Time for Business with Stephanie Hurlburt
We’ve all heard advice to hustle, work harder, and push push push. And…most of us are exhausted as a result. So this week we’re talking to someone making the opposite choice: Stephanie Hurlburt, an entrepreneur who built a successful business, no nights and weekends required.
Stephanie is the cofounder of Binomial, a company that makes image compression software. But she’s not a startup founder working 100 hours a week and trying to scale as fast as possible. Instead, she’s optimized her business for her mental and physical health—while still sharing her knowledge with industry newbies, closing big deals with companies like Google and Netflix, and healing from the trauma of domestic violence.
The purpose of my job is to give me time in my life. And money can help give me time in some ways—for instance, if I amassed enough money to not need to work at all. But money can also not give me time. For instance, entering into a big contract where I was constantly on the clock. So, having that as a very clear priority really helps guide a lot of decisions.—Stephanie Hurlburt, cofounder, Binomial
We talk about:
- Why business is always personal—and it’s ok to be yourself. “When I was working in the gaming industry, there was very much a boys club there… It kind of made me realize that I’m never going to get a real seat at that table. And when I’m open about myself, I’m definitely not getting a seat at that table. And maybe that’s okay! Maybe I find tables that actually accept me.”
- How to reframe networking as human by thinking about it as a natural give and take, not a transaction. “I feel like to a lot of people, they dread it because they see it as very transactional. And I don’t really see it that way.”
- Why letting an email sit for a day or two is actually an important part of setting boundaries. “The first conversation you have with someone, you’re setting some very key boundaries about what’s okay and what’s not okay, even if you’re not explicit about it.”
- How mental healthcare can help you break free of burnout cycles. “The number one thing that I wish I did when I was overworked was actually to see a therapist. Because I feel like I have grown so much through therapy and I have learned how to manage my time through therapy. If I had sought a therapist earlier, I could have prevented a lot of pain.”
Plus, what Sara and Katel did on their summer vacation: unplug their laptops, drape themselves in linen, and go cliff diving with tween boys. No, really.
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
SWB Thanks to Harvest for supporting Strong Feelings! Harvest makes awesome, easy-to-use software for tracking time, sending invoices, and generally keeping you and your team happy. If you’re a manager, Harvest can help you see what your team is working on, and whether folks are getting booked up or burnt out—so, you know, you can prevent that. Try it free at GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings and you’ll see why companies around the world trust Harvest. And, you’ll also get a deal—half off your first paid month. That’s GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings. [theme music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out]
KL Hey, everyone, I’m Katel.
SWB And I’m Sara!
KL And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
SWB And on today’s show, we have a conversation with Stephanie Hurlburt—a graphics engineer and the co-founder of Binomial, a company that makes image compression software. But she’s not a startup founder working 100 hours a week and trying to scale as fast as possible. And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk with her. Because Stephanie is spreading a message of rest and balance, and god knows we all need more of that! Speaking of which, Katel, before we talk to Stephanie, this is our first episode recording after vacation.
SWB Like serious vacation, y’all. We went to Portugal! So, how are you doing?
KL I do not think I even realized how much I needed that time off until I was a few days in! I have to say, a couple things that made that vacation really amazing—one was getting to hang out with a group of very fun, wonderful people for the better part of a week, and the other was the weather. It was basically sunny and gorgeous and perfect the entire time! It was also just a really great mix of doing stuff like sightseeing and also doing nothing—and doing nothing on the beach, which is really ideal in my book. [SWB laughs]
SWB Or jumping off a cliff at the beach! [KL laughs] Which, in my opinion, is extremely not “doing nothing.” [both laugh] So, I’ll tell everybody about this because this is burned into my memory forever.
KL Uhh, yeah.
SWB So, I was actually out at the beach in Portugal a day before Katel got in. And I was telling her that we had seen these people jumping off of these big cliffs, and it was super terrifying [KL laughs] and they were doing all of these backflips, and I was like, “ahh!” And she lit up a little bit [KL laughs] and she’s like, “I want to do that!’ [KL laughs] And I was like, “oh my god, no, you don’t want to do that.” These cliffs were so high! And then the next day, we were out at the beach and we did see that there was another side to the cliff with a much lower spot you could jump off of.
SWB And it was much lower, but it was still for me very high.
KL Me too—still high!
SWB So, Katel decides she wants to do it [KL laughs] and I’m like, “okay, I’m going to do this.” [KL laughs] I don’t usually jump off things. So, we start crawling up these rocks hand over hand to get up to the top of this thing. And up there it’s like us—me and Katel—[KL laughs] and this whole pack of thirteen, fourteen year old boys.
KL Oh my god.
SWB Nothing but thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys and us.
KL Truly, yeah.
SWB Which is how you know you’re making a good decision in life! [both laugh]
KL I was like, “is this…going to be bad? And end badly?”
SWB I had a whole conversation with them like, “are you 100% sure? How deep is it?” Thinking about like these people are kind of small, [KL laughs] and thinking about my body weight—I’m going to sink deeper than them.
KL Anyway, I love how sure they were. They were like, “don’t worry, you’re not going to hurt yourself. Just go for it, you’re going to be great.” [laughs]
SWB Oh my gosh. Of course they would say that, they have no fear!
KL I know!
SWB I, on the other hand, have a lot of fear. Okay. So, we’re standing up here on this cliff, I’m afraid I’m actually going to have a literal heart attack because I’m a 36-year-old woman. Katel just jumps in and I’m just still standing up there! I’m completely terrified, [KL laughs] I feel like my heart is going to jump out of my chest, and she’s down there bobbing in the water and I’m just like, “what am I going to do? I’m going to climb back down now?”
