JournalMar 2015

How Hanno became remote

It was never really our intention to be quite so committed to being a remote team. And it certainly wasn’t easy to get to this point. But there’s absolutely no way we’d change that, now.

The funny thing is that we’ve been remote almost from the start, as Sergei was in Russia for the first 2 years we worked together under the Kernel banner. Since I’ve also been profoundly deaf from birth, I’ve never quite felt as though the traditional office environment was one which would work for me. I’ve always been comfortable communicating in writing, so when we all started working together, it was really natural for me to communicate with clients and with Sergei like this.

But despite that, all of us were determined to get a ‘proper’ office in London someday. Now that our team is based all over the world and we’re doing things like taking team trips to Hong Kong, this seems like a ridiculous ambition. But a few years ago we had serious office envy and couldn’t wait to go down that agency route and get big enough to be able to pay for one of those trendy spaces in London to work from. Now, we have offices like this:

Arnas in Bali

At the time, there were 3 of us working full-time–myself and Matt in London, and then Sergei working remotely (from the middle of nowhere in Russia). And we even got as far as to start viewing serviced offices in London at one point to try and find one to rent. Even though I’d built up a fantastic working relationship and friendship with Sergei, for some reason neither of us really considered the possibility of going all-out with the remote ‘thing’. He wanted to somehow engineer a relocation to Europe, and I was totally happy with being in London. Both of us were determined to eventually be able to sit down and share a beer together, and that was the only way we really saw it happening.

But then, a few things changed. I was in a long-term relationship which came to an end, tying me to London a little less strongly. Then a few months later, a ‘trigger’ in the form of a startup emailing us out of the blue to ask if we’d want to move to Spain to live and work with them, planted a little bit of a seed. It was that combination which really made us go totally remote (and partly nomadic) and stop thinking about offices.

I think a lot of people who have gone nomadic would say the same thing: their decision to commit to this lifestyle came down to the circumstances being right, and then some sort of trigger which made them take that jump.

We didn’t end up moving to work with the Spanish startup, but we did decide to leave London for a while, inspired by what they’d done. So Matt and I headed to Valencia for a 6 week trip, with Arnas (who was freelancing with us occasionally) joining us for part of it. That trip was incredible. Despite everyone predicting that we’d lose all of our clients, we didn’t. We learnt a hell of a lot in 6 weeks. And most importantly, we met so many new friends and had the sort of experiences we’d never have had if we’d been back at home, or simply taking a holiday.

Matt and Jon with new friends on our final day in Valencia

That really opened up our eyes to how fantastic this idea of remote working and also working while travelling could be. It’s simply a totally different sort of experience from travelling for pleasure, doing the tourist thing, and staying in your own little bubble.

After that, we travelled to Norway, and I took a trip to Russia to visit Sergei. Things with the business started to take off, and it seemed crazy that just a few months ago we’d been thinking about getting an office and tying ourselves to one place.

We were certainly inspired by others, though

We followed the ‘famous’ remote teams like 37Signals (now Basecamp) and Automattic very closely from the beginning. Both of these companies gave me a lot of inspiration for what I wanted to try and build with our team at Hanno. Automattic is a great example of how to build a great team that’s flat, as well as remote. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a strong correlation between flat teams, and being remote, or nomadic. I think it’s far harder to build a great remote team (much less a nomadic one) if you’re still sticking with an old-fashioned ‘top-down’ approach to building that team and ‘managing’ them. As a community, I think there’s a massive amount we can learn from companies who are operating this way, and we can use that to build stronger distributed teams.

As far as the nomadism goes, I’d definitely have to give credit to the Pickevent guys, who were the Spanish startup who first emailed us and planted that seed of an idea to move. And when we started figuring out how we could plan our trip, I was definitely inspired by reading about what the Maptia team were doing in Morocco at around the same time in 2013.

Obviously we’ve borrowed a ton from Buffer. In the last year or so, they’ve been by far our biggest inspiration and I have huge respect for the way Joel is guiding their culture in the direction of being as transparent as possible. Their approach to transparency has been something that has pushed us to be more transparent ourselves to try and match it. I actually feel that no matter how well their product does, the long-term impact of what they’ve contributed to the way we think about company culture, remote work, and nomadism will be even greater. We shamelessly copied their idea of doing team retreats, which is why 4 of us ended up in Hong Kong last year and ended up becoming far more nomadic afterwards.

There are plenty of challenges

As a team, we write about the challenges of remote working very frequently here on the Logbook. But while I don’t want to simply wave away the challenges and say that they’re easy to fix, they’re definitely solvable. There’s no doubt about that, and the number of people living this lifestyle are evidence that it’s possible. Jumping 8 hours ahead of London for most of this year made communication with the team a lot harder for me, for sure. But instead of just treating that as a compromise, we worked to improve the way we communicate as a team and the way we structure projects. I think it’s a bit of a “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” thing, because we’re now communicating and working on a far higher level than we were a year ago.

I know that on a personal level, being forced to solve these problems makes me stronger as a person, and it has the same effect on our team too. I’m happier and more productive because I’m able to decide when and where I work, and I don’t rely on the crutch of in-person communication with my team and clients.

It’s just a better way to build a company and a happy and productive team. There’s no way I’d give this lifestyle up willingly.

This post is an extract from a lengthy interview I did with the Nomadlist team. To read the full article, head over to their blog.

Posted by
Jon Lay

Jon is a Partner at Hanno. He wears many hats, but his primary focus is on leading our engineering and technical operations.