When Elle Huerta went through a devastating break-up, she used her Silicon Valley knowhow to develop an app that can mend a million millennial hearts.
It’s never easy, in the messy, tear-streaked aftermath of a break-up, to envisage something positive emerging from all that pain. But Elle Huerta does. ‘The end of a relationship is widely seen as a failure, but I don’t see it as that,’ says the tech entrepreneur. ‘It’s a jumping-off point. It’s incredible to see how much people change because of break-ups: they change jobs or move across the country or create incredible things.’
For 31-year-old Elle, that is certainly true. Five years ago, after the end of her first long-term adult relationship, she found herself ‘having a really difficult time’. The break-up, after two years together, ‘rocked me to my core’, she says. She had recently relocated to San Francisco. ‘I didn’t have a huge support network there. My closest friends were either on the East Coast [where she’d spent her college and post-college years] or in Texas [where she grew up].’
So, in the small hours, unable to sleep and with her mind racing, ‘I did what I think a lot of millennials do: search for things – including relationship and break-up advice – online.’ What she found was deeply underwhelming: flimsy promises to ‘help you get back with your ex within seven days’, or tips about posting pictures of yourself with a new love. ‘I wasn’t trying to get back together with my ex, I was trying to move forward with my life. I just needed support and advice on doing that,’ she says. Other sites advised simply ‘giving it time, which does help, but I wanted to be proactive and take steps towards helping myself’.
Elle was working in the heart of the booming tech sector, at Google in San Francisco. Why, she wondered, had no clever young tech whiz yet invented something to help the heartbroken and support them in their recovery with useful, practical techniques? ‘This is not frivolous; your love life is a core part of your existence,’ she says.
So in April this year, Elle did it herself, launching Mend, an app and online community that serves as digital friend, therapist and personal trainer, and which already has tens of thousands of users in more than 190 countries. Mend’s mission? ‘To erase the shame and taboo of heartbreak as something to just get over.’
It is a hot, dry afternoon when I visit Elle at the sprawling co-working space that is home to Mend, close to Manhattan Beach on the south side of Los Angeles. The enormous two-floor, open-plan office – all exposed pipes, indoor fire pits and skis hung on the wall – is home to multiple start-ups and designed to feel like an American summer camp, the idea being that work should not feel like work. I want to move in immediately.
The super-modern office also includes a sound booth (one of the reasons Elle selected it – Mend uses recorded audio exercises that Elle voices herself) and a nap room, of course. We settle on sofas in ‘the treehouse’, a glass box in the centre of the upper level.
Elle is very much LA-casual in her dress, but has the poise and focus of a consummate professional. She grew up with her elder brother in a small town on the outskirts of Houston. Her father was a geoscientist, from a family of entrepreneurs. Her mother also started her own business, a property investment company, at the age of 50. ‘It’s in my blood,’ shrugs Elle.
She graduated from college in the summer of 2008. It was just months before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the US economy tanked, but tech giant Google was rapidly expanding. ‘I thrived in that environment where I was trusted with huge responsibilities. I was 21 years old – it’s wild when I think about it now.’ But after five years at Google, which had grown beyond recognition, she was no longer so enamoured with the working culture and walked away.
Elle started a newsletter, then a website, which would become the basis for Mend, before moving to Los Angeles, where rents are cheaper and the tech space not so crowded. At first, she worked alone. ‘I ran dozens of content experiments, and when I learned things I would readjust.’ She eventually hired staff – though the head-count is still only 15, all but four of whom are part-time.
I shamefully admit that, as a tech-phobic Generation Y-er whose iPhone is too ancient to support the app, I have been unable to download it to test it before our meeting. Elle offers to walk me through the process on her phone instead – which, charmingly, has a severely cracked screen.