KL No, I know, I even thought about that. [SWB sighs] That climb up was not…it was dicey. [laughs]
SWB So! Finally, I calm myself for a moment, I talk to some tween boys a little bit more. [KL laughs] And I do it! It was great. But we get back out of the water and Katel goes again! [KL laughs] And I’m just like, “absolutely not.” I think a very telling thing was when I was like, “nope, perfect ratio [KL laughs] 1:1. I did it, I succeeded at it, and then my friend brought me a drink on the beach and it was great.”
KL But I mean, that was completely correct and very perfect. I was like, I just had to go one more time because someone else wanted to go, and I thought, “you know, [laughs] I’ll take the opportunity.”
SWB Oh my gosh. And I thought, “you know, I didn’t have a heart attack, [KL laughs] let’s keep it that way.” [laughs]
KL [laughing] Totally understand. [both laugh]
SWB Portugal was so amazing and I really do think that jumping off that cliff with you is going to [laughs] stick with me for a long time, because it also made me feel really close to you too! It’s really special to me.
KL Oh my god, me too. It was so fun and very exhilarating and I definitely have not done something like that in a really long time. And, okay, opposite of exhilarating—but it made me equally pumped—I did a lot of reading on the beach for just pure pleasure.
KL I read a fiction novel—I read Little Fires Everywhere, which I am so late to the game on, but it was so good and I couldn’t put it down and that just made me so happy. I also leaned in pretty hard to relaxation mode with the linen sack jumpsuits I bought [laughs] on my second day of the trip. I wore those a lot.
SWB You looked really good because you looked both relaxed, but also kind of glamorous—
KL Oh! [laughs]
SWB —which is pretty ideal, yeah. [KL laughs] I feel like this vacation was the first time in a long time where I had turned my brain entirely off of work. And it just made me think that I think I need to keep that power button off for a [laughs] little bit longer. I got back and I thought I would be really ready to jump in, but then actually I got really sick, which sucked.
KL Ugh, yeah.
SWB So, the past week has been a bit of a slow one for reasons that were less than ideal. And I was kind of mad about that, but then I decided I actually want to embrace that a little bit. Sleep in more, read books more, and just kind of let myself heal and also just let myself reflect a little bit. That was a little bit hard for me to come to terms with though because I had some schedule lull, I had the flexibility to be able to do that, which was good to allow me to recover. But I had been planning to use that to work on some “big ideas.”
SWB I was like, “oh, I’m going to have this little lull, and I’m going to get this done and this done.” I realized I actually wasn’t ready to make that progress. Physically, [laughs] that wasn’t going to happen last week!
SWB But I also think mentally or emotionally, the summer was honestly kind of a tough one for me. Vacation helped, but I think that I needed and keep needing a little bit more time to be with myself before I can make the kinds of big decisions and invest in creating the new stuff that is sort of running around in the back of my brain.
KL Oh my gosh, yeah. I feel like I’m in a similar boat. I actually brought my laptop on vacation, which I will say, I only opened twice and that’s very good for me, [both laugh] but next time I want to leave my computer at home. And I know that we both kind of talked about that.
SWB Yes! We are leaving our laptops—
SWB —at home next time we take a vacation. Period.
KL 100%. I mean, I’ve got to.
SWB So, right before we left, you were talking about how you feel like you’ve been burnt out for a really long time. How are you feeling now?
KL I’m definitely feeling better after having some time off, for sure. But I came home from our trip and then I had to leave again right away for the weekend to be in a wedding, which was so fun and lovely, but I am tiiiiiired.
SWB Oh my gosh, I feel that. And also you weren’t just in a wedding, you were the [laughs] maid of honor [KL laughs] at a wedding, which is quite a lot of work!
KL [laughing] True!
SWB Yeah, yeah. I feel tired too. That sickness, man. It takes it out of you.
KL Yeah it does! And I’m realizing that I feel like I’ve just been treading water for a long time. And one thing I think became really apparent for me, is that I tend to just cope with burnout and stress until I need a vacation and then I take one? And I run around trying to clear my schedule for that time off, and I mostly succeed. And that’s good, but I want to work on figuring out how to stop accumulating burnout and, ideally, introduce more rest and relaxation and play time into my daily life!
SWB Mhmm, yes! I feel like that has come up a lot of times this summer—that you need and deserve more rest and more play and more joy, and that it doesn’t really work very well to wait until you’re in crisis mode to take any of it.
KL Yeah, yeah.
SWB And, you know, not just resting to gear up for more productivity, but resting just because rest is good. That’s something I’m trying to give myself this week now that I’m finally feeling better. So, I have a goal for myself, which is that I want to give myself permission to take some time and replenish myself creatively. So, what I want to do is I want to take an afternoon off and go to a museum alone this week.
KL Ugh, yes!
SWB Which I love! I love going to a museum alone. Not all day—just for a couple of hours—but just to really use my mind in a different way.
SWB It gets me thinking and feeling, but it’s not about stuff that I’m working on; it’s not toward any particular goal or output. It’s just thinking and feeling because thinking and feeling are joyful.
SWB And, you know, that’s one of the luxuries of working for yourself, and absolutely not everybody can do that. But if I can, I should give myself that.
KL Definitely, I totally agree. And I love hearing you say that; I want to do it too! I do think that if I create or find more opportunities to completely just turn off and disconnect in smaller doses so I don’t have to wait for a big break, that would help a lot.
