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...

                  Transformative Living @ Balsamiq

                  DSCF4182

                  I believe it all started in San Francisco. In 2013, our yearly retreat took place in a big house on the pan handle and one of the many highlights was a hatha yoga flow session at the Yoga Tree Stanyan lead by the lovely Brenna Geehan. I had never set foot in a yoga studio before and the experience was a combination of feeling like a fool, sweating like a pig and admiring some of my fellow coworkers who were like fish in a pond. Now that's a mouthful of metaphors! Getting back to the subject though, little did I know that this event would set the stage for a series of changes that have ultimately transformed me in a way that I could not have expected or forseen at the time.

                  Now it's true that even before our retreat in San Francisco I had become more aware throughout the years about the issues surrounding food production in our mondialized society. In 2003 I had met the founder of what turned out to be a short lived organic restaurant (too much of a precursor, Paris wasn't ready yet I think) at an entrepreneurship program at the ESCP-EAP business school in Paris which is now known as ESCP Europe. I had lunch at the restaurant and had found the food to be relatively unsavory. Although being a consumer of organic fairtrade coffee for years, it was going to be tough to get used to this if that's what the rest of organic food tasted like! Nevertheless, over the years the proportion of organic foodstuff in our grocery cart increased a lot, especially for products containing oil or fatty substances which can more readily absorb toxins.

                  1024px-Marche-Richelme-Aix
                  (Source: fretless88)

                  In France, we have the amazing luck to have a world class culinary culture that is deeply engrained with a vibrant living tradition of open air farmer's markets. Produce from these markets can be of the highest quality thanks to an outstanding distribution network which finds it's nexus in the form of the Rungis market where most goods are shipped to for redistribution to the citizens of the Paris area. However progressively concerns about the provenance of goods, the costs involved in shipping, the carbon footprint, etc... led us to adopt a more local style of consumption. At a nearby boulangerie, two farmers would take turns every other week setting up a stand where we would buy their local products. I had become a locavore!

                  But back to yoga. It turns out that after that summer a lot of us at work started to develop their yoga practice, including me! After trying out a couple of different traditions, I ended up liking Sivananda as taught by my teacher Christy because it strikes a nice balance between postures, balance, and my favorite, relaxation. The practice and discussion with the other yogis in my class turned out to be very interesting and beneficial in opening up to larger concerns.

                  forks-over-knives-header
                  (Source: Forks Over Knives)

                  Then just before the year's end I got lucky. The French distributor of Fork Over Knives ("La Santé dans l'Assiette" was the French title) was making their rounds, organizing showings in cinemas here and there in our area. When we went to see the movie there was also a presentation by a nutritionist and a member of the local AMAP which is an national NGO promoting traditional farming. By the end of the movie I was convinced we were doing it all wrong and from already low levels of meat consumption I decided it was time to take the level down to zero. Now I was a newbie vegetarian!

                  It turns out I was not alone in my reaction with very well known people like James Cameron reportedly going vegan because of this same movie. It seems I was in good company, however about this time, our family was already going through some upheaval in our diet because of newly discovered intolerance related to milk and wheat products. This turn of events created a lot of constraints and although exploring new foods and recipies was great for a while, it was definitely getting hard to find something to make for dinner!

                  Things did settle down and today, after a couple of months of this regimen, I definitely feel that although I might have come to this eventually without the yoga, it certainly might not have been such a no brainer. I feel very lucky that our policies at Balsamiq encourage taking time to be and stay healthy, both physically and intellectually, by giving us time during the week for learning and excercise. I might have gotten started in yoga by myself, and then maybe not! So I also really appreciate that yogic kick in the rear in San Francisco that got me and maybe some of my colleagues started in a new world of greater concern. And as James Cameron says in the video, what better way to show your concern about what we eat, how animals are treated in our society, how we treat the environment, ... the list goes on, than to live the talk?

                  Although I have not yet progressed to becoming a vegan, and maybe I never will (getting there slowly), I do feel harder, better, faster, stronger and I'm enthralled and thankful that this lifestyle has been in large part inspired and supported by our work ethos.

