This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Chi Zhao, founder of Hokku PR and Variable X, two sister public relations firms in the US and UK that provides strategy and communications support to venture-backed startups and global fintech/blockchain companies.
What was your inspiration for living and working nomadically? What factors inspired you to leave the stationary lifestyle and start earning money remotely?
I was never a fan of working in an office. In fact, historically, I was always the employee who was never on time. It’s funny to share this publicly because I’m not proud of it, but the mandate of having to commute to work during one of the worst snowstorms in New York was one of the biggest reasons why I quit my job (no, snowstorms were not new to me, I grew up in Manhattan; it was just not optimal).
But don’t get me wrong — my disdain for being in the office has nothing to do with my work ethic. I’ve always been a hard worker, and I’ve always gone the extra mile for my clients. For that reason alone, I knew, was why my bosses never really made a big deal of my tardiness (and for that, I am forever grateful). However, I knew that while I gave my job my best, the commute was what got in the way of me feeling my best. So, on that fateful snow day, I decided I’d start my own PR firm, and with that, I’d give myself the absolute freedom to do what I wanted and work with who I wanted. What could go wrong, right?
In the beginning, when it was just me on a couch, everything was fine. If I had to travel to Singapore to meet a client and attend a conference, so be it. If I wanted to make a trip to Hong Kong before returning to New York or visiting San Francisco, the only person who could stop me was me. But, as the opportunity of new business continued to come along, I felt like I had no choice but to settle down, grow a team and … get an office.
During the first few years of starting my PR firm, Hokku PR, we went from renting out co-working spaces to a small office (and then a larger small office) in Herald Square to a medium-sized office with its own conference room right in the heart of the Flatiron District in Manhattan (or Silicon Alley). It was great. I grew my team to the biggest it had ever been, our office was even big enough for the ridiculously large Christmas tree I decided to get one year, because why not right?
But once again, I grew weary of the commute as it became physically and mentally draining for me to add 1-2 hours of commute time on top of 14 hour days. I also had members of my team who would travel 2-3 hours to get to work, and man, did I feel for them. Being in an office was also distracting for me because I am the kind of person who gets really irritated if anyone or anything broke my focus when I was trying to edit a document or complete a project with a tight deadline. With all these things, I began longing for freedom again. And at that point, I knew there had to be another way, and because I’m in charge, it was now my responsibility to figure out what that way was.
It was mid-2017 when I decided to take my entire team remote, subleased my office space, and gave myself (and my team) the freedom to be wherever. That year, we traveled to London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Singapore, and almost even made a trip to Malta. The following year, we went to Texas and Portugual before I decided to get rid of my apartment completely and drive cross-country to Los Angeles with my boyfriend because hey, it’s always sunny in California.
In short, what inspired me to leave a stationary lifestyle boiled down to absolute freedom and the sheer convenience. You save a lot of time not having to think about what to wear or putting on makeup, and all that time can be spent on more productive ways of building a business. I also didn’t want anyone who work for me to start their day already upset because of train delays and bad weather. There’s more to life than that.
What unexpected challenges and hurdles have you encountered so far as a digital nomad?
As a digital nomad, I’ve somehow ended up working a lot more hours than I did being in an office. I think, being in an office almost puts you in the 9-5 mindset, where your workday starts and ends there and then. Without these defined office hours, I’ve allowed myself to take calls, do work and answer emails at all times of the day, almost to the point where there was no separation between life and work.
Do you have any personal anecdotes or stories about the hardships you’ve faced as a location independent worker? How did you overcome them?
To expand on the above unforeseen reality that has become my life for the past three years, I’ve had to actually become more conscious of how I define my hours and my days. I’ve had to practice putting my phone away, training myself to dedicate weekends for mental health breaks, and not letting work consume me 24/7. I’ve had to mentally work through “allowing” myself to take a walk on the beach during “work hours” and am working hard still to enjoy the lifestyle that I’ve so carefully managed to set up for myself (and my team).
After all, it was important for me, as a woman (who is in charge of leading, mentoring, and shepherding the growth of younger women), to build a work/life balance that would allow me (and my team) the flexibility to be the best I (we) could be while knowing that there are other things in life that we need to be prepared for, like caring for our parents or for our children. It is important to me that my team knows not to be afraid of taking time off or losing their jobs because life happens. So in essence, knowing that I need to lead by example and let my team know what’s okay, is what motivates me to overcome these personal challenges that I have.
Has any aspect of the lifestyle and career been easier than expected? Is there anything that you thought would be difficult but, in reality, hasn’t been?
Even in the office, many CEOs and managers don’t trust their teams. For these leaders, managing a remote workforce becomes even more untenable. In the beginning, of course, the fear is that working from home would give the leisure of doing work or not doing work without anyone really knowing. However, I have been blessed by a team with an unwavering dedication to the company and our mission, and their autonomy and ownership of their work have made remote work (and managing them) much easier than expected. Since being remote, we’ve grown both our client roster and our team size, and we couldn’t be happier! Not to mention, the money that would have otherwise gone to rent have all been repurposed for outsized bonuses and renting out awesome digs when we travel together.
What character traits would you say are the most important or essential for successful digital nomads?
The most essential character traits for successful digital nomads really come down to having a sense of ownership and responsibility to your work. I’ve always told my team that while I pay their salaries, in PR, everything you do is for you. Every piece of media coverage you land for a client and every new relationship you build is yours to keep — no one can ever take that away from them, not me, not a client, no one. Knowing that the work you do is ultimately for yourself is what motivates you to be your best beyond any incentive a boss can ever give.
If you were starting over from scratch today, what would you do differently?
Nothing at all.
What would you say to aspiring digital nomads looking to get started on a similar career path? Any words of wisdom or cautionary tales?
Two things: be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and learn to be disciplined with your time. You can’t fully live what the digital nomadic lifestyle has to offer with no income.
In the early days, what initial strategies did you use to gain visibility and get your business off the ground?
Twitter, Facebook Groups, Clubhouse—these are all water coolers of the digital world. Being active and present to interact with industry peers and counterparts is what makes you visible and keeps you top of mind. I’ve had clients ask me questions that I thought were bizarre, like, “If you’re based in this location, how would you get us exposure across the pond?” To that, I say, “We have the internet, so long as they speak English there’s no one you can’t reach.”
Since I started my PR firm in 2014, I’ve never had to do business development. I’ve made many friends along the way and 100% of my business has been grown through personal referrals. But, it is important for potential clients or hires to know that you’re digitally alive, so I like to keep Twitter super updated and LinkedIn sometimes updated.