If you’d looked for Anastasia Leng five years ago, you’d find her on Google’s New Business Development team in London, working on products like Google Wallet and Google Chrome years before they were released to the public.
But when we found Ms. Leng, it was in the tiny Manhattan office of Hatch, the ecommerce company she founded with fellow ex-Googler Ryan Hayward. Ms. Leng is also Hatch’s chief business officer. Launched in November 2012 — just a few months after Ms. Leng quit her job at Google — the site lets users commission personalized gifts from vetted makers, artists and designers.
For most people, the idea of trading in a cushy job at a global corporation for the unpredictable life of a tech entrepreneur might seem like utter lunacy, but for Ms. Leng, it was a calling she couldn’t ignore.
Now, she’s hoping to prove the decision paid off.
The Urge to Leave Google
Ms. Leng has never been one for stability.
She was born in Moscow, but with a journalist father, she moved to Vietnam at age six, Budapest at age nine or ten, Bahrain at age 11, and finally to the U.S. at age 14 or 15.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied psychology, sociology and French, Ms. Leng accepted a job at Google’s offices in Mountain View. A year and a half later, Google offered her a position in London with the company’s New Business Development Team, now renamed New Initiatives.
“Someone came to me and said, ‘We have this job in London — you have a week to decide if you want it,’” Ms. Leng explained. “I felt, when else could I just go to London, right? Initially it was meant to be a six to eight month project, but four and half years later, I was still there. I really loved it.”
Although she enjoyed her job, Ms. Leng started worrying after a few years that working for Google had made her too comfortable. She started interviewing for jobs with various startups and VC firms, but nothing felt right.
“I remember coming home and thinking, ‘Maybe I’ve just become really risk averse,’” she said. “‘Maybe I’ve been too institutionalized by Google.”
That’s when Ms. Leng began developing the idea for an ecommerce site with Mr. Hayward, who she’d met while interviewing for Google. They’d both been offered jobs, and had tag-teamed a recruiter to ask for signing bonuses. They didn’t get the bonuses, but did become fast friends.
Once she and Mr. Hayward started conceptualizing Hatch, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. The urge to leave Google and start her own business got stronger and stronger over time.
“It was one of those things where I’d come home from Google and the end of a long day, and I’d sit at my computer and research things about Hatch, and research what other sites were doing,” she recalled. “I’d be walking down the street and that’s what I’d be thinking about. And eventually I just knew I had to do it.”
Ms. Leng shared her plans with her boyfriend, a Brit she describes as “very risk averse.” Even he told her, “Don’t be the person who always talked about doing something, but has never done it.”
So Ms. Leng told Google she wanted to leave. They made her a counter offer.
“I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m not going anywhere to make money!” Ms. Leng said.
A few weeks later, she resigned. On her five-year anniversary at Google, Ms. Leng sent out her goodbye note.
In November of that year, Ms. Leng and Mr. Hayward debuted a beta version of Hatch, then called Makeably. In May 2013, the site officially launched to the public.
History of Hatch
Hatch’s first iteration was different from what it is today. The name change, for instance, didn’t happen until last October.
“One of the first rules of naming [a startup] is that people need to be able to pronounce it when they read it,” Mr. Hayward told us when we visited Hatch’s offices in April. “And then the whole “make” thing is kind of a crowded space [with] MakerBot, and what not. And we’re not about YOU making. So we thought Hatch was cooler.”
The site also started as a way for consumers to order completely customized objects from makers — like asking a painter to create you a portrait from scratch, or asking a sculptor to craft you a one-of-a-kind figurine.
But Hatch shifted its focus last summer, making its service more about personalization than customization. Now, makers showcase the items they’re capable of creating, and customers can choose certain aspects of the items they’d like to tweak to match their vision — like asking a jeweler to make you that necklace in silver instead of gold.
“I could really relate to this idea of being in a store, seeing an object, and being like, ‘It’s almost right, but for whatever reason, it’s just not perfect,’” Ms. Leng said. “‘And if this one thing were different, I would buy it.”
By allowing users to personalize their orders, Hatch also makes life easier for retailers, who generally have to take risks and predict consumer demand.