SWB Yeah! So, since we’ve been talking about burnout, I also started reading this book called ‘Burnout’ that came out earlier this year by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. They’re twin sisters, which is pretty cool, and one of them has a PhD in health behavior. What they talk about is also this whole other side of burnout, that’s not just about taking breaks or resting, but also about how burnout is the result of getting stuck in a stress cycle and not being able to complete the stress cycle.
KL Oh my god, I love that. That is what we need to dissect and explore, because I want to get at what’s at the root of my burnout, not just how can I temporarily relieve it. I’m barely doing that well enough!
SWB Yeah. Yeah, okay! So, the central idea is that you’re stressed—and as women in the world, we are often stressed by stressors that are out of our control. And what happens is we end up just shoving the stress down or running from it. So, that results in behaviors like compulsively working—even when we’re not accomplishing anything—or hiding out and bingeing TV way beyond the healthy point. Sometimes you do need to distress—
SWB —and watch some TV and eat some ice cream or whatever, but there’s a point at which that stops being healthy. And we’re doing that because we end up stuck. We’re stuck because the stress is eating at us and we don’t have any place to put it. So, they talk about processing the stress, even if we don’t control the stressor. So, as women in this hellscape moment, we often don’t control the stress, right?
SWB We don’t control the patriarchy, we don’t control the president, we don’t control a shitty boss. You can’t necessarily control the stressors, but you have to be able to separate the stress from the stressor and figure out how you can let go of it. Because if you hold onto it, then that is what exhausts us and is wearing us down.
KL Oh my god, yeah. Sometimes I feel like my stress has become my companion and that sucks. I definitely feel like I haven’t dealt with the stress I’ve been carrying around and I’ve just been trying to mitigate it. And a lot of what I’ve been doing is hiding this summer.
SWB Mhmm, mhmm, mhmm!
KL So, sidenote: remember how I told you about the gratitude journal I started last year?
KL Okay, so I’m still doing it, [laughs] which I’m proud of. But I happened to look at some of the recent entries from the summer, and there are more than a few where when I write about what I’m excited about for the next day, it’s a lot of “really excited” or “really relieved” I have no evening plans. And I think that’s not necessarily bad, but now thinking about it, I know that the reason I was excited about that is because I could just either hide and watch TV or zone out and not have to really participate in or deal with anything.
SWB Mmm. Mhmm, mhmm! One of the things that they talk about is that completing the stress cycle, one of the ways to let go of that stress—there’s a couple of things. But the biggest ones they talk about are physical activity—so, maintaining physical activity does a huge amount of work to allowing you to let go of stress—and then the other one they talk about is physical touch. Things like long embraces—hugging for thirty seconds, kissing your partner for six seconds, which is actually a much longer time than you think!
SWB Unless you’re in a teen makeout session, [KL laughs] that’s actually kind of a long time!
KL Yeah, exactly.
SWB Sustained cuddling—that those kinds of things take you out of the stress that you’re in and into your body and sort of allow you to move on from the stress, which I thought was really interesting.
KL That makes a lot of sense, I love that.
SWB And you were talking about hiding from your burnout by sitting and watching a bunch of TV and tuning out the world. And I totally get that. It made me think a little bit about things I’ve done to deal with burnout. And I think sometimes I’ve done the fleeing response where if I feel overwhelmed and maybe burned out on something I care about—like a topic I’ve been writing about, for example. And I’ve started to feel fear then that “oh, I don’t have anything else to offer on this” and I start wanting to run away from it and run to something new. And while I feel really good about a lot of stuff I’ve done in my career, something I’m thinking a lot about when it comes to what’s next—because I think I’m entering a little bit of a new phase—is I want to make sure that I’m making choices based off of what I want to move toward, and not just what I want to move away from. And I think that that is part of my decision to pause a little bit harder right now is to make sure I’m really clear on what I want to be moving toward.
KL I love that! I feel like that’s such an amazing revelation.
SWB Yeah. Yeah, I hope it turns into some kind of amazing plan! [both laugh] Something else I’m really liking about this book is that the authors are treating burnt out as not just like a personal failing—like, you, the flawed individual, pushed too hard and oops, you’re burnt out now, silly you.
SWB It’s more like a systemic issue. We live in a burnout culture because we live in a capitalist, racist, and patriarchal culture that’s taught us the only way to get ahead is by hustling harder and harder.
KL Ugh, yeah! That actually reminds me of something Stephanie talks about in her interview—she talks about time being more important than scale, which I loved hearing! Oh, it’s very reasonable and good to value having time to do the things that you value in your life, and it’s okay to not always be pushing for growth and profit and maximizing every little thing. And I think that pushes against the system and the hustle!
SWB Yes. I really love this concept of building a business that gives you time! I don’t think people talk about that enough. And how she’s really thinking about how she works, how she interacts with the people that she works with to create habits and systems where she doesn’t overwork and where she doesn’t build expectations for herself that that’s what she’s going to do and where she can control her schedule.
KL Oh my god. She has this awesome boundary-setting system for dealing with email that I think I’m gonna employ. Okay, y’all should listen! [short transition music plays]
Community building with Creative Mornings
SWB Okay, you all, it is time for a quick community check up with our friend, Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder of Creative Mornings. Thanks to Harvest, she is here to share some of what she’s learned building one of the most welcoming and joyful communities around. Tina, welcome back!
TRE I’m so happy to be back again; thank you!
