2015 Balsamiq Retreat in the Loire Valley

Since we are a remote, distributed team (9 from Italy, 5 from California, 1 from France, 1 from Germany, 1 from Netherlands, so far - and more are coming!), usually we see each other as two-dimensional people via webcam and, for many of us, just for a very short period during the day - what we call "Balsamiq Golden Hour" (8-9am PST / 5-6pm CET).

Our Annual Company Retreat is a great opportunity to spend a significant amount of time together in person, and it has a special meaning for the first-timers; I know that for sure, because this was my first Balsamiq retreat, and I loved it! :)

Our main goal for when we get together each year is to make shared memories. This means spending quality face time with each other, by cooking, eating, dancing, and doing different activities together. Basically the idea is to recharge our emotional batteries for the months ahead, when we each go back to our awesome but sometimes lonely home offices.

We also use the retreats to talk strategy as a team and have company-wide conversations if needed, but that's only a small part of the retreat, as it eats into the having fun time! :)

This was our sixth retreat together. Our previous retreat blog posts are here: 2010 (near Como, Italy), 2011 (near Recanati, Italy), 2012 (near New York, USA), 2013 (San Francisco, USA), 2014 (near Recanati, Italy).

This year we put every lesson learned from the previous retreats in a magic pot, et voilà, we had an incredibly amazing fairy tale week together!

Follow me, I'll show you everything.

2015 Company Retreat

The Location

We always try to avoid hotel accommodations; nothing against them, but we prefer to spend our retreats in a more comfy and relaxed space where we feel at home, with no outsiders around.

After a friendly competition between two different locations, the Chateau de Detilly, in Loire Valley won the contest.

Chateau de Detilly, Loire ValleyChateau de Detilly, Loire Valley

Can you imagine? A whole castle, all to ourselves. This was a big step forward, considering that during the previous retreats, we shared not only rooms, but also beds! We didn't mind, but we don't mind sleeping in fabulous rooms, as well!

Fab rooms at the ChateauFab rooms at the Chateau

We were split in two buildings, the Chateau and the Coach House. Most rooms were beautiful, but some of them were really amazing, with lots of luxurious extras. We randomly assigned rooms using random.org.


Workshops

We loved the theme from 2014 "Learning From and About" where we had an overwhelming 25 workshops!

After that great success, we collected new ideas for this year's retreat. Everyone was invited to propose talks with the following characteristics:

  • It's a group activity lead by one person.
  • Participation is totally optional.
  • Suggested duration: 1 hour.

Foldables workshopFoldables workshop

Here are the workshops we had in the Chateau (click to see Facebook photos of each):

It's amazing to see our colleagues leading a course and teach us how to do something. The best part is that in many cases, the workshop went beyond its hour and we kept talking and doing things even the days after. One example out of many is the knitting night led by Joy: it went viral and from that moment, every place and time were good for knitting!

Knitting everywhereKnitting all the things!

We also suspect that the Carlton dance that Mike taught us will come handy in many occasions. ;)


Other Group Activities

Doing things all together or in small teams is a real bonding experience. You can learn more about your workmates, both about their approach to challenges and goals, and how they cope with a project done as a real team. But more than that, it's great to have time to talk in person about this and that and deepen our relationships. For example, I will never forget the open conversations I had with a few Balsamici during our long Orienteering walk.

Here are a few of the group activities we did:

  • 2CV Rally: in groups of three or four, we jumped in some classic Renault 2CVs and drove through the Loire Valley looking for places in a sort of treasure hunt.
  • Breton dancing: led by a local enthusiasts of historic dance, we learned how to dance in perfect Breton style.
  • Bike Tour: an afternoon biking on the Loire Valley's country roads.

    Bike Tour

  • Orienteering: three teams of five with a compass and a map, locating some games and challenges along the way.

    Orienteering

  • Golf: a group lesson with a golf pro: putting, swinging, and playing a few holes!
  • Last but not least, 80's dancing! Check out the slow motion goodness below:

Discovering the Loire Valley

All countries have a lot to show: places, monuments, people, food... The Loire Valley in France is no exception. Early risers discovered the beautiful countryside around the chateau, with long walks and bike rides.

Discovering the Loire ValleyAn unexpected encounter

We toured a pair of places of interest: Fontevraud Abbey, a complex of religious buildings founded in 1101...

Fontevraud AbbeyFontevraud Abbey

...and the city of Amboise, former home of the French royal court.

AmboiseAmboise seen from the castle

In Amboise Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years in the Chateau du Clos Luce, now restored, within Parc Leonardo da Vinci.

Chateau du Clos LuceChateau du Clos Luce

We also visited the city of Chinon, with its market and a Troglodyte village, where the houses are caves, carved in the limestone mountains rising up from the river.


Food, food, food...! (and wine, wine, wine!)

Being 17 people means that it's not easy for us to deal with cooking, preparing, doing dishes everyday, so we decided to hire Monsieur Dupree, Chef of Le Pélican Restaurant and a member of his staff, Monsieur Alain, for almost every dinner during the retreat.

It was definitely worth it! Now we sampled a lot of French food, and are all pretty proud to be all about that bass now! ;)

We also had one lunch at La Table de Mestré in Fontevraud and an amazing fancy dinner at Château de Marçay.

Then on top of that, we were able to squeeze in two chocolate tastings, two wine tastings, and a large number of glasses on the dinner table every night.

GlassesFive glasses. Every dinner!

