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I was out last week on a camping trip, but I have returned today to talk about email. You might say: boring! Drab! Everyone hates email. But also, everyone uses email…and maybe it's for a reason?
This week, a thesis on why email is the now-and-future gatekeeper of our workflows, followed by 4 cool companies.
It is time to care about workflows.
We've reached the point in the development of computers and software where most products at most price points satisfy our performance needs. The differentiator between tech goods is shifting from noun to verb: from the what—storage space, memory, resolution—to the how—the means and ease by which things are accomplished. To workflows and usability.
Most of us, for example, will never notice the difference between a 8-core processor and a 10-core processor. And I am not benefited by incremental quality improvements on Amazon, like whether they offer 70 or 70,000 options for notebooks. This is a real screenshot:
But I only need 1 notebook, and what I do notice is that when I want to buy it, I need to jump between 12 tabs to comparison shop. Amazon, in other words, has ample selection but no good selection workflow: a developed what but an underdeveloped how. This is often called the Innovator's Dilemma, and it's a problem you'll notice in softwares everywhere once you start to look.
Workflows at the enterprise level are especially bad.
I use 5-10 software tools per day at work, and my workflows are cluttered and tab-riddled both within and between programs. I keep different softwares open in different tabs. I fumble through two-factor protocols. I open email and realize I need to chat my coworker; I draft a document in my notes and copy it to a public google doc. This is like trying to run batting practice by yourself—you’re running around to retrieve hit balls in order to keep teeing them up:
This wastes time and energy and erases of the compounding gains of focus. That third part is actually the most important, top-of-the-pyramid component. I'm thinking of Peter Kaufman's quote:
"We’re the functional equivalent of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain. You push it up half way, and you go, ‘Aw, I’ll come back and do this another time.’ In geometric terms this is called variance drain. Whenever you interrupt the constant increase above a certain level of threshold you lose compounding."
So—how can we fix this?
We should look to consumer apps as the paragon of good workflows: their existence depends on how well they compete for our attention. Think about the genius of infinite scroll, which uses 1 motion (a downward swipe) to predict and deliver content so well that it gets us all into addicted flow states. What if every single thing we did on a computer was that satisfying? What if our work tasks could be queued up and completed that seamlessly?
There are 3 ingredients to Tiktok-esque workflow perfection:
A good workflow is simple: it allows the user to accomplish goals with an minimum number of easy actions.
A good workflow is prescient: it understands, anticipates, and provides the tools for what the user will want to do.
A good workflow is athletic: because the actions are legible and mechanistic, the user can get the user into a flow state.
I'll say it: email is the Tiktok of the enterprise.
An inbox can simultaneously hold the complexity and diversity of an enterprise to-do list like no other tool—it's interoperable with every software on earth—but it still presents as a simple sequential list with a clear set of actions. When well managed, the simplicity and repetitiveness of opening a message, reacting, and moving on (all while you view your progress toward a clean slate) can get you into a flow.
This last component—the potential for athleticism in the midst of chaos—is what sets email apart as the best candidate to live at the center of our work life. Because of this, it has an ability to eat our other, subpar workflows in secondary apps:
A moment for the counterarguments: Zapier has often been hailed as a workflow savior, and while data integrations can make in-app workflows cleaner, they do nothing to clean up multi-software workflow congestion. There has also been much (well-written) ado about Slack and Dropbox competing to be the home base of our enterprise tech stack, but neither of these are workflow tools. They suggest no clear order of operations. They are nouns—a filing system, a chatroom.
We have enough nouns in the enterprise. Email, however much we hate it, describes a verb: a protocol, a process, a workflow.
It just needs some love to rise to the occasion. Without further ado, 4 companies saving enterprise workflows by building better email:
Superhuman is upping the prescience, athleticism, and simplicity of email in a system that was designed completely from scratch.
When asked why we don’t already have a better experience, CEO Rahul Vora said “I just think that no one ever tried.” Their team started by understanding all the major problems of the gmail/outlook-dominated email experience: it’s the mental effort of translating our reverse-chronological inbox into the real order of our priorities. It’s the fact that we can’t undo-send a typo-ridden email. It’s every person who has 90 flags and 90 folders. It’s the fact that the UI/UX has no joy. Superhuman's solution is built around keyboard shortcuts that gameify the experience (think: Tetris). It can undo, template send, no-service send. It minimizes latency (the time it takes clicks to load). And it is very pretty.
They are hiring an analytics lead, an on-boarding specialist, and more.
Front is making group workflows athletic.
We forget that good teamwork (low internal transaction costs) is an existential prerequisite of being a company, and while I've focused on the issues with our individual workflows, you can imagine that problems compound when lots of people are trying to use them in coordination. Front is enabling team-wide enterprise processes to occur right from a shared email inbox, which acts as a central triage client and task hub. Their inbox scoops up all the email a company gets and routes it to the people who needs to see it. They've also added a layer of interactivity and automation—like tags, auto-routing, chat, and integrations to other software—on top of correspondence, so all the context is always brought to the one right place.
Front is hiring for customer success, sales, marketing, and more.
Folio is an email triage assistant.
Folio is focused on making email more prescient—enabling it to better predict and reflect our real priorities using AI. Their "About Us" page says it best: "our algorithms understand what an email is about and how your business works, so we can identify and sort emails into workflows that make sense for you...that random, unstructured firehose of emails gets transformed into a powerful business organizer." Instead of marketing to every person who uses email on earth, they are focusing first on streamlining email workflows in the real estate industry, which is burdened by complicated, multiparty email workflows. This is a smart customer acquisition strategy in a world of unprofitable startups relying on firehose marketing.
They are not currently hiring for any roles, but look out for future positions here.
Plum Mail is a brand new company working to transform email and messenger clients.
Plum Mail is the company that inspired me to write this issue. When I saw their platform, I realized that we have a pattern our hands: a surprising number many companies building email tools. They also aren’t hiring right now, but given that they just exited Y Combinator, they’ll potentially expand their team soon. Plum's solution has a handful of features that are original, sleek, and workflow-oriented. They place a premium on searchability, allowing you to easily find key conversations and “pin” the most important details. Conversations can be also closed for good to promote an organized inbox. They also have an interesting hour-long demo right on their home page.
Look out for roles here.
Until next time,