Unplugged Founder Hector Hughes on Why You Need to Unplug and Avoid Burnout

Written by Tom Fairey

14 March, 2022

One Man’s Journey from Globetrotting Tech Startup to Preaching the Value of Silence

Hector Hughes joined a tech startup straight out of university and was all in. He jumped from role to role, including sales, head of product, and head of growth. At one point he was making 100 cold calls a day.

The tech startup, Nobly POS, was one of the up and coming point of sale companies battling for market share with Square. In those cold calls, Hughes would stress the time savings that this iPad POS would give to companies — and the pitch worked, for a while at least.

Early versions of Nobly were buggy, and that left many customers upset. Hughes switched roles as the company struggled to gain a foothold in the U.K. market. It ran an end game around the U.K. by expanding into Australia and the United States, but as Hughes told me during a recent interview for my podcast, Back Yourself, the enterprise was “a house of cards.”

Hughes spent time in Uruguay developing the product and flew around the world as the company opened offices. But, rather predictably, the company folded, with the founder readily admitting that hiring fresh out of school students may have played a role in its demise.

It was 2019. Barely into his 20s, Hughes was burned out.

The Ultimate Antidote for Burnout: A Silent Retreat in the Himalayas

From the age of 15 until the day Nobly died, Hughes admits he led a life teetering on the brink of excess. He partied, took drugs, and lived it up. With Nobly gone, a friend suggested he adopt something quite the opposite: silence. He decamped to a silent retreat in the Himalayas in northern India, near the Dalia Lama’s home, and in the silence came to realize that he did not need his phone, or the 24/7 bark of email notifications, to find a sense of worth or purpose.

Transcendental meditation, where he chanted a short mantra twice a day for 20 minutes at a time, helped drive his focus and clarity. He sensed his dissatisfaction and felt what he had been focusing his life on was bollocks.

“I waste most of my day,” he said. “Getting busy with stuff that did not move the needle.”

Transcendental meditation helped to clear his mind, calm him, and create a sense of focus.

“My life up until that point had been so dictated by what people thought,” he said. “I was such a people pleaser, a yes man. I had been living life on everyone else’s terms.”

The eye-opener was a talk on attachment and the idea that he needed something to be happy.

“The big realization was that I really do have everything I need to be happy right here,” he added. “I came out bursting with joy.”

Hughes figured that if meditation worked for a skeptic like him, it could work well for others, too. A friend let him know about meditation cabins, where people lock their phones in a box and seclude themselves in a cabin. He flew to the U.S. and Belgium to see their meditation cabins. He ordered his first cabin in January 2020 and received it in June, just in time for government lockdown easing.

Getting People Off Their Phones and Into Nature

It’s hard to say no to salary, and that’s just what Hughes did when he founded his company, Unplugged.

Unplugged is based on the premise that more than three-quarters of people check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up and more than half check work emails on weekends and while on holiday. Unplugged sets up beautiful cabins about an hour away from a city so people can unplug from their devices and recharge in nature and indulge in wellness experiences.

The cabins are isolated, with many situated along the edges of meadows or woods, and have everything you need for a comfortable stay, including towels, cooking essentials, toiletries, and books. They run on solar power and while they are remote, you are close enough to a town that you can venture in for a drink or run to a shop if you need supplies. Think of it as an upscale one-room hotel without the wifi and pool scene. Each cabin sleeps two, though children are welcome as long as they can squeeze under the covers or into a corner. Pets are welcome, too. Cabins also come with paper maps, a Polaroid camera, and an old Nokia should you need to make an emergency call.

How to Get People to Invest In an Idea They’ve Never Heard Of

Hughes and his co-founder ran a scrappy fundraising campaign, scoring small amounts from a wide variety of funding sources. 

Bookings were slow, with many fearful of the idea of unplugging for three nights — the standard stay. At first, only friends and family booked (thanks to a discount), but then a potential investor stayed, the news ran a story, and soon the operation expanded from one cabin to six.

The journey has been quick and generally successful, but Hughes has had his share of mess-ups along the way. Many of his mistakes were what he terms as “cabin specific,” such as complicated electrical wiring for the solar power. Others involve talking to customers. They are there — but it’s easy to over-analyse your situation in your hunt for them.

The Takeaway

Who does not need a break? But the idea of disconnecting from tech is frightening — and doing it for three days in a row is terrifying for some. Hughes found the value of putting his phone away, and is now looking to share it with others.

Pitch to us

Want to be on the show? Then we want to hear your pitch. What’s your special skill?

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Get bonus Back Yourself content, inspiring its way into your inbox every week.