Personal: What's your story? Why start Balsamiq?

The following is a story that I told many people already, but didn't think was interesting enough to put on my blog until a certain Tamales Princess I know practically forced me to write to ;) so here it is.

A little background

When I moved to the US in 2001 after finishing my master in CS at the University of Bologna my 5-year plan was to squeeze as much knowledge as possible from "big corporate America", then come back and start something of my own here in Italy. It took me 6.5 years, and there's still a ton to learn, but here we are. This is the story of how I came back.

A New Way to Work

About two years ago we (my team at Adobe) decided to try and use wikis for our internal team documentation. We evaluated many wikis, and I was very skeptical about them, based on my belief that no-one other than the engineers were going to use a tool that required you to learn crazy nerdy markup. Then a colleague found Atlassian Confluence (thanks Raffaele!), and I was in love: WYSIWYG editing, hierarchical pages (that could be moved!), PDF export, nice, clean UI and a level of usability that I have seen rarely - using it you get that feeling that "every feature you need is where you'd expect it to be" and "every button is right where it should be". Like Adobe's Contribute (the first version) or, hopefully, ConnectNow.

So I became one of Confluence's most vocal proponents on the team, dumping tons of documents into it and encouraging everyone to do the same: a thing that worked was a rule set by our team's VP (thanks Pete!), which went something like this: "never answer a question via email: write the answer on a wiki page and send a link instead". This, coupled with how great Confluence was, worked wonders. Within a few weeks even the most skeptical project manager was won over, and within months it had become an integral part of our work (as an Engineering Lead, the tools I spent all day in were Confluence and my IDE for coding).

Within a couple of months, Confluence usage magically started spreading like wildfire to the other teams, some even converting their documents from previous MediaWiki installations. Then it was HR, legal and everyone else. Pretty much within a year a company of 6000+ people had completely transformed the way we worked (I may be exaggerating a bit here, but that's how it felt to me at least).

That's when I thought to myself: "I gotta get ON this".

Call it Web Office, Enterprise 2.0, Work 2.0, this stuff is powerful.. It's a new way to work and it makes everyone more productive and the resulting work is better, which I believe impacts the bottom line directly as well as everyone's morale. I truly believe that we're in front of one of those "no going back" techonologies like broadband, cell-phones, clothes dryers, etc.

The Stars Started to Align

So that was in my mind when a few other things happened:

  • my boss quit and I was given the opportunity to take on his management responsibilities (one of the things that I still wanted to learn before coming back)
  • our landlord told us that he wanted to sell our place (i.e. kick us out) within a year
  • my parents reminded me that they were missing out on my son's formative years and that
  • we always had a place to stay in Italy if we wanted to
  • we heard that friends were preparing to spend $22,000 a year to send their kid to PRE-school in SF
  • we started getting a bit tired of being parents in San Francisco without much of a support group.

Enter Mockups

In that context, the idea for Mockups came when a Product Manager I worked with expressed her frustration about not having a simple tool to put her vision into a feature spec (hi Randah!). I could tell that she had exactly in her mind how the UI should behave but didn't know Photoshop/Fireworks nor had the time to learn how to use those tools to mock up a user interface.

So I did a litte research for her, and couldn't really find any tool that would fit the bill. Everything was either too expensive and complicated or not really good. Plus those were all desktop tools and didn't fit with "the new way we worked".

During our evaluation of Confluence we had discovered Gliffy, a Confluence plugin for Visio-style charting. It used Flash and rumor had it that it was built by just two guys in San Francisco. I had heard that they were doing ok financially, and I thought to myself: well two guys doing ok makes for ONE pretty happy guy!

So here it was: Mockups was a small enough idea that I could build it myself, with the angle that I would make it work in Confluence and maybe other Web Office applications.

Plugins make sense for a small vendor like me: it's an add-on sale, you don't have to convince buyers of the value of the platform (the platform vendors take care of this expensive task), all you do is add a feature, simple. I follow the platform's pricing model, marketing and sales channels, even my EULA is modeled after Atlassian's. Basically it's a low-risk purchase for Atlassian's existing customers. As a one-man-shop, that's the most I can achieve by myself.

Since that first idea my vision has expanded a bit. My current business plan is to build 2 or 3 plugins a year, and to port each of them to as many wiki/web office platforms as it makes sense.

The real surprise to me has been the high demand for a Desktop version of Mockups, which as of today accounts for 72% of my revenue (and a whopping 95% of individual sales!). That means that only 5% of my sales come from companies who have adopted the Web Office way to work...I predict it will take another couple of years for it to change (in the US, longer abroad). When it does, I'll be ready! :)

I'm digressing, back to the story.