SWB Yeah, thanks for coming back on! Last time you were here, you talked a little bit about the growth that the organization has gone through. You have all these digital tools now, and a job board—all of that came after starting as this in-person series. So, today I want to ask a little bit more about that because something that you do really well—and you’ve talked about here—is communicating the warmth and kindness of Creative Mornings in person at an event.
SWB But you also do that online with your digital presence. And I’m curious how you made that happen?
TRE I would say the heart of Creative Mornings is generosity. The events are free around the world and I’m a big believer that generosity is very contagious and also brings a lot of trust. What we’re trying to do at the events and also in our newsletter and the way we show up online and digitally is just we’re really trying to use words that light people up. We’re really big on shining the light on others—again, generosity—and we’re also not afraid of being a bit silly! [laughs] We love GIFs, we love confetti, we love linking to fun stuff. I feel like in a world where there’s a lot of heaviness and darkness, we are really trying to be a bit of a beacon of light.
KL I love the sound of that! So, communicating digitally is tough for a lot of people. Even just striking the right tone in an email or Slack message. What’s one tip you’d give anyone who wants to make their digital content more memorable or more joyful?
TRE Make it sound like you’re talking to someone. Don’t get all stuffy when you’re writing. I don’t understand why a lot of people change their tone when it comes to writing. I always assume this is us talking to people. So, the big one to me is—and to the whole organization—one of the big rules is we want to give and not take. We want to be really generous in who we celebrate, we want to be really excited about things, and really sprinkle lightness and fun. It’s all about building up versus tearing down. Again, there are just too many people who are just tearing down and when you’re very generous and uplifting within your communications, people sense that and it just makes them feel good and they come back.
SWB I love this concept of generosity being at the core; I think that’s so valuable. Tina, thank you so much for joining us again!
TRE Thank you for having me.
SWB Where can our listeners go to get some of that joyful Creative Mornings content for themselves?
TRE Okay. Go to CreativeMornings.com—there you can click to watch talks, or you can sign up for our newsletter, you can follow us on Instagram. Yeah. Just follow us online and we’ll make sure to sprinkle some joy into your inbox.
TRE Thank you for having me. [short transition music plays]
SWB I need that. Thank you so much, Tina.
Interview: Stephanie Hurlburt
SWB Stephanie Hurlburt is a graphics engineer and the co-owner of Binomial—a software company that makes image compression products for the games industry. But she’s not what you might expect from a tech company founder because Stephanie does not believe in the startup grind; she’s known for advocating for working less, not more. And I like it! Stephanie, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Stephanie Hurlburt Thank you, I’m so happy to be here!
SWB I’m so happy to chat with you. So, first up, you’re in the middle of kind of a big life transition, right? I saw that you just decided to move to LA a little unexpectedly?
SH I had a bunch of meetings scheduled in Seattle and I was like, “I’m sorry, I can’t attend them, I’m moving to Los Angeles [laughs] out of the blue. [laughs & SWB laughs] So yeah! I’m in the middle of a very impulsive life decision! Basically, I was in a seven-year abusive relationship, so it was very bad, very dark. I got out of it and I had this impulse to just go back to California where I grew up for a while. And I moved back to Seattle for practical reasons; I thought it was practical. I was like, “I have a network there, I worked there for a long time.” And I visited here on a business trip and I was just like, “I am so much happier here.” And I think a lot of it has to do with just all the bad times in Seattle and how our external environment does influence us, it’s not all internal. So, it feels just like a fresh start—really good.
SWB It’s amazing to me to hear that you are so open about talking about getting out of an abusive relationship and I really appreciate you saying that even upfront on the show because I think that’s something that so many people are so nervous to talk about. How has that been impacting your ability to run your business, and run your life, and keeping your headspace together?
SH Well, I don’t know your background or anyone’s background, but it was a violent relationship—it was domestic violence. And I feel like enduring that for so long—for seven years—kind of… [laughs] it obviously tragically impacts your life, but it also means that I’m really good at managing stress [laughs] and I have a lot of really good skills that came from that, as well as the obvious bad ones. I don’t know, it’s a complicated topic, for sure. But I think that I started the business while I was still in that relationship, and doing the business the way I’ve done it I think gave me the space and mental energy to get out. So, I’m very thankful for it for that reason—for the business, not for the relationship. [laughs & SWB laughs]
SWB So, with that in mind, I’m curious if you can just tell people a little bit about Binomial because you’ve been founding this company and I think when people think, “oh my gosh, founding and running a company, that alone is a lot.” So, I think some context may be helpful here. What is Binomial? What is image compression? And how did you get into that?
SH Right! So, Binomial had strange origins in which I was working full time as an engineer. I was basically working one hundred hour weeks, barely sleeping—my job was my life, it was taking up all my time. And I just got so burnt out that even opening up a code editor was just intense stress for me. And all my other experience was in low wage retail jobs and I didn’t know if it was so smart to go back to that. So, I decided to try freelancing. I thought, “well, at least I could have big breaks in between the freelance gigs.” And a friend of mine who I met along the way joined me. And as we did consulting, it kind of evolved into a product company. My business partner has a ton of image compression experience; whereas, I’ve specialized in other areas of low level graphics. And one of our consulting clients was like, “we really need an image compressor” and we decided to go for that with our product.
SWB So, what exactly is image compression in the context of games, which I think is where you are mostly operating. What does it do and how does it help games actually run?