Monsieur Dupree had chosen four different types of wine for every meal, from the cocktail to the dessert wine. Good times indeed!

Dinner

Dining together after a busy day, and having someone else taking care of us was definitely the right choice: we had the time to relax and talk each other, and a lot of fun. I clearly remember three times where my ears and cheeks were hurting because of too much laughing! We also played Thumper during some dinners, and it was hilarious.

What has worked well

  • It was critical to have a small designated planning team; and BTW, Anna and Luis did a great job!
  • We hired a local, Janet, our eyes on the ground who helped us plan outings, organize local transportation, and spoke English :).
  • One month before the retreat, Anna and Luis traveled to the Chateau for an on-the-spot investigation with Janet. Having an advance team do a walk-through helped us know what to expect on site, check wifi strength, etc.
  • Start with a "Day Zero" before the retreat so travelers from afar have a soft landing. For the same reason, don't plan anything for the first day of the retreat.
  • The good balance between activities and free time allowed us to work in small groups, keep an eye on everything (sales, support, bugs...), nap, play tennis and enjoy the pool.
  • As mentioned before, hiring a personal chef was great for us.

What needs to be improved and what's next

While this retreat was fabulous, we always practice Kaizen, continuous improvement.

Here are a few things we're considering for the future:

  • Accommodations: try to find a place that fit all of us in the same building, and possibly with less "inequality" between the rooms.
  • Balsamiq retreats usually last about a week. Are they too long?
  • Currently we meet annually. Given than soon it will be too hard to find a week that works for everyone (we're just too many now), would twice a year be better?
  • Do we need a better process for date picking? Last year, we used a data picker in Google docs, color-coding our availability (Green="ok with me"; Yellow="not my favorite week but I could make it"; Red="I would skip the retreat it happened during this week") and numbers (from 0="won't come" to 10="love it")
  • Do we need a better process for location picking?
  • Do we want adjustments to the schedule (more or fewer outings, more or fewer workshops)?

More Photos, and New Avatars!

You can see 100+ retreat's pictures on our Facebook Page.

Like we do each year, we took a new company picture for everyone; check them out on our Company page - and you may want to click on the framed picture of the team on the top for a little, Shakespearean surprise... ;)


I hope you liked this little journey to our 2015 company retreat.

Do you have some ideas to help us in the organizational process? Do you have any good experience of Company retreats? Let us know in the comments below!

Bye for now,
Francesca

    Volunteering at BOSS

    As I wrote recently, some of us use part of our Professional Development Time at Balsamiq to do some volunteering.

    We also encourage each other to share our learning experiences in order to inspire each other, so the "Bayamici" (the Balsamici from the Bay Area, CA) offered to talk about their recent volunteer experience.

    In accordance with our Donation Policy, "Each year, every full-time employee can chose one non-profit organization for the company to make a contribution to. The amount of the contribution is 3% percent of the prior year profits divided by the number of full-time employees".

    We keep track of our donations on a wiki page called "Donation Stories", where each of us writes about their donation, explaining their choice to their colleagues. Leon's donation for 2014 was to an organization called Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency in Berkeley, California.

    Here is what Leon wrote about BOSS:

    I found out about this organization when I volunteered at one of their transitional housing centers in Berkeley last year. I love my city and I want to give help to people here who aren't as fortunate as we are.

    A Different Friday

    On Friday, March 27th Joy, Natalie, Valerie, Leon, and Mike met in downtown Berkeley to volunteer at BOSS.

    Volunteering

    They worked in a building that serves as transitional housing for homeless families with seven apartments where families can stay for two years to get back on their feet.

    The garden needed some TLC: weeding, planning and creating plant beds, pruning, weed-guarding, and mulching.

    Leon took on a big project with a centuryplant in the corner, weeding all around it, digging a bed, lining it with weed guard and mulch, and outlining the bed in vertical bricks:

    Before...after
    Before and After

    This process also uncovered some hidden bike racks that could come in handy in bike-friendly Berkeley!

    The center area was reclaimed by Joy who weeded, raked, added borders, and planted flowers. Natalie did the lavender topiary, more weeding, and created some new beds around existing plants. For curb appeal, Mike and Val weeded, raked, and re-bricked the edging of the front entrance.

    Joy Joy-Natalie-Valerie
    Gardening Mike

    Joy summed up her feelings about the project this way:

    As our guide for the day noted, having a nice, beautiful place to stay can do a lot for the family to feel good about themselves and their future. It was super fun to see everyone, to get involved in an organization that Leon donated to last year and to participate in a project in our greater local community.

    And Val:

    I love so much that we each are willing to put some sweat into the community.


    That's it! Taking a little time off work to do something like this can really make a big difference in people's lives. If you're interested, we'll be sharing more stories similar to this one in the future.

    What's your story? Does your company encourage volunteering activities? Let us know in the comments!

    Fra and the Balsamiq Team

      Professional Development at Balsamiq

      We have become hesitant about sharing our company policies because they are, and they should be, forever in evolution. That said, we do like to share things along the way with our community, both to inspire and to get your ideas on what we could do better.

      Today's topic is a policy that has worked well for us for over a year: our Professional Development Program.

      Balsamiq is a Learning Organization

      A few years ago, as we saw lots of clones trying to compete with us, Peldi realized that the one thing we have that competitors cannot copy is ourselves, our team. If each of us is great at what we do, and we work well together, we'll be tough to beat.

