Podcast: Hector Hughes, Co-Founder, Unplugged

September 26, 2023 Sophie Colquhoun

Unplugged help the always on, switch off with their digital detox cabins. With 20 cabins around the UK, 1-2 hours from city life, you're encouraged to get out in nature, lock away your phone, and recharge and reset. 

We spoke to Co-Founder of Unplugged, Hector Hughes to hear more about how Unplugged started and how they've achieved sell-out months since launching in 2020. Plus, we discuss growing the team, funding, and Hector's advice for people looking to start their own business.  

Listen to the full episode below or search Industry Leaders wherever you get your podcasts. 

If you prefer, you can also read the interview below: 

Sorcha O’Boyle: Hello you’re listening to the Industry Leaders Podcast. I’m Sorcha O’Boyle and on the show with me today is Hector Hughes. Now Hector is the co-founder of Unplugged the business that is on a mission to help people escape their phones and go off-grid. I’ll let Hector explain exactly what that means although you probably know already because their get away cabins are nearly always booked out. But before we get to that Hector, it’s great to chat with you, how are you?

Hector Hughes: Yes, so good to be here. I’m very well thank you and very excited to have this conversation.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, I’m delighted to have you because I think your business is unusual, it’s different. So, I wonder could you tell us for anyone who doesn’t know what exactly is Unplugged?

Hector Hughes: For sure, so very simply we do digital detoxes off-grid cabins in the countryside. So, we currently have 20 cabins across the UK and what basically happens when you arrive at one of our cabins, it’s always three nights, and you upon arrival padlock your phone in a box, we give you a map and a Nokia and leave you to it and that’s all there is to it.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Fantastic and can you tell me where did the idea come from?

Hector Hughes: So, it came from, I guess, my own experience burning out and used to work with Ben my now co-founder. We were early employers of a tech start up, so it was iPad Till Systems, very different. And we did the whole high growth, international expansion. Opened up in the US and Australia and then 2019 just started to I think lose my utter joy for life and just really kind of feel a dissatisfaction with it all and this led to a silent retreat in the Himalayas in September 2019 which was at this Buddhist Temple on top of a mountain. And when that first got suggested, I laughed it off, I said, “I can’t do that”. But got myself out there, and it was incredible. It was this beautiful Buddhist Temple and the best thing about it is when you get there, they take your phone off you and you just spend 10 days cut off from the outside world. So very cliché but I came back from that, quit my job a week later and that was off the back of a conversation with Ben. He’d left the start-up at that point, but we stayed friends. He’s not the kind of guy you’d find at a silent retreat any time soon and we spoke about how there’s a lot of stigma around retreats and meditation and so much the benefit is just getting people offline and into nature. And there wasn’t really any accessible solutions to do that, you know, everything was quite high friction. Obviously, some people going off and camping in the Lake District, but a lot of people just weren’t getting out of the city and crucially offline, so we really wanted to make something that filled that gap.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Oh, fantastic and I mean can you tell us about the retreat because that’s just fascinating. Did you find it difficult? Did you find you missed your phone? Did you find like-, I’d say some people feel like they’ve had their right hand cut off if they don’t have their phone.