SH So, we started in the game industry because that’s where both of our experience was. And image compression—everybody knows it! JPEG is an example of image compression. But the problem with JPEG is once it hits the graphics processing unit in your computer, it actually blows up to six to eight times the size. It’s massive. So basically, it looks small on your computer, but when you actually go to render the image, it’s extremely inefficient. And the games industry obviously needed to solve this problem because games are just images, that’s all they are—you’re in a world full of images. But we recently partnered with Google to make one of our codex that’s cross-platform open source. And it’s been adopted by all kinds of people on the web, and it’s starting to really look like it could replace JPEG.
SWB Wow, that’s super interesting! So, you’re going from being within one industry to a much more expansive view of image compression?
SH Yeah, exactly! We went to this niche where games just needed really high performance and we’ve been able to kind of bring that performance to everybody, which is so exciting.
SWB And so how long has it been from when you first started consulting and you met your cofounder to you coming to this place where it’s like the whole world is opening up? [SH laughs]
SH So, we started the company in 2016 and I met him not long before that. And now it’s 2019, so our big deal with Google was announced earlier this summer. So, it took us two or three years to kind of build up to that point. We started out thinking, “we’re just going to be a consulting company.” I think a lot of freelancers are like this where you start freelancing with stars in your eyes of like “this is going to be the best thing ever, I’ll work from the beach” [laughs & SWB laughs] but it was a little more complicated than that. We ran into some red bumps, but we were still set on “we’re going to be consultants, that’s what we’re going to do.” Because even when we thought of the product idea, we weren’t really sure it was going to take off or sell and we couldn’t find any investors who were interested in it because they were like, “you guys are a consulting company, you’re just two people.” So, naturally bootstrapping was kind of what seemed like the only option. And then when the product took off, our first deal was with Netflix. So, right off the bat, we got enough money to keep going. And we didn’t really have dreams of having a huge team or expanding really fast. What both Rich and I—Rich is my business partner—what we both wanted was just…time. And we didn’t feel like venture capital would give us time. And that’s worth more than anything else to us.
SWB Yeah! So, tell me more about that. When you say that what you wanted was time, what does that mean for you?
SH For me, the purpose of my job is to give me time in my life. And money can help give me time in some ways—for instance, if I amassed enough money to not need to work at all—but money can also not give me time. [laughs] For instance, entering into a big contract where I was constantly on the clock. So, having that as a very clear priority really helps guide a lot of decisions. And I’ve learned every founder is different. Some founders, their number-one priority is to have a big team of people that they take really good care of. We have no employees. My priority is time, for myself and my business partner.
SWB So, how do you make that happen? How do you have this company that is working with big organizations, signing bigger contracts, and still just the two of you, and still have time? How did that shape what the company does and how have you made that possible?
SH Well, each of our deals is pretty significant. So, we have less than a dozen active deals right now, and a lot of them are in five, six, even seven figure ranges. So, it’s enough money to support us, even with just a small handful of deals. Not a handful, but less than a dozen.
SH So, there’s not a lot of clients to manage. Sales is obviously more than that because there’s a lot of lead that fall through and stuff, but it’s still not the same as dealing with thousands of customers. And in addition, they’re big corporations a lot of them. And one thing I’ve learned about big corporations is that taking two weeks to respond is fast. [laughs] A lot of these places are really slow paced. It took two or three years to get a deal off the ground. So, a lot of these companies are operating at a really slow pace and there’s not a lot of them. So, it’s just a matter of timing things right and approaching it with the right mindset and having leverage.
SWB And are there other companies that are doing similar things to you?
SH In terms of our competition—our direct competition—a lot of it is open source work, a lot of it is work embedded in large companies. For instance, a hardware company will also make an image compressor because they want images to run better on their hardware. However, they don’t actually make any money off that image compressor, it’s like a side thing that they also do. That’s really common. And image compression is literally how we support ourselves. There’s also a big problem of bias in the image compression industry. For instance, if that hardware company makes an image compressor, everybody is going to think it works better on their hardware than anyone else’s. So, we’re able to be an independent third party that also makes all our living off of image compression. So, I don’t like to say that we’re the best, but it’s just pros and cons. We have these advantages compared to other people.
SWB I read that you try to keep your time to twenty hours a week. Is that accurate? Is that real?!
SH These days, it’s less than that. Yeah, yeah. Starting out, I tried to keep it to twenty hours on average. In the first year or so, it was a little bit more up and down because I had this image that I had to be this hustling startup founder, so I would do that. I would work sixty hours or something one week and then I would get totally burned out because my mental health was not in a good place and I would take the next two weeks off. So, it was like that in the beginning. And finally, I just settled on twenty hours or so. And lately, it’s been even less than that; some weeks I just work a few hours.
SWB Was it difficult for you to break out of that mindset? That hustle culture, always be working, if you actually really want this startup to succeed, you’ve got to be there 24 hours a day and sleep under your desk? Was that a difficult thing for you to just let go of?
SH It was. I was physically forced to let go of it because of my crap mental health. [laughs]
SWB [laughing] Aww!
SH [laughing] It was so bad! My mental health was so bad. So, I was forced to let go of it, but it was really hard. It was hard from two angles. There’s the internal angle of regardless of what anyone else thinks of me, is this what I have to do to succeed? There’s that conflict. And then there’s the external angle, which is even if I don’t think I have to do this to succeed, do I have to tell people I’m doing this to make a sale? So, those were two big obstacles. And I think with the internal element, it was a lot about—I don’t know if survivorship bias is the right word because it’s a good thing. After a while of being physically forced to not work a lot, I still saw that the business was really successful. So, I was like, “look, I haven’t been working a lot and the business is still doing well, so obviously it’s fine.” But it took a while of dealing with that stress and seeing that it still worked out to kind of put that together.