      The problem is that "being good" is not good enough. Each of us has a yearning to keep learning new things all the time, to get better. We're all passionate about it, but we realized that with the day-to-day routine, we rarely had time to dedicate to learning new things. It was frustrating, so in 2013 we started brainstorming how to fix this.

      Right as we were starting the discussion, we went to the Business of Software conference and, as always, had our minds blown by Kathy Sierra.

      Here's what she had to say about the importance of deliberate practice (scrub to 9:30 if you want, but I dare you not to listen to the whole talk, it's so good you won't be able to pull away):

      When we got back from BoS, we were committed.

      Even the "theme" of our retreat last year was learning from each other, which was kind of inspired by our PD projects.

      Let our Awesome Blossom

      The first thing we decided was that we should encourage everyone to set some time aside each week for learning (roughly 5 hours a week).

      You don't have to do it each week, you can manage it whichever way you'd like.

      Each person can choose to pick work-related topics (anything that could be useful to Balsamiq as a whole, not just their particular job) but it's not a strict requirement.

      Expenses for learning topics related to a person's job can be reimbursed, so we set aside a budget of $3000/year per person. We review the budget each January, but we haven't changed it in the last 2 years, it seems to be a pretty good amount. There's no prorating and no rollovers, use it or lose it.

      These expenses can be books, classes, or travel, accommodation and fees for attending conferences. A quick sidenote about conferences: if you get invited to speak at a conference or if we have a sponsor booth there, those expenses don't count against your budget. Sweet! :)

      Everyone schedules their "PD Time" - as we call it - on the internal Balsamiq Shared Calendar, so that we all know when someone is not available because they are learning something.

      We are strongly encouraged to share our learning as much as possible (using the company wiki, maybe a monthly or a pre-recorded quarterly "what I learned last month" presentation...). We want to get others excited about learning new things!

      To make sure we take this seriously, we also added these questions to the ones we always go through in our quarterly review 1-1 meetings with Peldi:

      • are we on track with your professional development?
      • are you learning enough (on the job or in PD time)?
      • think long term: are you working on what you want to get better at, or should we change something?

      Examples of What We Have Learned

      To make the most of our PD time, a few of us have attended a great course on "Learning How to Learn". The initial spark came from Luis, who takes his PD Time very seriously, and he is often of inspiration for us!

      Luis and Anna took a course on Public Speaking.

      Mike is working hard on his music, as you can see in our latest release.

      Leon, who works from home in Berkeley, sometimes goes to a cafe for a change of scenery. He thought it would be neat to compile a community-curated list of cafes with good wi-fi, so he cobbled a site together using a bunch of free and open source tools and his own HTML and CSS knowledge: and here is Work From Homers Club - Berkeley.

      Ben wants to improve his iOS-code-skill and developed Pointedly, a nice mobile app to track and save points for multiple games. As he says, "it was a lot of work, and a lot of fun". Next step: the Apple Watch!

      Peldi had to study a lot when he decided to prepare a talk for the International Women's Forums in Bologna titled "Becoming an English-Speaking Female Entrepreneur in Bologna".

      Florian developed a Sudoku solver and extended it to a Sudoku generator. The program also supports variations like diagonal sudokus and hyper sudokus.

      Michele studied Android very deeply: online articles, books, conferences...

      Andrea wrote a plugin for Atlassian Confluence that processes data from Pivotal Tracker, to automatically fill his weekly agenda with what he has worked on each week.

      Val attended two courses about Emotional Intelligence at Stanford.

      I am reading "Where Stellar Messages Come From" from CopyHackers and improving my English attending a School twice a week.

      Natalie is going to an Italian Class while Stefano is attending some private lessons to learn Dutch.

      Some of us use that time to do some volunteering: we firmly believe that it's a personal and professional development, as well! Some weeks ago, Joy set up an awesome volunteer day for the Balsamici from California at BOSS; I'll tell you more about it in a future post.


      We are very happy with our PD program, and are finding it true that Creative Hobbies Improve Our Performance at Everything.

      Do you have any suggestion for us? How do you get better at what you do?

      Mahatma Gandhi Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

      Fra for the Balsamiq Team

        Tips for Customer Support

        Support is something really important to us.

        During the latest Balsamiq Retreat, Peldi asked Ben to teach his techniques for excellent customer support with the rest of the team.

        Here's what he taught us; we hope it will come useful for those of you who do support!

        The Perfect Support Interaction - Par 3

        Ben started the workshop with our mission: Balsamiq exists to help rid the world of bad software.

        Inspired by Kathy Sierra, we have realized that our goal is not to create awesome software, but to create awesome users. If our users are successful, they will create awesome software and other awesome users.

        In other words, support for us means helping our users get unstuck so that they can go back to work on ridding the world of bad software.

        One of the core principles for us in doing support is the concept of Par 3, borrowed from golf. Here's what we consider an ideal support interaction:

        1. customer writes in
        2. we reply with the perfect answer
        3. customer replies "Thank you, that's exactly what I needed"

        That's it! No need to follow-up, they get enough email as it is.

        The rest of this post explains how to craft that "perfect answer".

        Canned Responses: Yes or No?

        We believe canned responses are both helpful and dangerous.

        They're mostly helpful for repeated requests (though an FAQ on your site will remove the need for people to write you in the first place), but they're also helpful for those days when you are not 100% happy, but you still have to talk to people. ;)

        The dangerous side is this: if it’s not your tone, if it's not your voice, it’s going to sound fake. You just copy and paste something that someone else wrote that doesn’t match the rest of what you wrote. So it can be dangerous, but that danger can be solved: just write a collection of little pieces of canned responses written by yourself, in your style, with your tone, that you can pull together as needed.