Hector Hughes: For sure, for sure. So, the retreat was a real roller coaster like you go through all the emotions. I for whatever reason was just, I was very ready at that point in my life to just some time offline. It’d been a hectic few months to get me there and so by the time I got there I was just like “Take my phone off me”. So, the, getting off the phone and the silence where actually a real blessing and a gift. So, I really didn’t find that tricky at all and found a lot of joy in that. Especially the silence actually. Whenever I speak to people about silent retreats they always say, “Oh God, I don’t know if I could be silent for ten days”. But then most people you meet who have done them are like “Actually that was almost the nicest thing about it. It just takes a lot of, you know, a lot of kind of pressure off. You know that we’re talking all day and actually it’s quite nice to just not need to for 10 days. So that was a real joy. The retreat I did was called Intro to Buddhism. So, it was basically half Buddhist philosophy and half meditation. I was not religious going into it, I still don’t describe myself as religious. But there was a real opener, I think I was very arrogant and naive about what role religion played in society up until that and then it really opened my eyes to actually religion is really just a kind guide to living a good life and obviously that goes wrong in certain cases through our history, like religion has caused many issues. But I think the Buddhists have a very nice way of looking at the world and there’s a lot of wisdom in that. So I really enjoyed that part of it as well and then if you’re meditating for four, five hours a day it’s hard not to come out of that feeling good.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, for sure and essentially what you do is take peoples phones off them when you go into the cabin, you give them a Nokia, you give them a map and you just leave them to it. So, do people go on walks? What actually do people end up doing?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, well we were really worried about this before launching. We were like, “Oh my God, people are going to get bored, we’ve got to put on all these activities. But the time really goes pretty fast, and the key is just to get people off their phones. What we don’t realise is basically you pick your phone up first thing in the morning and then we’re just checking it all day until we get to bed basically. And what that does is it just means you’re in this constant state of overstimulation and the challenge is that we’ve now completely normalised that so it’s normal to feel overstimulated and that causes us to be anxious, stressed and it’s only when you take that away-, so it takes about a day for the mind to settle down and as you said for the first 24 hours you are a bit more anxious because you do feel like you’ve lost a limb and then the mind just starts to settle down, you access this deep sense of calm. Really what we are doing is helping people get to that place. Because we’re not about changing your habits in a few days we’re about changing your perspective and seeing what’s possible with a few days offline. Because again text’s great, it’s here to stay, it’s the future and you know, we’re only going to spend more time online but that just highlights the importance and the benefit of spending time offline. But what do people do they read, they walk, they talk if they’re a couple. It’s really just about those simple things done well that maybe we don’t do so much of because I think so much of happiness and calm and kind of resetting is about taking away. We always feel like we need to add more but actually if you just take away a few of the things that are causing the stress and the anxiety then magical things kind happen.

Sorcha O’Boyle: For sure and can you tell me a little about the three-day effect.

Hector Hughes: Yeah, for sure, So the three-day effect scientific study that found that you need about three days in nature to properly reset. So again, as I mentioned with 24 hours take the mind to settle down. It’s so kind of deeply ingrained in us, the stress and just kind of accumulated stimulation of living in a city. Actually, getting out to nature, which is where we were for thousands of year and where we’re from. And it just has this amazing, calming effect on our body. So, what they found is that 72 hours is what you need to properly reset. That’s not to say that go for a walk in a park or just getting any exposure to nature isn’t going to give huge benefits but it’s like just give yourself 72 hours that we can all take that on a Monday.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, for sure. I’m sure we’ll come back to kind of the benefits and so one but take us away from lovely restful, mindful conversation. I think your growth story’s also really, really impressive and really interesting. I suppose you kind of came around at an odd time you were early 2020 I think when you found it which is possibly not ideal, but maybe it was, I don’t know, you can tell me. But what do you think you got right in the early days that got you off to a good start?

Hector Hughes: It’s a great question. We learnt a lot of lessons from our previous start up. I think came into it with a lot of things that we got wrong previously that were kind of correctable. Not to say we got everything right we’ve got lots of things wrong as well. But some of the things we’ve got right I think is really getting the people part right. So, a company is just a group of people and who those people are is everything. So, I think being really careful about who we hire and how we hire has been huge. So again, we’re not a big team, we’re 11 people now, but getting that right and really focusing on culture. I think creating a culture of psychological safety is super important. Previously I’ve seen when things go wrong at our previous companies and lose our psychological safety and it becomes about whose right rather than what’s right and I think that’s a toxic place to be because you then end up burying the stakes. Like people go safe with the share failures etc. So, I think at the start, as a founder you’re doing everything but that’s on scale and so you’ve got to do it at the start but then it’s all about building the team and people who come and do it. And the other thing I think is just focusing on – ironically given the business we’re in – but you need to make it sexy in this day and age and kind of days of social medica and frankly the virility you can achieve through that, and I was running growth at the previous company, didn’t do a very good job of it, wasn’t great in my role. But one of the insights there apart from not being good at myself, was that we just didn’t have anything particularly unique, we were trying to be everything to everyone and it wasn’t a product that did a good job at selling itself so I think you can build a lot of that into how you design a product and the simpler it is the more the more tangible it is for people but also sexy. The good thing about cabins is that you have this kind of sex appeal for lack of a better phrase.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, yeah, they do and why do you think the product resonates with the customers? Why is it so powerful?