SH And I’m thankful for that because I think a lot of people get trapped in cycles of working all the time and then think that’s what they need to keep doing. And then in terms of sales, I just slowly started being more open. I would just mention it here and there and test reactions or mention it in one-on-one conversations. And eventually, I realized it really isn’t affecting sales to just be honest about that. It’s similar to just building a platform on social media in general I’ve found in that you can always find your people. And I think it gets easier if you have a wider reach, if you have a better network, but we’re not all that different. There’s always someone who’s like you out there. And…I don’t know. [laughs] But people hide a lot of stuff! Just being honest allowed me to see that a lot more people were like me or dealing with similar issues than I realized.
SWB Yeah! And I think something I really appreciate about your presence is that so many people who go through mental health issues feel very isolated and alone. And people dealing with domestic violence issues and other kinds of issues or situations feel really [laughs] isolated and alone. That’s often part of the abuser’s goal, right? And I think it’s so powerful to see somebody out there talking about their experience with all of this really difficult personal stuff, while also talking about their business and kind of being like “yeah, still a whole complete person who is doing all kinds of stuff and I’m also somebody dealing with some serious trauma.” And all of that is okay to coexist together and have people see that, and they’re not the only ones who maybe are dealing with some of these things, I think is really powerful. So, I love that about what you do online and it’s one of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you. And I’m curious—you mentioned testing that out and seeing what happened and that was part of the way you got comfortable. Did you ever get advice or pushback from people that you should keep it quote-unquote “professional?”
SH Oh yeah, constantly! All the time. I think going in slowly helps because especially when I first started talking about it, it takes a while to learn how to phrase things, to learn how to say things. Especially around sensitive topics. If you’re not used to talking about them, you’re probably going to be kind of offensive when you start. And it’s good to—even if you are talking about, for instance, domestic violence, even if you are a survivor, you might lack education on some broader perspectives. I don’t know, it’s complicated! So, going in slowly helps you do it in a way that is more acceptable for everybody. But yeah, I got a ton of pushback, of course. But seeing the actual result—seeing that it was not affecting business, in fact it was increasing business, allowed me to kind of brush aside that advice.
SWB We’re always bad at talking about stuff that we don’t practice talking about. I think about that a lot when it comes to things like, a lot of America being really bad at talking about race because [laughs] a lot of Americans have spent so long avoiding having to talk about race. The same thing with something like domestic violence. It’s like, “I’m uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable,” so you never get good at just talking about what is. So, hearing more people talk about it to me is so important. Have you felt like being able to talk about that and share that—has that changed the way your relationships work and has that then changed the way that your business runs?
SH Yeah! It’s allowed me to grow because when I talk about it—I tend not to talk about things online that don’t get a lot of interaction or people sharing their stories because I just get so much enjoyment out of that. It’s allowed me to learn from a lot of other people and learn a lot of different kinds of stories that are out there that are related. And that, obviously, has helped me grow as a person. It’s also made me realize that business is always personal—it always is. And it kind of highlighted a lot of the more toxic business relationships and kind of help me avoid them. Like when I was working in the gaming industry, there was very much a boys club there and…it’s exclusionary on all axes, but the one I see most obviously for me is the boy’s club aspect. It kind of made me realize that I’m never going to get a real seat at that table. And when I’m open about myself, [SWB laughs] I’m definitely not getting a seat at that table. [laughs] And maybe that’s okay! Maybe I find tables that actually accept me. And being open about myself allows those people to identify me more easily and kind of made me think more in that mindset.
SWB Yeah, I love that! Because it’s like how much would you lose of yourself trying to get the seat at that table? And how much would you have to hide of yourself to try to get a seat at that table and still not be treated equally when you’re there? [laughs]
SH Well, it’s so funny because my business partner is a white male in his forties—he very much looks like he’d fit in. And I remember this small dinner we had in 2016 where we were still starting out and it was with a lot of top games industry people in this boy’s club. And he leaves to go to the bathroom, and when he’s there, they all start making fun of his hair—in a cruel way, in a trying to put him down way. And they were all laughing about it. And I just…I was like, “wow. I don’t want to be accepted by you people! [laughs] You’re toxic even to the people who kind of fit your norms and you’re even more toxic to people who don’t fit your norms.” And it pains me because I want to see underrepresented people succeed amongst these powerful people, but at the same time, you have to kind of question which groups are really worth trying to get into.
SWB I know that a couple of years ago, you also started a project called the Mentor List, right? And I’m curious if you can tell me more about that—what it is, and why you got started doing that.
SH Yeah! So, that was started in an effort to basically make me feel like I could reduce the pain of people getting into the game industry—the pain that I had to feel. It’s very hard to find anyone, especially anyone that was vetted and I knew would be friendly and wouldn’t just try and sexually harass me and such. Like I obviously can’t guarantee that, but I went through the people I had come to know in the game industry as I gained more power there and the good people that I found and the people that I felt would be good mentors. And they’re on this list and they basically say, “listen, we will answer any questions that you have, you don’t have to worry about offending us.” It basically is a way to open a door for newbies in the industry that I felt like I wish I had. I don’t actively manage it now, so that’s kind of a little snapshot of time of what I was thinking in 2016, 2017. But now I tend to do more one-on-one chats with people. I do scholarships now that I have more financial resources, so I will send people to conferences and such. And I try my hardest to make it people who I feel otherwise don’t get chances in the industry.