        Anatomy of a Perfect Reply for a Bug Report

        Crafting the perfect answer might feel intimidating, but don't worry, anyone can do it, it's not that hard. Here's a formula to help.

        anatomy-of-a-perfect-reply

        Note: this formula is infinitely adaptable, the order of the sections is highly contextual.

        1. Greeting

        The most important thing in support is to be yourself: first of all, we say “Hi” or "Hello": it's more familiar compared to other greetings. You may have noticed that we are not very formal; we are relaxed and comfortable and we want to be that way with our customers.

        Tip: Be natural but also be friendly: use their name almost every single time.

        2. Thank

        The support interaction is just beginning, but we recommend you thank the person who is writing, probably upset, to tell you that you have done something that has caused them pain.

        Part of the reason we feel this "thank you" section is so important is because it's very natural and common, when someone is attacking you, to get defensive; this "thank you" section changes everybody's mindset. You let them know that you are both on the same path now, trying to solve the problem together so that they can get back to helping rid the world of bad software.

        Tip: Write something that says "I know you have taken time out of your life to share this problem with us, without which we might not know about it and be able to fix it."

        3. Empathize

        Once you have thanked them for what they're doing for us, you have to show them that your understand their pain.

        It can be a simple apology. What an unusual thing that is, in today's world, for a company to say: "It's our fault, we're sorry!" It's about taking responsibility. You do care, right?

        Tip: Try to really put yourself in their shoes. I bet you'd probably be upset too! :)

        4. Identify

        When someone is writing you with a support question, it's often much more emotional than logical. They're writing in a certain emotional state: they've lost time because there was a problem, they're now losing more time to tell you about it and share their experience.

        They need to feel like you understand both their emotional state and what has happened technically, in order for them to trust and believe that what you are going to tell them will help. If they don't feel like you understand them, they will resist whatever you're telling them, they're not going to listen to the solution that is going to fix their problem; so this Identify phase is very important.

        So: clearly identify the problem, give it a name. For example, "I can help you with sharing images," or "This is what I think is happening," or something like that.

        If they are not clear enough about their problem, you need to tell them your assumptions. Sometimes it can be a challenge to figure out what's happening, but with the goal of Par 3, your first response should not be "What product are you using?".

        Sometimes that's all you can do, but you should first try to figure it out. For example, we might say: "Let me know if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you're using Mockups for Desktop."

        Tip: Your reply back needs to be a mix of emotion and logic. The logic will help engage different parts of their brain, and calm them down. But if your reply only contains logic, you will come across as cold, impersonal and uncaring.

        5. Resolve

        The single most important part of a perfect response is to resolve the problem. Without this part, your response fails.

        One of the most effective resolutions that you can and should have, is: "This is all you need to do, follow the instructions on this link: {link to support article}."

        This is more and more of our answers in Balsamiq support, especially with beginners, also due to Leon's work on writing the support documentation for Mockups, which makes everyone's life easier. :)

        If you have a website section dedicated to FAQs and Support docs, this kind of resolution is very helpful also because it exposes users to your massive support knowledge base - I'm sure you have one, right? ;)

        Once they see all those articles, they'll understand you've taken time to think about this problem and think: "Maybe next time I have a question, I'll start here instead of tweeting, calling, or emailing." Bingo! :)

        Tip: Sometimes you have to tell them a workaround, such as another way to do something until the bug is fixed. This is often painful: the resolution is not always a happy thing.

        6. End

        Our favorite ending is one that leaves the interaction open.

        "Please let me know if you run into any trouble or have any more questions": even if your goal is Par 3, you shouldn't shoot down further interaction. You want them to feel like you are here and available when they get stuck.


        I hope you enjoyed Ben's Support School! Here are his slides: 

        In case you want to learn more about Customer Support, we recommend this book: “The Customer Support Handbook” written by our friend Sarah Hatter, CEO of CoSupport.

        The book is full of good advice for those who intend to have a career in Customer Support; some chapters are written by people who are great at it, and the book contains a large number of possible support cases, each with a proposed solution. In the "Best Practices" chapters you can find tips to write better emails, apologize to your clients and admit mistakes, deal with feature requests, do Social Support, etc.

        And remember, the best support is no support: it means that you're doing a great job with your product. :)

        Hope this was helpful. Any questions, post them below!
        Francesca

          Looking back at 2014

          Hello again friends of Balsamiq!

          Peldi here with our traditional "state of the union" end-of-year report. You can find previous editions here: 2008, 2009 and 2013.

          As usual, this is going to be a very long post.

          Summary

          We're doing great. We're executing on our vision, one step at a time. Most of what we did in 2014 was behind the scenes, and will be released in 2015 (we're SO excited). Revenue grew about 4.5% (not bad considering our last official release was in March), and profit margins remain very healthy. Our micro-multinational finally feels mature, with all the processes and benefit programs we'll need for a while. Customers are gradually migrating from Desktop to myBalsamiq, as expected. Support load and competitive pressure are both low, so we can afford to stay focused on gradually moving to native platforms and other hard-to-do product improvements.

          The Nitty-Gritty

          Interested in all the details? Let's dive in!

          Mockups

          We only had one official release of Mockups this year, on March 13. With it we introduced bracketed text links and iPad and iOS7-styled controls. We also did 3 small bug fix releases, but overall, the 2.2 codebase has been mothballed since about April, when we shifted our focus to...