Hector Hughes: It’s a great question. I think it’s tapping into a subconscious feeling that almost hasn’t become common knowledge yet. That we all feel anxiety and stress through our devices and we’re perhaps not aware of it because we just go though our days in this state of overstimulation and with mindless effect that you’re not really kind of present with what’s going on. So, I think when people come across what we do it evokes a strong reaction. And that can be either way. Some way are like, “There is no way I’m doing this I can never spend three days without my phone”. But other are like, “This is exactly what I need. So, again no genius by us we just stumbled onto a solution that actually works really well and is simple, right, just go and spend three nights in a cabin, off your phone, by yourself or with a partner, whatever it is. So, I think that has really helped make it tangible for people. A lot of solutions out there, today, especially in the let’s call it the wellness space are a little too complicated and in the word wellness I think is a bit tricky and maybe brings up the wrong ideas for people. So, I think it's just about, simple, you know, you are stressed out by your phone come spend three news without it in a cabin.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, I think you are underselling yourself a little bit in terms of you’re doing it. I think, like you’re actually you are being spied about it. When I go in and I look at the website I go, “Oh God, I’d love to do that though”. It’s not something that’s just happened, organically.

Hector Hughes: Like I said about the team there’s a lot of much smarter people than me kind of doing a lot of great things on that side of things for us and I was like I can’t any credit for that. But at the core is a simple idea.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, yeah. And can you tell me a little bit about the people that you have? Because I always find start-ups really interesting in terms of how you went about picking people and how you go about handing over ownership or control of something onto somebody new?

Hector Hughes: For sure, great question. At first on the hiring side, I think maybe one slightly unconventional thing we look for is actually instead of looking for the brand names I should go for people who are off the back of failures. I think definitely I have a tendency towards that. So rather than hiring people fresh of a few years at Revolut, hire the people who have just come off the back of a failure. And a few reasons for that one is I think Ben and basically came from that, that world as well so our startup kind of imploded towards the end. It actually went on to be successful in the end, but our chapter ended in failure. And it’s when things go wrong that you really kind to see the nature of what’s happening. When things so right you’ve got a narrow view for like this thing will really work but you maybe don’t have such a great sense of the whole. So, I think it’s, you know, by seeing what can go wrong gives you a real understanding of what’s happening and then also fundamentally people are just undervalued off the back of a failure. If you’ve worked for Google, you’re going to command a very high salary. Maybe deserve it but it’s almost that badge name. You know people who say his LinkedIn Bio is ex-Mackenzie great but, you know, in my mind as an employer it biases me, right. I think “Oh my gosh this person must be great and when they say anything it’s like “Wow, you know they’re ex-Mackenzie”. But actually, the person off the back of a failure hasn’t got any of that and you still want to pay them well and fairly, but you don’t know have to overpay them because they went to work for this company. And the last one I think is just people have something to prove, you know, we have something to prove coming into this because we don’t have much to show from the last one apart from some great learnings and some great connections and you know want to go out and actually make it work this time. So, I think it’s, when you get kicked by life and you fail that you really want to come back stronger. So that’s a bit about how we thought about hiring and then the other thing is just hire for character so hire like nice people, hire people with intellectual humility. Again, it’s not about being right it’s about what’s right, you know, and just really focusing on those kind of people and I think if you bring the right people in then it creates that culture. Like whom adds the culture creates the culture. And then in terms of the delegating, trusting, for my numerous flaws I think one strength I have is, I have a very easy time trusting people. So, I’m actually much better at the delegating than I am at doing the work. So, I was always hopeless at the various jobs I had to do back in day but delegating fundamentally you are trusting that person and I think that is, the people that have a hard time delegating are people who have, you know, very detailed orientated, have a great kind of high quality by themself. I’ll be honest I’m really not a details guy, fairly dyslexic. I have a high bar for myself but not for others. So obviously want to have a high bar for the company and so actually I just choose to surround myself with people that have that high bar and fundamentally again I’m not going to blame someone because they didn’t do it right, it’s like, “Oh why didn’t they do it right? And what could I have done better and how can I support them in this?” So, I think it’s really about that it’s really about reframing your role as, “Hey my role here is to support them to do their job”. Like, not questioning are they the right person blah, blah, blah. It’s like you’ve got to trust them until they give you a reason not to. If it was someone, really some work out and they steal from the company or whatever it might be then of course you’ve got to take a decision. But you’ve hired this person you’ve brought them onto the team you got to back them, you’ve got to trust them, and you’ve got to be all in. And I think that when people start to, you know, resentment slips in and people kind of project their insecurities or their frustrations then that’s when relationships can get toxic and people pick up on that, you know. Like people reciprocate, you are not going to trust someone then they’re not going to trust you back. So, I think if you can just be as trusting and open as possible then that comes back.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And that, that fits in with something you’ve written about approaching people with unconditional compassion as well. I just really like the phrase unconditional compassion that kind of struck a chord with me. Can you explain a little bit what you mean by that?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, for sure. Again, I think compassion’s a bit of a, I want to say dirty word where it kind of sounds very woo, woo and so I think we almost discredit it. But compassion to me is just a kind of complete just love and respect for others you’re dealing with, and I think what it does it just takes you out of yourself. Because all of our problems, like you get problems, you know, it’s when our ego comes up and it says, “I’m annoyed that this thing happened because you know this person’s let me down or whatever it is. And I think if you’re operating from that place of compassion which is hard to do all the time, you know, it’s not binary that you can act with more and more compassion and work on that, then it just takes you out of your own head. I think it’s pretty amazing that the people we have on our team are people who are helping me and I’m just a small cog in the machine but helping me do this thing. We’re all working together to make this change in the world and that’s pretty amazing and so like I want to have a, have a loving and supportive attitude with all those people and again it is reciprocated. The kinder you show up the world the kinder the world’s going to be for you.