“On one hand it would take the risk out of expanding for makers,” Ms. Leng said, “while on the other side, it enables buyers to go through something where they didn’t have to settle for things that were good enough — where they could actually get the things they love.”
Throughout Hatch’s development, we wondered if Ms. Leng had ever felt disadvantaged, being a woman in a field largely dominated — like many other industries — by men.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think a lot of what [investors] look for are just certain personality traits, regardless of gender, race, age, things like that… I never felt that, you know, I wasn’t getting into meetings because I was a female.”
She thought about it some more.
“That said, there’s obviously a lot of subtle behind-the-scenes things that are so difficult to measure,” Ms. Leng said. “I know I personally never overtly felt anything like that, but you never know. You don’t know how many people turned you down because [you’re a woman].”
Ms. Leng is hesitant to accept accolades for paving the way for future female tech entrepreneurs.
“It is nice, although sometimes I feel a small pang of guilt because even though [media publications] feature me, there’s a whole team of people behind me who make all these things happen,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be here, were it not for all the folks [on my team].”
Life of a Tech Entrepreneur
Transitioning from working at Google to being a tech entrepreneur, Ms. Leng is all about finding money-saving tricks. Gone are the days of the paleo, vegan and gluten free Google lunch buffet. Now, Ms. Leng brings her own food to work.
One of the hardest adjustments in Ms. Leng’s new life is having to be apart from her boyfriend, who still lives in England. They’ve been doing long distance for about a year now, she said.
“We were living together [in London],” she said. “We had just moved into our rented house about a year before I went, and I was like, ‘I’m going to go start this company and its in New York!’ But he’s been very supportive and very understanding and has never held it against me, which has been great.”
But there are exciting things, too, about running a startup; namely, seeing her company in action.
Shortly after our arrival, the site’s cofounder, Mr. Hayward, showed us some Hatch-made products: a hand-engraved compass; a Hatch sign made from wire lettering; a series of big block letters made from recycled card stock.
Anastasia chimed in that her boyfriend gave the block letters to his family for Christmas — one for each family member’s initial, each covered in patterns that reflected the family members’ interests.
“The reaction was just so emotional,” she said. “His family really started tearing up. That was the first time we really saw the impact of what we were building. It was really lovely.”
Hatch has raised $1 million to date, including a $650,000 seed round last summer led by Great Oaks Ventures.
“You know when you can just sort of trust someone on their vision to execute and get something done? That’s Anastasia,” Andrew Taub, an associate at Great Oaks Ventures, told Betabeat when we visited the firm last month. “If [Ms. Leng and Mr. Hayward] hit a wall, they’ll find a way to pivot and make something work.”
A testament to Great Oaks’ enthusiasm about Hatch, Mr. Taub admits he’s used the site to buy things, himself. Last Father’s Day, he ordered his dad a pillow emblazoned with his favorite quote from Field of Dreams: “No one’s called me Moonlight Graham in 50 years.”
“Engaging with the makers is a unique experience,” Mr. Taub said. “How often do you [do that]? I don’t think that’s generally how you do online shopping.”
Mr. Taub also used the site to buy himself two vintage maps of New York City and San Francisco, and was also planning on using the site for Mother’s Day.
“People in this consumer age own everything,” he said. “When you want to do something of lasting value, where do you turn to? For me, that’s important.”
Dreams of IPO-ing
Looking far into the future, Ms. Leng said she’d “absolutely” be interested in starting another business.
“Doing this is definitely addicting,” she said. “But you know, a lot of it depends on how Hatch goes and where we go from here. But I would love to do it again.”
For now, however, she’s focused on growing Hatch.
Shortly after we spoke, Hatch introduced a new search feature called Compass, which lets users input special memories — like quotations, photos or locations — and then shows them a range of products that could be personalized the incorporate those memories.
“A couple of friends have sold companies over the years – I joke with them that I’m going to be the first one to IPO,” Ms. Leng said. “We’ve had one and half really good years, but we made a lot of mistakes. There are lots of things I’d do differently. There’s still a lot to prove. The road is by no means over.”