          Balsamiq Mockups 3: as you may remember from last year, our focus has been to gradually move away from Flash, towards native implementations on all major platforms, while sharing the bulk of our code-base between versions. It's a massive undertaking, and a risky one. To lower this risk, we decided to take two in-between steps: the first one was to refactor our existing code-base to separate the parts that required Flash from those that didn't. The idea was to end up with a core set of classes that could be translated to Javascript to form the core of our native editors. We spent months rearchitecting the existing code-base, pushing Flash-specific classes to the edges and cleaning up 6-years worth of technical debt in the process. That effort is now complete, the new codebase is a joy to work with, and will serve as the basis for the future Balsamiq Mockups native editors, coming sometime in the future. The other step we wanted to take to minimize risk in the migration to native was to make all of the UX changes we've been wanting to make to the product for years, BEFORE going native. This way we could deliver the changes sooner and test them on the existing code-base, letting the dust settle before we port the new UX to native platforms.

          These two steps (code refactoring and UX improvements) were meant to happen separately, but sometime in April we decided it made more sense to do it all at once. It took about 10 months, but it's all done. We are planning on opening up a public beta of Balsamiq Mockups 3 at the beginning of February, and starting work on the native editors in earnest right after that (we'll start with iPad and Android versions first).

          UX changes in Balsamiq Mockups 3

          The main change is that we are finally moving from a one-mockup-per-file to a one-project-per-file model. The new file format is called BMPR (pronounced bumper) and it contains all of the mockups, assets and symbols for a given project. Super-easy to share, and designed for the future (it will also contain mockup revisions, branches, comments, and more).

          Mockups for Desktop 3 is able to import and export your existing BMML files, but BMPR is its primary file format. BMPRs are based on sqlLite, which allows us to automatically save every change as you make it.

          The editing UX is much more mature: you can open multiple project windows at the same time, and we have adopted a "3 column" UI which is very common for authoring tools: the list of resources is on the left, and properties are on the right. The annoying floating property inspector is finally a thing of the past! :)

          We also made the full-screen presentation experience much more powerful, and greatly simplified creating and working with Symbols.

          In the process, we fixed over 750 issues between bugs and feature requests. The app is noticeably faster and able to handle large projects without much trouble.

          Balsamiq Mockups 3 is going public beta on 2/2/2015, stay tuned on our Product Blog for the download link!

          The road to native

          In 2014 we focused on creating a multi-platform viewer of BMML files, as a first step towards native editors. It was a lot of work, but it came out really nicely. We now have a core set of Javascript classes that can render any BMML natively in multiple platforms.

          We soft-launched (or are about to launch) 3 incarnations of this native viewer:

          • a native OSX BMML QuickLook plugin: read more and try it out here. We are going to make this work in Yosemite and understand BMPR files soon.
          • an HTML+SVG viewer inside of myBalsamiq, in the single mockups view. This will ship publicly in a few weeks.
          • a native linux renderer (uses Node.js and Canvas to output bitmap files) to be used by myBalsamiq for creating thumbnails and PDFs. This will replace our current hacked-together and error-prone solution of running a cluster of Mockups for Desktop linux clients.

          The viewer supports skins, links, custom icons, assets...the works!

          myBalsamiq

          2014 was a good year for myBalsamiq, our beloved web app.

          Just like for the Mockups editor itself, most of the work happened behind the scenes. We actually shipped 25 releases of myBalsamiq (all without any downtime of course). We added the ability to specify a secondary billing administrator, we added more events to the mockup-, project- and site-history streams, we added the ability to restore deleted mockups, made several performance updates and added features to help our sales support team extend trials quickly. We also worked extensively with security experts, making your data safer every day.

          Behind the scenes, we rearchitected how we save mockups in the database (we migrated the BMML data out of RDS and into S3), we merged custom editor code with our main browser-based Flash editor, started using Docker and Vagrant to develop and deploy different components of our web app, made the app work with our new Buy Page, gave our administrator UI a new look and feel and started React-ifying the front-end code.

          2015 will be the year in which we finally start investing more in myBalsamiq. By the spring, we should have 3 full-time developers on it (incredibly, we've only had Luis work on myB full-time until now).

          The focus for 2015 for myBalsamiq is to integrate the B3 editor (trickier than it sounds), to offer yearly subscription plans, and to revamp the UI to make it much faster and streamlined (moving to React). This will also help us simplify the server-side code, which will finally start having some real JSON APIs. You just wait, it will be great. :)

          Plugins

          In 2014 we simplified our plugin business by discontinuing two low-performing products, which ended up being less painful than we expected.

          In 2015 we will continue to work on streamlining Mockups for Confluence and JIRA, by moving to the Atlassian Connect architecture and trying to migrate as many of our customers to Atlassian Marketplace as possible.

          Mockups for Google Drive remains our best-kept-secret, which makes it the ideal test-bed for new and exciting things. In 2014 Mockups for Google Drive was the first product to adopt the BMPR file format, the first plugin to fully support Symbols, and the first to get real-time collaboration in the editor! In 2015 it will also be the first to offer Stripe-based subscriptions (the final step in migrating all of our payment processing to Stripe), followed by myBalsamiq.

          For 2015, our plans are to bring Balsamiq Mockups 3 to all of our plugins...and we will finally have feature parity between all of our product versions!

          Testing

          Automated testing continues to be a very important part of our development process, allowing us to confidently deliver high-quality releases in a short amount of time.