Sorcha O’Boyle: For sure. I wonder could you tell me about something that maybe be difficult or surprising that’s happened at Unplugged. It could be something that’s surprised you about how customers respond to a certain ventures or an idea. Can you tell me about a situation like that and maybe how it’s changed, how you approached the business.

Hector Hughes: Yeah, interesting. I mean not on the customer side, but I guess talking about the company side. We fundamentally have chosen a very capital-intensive business. We own and operate our own cabins; cabins are expensive, and I think I went into it with a real arrogance. I was like we’re not going to build our business for investors. You know, we’re going to focus on running our business and you know, investors can kind of join if they want. And that’s great and obviously it needs to be about the customer and the change you’re making in the world, but you do also need to consider that side of things if you do need money. So, you need to also build a business that is also attractive for people to invest in and that works. So, it took me a long time to just figure out how to sort that out and I basically have the structure that, so that it is attractive to people because we’re just kind of sat in that this weird space without going to into the weeds of it. Where we’re not really [inaudible 00:16:08] it’s not really a kind of institutional debt so there was a lot of figuring that one out. So, maybe that’s not exactly the answer you were looking for but that was a big learning from my side of just like really understanding what the game you’re playing is and you’re playing with lots of games all the time it’s just my role my as a founder and CEO. A lot of it is also just getting the resources to make sure we can deliver on this mission and that’s the people which we’ve already talked about. There’s also the capital and I just have to figure that out. It’s got there but it’s taken time and you just have to find a way and if it’s your doing the wrong thing than you need to change course and figure out a way to do ir. So, I’ve done lots of iterating on the back end that people don’t see about just how we finance these things, how we work as a business to make sure that we can do this, the same end product which is getting people offline and into nature. So that’s been a challenge, some of it surprised me, big learning curve for sure.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, and that can be another the invisible work, it has to get done.

Hector Hughes: Sure. Yes.

Sorcha O’Boyle: But computer work it gets intense, yeah. Is it time you’re looking kind of forwards now like where do you want bring if or how many are you going to get off on digital detoxes.

Hector Hughes: Well, I think the futures much more valuable than we think. We think it’s this very deterministic thing and it was always going to be that way, it’s not the case and actually we do have the power to move it in a different direction and I think all this is is a really interesting social experiment. If we can get to the stage where we normalise digital detox and we can get hundreds of thousands or millions of people spending a few nights offline in the cabin, three times a year, then that will create some profound changes to society, and I don’t know what they are but really excited to find out.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Mm for sure. I would imagine that the idea resonates quite a lot with artists and writers, would I be right?

