If you’ve ever gone through the startup route in your career, you’ll know that one of the biggest things you sacrifice is security. Instead of getting (or keeping) a stable job that keeps you comfortable, you take a leap of faith and decide to build something you believe in, hoping the payoff is greater in the long-run.
This, however, wasn’t exactly the case for ex-Googler Ellen Huerta, as she wasn’t leaving her six-figure job to start a company. According to her article on Medium that went viral:
“When people ask me what it was like to leave, I liken my experience of leaving Google to breaking up with my college boyfriend. He was brilliant, good looking, respected, and everyone loved him — I even loved him — but he wasn’t the one. It used to catch up with me on long bus rides my senior year, staring out the window, and I’d get a knot in the pit of my stomach. Realizing that I had to let him go was a slow and difficult process, but it was the right thing to do and I eventually mustered up the courage to break both of our hearts. I wasn’t sure I would ever meet someone like him again, but leaving that relationship opened me up for so much more later on, and I continue to think of that decision as one of the most pivotal in my life. It took me several years to reach the same conclusion about corporate life at Google — it was almost unimaginable to give up a salary, a manager who treated me like family and co-workers I genuinely considered friends. I had worked so hard for it. I couldn’t let it go, even though I was in many ways unhappy.”
Although she wasn’t sure what she was going to do after she left, her gut told her that leaving was the right thing to do. The first thing she did after she left was move to Venice in Los Angeles, something she had always wanted to do. The next few months were spent on her exploring different projects with a focus on developing herself. Then she discovered her answer and founded a startup that aims to help people get over breakups.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Ellen at her beautiful apartment in sunny Venice. In this interview, she elaborates more on her process of deciding to leave Google and gives us the scoop on her new startup Mend.
From my research, you mentioned multiple times that you have been learning to say “no”. Why is saying “no” such a challenge for you?
“I think it’s still a challenge for me. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I don’t always make time for myself or I didn’t always make time for myself. I don’t think it’s just me but I think its a problem a lot of people have where you don’t want to miss out on something or someone asks you for something and you want to be able to do it or to say ‘yes’. I sort of reached a breaking point when I was living in San Francisco where I felt like I had lost control over my time. So I actually had a really great conversation with my mom about it that I just felt like I didn’t have enough time for myself and I was spending all my time doing things, always busy, always around people, and I’m an introvert so that was pretty difficult for me. She gave me some really good advice that I still think about all the time, which is that you have to approach making time for yourself like saving money. So if you always get your paycheck and put it in the bank account you are going to end up spending it all unless you set aside some of it in a separate account in the very beginning. So I’ve always taken that approach, well not always. I now take that approach, where at the beginning of my week, if I’m planning my week, I try to set aside time to be alone, to think or just to, like, go for a bike ride to the beach and that has been really helpful., and that actually makes it a lot easier I think to say no to things. People are actually a lot more understanding than I expected if you tell the truth. So I think a lot of times I would make up excuses like, “Oh I’m doing this” or “I’m really busy,” or whatever. Now I’m more honest and I just say, “Hey, I’ve had a really busy weekend, I feel like I just need to go for a bike ride or just read for a few hours,” and people don’t mind that as much. They mind when you are flaky.”
Right, we have that issue in L.A. a lot.
“Yeah, so I hear. I’m learning too.”
Would you say you were on a mental auto-pilot every time you said yes to your friends who tried to populate your schedule?
“It sort of was like autopilot. It was like being in overdrive actually, just really busy, and every single part of my day was planned, the weekends too, it wasn’t just during the week work related things. So, I’m now much more mindful about how I spend my time and I really think about how busy I want to be. And for me, being busy all the time isn’t good anymore. I really enjoy having that downtime when I can really think about things. That was a massive seat change in my life.”
That kind of resonates with an article I read recently on how people seem to always like being busy nowadays.
“I think ‘busyness’ is like a badge of honor, or has become a badge of honor in tech which I think can be pretty scary, so I’m trying to get away from that as much as I can.”
You gave a great analogy in your Medium post where leaving Google was like breaking up with your college boyfriend who had all the qualities of a perfect significant other. For the sake of our readers, tell us a little bit about your process of coming to the conclusion that you had to leave Google in order to be happy and true to yourself.