          Our main growth area for 2014 was around security testing. We have learned a ton and put it all in practice, with the help of some security researchers who wrote to our security@balsamiq.com address.

          Keeping your data safe is a never-ending effort, but one we enjoy doing. We cannot go into too many details, but rest assured that your data is even safer now.

          We continue to write new tests as new features are developed, and continue to make sure our testing bots run smoothly and quickly.

          Ops

          Operations is another of those areas that "is never done", but that we enjoy nonetheless. :)

          In 2014, we quickly dealt with both the Heartbleed and Shellshock vulnerabilities. We upgraded our build machine, streamlined our AWS usage and even created our own private Docker registry.

          We are very proud of our uptime reports: our websites pretty much never go down (yay for static sites on S3!), and myBalsamiq had 99.97% uptime (not bad, but we want to do even better in 2015!).

          We improved how we build our static websites, swapping our Hammer workflow with one based on grunt. We also put balsamiq.com, media.balsamiq.com and uxapprentice.com behind a CDN, which makes them fast all over the world.

          Website Updates

          In 2015, among other things, we plan on switching balsamiq.com to be HTTPS-only: the GOOG says it's time.

          Admin, Finance and More

          The main focus of our admin team in 2014 was to implement our new let's compete locally on benefits policy across our different geographical locations. For our LLC, this meant switching to a new 401(k) provider, new medical benefits plans that also cover family members and a new life and disability insurance. Similar improvements are about to kick off for our Italian, French and German employees.

          Other than that, we worked on the many little and big projects required to make a distributed micro-multinational work smoothly: we streamlined how we work with our accountants and payroll providers, we kept up with our local tax registrations, set up a new company nexus in Utah, we revamped our expense reimbursement forms, we updated our liability insurance and passed our PCI compliance audit, we learned about COPPA and made some changes to make sure we comply with it, we improved how we do international wire transfers, updated our transfer-price documentation, organized an amazing company retreat and several mini-retreat and get-togethers. We also formalized a bit how we organize retreats and picked a location for our 2015 company retreat: we rented a small castle in the Loire Valley in France at the beginning of June! :)

          We also upped our contributions to our Donations (now 3% of profits) and Profit Sharing programs (now 15% of profits), trained in first-aid and fire-fighting for office safety, updated our office safety compliance documentation, rented another garage, made business cards for everyone, and welcomed Francesca to the Balsamiq family!

          We also invested part of our cash reserves, finally putting our money to work.

          We continued to improve our Company Handbook, and we'll be sharing more of it in 2015. For now, I just want to mention three new policies we started in 2014 that are working out really well:

          1. We started to have quarterly 1-1 catch-up meetings between each employee and myself. The goal of these meetings is to take a step back and think more long-term than what we usually do.
          2. We started a Professional Development program: we encourage each of us to take half a day each week during regular work hours to learn something new or improve something we already know.
          3. We started a Time Off to Exercise program: we encourage each of us to take half a day each week during regular work hours to do some physical exercise.

          On the financial side, we created an internal dashboard to help us track sales. Below are a few of the charts for 2014.

          Here you can see revenue growing nicely, even if we haven't focused on it. Note that these numbers are not 100% accurate, but pretty close:
          revenue

          Here's a count of transactions: we're handling about 10,000 transactions each month these days...not too shabby! :)
          cumulative

          Here's a chart showing where our customers are. Australia is over-represented because of our Atlassian Marketplace sales, which we don't break down:
          geo

          Here you can see that Desktop sales have slowed down while myBalsamiq sales just keep growing (as expected). Plugins are pretty steady:
          line

          Here's another chart, showing how revenue is gradually migrating from Desktop to SaaS, as expected:
          percent

          We are at about $370,000 in revenue per employee, which is high. We plan on hiring one or two programmers in 2015, which will help us go even faster. Interested?

          Conferences, Interviews and Press Mentions

          We attended the following conferences:

          • Clojure eXchange 2014, London
          • Microservices Meetup, Amsterdam
          • Enterprise UX Meetup, San Francisco
          • Business of Software 2014, Boston
          • JS Conf 2014, Berlin
          • Atlassian Summit, San Jose
          • JS MVC Meetup, Amsterdam
          • AtlasCamp, Berlin
          • JSDay, Verona
          • You in UX Web Conference
          • 99u Conference, NYC
          • React 2014, London
          • WebRTC meetup, Amsterdam
          • Joy of Coding 2014, Rotterdam
          • Interaction_14, Amsterdam
          • Javascript MVC Meetup, Amsterdam
          • Strange Loop 2014, St.Louis
          • Leon spoke at a HCI class at Purdue University (video)

          My interview for the ConversionAid podcast was surprisingly popular, here's the link: How Balsamiq Bootstrapped Its Way Into a $6M Business.

          Press mentions around the web are too many to count, but here's a little sample of some of the most interesting articles:

          Looking ahead

          This year is going to rock: 2014 was for building, 2015 is for shipping! :)

          As always, things will take longer than expected, there will be ups and there will be downs, and we'll learn A TON in the process. Bring it on, we're ready! :)

          Thanks for reading this super-long post.

          If anything in this post surprised you or sparked your interest, don't be shy and add a comment! I'd love to answer any questions you might have.

          We hope 2015 brings you and your families health, happiness and success.

          Onward!
          Peldi for the Balsamiq Team

            Balsamiq, the Secret Sauce

            It's not hard to guess that our company has always had a strong affinity with food. Especially good, earthy, artisanal, unpretentious food.