Hector Hughes: For sure yeah, yeah. We have a lot of creatives going so people writing books. We always get tagged in the pictures of people who painted the cabin or sketched the cabin that sort of thing which is nice. Couples are the other, I think big surprise actually where we saw this as when we were conceiving it, very much kind of solitary retreat and that would probably be the predominate customer space but actually it is probably 80% couples, and we get a lot of feedback that this is the first time in our eight-year relationship that we’ve actually spent a day offline together which is amazing to see. And we get, we probably had 20 engagements to date that we know about. Yeah, there’s some really cool stories like that and so I think that’s been a really interesting surprise as well.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And have customers come back to you with any kind of surprising observations or things that have arisen from a stay in your cabin?

Hector Hughes: Yes, it’s hard to say because nothings too surprising by now, because we’ve heard it all. Like in the early days we were meeting everyone, so Ben and I were actually cleaning the cabin. We’d check our people in, check them out. And one of the really surprising thing was you look at someone, bearing in mind they’re only in there for three nights. We would see people on a Thursday, see them again on the Sunday and they would look ten years younger. It’s a remarkable thing. Just because you have all this pent-up stress, and you know you’re holding that in your face. So, I think that was, that was a really big surprise. And it’s one of the big things that we hit over and over again is people just realise that the world doesn’t end if you spend three nights offline. I think we all have this narrative that we are too important to go and do go something this or we just couldn’t possibly. And I think it’s when you’ve got that narrative in your head that you probably need it the most. You know, I still, I obviously run this business try to do this as much as possible like probably every 3 months or so and every time I still think to myself, “Oh God, can I justify it right now? They’re busy”. And then after a day or two acclaiming I just think obviously in hindsight it’s so obvious that that was the right thing to do but the narrative persists.

Sorcha O’Boyle: If you were to talk to somebody whose I’d say starting off their own business whether it’s something totally different to Unplugged or anything general, what kind of advice would you give them?

Hector Hughes: First of all, I think the first steps the hardest one so just started, get in motion you know things in motion say in motion. And there’s a million reasons not to start something and 99.9% of business fail right there before they even get started. So, just started, like whatever that looks like. And another great phrase I heard was don’t prepare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter eleven. Because I think you’d just see endless examples of people who are further ahead, and they’ve figured it all out and it looks so easy. You know like people can hear someone like me preaching on a podcast and we’re only three and half years in so it’s fairly early on our journey and we don’t see everything they went through and just all the things they did wrong and also just what’s special about you? You know, someone could hear me talking about some of the things that I consider my strengths today. What they don’t see is all my weaknesses and things that they do that are so much better than I could ever do. And the last bit of advice would be just leaning to what makes you unique because I think there’s no right answer about how to run a company and find out what your supers powers are, what really gives you energy because managing your energy and your psychology is what’s going to make this work. But the biggest risk to any start up is the founders psychology. It’s that you burn out, you kind of loose your head when things get stressful, and you stop trying. You quit and you stop learning. So, I think if you can get that piece right and do something that really excites you, energies you and fundamentally it sets you up to kind of give this a proper run then it’s going to put you ahead of a lot of the things going on.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, for sure and like as I said earlier you do write about this thing quite a lot so if anyone wants to find more [Inaudible 00:21:39] where can they go?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, for sure, thank you for the plug but I write a weekly newsletter at unplugging.substack.com which I get a load of dry ads of. A lot of that’s intrinsic as well. I think it’s a really nice, always feels like a chore but then actually sitting down and just really expanding on an idea is quite a rare thing in this day and age. I’ve got a joy out of that we’d love to see anyone on there, like always reply if I don’t just message me on that.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Lovely. Okay, so if anyone would like to send a message there you go, go right ahead. And just before we wrap up can you tell me which is your favourite cabin that you’ve got.

Hector Hughes: Good question I couldn’t possibly say that. I went up a couple of weeks ago to see our latest cabin in the North of Wales which is called Marley and that is a beautiful spot. It’s a three-dozen acre estate in a Welsh valley, up in the hills and they are really, really beautiful. So, I haven’t stayed there yet but I’ll give Marley a shout out as the current top of mine.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay, brilliant, well listen Hector I would love to come and stay in what sounds absolutely gorgeous. But listen thank you for coming on as our guest it’s been a pleasure.

Hector Hughes: Such a pleasant chat. Thanks so much for having me and yeah, really appreciate it.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay. Take care.

Sorcha O’Boyle: That was Hector Hughes co-founder of Unplugged. Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the Industry leaders podcast and don’t forget that you can catch up on all of our previous episodes wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, take care and bye, bye.



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