SWB So, you end up talking to a lot of people who are trying to find their footing. So, I’m really curious—in those conversations that you have with them, are there common challenges that people tend to come to you with? Is there stuff that tends to crop up over and over again? And what do you tell people that helps them get over some of those barriers?
SH A big one is just networking, especially in the fields that I’ve been in. Networking is how you get jobs, but nobody tells you that. Everybody says, “just apply on the website,” but all the applications are ignored and it’s really just the connections and the people they know. And it can be really hard to get in those networks and to even know that that’s how you get jobs because, as I said, it’s this weird thing where they like to pretend it’s all fair and it’s all great [laughs] but really there’s this hidden dynamic there. So, that comes up all the time and just knowing who are the good people to talk to in the industry, how do I do this networking thing—that is a constant topic that comes up.
SWB Yeah. So, speaking of that networking thing, networking is not a lot of people’s favorite thing to do. I guess there’s some people who find it super fun, and interesting, and energizing, but most of the time when we talk about networking, people kind of go “ugh, I know I should really be doing more of that, but…” and then they have a lot of reasons not to. And I’m curious—is that something that you’ve always felt that you were good at or is that something you had to really push yourself to get comfortable with? And how did you do that?
SH I think one thing that helps me personally is just the sales relationships I have feel very human? And they don’t feel cold and they don’t feel transactional. And networking is how you start that. So, networking to me feels like a human thing where I feel like to a lot of people, they dread it because they see it as very transactional. And I don’t really see it that way. The way I try to explain it to newbies is—bad analogy—but, for instance, with dating, if you go to a bar, it’s okay to ask someone out, but in other contexts it’s not. We always have social contexts. If you’re at a dog park, you can do certain things that you can’t at other places. And networking is that professional context. It’s okay to go up to someone and say, “hey, I run a business” where you can’t do that on the street. And that’s kind of cool.
SWB Yeah. I mean, it’s a decent metaphor, except that I never want people to think that they should treat networking events like dating because so many men already do! [laughs & SH laughs]
SH God! Don’t ever ask anyone out at a networking event. [SWB laughs] Please, listener, please, male, don’t do that please. [laughs & SWB laughs] But it’s one of those areas where there’s a clear social context to it. The social context of networking means that I can go up to you, I can give you a sales pitch, and that’s not weird. Whereas, if I just went up to someone on the beach, that would be weird.
SWB Yeah. I think we’ve all had somebody give us a sales pitch in an inappropriate environment. [laughs]
SH Yeah, exactly! Exactly.
SWB And was that hard to do at first? Was there anything that helped you get started with that? Or did you find that once it was your business, it was easy?
SH It’s still hard for me to do groups. I just [laughs] have weird social anxiety around groups, so doing it one-on-one was really helpful because I could kind of steer it. If I wanted to make it more of a friendly conversation, I could. If I wanted to keep it strictly business, I could. And it allowed me to experiment with how I like to have those conversations. So, I’ve had so many one-on-one networking conversations and I still enjoy those, but these days I’m learning that there is value in those groups.
SWB What would you tell folks to help them get more comfortable getting started with that in a way that feels good for them and not gross for them?
SH I feel like everybody is different. That’s one thing I noticed with giving this advice—different things work for different people. Some people are so comfortable online and talking to people online, and to others that’s a foreign world that really grates on them. For me, I’m on social media all the time. And that was a very natural place for me to start talking to people. It started just interacting with other people in my industry on there and then I would sometimes send them a DM following up on that. And I think the key to making it not gross is to [sighs] …it’s tricky because you…I was going to say, “genuine.” But people have different interpretations of that word. At first, when I started networking, I thought it meant everyone had to be my friend. But it’s more about give and take—not just taking from people, but also helping them out. And takers can be very innocently done too! For instance, a total noob in networking—someone completely new to that—might go in and say, “hi, can you give me a job?” right off the bat. And that makes total sense. That’s what they’ve heard networking is and it’s hard for them to give very much at that stage in their career perhaps. But it’s important to be aware that there is that give and take and nobody likes feeling used.
SWB So, with all of the things that have been going on—everything going on in your life, lots and lots of stuff all the time, how are you keeping that balance and that perspective to be able to do the networking that you need and the sales that you need, while also not overloading yourself with work and giving yourself lots of time to heal? Is it hard to find the right balance right now?
SH It’s not hard. I think what I’ve been dealing with lately is more coming to terms with the fact that I kind of like working in waves, and learning how to manage that. But I don’t actually work a lot! [laughs] So, there’s plenty of time to do other things. I used to see a therapist several times a week, I now see a therapist once a week. I go to physical therapy because I broke my ankle a couple of months back. I have a lot of time in my life to do other things, so it’s never hard to balance. I feel like some people have trouble balancing in that they have so much stuff going on that they can’t fit any more into a day. For me, it’s more a strategic issue. For instance, right now I’ve been focusing a lot on existing customers and legal negotiations and I haven’t been doing as much new sales. And I have time to do new sales, I just have to think whether it makes strategic sense to do that right now. It’s a balance of, “if I do this, will it take up too much of my time? Will it give me money at the right time?” It’s more that kind of problem. And I always am very protective over my current lifestyle because I do not want it to get more crowded. I really want to keep it like this. So, I’m very protective of the business actions I do, making sure to protect that.
SWB Speaking of being protective of your lifestyle, are there techniques that you use to protect the time that you have and protect the schedule that works for you?