“It was a long process and I actually wrote that article to make sense of it myself because it was really difficult to explain when it was happening. I used that analogy because there were so many good things about it, but I wasn’t really happy and I couldn’t figure out why, so I went through this process of optimizing my life to figure out what my true north was and if I had gotten away from that or not. There were a lot of things that I did, I say optimize my life because I was really optimizing almost for clarity, I took a month off work, so I stepped away from the nine to five, temporarily on vacation, but I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed in San Francisco and sort of got back to basics. So one of the things I wanted to do was think about what I liked to do when I was little and to do more of that. I had heard somewhere from someone that that’s a good way to figure out what you like and what you are good at. So, I spent more time doing things that I liked to do a long time ago. I started writing again, I was reading more, I was spending more time alone, I started dancing again, and I think taking a step back and reconnecting with things that I really enjoyed doing gave me ‘mind space’ to reflect on where I was in my career and what I wanted to do next, but it wasn’t like I did these three things and then I reached the decision, it definitely was a slow process.”
Leaving Google was obviously a big decision for you. Would you recommend doing what you did to anyone who has a comfortable 9 – 5 job but wants to start their own business?
“I think it’s a really personal decision. I did not leave Google to start a company. I left Google because I felt like I couldn’t be there anymore and that I needed to sort of explore a couple of different things that I was interested in. I think you can do that without quitting your job and I know a lot of people who have done that very successfully; they are able to set aside time for their side projects and devote time to it outside of their nine to five job, so I think that works for some people. For me personally, it didn’t. I really felt like I needed to take a leap of faith. I trusted myself that I sort planned enough in advance, like financially and just with everything else, that I could survive without a paycheck for a while. I felt I really needed to take the risk and give myself complete freedom to explore a couple of things that I was interested in and figure out what my next step would be. So for me that’s sort of how it worked out, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone because it’s pretty scary to step out of that routine and that security and you really do need to have some plan. It wasn’t like I was just leaping into the unknown, per say.”
So it wasn’t like you left Google because you wanted to be an entrepreneur. It was more like you felt that it wasn’t right for you anymore?
“In my article I use the analogy of being on a road and feeling like I was going down the wrong road and I didn’t necessarily know which exit to take, but I just felt like I couldn’t keep going down because the road that I was on wasn’t leading to a place I wanted to be. You know, I wasn’t a life Googler. I looked at executives and senior people at Google and that wasn’t exactly what I wanted and I wasn’t necessarily solving the problems that I wanted to solve when I was at Google which I think was a big thing. You need to be really excited about the problems you are solving.”
Tell us a little bit about your new startup Mend.
“Sure! So the next challenge I’m tackling with Mend is heartbreak. I’m really fascinated by heartbreak, I think it’s this really universal source of suffering, like this really ancient thing right, that we all go through, I’ve gone through it, you’ve gone through it, and still the conventional wisdom, or at least what people tell you, is that it just takes time, that’s the advice that you get. I remember when I was going through a really bad breakup a couple of years ago, that was the advice I was given, “It just takes time,” and in that moment I was like, “that is not a good enough answer,” you know, I need a better answer. I want to be more proactive about it. I’m not reactive about a lot of the big things that happen in my life so why should I be reactive about this breakup I’m going through? So I actually became a little obsessed about understanding the science and psychology behind romantic attachment and love and relationships and got really interested in learning about what happens when a relationship ends. It was sort of through that process that I realized I was developing, almost inadvertently, a breakup plan. That plan basically got me through the breakup and I found myself giving bits and pieces of that advice to friends and it was having an impact for them and I just realized, “Hey maybe this is something interesting,” and that was a while ago, so that was sort of the beginning of it and I wanted to figure out a way to scale that. So I sat down maybe six months ago and built up this huge business plan with all this data and all these fake revenue projection numbers that are totally made up and at the end of it, was just a little overwhelmed about how to get started. So I read a bunch of things, I read The Lean Startup and I read this great essay called “Pretotyping” by Alberto Savoia, and realized that I was going about it the wrong way, that I needed to sort of scrap that 80 page business plan and just test to make sure that the idea of Mend was a good and viable idea.”
Have you gone through any challenges in entrepreneurship because of your age and gender?
“…I haven’t, maybe ask me in six months and we’ll see, but I feel like in these early stages, I haven’t really run into anything. I think actually my age is an asset in some ways, and I remember feeling that way at Google. A big part of my job was going and meeting with C-levels at these big companies and talking with them about how to grow their business and we always felt comfortable because we really understood how the digital space was evolving and that was our expertise, so it didn’t really matter how old we were or that these C-levels were in their 50s and 60s, we felt like we had something to offer. So, I haven’t really come up against anything.”