            We even added a menu item in our software's Help menu about it! Clicking on it will take you to this page, where you'll find a playlist FULL of great and simple video recipes, made with love mostly by our own Valerie Liberty, queen of phone support and awesome chef of every-day simple meals.

            We called our company Balsamiq because our software has a lot in common with balsamic vinegar - the good kind, aged at least 12 years, made in Modena, Italy: it's artisanal, it's smooth, it's a treat to use, it improves other things (like our plugins do), it's made in Italy, and yes, it takes a long time to make, but it's worth the wait. :)

            Over time, we have noticed that this affinity has spilled over a few times...here's a few examples of what we mean.

            Actual recipes

            We found a super geeky girl who runs Coders.Kitchen, "the only blog where food and tech connect". Her name is Sarah and she writes recipes inspired by different tech companies. For us, she came up with "Balsamiq Crock Pot Caramelized Onions"! Such a tasty recipe... yummy!

            Another blog, French Cooking for Dummies by a French girl named Véro, has 3 recipes with the tag 'Balsamiq vinegar': Warm goat cheese salad, Green asparagus and vinaigrette, Smoked duck & pear appetizer spoon.

            Last but not least, if you like squid you cannot miss this delicacy: 'Squid Adobo In Balsamiq Vinegar'.

            Instagram pictures tagged with "balsamiq"

            Oops, I think my mouth just watered. ;)

            I want to leave you with a little story: whenever we have to spell "balsamiq" over the phone, we usually say: "Balsamiq. Like the vinegar, but with a Q". Back in 2009, as our little business was taking off, Peldi's step-dad Eugenio made this prediction: "If you keep going at this rate, soon the city of Modena will describe the vinegar by saying like the software, but with a C!" :)

            Enjoy your meal everyone! :)

            Fra

              Even Santa uses Balsamiq?

              As you know, our little company is spread out around the world. We have a Hipchat room we use to share day-to-day stories, which helps us bond. Today Stefano told us a story from his weekend which we'd like to share with you:

              The scenario is the Annual Inescapable Christmas Party Among Italians™ for families living in Leiden, Netherlands. Here's what happened:

              ...there I was, lost in the chaos of a horde of loose children, trying to hide behind a table full of cakes, pretending to look after Alberto who was happily working on his third slice of pandoro.

              And then I meet this new face, a nice guy from Brazil, working on his PhD in Delft. It turns out we're both nerds so we start talking about stuff and then he says:

              No way! I just lllloove Balsamiq! That's where I've seen your face! I'm trying to convince my whole department to buy a new license!

              And so on. He also introduces me to his girlfriend... and then it occurs to me: "What are you doing in this forbidden hell if you're not Italian, you don't have children and don't even live nearby??"

              "I'm supposed to be the Santa", he says". LOL!!

              brazilian santa balsamiq fan

              Thank you Stefano for sharing your little shiny story. And Happy Holidays to all of you from your friends at Balsamiq.

                Santa visited Balsamiq today!

                As Santa gets ready for his annual trip around the world, he came by for a visit to our different locations this morning. We all were ready for him, bouncing off the walls and with big smiles on our faces.

                We must have been good this year, because he brought us such beautiful gifts!

                Santa loot

                • Creativity, Inc.: a book on what does it mean to manage well from Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation
                • a terrific photo-album from our last retreat
                • a generous Amazon gift card
                • 2 things from our SWAG stores (US / European)
                • brand new Business Cards! So what if they feel corporate! ;)

                Santa-Peldi wrote us a little dedication, let me share it with all of you:

                I know I say this every year, but it really fells like the years are flying by, and 2014 was no exception. A lot of what we did in 2014 was 'behind the curtains' stuff, but it was nonetheless incredibly important and exciting. I'm going to write a blog post about it around the end of the year, you'll be amazed.

                Personally, what I loved the most about this year was noticing how each of us is getting better at what we do, while at the same time getting better at working together, even in our challenging geographically-and time-zone-distributed environment. Such Kaizen... very amaze... wow... ;)

                I am SUPER excited about 2015. I don't know about you, but I still think that the best is yet to come for our little company! :)

                Let's take some time to reflect and get re-energized... Try to be away from a screen as much as possible over the break! Play board games, make something with your hands, have long chats with friends and loved ones, in person! I know, radical.

                Merry Christmas and happy holidays, Balsamici.

                Peldi

                Have a great holiday season, friends!
                Francesca for the Balsamiq Team

                  Francesca Fabbri joins Balsamiq!

                  Hello friends of Balsamiq!

                  I'm Francesca, the seventeenth member of the Balsamiq family.

                  What can we expect from you?

                  My primary role at Balsamiq is to be the Community Manager; you can meet me on all the major Social Networks and at some conferences. I intend to let you know more about Balsamiq and what we do, how and when; I'll also share with you things we love and that we hope will make YOU more successful.

                  Since I'm based in Bologna, Italy, I'm also going to help with tech support for our European customers.

                  My email is francesca@balsamiq.com. And if you are coming to Bologna, let me know: I’ll bake you a cake!

                  Francesca Fabbri… such a cute name!

                  Actually, Francesca Fabbri is a very common name in the geographical area where I live and has always caused me identity issues: "Are you related to...?" - "No, I'm not". "That's funny, I know another Francesca Fabbri!", etc.

                  Lucky for me, my namesakes were not as good at internetting, so I was able to snag “francescafabbri” on every social network! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, SlideShare, Flickr, Google+, Pinterest… they are all MINE! Muahahaha!