SH Yeah! It’s so funny because a lot of it helps my personal life too. For instance, just being very good about setting boundaries and realizing from the first conversation you have with someone, you’re setting some very key boundaries about what’s okay and what’s not okay, even if you’re not explicit about it. I have a few ground rules where I never email customers when I’m stressed. Aside from a few exceptions if it’s an urgent issue, I try to always be in a really positive mindset when I email people and I message people. Because I don’t have that many interactions with them and I’ve seen it sour in the past where I’m stressed, they’re stressed, we bounce off each other, and it’s just really negative. I also have a rule where I don’t email on evenings or weekends, and I also rarely respond to people right away, and that sets the boundary of “you can’t expect me to be on call for you.” So, a bunch of little things like that!
SWB Oh, I love that. I love letting an email age sometimes.
SH It’s all these implicit expectations and boundaries that a lot of people don’t even realize they’re setting. And then a customer gets upset after a while and you don’t know why, but it’s because you set this implicit expectation.
SWB I love this idea that it’s like, you do have permission to wait to answer an email. I think some people don’t feel like they have permission to do that. I mean with judgement—it sort of might depend on the email, but it’s nice to hear you giving yourself permission to not jump on everything all the time.
SH It makes me feel powerful! [laughs & SWB laughs] I’m like, “you can wait! And what I’ve learned is that the more of that attitude I have, the bigger the dollar amount gets. If you’re really quick to respond, you kind of cheapen—or in my case, I cheapen myself. I make it sound like I’m desperate for money. And if I wait, that means that I’ve got other bigger clients. It’s funny—people assume that I’m busy, right? Even though I talk about how I’m not, people assume that I’m just overwhelmed with other things and so they think, “oh wow, we must not be your biggest client,” and that helps me get more money. [SWB laughs] So it all [laughs] kind of feeds into itself—this lifestyle of not wanting to be rushed also helps the deals be large.
SWB So, a lot of people listening would love to own a business that lets them work this smaller amount of time per week and kind of set some of those boundaries, but I think not everybody is going to be able to do that or not going to be able to do that immediately. It’s not necessarily feasible for everybody to cut their work-life down that much. But I’m curious—what advice would you give to folks who still want to get out of that culture of overwork and constant hustle and change their relationship to work?
SH It’s really tricky because I can only speak from my personal experience and when I was working full time, I was trash at balancing things. It was this business that was the first time I was able to really manage it. So, it’s interesting…I’m not sure. But it does highlight one thing I struggle with. I struggle with how to help people; I struggle with—because if I say my business…I’ve learned that every business is different. Full-time jobs are not like that! A graphics engineer job at a big company looks really similar, no matter what big company you’re at. But there are so many ways and lifestyles and nuances to running a business that I can’t just say, “here’s the roadmap, now you can copy my business.” It doesn’t work like that. So, it’s been really tricky. But in terms of balance, I would say the number one thing that I wish I did when I was overworked was actually to see a therapist. Because I feel like I have grown so much through therapy and I have learned how to manage my time through therapy. If I had sought a therapist earlier, I could have prevented a lot of pain.
SWB That is such good advice! I know that therapy isn’t accessible to everyone, I know it can be very expensive, but it’s definitely something we talk a lot about on the show [laughs] because it’s something that’s been so valuable to both me and Katel.
SH Well, one thing I’ve learned is that every therapist—well, a lot of therapists—have pro bono work that they do and have sliding scale that’s an option. Even if they don’t say it on their website, a lot of them are like, “well, I do do it.” So, it’s definitely worth asking around and not just assuming it’s too expensive.
SWB Yeah! Well, if I had it my way, I would make sure everybody got a chance to go to therapy! [laughs]
SH It’s hard, it’s hard. But we’re at least investing in learning about it and investing in taking care of mental health.
SWB Yes, absolutely. I really appreciate all the work you do to talk about mental health and to talk about it more openly. And I know a lot of folks are going to be interested in hearing more about that because it’s such a big part of the conversation you have, so can you tell folks where they can keep up with all your conversations? You are super active on Twitter, right?
SH Yeah, I’m really active on Twitter @sehurlburt. My personal website stephaniehurlburt.com has all the other links. I have a YouTube and all these smaller things that I like to keep up, but I’m on Twitter all the time! [laughs]
SWB Stephanie, it’s been so great to have you on the show. Thank you so much!
SH Yeah! Thank you for having me!
Fuck Yeah of the Week
KL Alright, Sara, it’s time for our fuck yeah. Do you have one for us today?
SWB Oh I do.
KL Okay, tell me!
SWB It’s a special secret. I’m going to show it to you.
KL Oh, I can’t wait! Oh, okay.
SWB I’ve just passed an envelope across the table at Katel.
KL I’m going to do some ASMR here…[SWB laughs] opening the letter. Okay, it’s a card. Okay, it says “hay girl” on the front and it has a bale of hay. So, it’s a pun, which I love. [KL gasps] Oh. My. God! Okay, this is…I’m opening this live. We’re going to 100% That Show… Lizzo, Bitch! Wait, this Wednesday night?
KL Oh my god, yes! [laughs] Okay, I love you, I love Lizzo, I love everything. I love life right now. [laughs]
SWB Fuck yeah, I’m going to Lizzo, bitch.
KL Fuck yeah! Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. They are an awesome Philly-based band that you should check out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Stephanie Hurlburt for being our guest today, and thank you all so much for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite shows. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at StrongFeelings.co. See you again next week!
SWB Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]