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Joining Ifty Nasir for the final episode of FounderMetrics season one is Hector Hughes, the revolutionary co-founder of Unplugged, a unique business that helps people switch off, digital detox, and reconnect with themselves.
Hector shares the lessons he’s learned along the way, the importance of creating a great culture, and why obsessing about the competition is not the way to success.
Tune into episode 12 or read our key takeaways below.
I was just off the back of three years as an executive at a tech startup, which was a great journey but I got a bit burnt out and dissatisfied with life by the end of it. That whole experience led me to a silent retreat in the Himalayas in 2019. And then a week after that, I quit my job (cliché I know) and started Unplugged.
We provide digital detoxes in cabins, an hour from city life. We have 20 cabins across the UK now, and we launched about three years ago, which was just after the first pandemic; it was an interesting time to launch.
I realised that most people probably haven't spent a day in the last decade off their phone.
And it's only when you take the phone away, that you realise what we're missing.
From first thing in the morning to last thing at night, we're constantly checking our phones, and when you check your phone, it takes about 15 minutes to regain composure afterwards. Most of us never leave a 15-minute gap. So, you're basically spending all day in a state of distraction.
With Unplugged, we see that for the first 24 hours after people get off their phones, they’re actually a bit anxious, because you feel like you've lost a limb. And then you just access this deep sense of calm that we're not used to.
But that's actually how we're built to operate;
We're not built to operate in this constant state of overstimulation.
And that is where so much of the stress and anxiety in society comes from. So, really all we're doing is taking that stimulation away. In nature, you've got a beautiful setting, and the cabins are great.
After leaving my tech job, I had a wider kind of dissatisfaction with life. I think I lost my joy for life and just woke up one day and said, “What am I doing?” And then a friend of mine recommended this silent retreat in the Himalayas.
And I initially laughed it off; I thought you can't do a silent retreat. What would the guys at work think? And then eventually I gave it a go.
I found the best thing is when you get your phone taken off you and you just spent 10 days cut off from the outside world.
We ordered our first cabin a month before the pandemic hit, and launched just after the first lockdown. There were a few challenges with that.
With this business model, one of the big insights is that I did lots of things wrong, especially with our previous startups when I was running growth in the final year, and we ended up slightly capitulating at the end of that year.
Initially, we didn't do anything that well; we were trying to feature match against competitors. And you know, we really just didn't stick in our lane. And so that made my job even harder.
However, if you really want to effect change, you have to make it sexy in this day and age. So I'd love to say I sat down with Ben, did an amazing market analysis, and crunched the numbers, but it was actually three hours Googling cabins on a Friday night.
We stumbled into it. Lots of things have worked out that we didn't think about. And so over time, I think we got very fortunate.
I probably borrowed more from my previous startup experience, and the big learning point is that humans are terrible at forecasting. You can make a spreadsheet and say anything, doesn't mean it's gonna happen. And it usually doesn't.
I've got a lot of stuff wrong with the numbers in the early days of Unplugged; I was definitely a little bit too laissez-faire on the cash flow management side of things, which made for a few slightly uncomfortable spots. So, more lessons were learned there.
But I think I'm very much an advocate of the back-of-napkin calculations when you're dealing with businesses, because there are so many variables, so many unknowns, and you know, we're just not good at that.
I think if you try and quantify the complexity, you just end up making mistakes. There's a good saying that:
It's better to have an approximate answer to the right question than an exact answer to the wrong question.
The other huge element of the business, perhaps the biggest one, is the group of people. You know, a company is just a group of people working towards a shared goal. And I think the health of that group of people is everything.
We really got the culture wrong at my previous startup, and it just makes everything ten times harder.
One of the things that I have been really, really keen to do is create psychological safety. That's what went wrong at the last place. As soon as people start to feel unsafe, and you start hiding mistakes, that's when you're in trouble.
It's not about whose fault it is. It's about, “Okay, how do we solve it?” And what's right rather than who's right.
So much of being a founder is managing your own psychology. And when you lose your head, it’s because stuff is out of your control. You get calmer over time, as you learn and see what's happening.
In the early days, when we had our first cabin, I remember getting delayed by a month, and that felt really stressful. I was feeling frustrated with the cabin supplier, but actually, that frustration had nothing to do with them. It was that I still hadn't raised the money, and the fact that the cabin was going to be delayed would make that harder.
I felt I was failing. And I think that's at the root of all frustration, all anger; the insecurity of feeling like I've not done my thing.
There's a good Paul Graham tweet, which I think every founder should read, which is that 99% of startups fail, and those who fail, fail because they execute rather than compete. And yet we spend so much time worrying about the competition.
There are lots of different areas we need to become experts in. So for us, we're only competing with ourselves, I think you want to be aware of what's happening in the market.
Other cabin concepts steer away from digital detox, but there are lots of other cabins out there and I think there will be a bit of a roll up, so you know, if we can just keep running with what we are doing, then there'll be big opportunities to go out there and even acquire other businesses and build a portfolio that way.
But I think to an extent, that you have to stay paranoid and keep trying to disrupt yourself.
I always have to question, are we doing the right thing? It's a tricky paradox because, on one hand, folks do one thing really well. On the other hand, how do you keep evolving? How do you keep innovating?
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Dino Myers-Lamptey’s company has worked with a diverse portfolio of clients including Pearl & Dean, Triumph lingerie and Croud.