                  ...and now you know how to find me online ;)

                  francesca_for_blog

                  How did you get into Balsamiq?

                  It’s a long story, grab a seat!

                  I first met Peldi and Marco in 2010, when Balsamiq was... Peldi and Marco! We all were attending to an Italian conference. Peldi began his talk by saying something like: “Hey, hello, I just got back from San Francisco, I'm here with Marco, I’m now in Bologna but I don’t know anyone here…”

                  After he had finished I looked for him, picked him out in the crowd (you know… red hair), tapped him on the shoulder and said: “Hey, ciao! We are from Bologna too!”.

                  I don’t want to tell you the whole story, there'll be time for that. Suffice it to say that Balsamiq was looking for a workspace and there was one free to rent next Mimulus office (Mimulus is the amazing agency that I worked for). So we became office-mates for a few years.

                  In those days I coined the term “Balsamíco” - it's a blend between "Balsamiq" and "amico", the italian word for friend...ever since then, that's what Balsamiq staff members call each other: we're your Balsamíci! :)

                  After a couple of years Balsamiq Bologna moved to a bigger office, but I’ve kept in touch with Peldi, Natalie, Val, Marco, Paolo, Luis, Mike… I saw the company growing and doing great things, and I wanted to be a part of it.

                  Well... now I am! :)

                  Do you have any advice for us?

                  Considering the way I've joined Balsamiq, I want to tell you: do not be afraid to desire great things and try to reach them. The reality may surprise you beyond imagination!

                  See you online!
                  Fra

                    2014 Retreat: Learning From and About

                    bike success

                    Friends, I can't believe it's October. Before summer becomes a distant memory, I want to tell some stories from this year's Retreat. If you've been following our company, you'll recall that our little team has grown a bit each year. We work as a distributed team, mostly from our homes in the US, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, in addition to a small office in Bologna, Italy. We get together annually to spend time enjoying the friendships we've developed over the years, as well as hold focused discussions about our company, our products, and ourselves that are best done relaxed and in person. Here are some lessons learned this year. If you'd like to see past posts about our corporate retreats, they're here: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

                    Lessons learned in 2014

                    Finding a week that works for 16 people is hard!

                    This year, we used a 3-color voting grid on a Google Doc (Red: I won't attend; Green: I'm in; Yellow: I have issues) to find August 21-28. Super great fortune for us, because that included Peldi's birthday. Here we are on the last night, celebrating at Clandestino after a day at Portonovo beach. Special shout out to family guests Mariah, the Guids, and La Nonna!

                    birthday

                    We all have something to teach

                    This year, Marco had the brilliant idea of organic learning – teaching each other. We opened up a wiki page to suggestions and ended up with 25 different sessions! Each served a double purpose: our group learned about a wide variety of subjects, and we also learned about each other and our hobbies. Learning From and About emerged as a theme of the 2014 retreat. All sessions, except Florian's talk on security for the dev team, were offered as optional. It was successful beyond expectations.

                    watercolor

                    Location, location, location

                    Our location was familiar and comfy: we returned to La Sperduta, Peldi's place in the countryside of Marche, Italy, about 3 hours from Bologna office. For the first time, there were no new-comers, so our Retreat had the air of a family reunion. Because our team has grown to 16, we tried a new set up: we rented rooms at a local B&B so we each had a room to call home. At night, we ran an early and a late van back. Before breakfast, Stefano and Peldi led yoga practice by the pool, then, we'd load up the vans and head off for a field trip, or to La Sperduta, where we had sessions, and covered sales & support cases, punctuated by extreme ping pong, extreme Bananagrams and extreme naps.

                    hammock

                    Our focus was learning new ways to enrich ourselves and our work.

                    Here's our full schedule.
                    Schedule

                    Getting together annually is at once a defining and a re-defining week.

                    It's the only time we are all in the same place. It's where we are able to learn on a different level as a mature (ha!) and intimate-but-distributed company. We review our manifesto, we true-up our values and our behavior. We check in with each other in all sorts of ways (e.g., "you still off coffee/a vegetarian/whatever?" or "how'd you hack your baby monitor?" )

                    smores

                    To kick things off, we had a real-live behavioralist, Paul Kenny talk to us about organizational psychology. It was not only fascinating, it has helped us understand the communication styles of our peers, providing a richer understanding for teams that span languages, time zones and emotional ranges. We took a profiling test beforehand, and Paul presented the results. We reviewed ourselves as individuals, teams, sub-groups, and the company as a whole. This type of understanding is meant to help us harmonize, diffuse tensions, and trust our colleagues more deeply. So far, we've seen great results play out successfully when working on a complex group task: ironically in choosing the next Retreat location!

                    Paul Kenny

                    We learned a lot from Paul, of course, but the single most notable take-away for me was: introverts have the same depth of emotion as extroverts but show it differently. That epiphany has come in handy at work and at home. It was great to schedule this kind of heavy stuff early in the week, so it could percolate, and we could build on it throughout the remainder of our time together.

                    We learned, and shared and laughed and ate. As always, it passed by too quickly, overwhelming, exhausting and refreshing. We can't wait to do it again next year. At the end of this month, we'll decide where we'll go in June.

                    DJs

                    If your team has had a successful off-site and you'd like to share your ideas, I'm all ears! We're also looking for a great way teams select photos when there are, um, a lot of favorites. Comment here, or email val@balsamiq.com.

                    A few more favorites...


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