Nights and Weekends

I think the vision for Balsamiq started to cristallize in my head around August 2007. The project I was working on at Adobe was shipping in the spring of 2008, so there was my deadline: I wanted to have a sellable version of Balsamiq Mockups for Confluence for the spring, so that I could quit my job and launch Balsamiq right after. I had some savings, but with a family to feed, I couldn't afford to take time in between. Plus who knows how long it would take before I became profitable! It turned out to be pretty quick, but that's another story.

So I started my "second job": every night, after putting the baby to sleep, I would work for 4 hours in the kitchen (roughly 8pm to midnight). It's amazing how much progress you can make, a little bit at the time, even when you are tired from a full day of work. I would do the more tricky parts on Sunday mornings (my wife and I agreed I could have 3 hours on Sunday mornings for Balsamiq).

At some point I felt like I needed more time...so we went on vacation in Mexico with a bunch of friends! I highly recommend it: lots of people to help my wife with the kid, no Internet connection to distract me, just good old-fashioned coding on the beach!

There I am, building the scaffolding of the Balsamiq Mockups codebase.

The rest is pretty much history: I gave notice on April 1st, moved to Italy on May 2nd, finished with Adobe work on June 15th and launched Balsamiq 4 days later.

Ok, but why?

The main reason I started Balsamiq was to keep learning. My job at Adobe was terrific, I really loved it, but engineers there are really sheltered from the outside world (which makes perfect sense). I wanted to see what it took to do "the whole thing", from coding to marketing to legal to customer support to sweeping the floor of my office.

I want to see how much a single person can achieve with an idea, a laptop and the Internet. I want to learn what my limits are. Being the product of just myself, Balsamiq is a tangible representation of "the best that I can do", which is fascinating to me.

I want to build software that solves real problems, makes people more productive and elicits powerful feelings. I want Balsamiq to be known for its customer service and I want it to be part of a new breed of startups: small, bootstrapped software companies with big ambitions.

I believe I do my best work when I lead a small team of four or five people. I want Balsamiq to get there, organically, one sale at the time. The money, as long as there's enough to live comfortably and re-invest in the company, is secondary.

So far, I'm loving it. The ups and the downs, the easy days and the stressful ones. It's been an incredible learning experience already. If you care, I'll keep sharing what I learn on this blog. If you don't, I'll do it anyways, so that I have a record of it for myself. ;)

Onward!

[UPDATE: you can read more comments on the Hacker News thread about this post]

Comments (46)

  1. Thank you for telling your wonderful story and bringing Mockups to the world ! It sounds like the beginning of a great learning expedition for you and a way for many to gain access to a new world of work with easy to use, well designed collaborative tools. I wish you the best !

    Luis

  2. Great story about taking on risk and making sacrifices to achieve your vision. We use Balsamiq rather extensively here at Atlassian…even in the marketing team. It’s hard to imagine not having something like Balsamiq to do quick UI mockups. Of course, we’re heavy users of our own products so the killer feature for us is that it can be used within the context of Confluence and Jira where we do all our work.

  3. Great job!
    There are very few people left who want to “own” their work like you do.
    Awesome job so far, and please keep sharing your journey!

    t.

    Tim Nikolaev
  4. Thanks for the inspirational writings. You help motivate us one-man-show companies. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  5. This was fascinating; thanks for sharing some of the background. I’m amused that things have worked out so well despite not going quite the way you’d planned: the desktop version accounting for most of the revenue. Sort of a swerve, but hey, it’s all good…

    Regarding your last paragraph, I’d very much like to hear what you learn as you go. Aside from the business model insights, I’d also like to see the occasional “things I wish I’d known” article. For example, I’d love to hear what you wished you known about building a desktop application in Flex. Since I was a fairly early Mockups adopter, I’ve been a witness to a few gotcha moments where the framework caused mysterious (but mostly solvable) problems. Presumably, you know a heckuva lot more about the platform now than when you started. What surprised you the most, good and bad?

    Congratulations on a great year. Just don’t forget the sunscreen when you’re coding on the beach. :)

    Michael Matti
  6. Very motivational. I really enjoy the transparency your articles create about your company. That’s very refreshing, and nice for people to see from the outside that starting a business is not magic, just hard work.

  7. Hey Peldi,

    I’m the product manager for Confluence here at Atlassian and I use Mockups every week for drawing up specs for the new features we want to get into Confluence. I love it. It is the perfect tool to show people visually what you mean. I know from talking to customers who’ve seen Mockups that they see amazing potential for it too. So a big thank you, and as we grow the Confluence customer base even further I’m sure we’ll see even more users for Mockups.

