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].’
Relationships are emotional, chemical and physical – and that’s hard to break
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.
Elle at Mend HQ
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.
Motto ‘No mud, no lotus’ – Thich Nhat Hanh
Favourite romcom You’ve Got Mail.
Best book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.
Go-to album Diva by Annie Lennox.
Most romantic city Tokyo.
Stuck in a lift with… Steve Martin and his banjo.
Best way to clear your head A walk to the beach with my pup.
How do you find inspiration? Write.
Podcast pick Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin.
On a Sunday we’d find you… Making pancakes, biking to the farmer’s market and grilling dinner with friends outside.
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.
‘You’ll still miss getting messages from your ex, but Mend hopes to fill that void,’ says Elle
It is Elle’s voice that welcomes you in, with a tiny on-screen Elle ‘avatar’ who acts as your guide. We begin by inputting my basic personal information: age, gender, etc – and the date of my last break-up (so the app can assess just how raw the user is and prescribe content accordingly) and the reason for it, which I can select from a range of options. Several fit the bill, but ‘commitment’ is the most all-encompassing.
‘Commitment is definitely in the top break-up reasons,’ nods Elle as I tap the screen. I then have to input when I last had contact with my ex. I wince; it was November 8 last year, the night of the US election. Sometime around 3am, in despair at Trump’s triumph, I crumbled and sent a text (to which he never replied, as it happens). ‘The election was very triggering for a lot of people,’ Elle tells me. The app was in beta testing at the time. ‘People were asking me if there was a political track on it that they could use, to help them deal with Trump’s win. Many people went through the same stages and emotions you would after a break-up: shock, anger, struggling to find a sense of purpose.’
GET OVER A BREAK-UP THE HEALTHY WAY
Unfollow, unfriend and take a digital detox.
Focus on self-care: nourishing meals, friend time, sleep, meditation, baths, massages.
Get fresh air and be active every day to get your happy hormones going.
Write a diary to release your emotions and reflect on what you’re learning about yourself.
Start replacing ‘we’ and ‘our’ with ‘I’ and ‘my’ to solidify your independence.
Data duly entered, Mend will deliver daily audio trainings of between two and 20 minutes: meditations, prompts and visualisations covering everything from post-break-up sleep to redefining your sense of self. The first 28 days is the ‘heartbreak cleanse. It’s the triage phase, when you can’t get out of bed, you can’t eat, you just can’t stop thinking about your ex,’ says Elle.
The idea is to help the newly single gain some sense of stability and structure. ‘And it’s bitesized, so it’s not overwhelming.’ There is also a Spotify playlist, a book club on reading site Goodreads and a Mend Facebook group to provide further support and community.
In the past, I confess, I believed in being friends with exes, rather than severing all contact. Now, longer in the tooth, I believe a clean break to be critical for recovery. Mend agrees. Elle is a devotee of Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who has written about the physiological effects of love and who recommends 60 days of no contact to detox. ‘It takes that long to break the neurochemical addiction,’ Elle explains.
In the throes of a romantic relationship – particularly in the early stages – levels of oxytocin and dopamine, two of the so-called ‘happy hormones’, responsible for feelings of bonding and of pleasure – soar. ‘At root, it is a dependency on someone else,’ says Elle. ‘It’s emotional, chemical and physical – and that’s hard to break.’
Elle with Planet of the Apps mentor Jessica Alba
In our hyper-connected world, romantic relationships often involve near-constant contact, with younger people in particular messaging scores of times a day. When a relationship ends, a gaping void of communication opens up, compounding heartbreak with feelings of extreme isolation. Mend attempts to ameliorate this by sending ‘push notifications’ to members – or Menders, as they are known – every day.
‘You’ll still miss getting those messages from your ex, but we send regular notifications to remind you to take care of yourself and to help fill that void,’ says Elle. It is also intended to ward off the very real danger of contacting your ex. ‘We offer a lot of advice on ways to avoid doing that. Hopefully it also makes you less likely to go back and read every message you sent to your ex.’
THE DON’T-TEXT-YOUR-EX STEPS
Remind yourself how it made you feel last time and say no out loud.
Distract yourself. Watch Netflix, listen to a great podcast or call a friend who tells great stories.
Write down your feelings and what you would tell your ex.
Create a playlist of your favourite uplifting songs and blast them.
Text a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with and make plans with them.
I wonder out loud whether Mend is a dock leaf for the nettle that is app dating, and the feckless, cavalier behaviour that Tinder, Bumble and the rest of these now ubiquitous forms of communication have seemingly encouraged. ‘I think the good side of technology is that it’s easier to meet someone now than it’s ever been,’ muses Elle. ‘You can filter and customise who you find, whereas maybe 50 years ago you were just dating whoever you met on your street. The bad side of technology, however, is that relationships feel more disposable and it’s a lot easier to end something by text or to ghost [cut contact without explanation] them completely.’
She also believes that technology has made it more difficult to have a clean break and move on. ‘I remember talking to my mum about my break-up that inspired Mend, as well as her and my father’s divorce in my penultimate year of college, which inspired it, too. I asked her what her break-ups had been like when she was my age. They would break up, he would ride off into the sunset and she wouldn’t hear from him again until years later – and then it was fine because she’d had the space to move on.’
Elle had already raised $800,000 of the $1 million she needed to fully launch the app when she was asked to apply to be a contestant on the new Apple TV show Planet of the Apps, a sort of Dragons’ Den for the tech community. She was assigned Hollywood actress and entrepreneur Jessica Alba, who founded billion-dollar beauty brand The Honest Company, as her mentor. ‘She worked on details with me. She’s very data-driven and knows all about analytics and revenue metrics,’ says Elle. And the show was a success, with Elle winning the remaining $200,000 of funding for Mend.
Elle (second right) with Mend users at a brunch in New York
Six months into being fully operational, half of Mend’s users are aged 18 to 35, and Elle is aware of the very differing needs within that range. ‘The dynamics of a break-up when you’re 35 are very different from the dynamics when you’re 18,’ she notes. ‘A lot of the break-ups in the 25-35 range look like divorce – you have moved in together, maybe you share a pet or even a child. There are a lot of logistics involved.’ The Mend team is constantly working to finesse trainings for such circumstances; they recently introduced one on how to deal with shared custody of a pet.
Elle practises what she preaches as co-parent to a dog, Einstein – a poodle-terrier mix – with her boyfriend of two years, with whom she lives in the fashionable Venice neighbourhood of LA. She’d rather not name him, but will say that he is ‘a creative’ and that they met ‘in real life’. She still uses Mend every day, though. ‘We have people who are married using it as a form of maintenance.’
After presenting me with a parting gift – her favourite book of poetry, How To Love by Thich Nhat Hanh – Elle walks me to the top of the large open staircase and grabs the handrail. She has, she reveals, an extreme fear of heights and struggles with these stairs on a daily basis. It seems like the perfect analogy for love, heartbreak and Mend: you’re always going to have to face the tough stuff, but there is a handrail out there to hold on to and keep you moving forward.
letsmend.com. Mend is available to download for free from the App Store. The first seven days are free and subscription costs around £7.50 a month thereafter