                    Happy to Learn Something New!

                    We encourage each other to be lifelong learners at Balsamiq, and I decided to take a class. Opportunities for online education are abundant, but don't overlook the benefits of an in-person course. Check out your local universities' continuing education.

                    I enrolled in courses about Emotional Intelligence at Stanford without sweating any admissions requirements, paid the bargain price (less than $300 per course) and studied happiness. These courses focused on neuroplasticity and mindfulness-based stress reduction (i.e., meditation) so students can better understand and manage emotions, build positive relationships, and resolve conflict. It sounded like a scientific love-in!

                    The courses were called Positive Psychology & the Keys to Sustainable Happiness: Enhancing Emotional Intelligence; and Happiness at Work: Using Science-Based Practices to Increase Success and Fulfillment, taught by Dr. Laura Delizonna using the curriculum she created with Ted Anstedt.

                    So, if you'd like to learn something new, here are some of the key take-aways from my "happy classes."

                    Neuroplasticity: Train your mind. Change your brain.

                    The science is in: by thinking differently, you actually change the grey matter in your head. We used to think that people were born with their capacity for smarts and, well, you just had that IQ your entire life, but now we realize that we can continue to increase brain power throughout a lifetime.

                    Evolution-wise, our brains developed like a Winchester Mystery House, with additions and growth right on top of existing areas. These different areas of our brain (the reptilian complex, the limbic system and the neocortex) handle impulses at different (infinitesimal) speeds. Since our higher-order cognitive functions developed later than our primitive survival emotions, they are situated in different areas of our brain. Emotional centers receive input before thinking centers. By understanding this, we can adjust and train ourselves to respond to this asynchronous neural circuitry. We can learn to control our responses. By focusing on happiness, you can habituate yourself right into a good mood, strengthening the ease with which you can transition into a good mood. It's the opposite of a vicious circle!

                    Perhaps your mother was right!

                    After we'd finished learning all about the science, biology and physiology of the brain and emotion, we were given tracking sheets, meditation guides, and other practical support. But, the exercises, while very helpful, really, were surprisingly straightforward and simple. Some of this is kitchen-table wisdom. Suggested activities for achieving sustainable happiness were almost too elementary: If you're upset, talk to a friend. Take a walk. Get some exercise. Change the language you use to describe the situation. Try to argue the conflict from the opposite perspective. The shocking part? It works. Try it next time and let me know if you see a difference in your response.

                    Identify the habit you want to create, and then do it.

                    The courses drew on common, successful behavior modification techniques like journaling, self-assessment, and peer counseling. The text includes exercises to cultivate good habits through daily practice. Lectures and reading covered the science and physiology to further help us understand the interdependent relationship of practice and habit. Here are the 3 steps to creating a habit:

                    1. Assess
                    2. Plan
                    3. Practice

                    See what I mean? Simple, right? Ahem, right.

                    Common errors that thwart happiness:

                    1. We overestimate a threat. Stemming from the need for protection, our brains are built to react in the Fight or Flight mode before we reason through a situation. This can result in over-reacting. Slow down.
                    2. We underestimate our resources. Sometimes, we respond to the initial overestimation of threat and jump to the conclusion that a problem is bigger than we can ever manage. This is often just not true. Relax and take stock of things.
                    3. We overlook opportunities. By jumping to conclusions, we narrow our focus and lose sight of options. Pause and reflect.

                    Be present somewhere new!

                    Just walking across a beautiful college campus is inspirational. I felt smarter just rubbing shoulders with the folks in line for coffee! The architecture, beauty and long history was uplifting, and I felt lucky to be there. I arrived early every week to walk around, read under a tree, and consider the coursework. One evening, I caught the choir rehearsing for a concert inside the Memorial Chapel, so I just ducked in and grabbed a seat. What a treat!

                    Here are some snaps from my walk around campus one evening.

                    happy4
                    happy1happy3
                    happy5happy6
                    happy2happy7

                    Surely you've also got some great resources where you are. Check around in your area. Post a comment if you've taken any great courses, and what your experience was like. We'd all love to hear about it!


                      Next Page »