  8. 1 word Peldi… AWESOME! Well another.. INSPIRATION! You rock

    Kenny BUnch
  9. Thanks for a great inspirational story and a really cool useful product!

  10. Great blog, great story, brave but great decisions. Keep up the great work you are doing.
    I am keeping my fingers crossed.
    We use Mockups to collaborate on UI design for our open source project Atlassian IDE Connector – e.g. at https://studio.atlassian.com/wiki/display/PL/IntelliJ+Connector+UI+Redesign+-+Atlassian+Panel

  11. Pingback: Standing on Shoulders | Bronte Media

  12. I recognize and share Balsamiq’s belief that using intentionally rough and casual “sketchy” elements allows collaborators, stakeholders, and users to focus on the features and flow rather than on their fondness or distaste for a particular visual design.

  13. Pingback: SitePoint Blogs » 10 Inspirational “How I Did It” Stories

  14. Please, keep sharing … just have a feeling that if you have passion and believe on yourself then you can achieve anything! thanks for the excellent post….

  15. I luv it, i luv it, i luv it!

  16. A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

    Brendan Patterson
  17. Pingback: Weekly linkdump #152 - max - блог разработчиков

  18. An awesome story! It would be great to read next chapters!

  19. I think you could write a whole blog on the moving to Italy piece and how you stay connected. My wife and I have started to look at other places to live. We are considering Italy, France, Panama, Ecuador among others.

  20. You are inspiring. Thank you.

  21. Pingback: Historia de Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Digg por sus dueños | Ser Interactivo

  22. The story is really inspiring. The practical or the real obstacles that everybody needs to bear.

    Please keep updating your experience, might be someone will be thankful to you for whole life when he/she get benefit from your experience.

  23. Really nice story.

    Nice to know how all things start

    Thanks for sharing

    Anderson

  24. What a great story! Well, I found your product just by accident – ten minutes after I decided not to scribble a few web page designs on a paper :) I love your product so far and still cannot believe it´s a one-dev team!

    All the best from a happy customer.

    Roberto Valerio
  25. Ah, so there’s hope. Even with a full time job, a family to feed and no partners in crime. Thanks.

    Asif Rahman
  26. I trully admire what you have achieved, Peldi. With a full time job and a family I know how hard is to do anything on the side. But it is possible. I like the picture!

  27. Thank you for telling your story. I love Balsamiq, a great wonderful app!!

  28. Pingback: Inspiration « Philbert Dev

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  33. Oh, thank you for sharing.

    It’s a kind of relief to know that somebody else could do what I’m trying to do.

    I mean, I’ve a stable job, I’ve kids also, I’m not in a tech hub, and I really annoying about stopping to learn.

    That’s motivate me to create something (small but mine), build something from scratch. Take care of all areas (administration, finance, development, etc). Like greats entrepreneurs already did. Change the world, with a laser focus gun.

    Thank you, again, for sharing.

    PS.: I really like your product, it has help out in design apps in a collaborative way.

  34. Hey Peldi,
    Inspiring story.
    BTW the link about how you became profitable quickyl ( http://blogs.balsamiq.com/blog/?p=95) is broken.

    Grazie
    Subra

    [Peldi: links fixed, thanks Subra!]

  35. Nice story. Thanks for sharing

    -Vinod

  36. You’re another inspiration for me to go with it. That is to go ahead, build something, launch my own business on the web and be my own boss. God bless you.

    Stephen
  37. Very inspirational! Thanks for sharing

  38. I’ve used Desktop. If you were to hook up with the small but vibrant team over at Zurb Foundation, there would be nothing but rainbows in the sky to ends of all our days. What a marriage made in heaven that would be for developers around the world, for business units trying to craft solutions to especially complex problems and being without a ‘voice’ to communicate it all. Keep up the terrific work.

    RJerrell
  39. This story is huge motivation to me from where I am placed today. I have been doing software development for past 8 years and dreaming of doing something like this.

  40. Complimenti

  41. I came across this story and I have to say it is very inspirational!!!!

  42. Great blog. I love your product.

    Lau Hing Lung
  43. Thank’s for sharing Your story. Very inspirational. I admire You for the decision to move on your own from working in big corpo environment. Good luck!

    Korepetycje
  44. Pingback: Night coder | Tetuan Valley

  45. Ben fatto !

  46. Thanks for sharing your story. I do have the same thoughts at the moment to start a product of my own. But after a full day job I am already tired and I find it difficult to work at night. I am hopeful I will be able to complete my software with in 1 or 1.5 years from now. Just started a month back. I am happy you made it. :-)

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