take this approach as a startup unless you have sufficient runway.

You need to have either raised enough funding that you have the runway to take your time to build the highest quality product or have your own revenues. For example, maybe you're default alive and your incoming revenues outweigh your costs."

And if you don't have that sufficient runway and freedom:

"Build a medium-quality product and try to get it as high quality as you can. Get to market and iterate from there."

When you're on the second path, you have to make sure you're consistently delivering quality to your users:

"They're building the product and shipping it, but it may not really meet the needs of the customer, or it might be buggy or low quality. And they're almost seduced by the appeal of having 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 users using the product.

But if it's low quality and if it has a critical bug that loses users' trust, then you've lost the opportunity with that huge number of people who could have been your biggest supporters."

Factors that contributed to Superhuman's growth

Virality and word of mouth

When viewed from a marketing lens, Superhuman's growth and new user acquisition are predominantly driven by virality. This virality has two subcategories:

  • Engineered virality is the one you can see that's directly happening in the product through referrals and invites.
  • The other one is the untrackable "dark" virality that's driven by word of mouth on social media, in offices, or in in-person interactions.

From a product perspective, Gaurav says that virality is just an emergent property that comes after all the hard work and effort put into the product.

Product quality and user experience

In niches similar to the email space, users have high expectations because of previous product experiences and the workflow is mission critical. And if your tool is also critical for users' day-to-day work:

"If these things are true, then I think the most important factor really is a very high quality product and user experience. These have to be in place."

Selection of growth and marketing channels

On top of that, Superhuman selected a subset of growth marketing channels to focus on:

"We created a package of channels that jived with the core premise of a really high quality product that had some natural word of mouth.

Because email is something that you do with other people it has a surface area. That means that the brand is continually being shared outwards with people you communicate."

With these in mind, Superhuman selected these channels:

  • Thought leadership from the founder and founding team. To establish credibility and an authoritative voice in the industry.
  • Press relations. Presenting to the tech press and the wider press.
  • Social media and community engagement
  • Virality and word of mouth

"The cool thing about picking channels like this is that it's a set of channels that work really well with each other. They complement one another and they make each other more effective."

Gaurav shares that he also sees a lot of startups make the mistake of selecting disconnected channels that leads to failure:

"It's because there was nothing else supporting it, and they spent a lot of effort in an area where there was nothing to amplify the possibility of success."

Mechanics of virality

Inherent product virality

"Does the product have some kind of mechanic at its core where it makes sense for more and more users to be using the product all with each other?"

Social media platforms are viral for this reason.

But products like Slack and Notion, their virality comes from being adopted by a whole organization:

"Every single user of the products has increased value because the product itself works that way. It makes more sense that you get more value the more people are using it."

High-quality product and experience

"Do you have an experience that is so good that people are compelled to talk about it with their friends and colleagues?"

Gaurav says that even if your product doesn't have an inherent virality to it, focusing on delivering high-quality products and user experience could boost your virality and word of mouth.

The eyewear brand Warby Parker is a great example:

"You could argue there's some actual virality there because everyone sees the glasses on your face. They might ask you, 'Where did you get those?'

But the experience of shopping at Warby Parker is so good that I would guess that a vast majority of the actual growth that they get is because people have a great experience and they're compelled to talk about it."

Measuring virality

The typical way to measure virality is through the K-factor.

"What number of users does a typical activated user bring in? You take one user and you activate them. How many more users are they going to bring in?"

You can calculate the K-factor using this basic formula:

K-Factor = i × c


i = average number of invites or referrals per user

c = average conversion rate for referred users

"If that number is anything positive, there is some amount of virality. If that number is greater than 1, then there's explosive virality because each cohort gets larger over time."

Gaurav says that unless your product is something that needs more users to become more valuable (like social media platforms), then it's almost impossible to get a K-factor > 1.

"But if your tool solves a single person's need, it's really high quality, it generates word of mouth, and users love it, a K-factor of somewhere between 0.2 to 0.4 is still really good."

Measuring virality in the early stages

Could you measure the K-factor in the early stages? The short answer is you don't because there are probably more important things to think about (like getting your product off the ground).

Understanding your channel mix

What you can do during this stage is to watch out for signs that could generate virality for your product:

"If you know that the product and experience is high-quality because of the reactions and the feedback you have from your customers, you can almost guarantee that they will also be talking to their friends and colleagues about it."

You can then set up a simple "how did you hear about us" questionnaire for your new user acquisition. These should include options such as:

  • Word of mouth (friend, colleague)
  • Social media (Twitter)
  • Other channels

The answers will help you estimate what percentage could be considered word of mouth for every new cohort.

Focus on 3-day conversions

At Superhuman, they measure 3-day conversions. This means within 72 hours of the referral event happening, what percentage has turned into customers?

"The nice thing about that is it's a consistent metric you can look at over time. So you can see if that percentage is going up or down as the months go by."

They also measure the ever conversion, which looks at what percentage of a certain number of referrals ever converted to a new customer (to include those that converted longer than 72 hours). This is closer to the idea of the K-factor.

"The 3-day conversion is what a team really needs to think about in a more immediate sense. That's the number that you want to work on if you're doing conversion optimization."

Tips to boost virality

Add features that have a network effect or team mechanic into the product

"If it's pretty cheap to do and it doesn't bend the product out of shape, then go ahead and do it. It'll be a very high ROI for engineering, product, and design."

And these features could be the "boring" ones such as team billing or user management:

"They don't have to be shiny features that go into the core products. They can just be administrative things. Even that can be enough to generate more top-of-funnel virality moments for your user base."

Remove friction in the process

"Simple things like removing button clicks to make it easier for the new user being invited to just get on board. Streamlining the funnel is also an obvious thing you can do for conversion rate optimization."

Change the packaging and pricing of your product

It's a bit unintuitive, but changing the packaging and pricing of your product could massively boost the efficacy of virality.

The biggest example of this is introducing a free trial or a freemium version of your product (if it's not already free):

"You're massively lowering barriers. You're lowering the barrier for the person sending the referral or the invite, because now it costs them nothing in terms of social capital to suggest this product to somebody. You're also lowering the barrier for the person hearing that message to try your product because it costs them nothing."

Before deciding to go freemium, it's important to weigh the risks and benefits. Learn more about it in our SaaS freemium roundtable recap.

Final advice

Don't try to bend your product towards virality.

"You have to understand the actual problem that your customers are trying to solve, and hold that in high regard. Customers can sense it when you're trying to get them to do something that doesn't have anything to do with the product."

Do talk to customers.

"Understand the perspective of the customers who made the referral and the ones who received the referral. Make sure that you have a good idea of the psychology and the emotions of both those players in that system."

Thanks for listening! If you found the episode useful, please spread the word on Twitter mentioning @userlist, or leave us a review on iTunes.

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