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!
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.
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.
Our focus was learning new ways to enrich ourselves and our work.
Here's our full 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?" )
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!
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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:
See what I mean? Simple, right? Ahem, right.
Common errors that thwart happiness:
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.
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.
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.
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!
About a year and a half ago, we started experimenting with a company structured around project-based work. I remember Peldi asking me what I thought we should name the project for the more operational things he, Anna, Joy, and I work on. When I suggested simply Admin & Finance would be fine, I realized he had been worried I might be offended in some way to be labeled as doing administrative work. He knows the value and importance of the work we were doing, without a doubt.
But on thinking about it some, I realized he's right. There is often some sort of preconceived notion that admin and accounting departments are, well, the unglamorous, uncreative, and perhaps less important areas of a company.
Maybe it's some old notion of the secretary pool, typing away at mundane and repetitive work? A left over comedic archetype of the 1950's stenographer? (By the way, I think we all know in our hearts that secretaries --though hardly ever called that any more-- often are the ones really keep the show running).
Or maybe it's the classic image of bad middle management that "administrates" by pushing paper around, not only being unhelpful to the innovation of the team, but often even stifling it?
Sure, the entry-level, pretty-darn-replaceable admin jobs exist. Sure, there are those paper pushing useless administrators around, but I'd like to give a little shout out to the awesome admin and finance folks out there, that are making and creating in fantastic ways.
It came up again for me recently as I was listening to a story on Marketplace. The author Andrew Yang was being interviewed about his new book Smart People Should Build Things and how he believes we need to encourage our top students not to go get "good," safe, well paying jobs, but instead to be the creators, builders, and risk takers.
I haven't read Yang's book, but what stuck out to me as I listened was he wasn't talking just about those we typically think of when we think of innovators and inventors: "Yang says there's a misconception that start-ups only need coders and engineers. 'Early stage companies need talented salespeople, customer support, management, operations, marketing, administration. They need talented people at every part of the organization, in a variety of roles.' "
I'm fortunate enough to work with folks who appreciate what I do. But that's not always the case. And in fact, some times I don't even appreciate what I do. I didn't study anything related to what I am doing now. I sort of fell into it over time, and something about that makes it seem invalid (i.e. If what I was doing required me having a specific degree, then it would be important.)
But I want to encourage those folks working in admin, accounting, human resources, and business operations, to not fall into the trap of seeing what you are doing as just boring work that sustains others who are doing the real creating.
What we do can be a craft. It can be creating something new: improving relationships, systems, and flow for the company.
And for all those programmers and coders out there, help your co-workers recognize that they are administrative engineers, with the ability to create, to be discoverers of solutions, and inventors of new ways of doing things.
Our good old friend Wikipedia says "Engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost."
We may not be using code to analyze, design, and create, but let's challenge ourselves to remember we can be builders and problem solvers using things such as words and numbers, facilities and logistics, bookkeeping systems and customer records, people and relationships.
Don't let your admin title fool you; we can be makers too.
Hello friends of Balsamiq! As 2013 comes to an end, it's time to revive an old tradition (2008, 2009) and look back at all that we have achieved this year.
TL;DR: We continue to truck along nicely, growing organically. We are now 5 years old, employ 16 people, revenue is over $6M, profit margins are around 30%. In 2013 we focused on laying the foundations for future growth and started to work on the next generation of Mockups.
Once again, this was a transformative year for our little company. The main difference is how big we are. We added 6 new people to the extended Balsamiq family. In order to do so, we had to spend a considerable amount of resources codifying "how we work" in our ever-growing company handbook, as well as change offices in Bologna and even rent the office below our new office in order to make room for all the new hires.
The other thing that might be interesting to notice is that more than half of what we did in 2013 was not directly customer facing. That's a very high percentage, which I'm sure will be much lower in 2014. I don't feel bad about it, it's just part of the natural ebb and flow of our company's journey. Just like in product development we alternate releases focused on features with ones focused on bug fixing, so does our company's focus alternate between product/growth and making sure our company is solid enough to withstand future growth.
This post is meant to show you a bit of what's under the hood, so that you know what we've been up to and can get a sense of what it's like to run a company like ours.
Alright, let's dive in!
First up, let's talk about our products.
We did 8 official releases this year: Jan 19, Feb 28, Apr 16, May 21, Jul 9, Sep 25, Oct 24 and Dec 13 - releasing about once a month seems to be a pretty good pace for us these days.
We also had to ship 5 hotfixes this year: Jan 28, Mar 8, Jul 16, Oct 24, Dec 20 - mostly to fix small regressions...but still, I hope we'll be able to lower this number in 2014.
New Features in all versions of Mockups
For a year not really focused on product development, we ended up doing quite a bit! :)
Take a look, click on each link to see the relative release announcement:
Completely rewrote the history feature behind the scenes
Fixed "myBalsamiq emails are getting treated as spam" issues
We moved our real-time notification message service from Beaconpush to PubNub
Improvements specific to mockups-web
Mockups-web is our internal name for the Flex editor that runs our web demo as well as all the plugin versions.
In 2013 we focused on bringing our plugin codebases closer to each other (less code = less maintenance!), by having all plugins (and myBalsamiq!) share CSS and JS wrapper files, which resulted in more consistent keyboard shortcut support across our versions, and more.
We also made a lot of progress in merging the mockups-web and myBalsamiq Flex editor code-bases. Once again, less code means less bugs and a more consistent UX across products, both of which are awesome. This HUGE but mostly-behind-the-scenes work should be completed in early 2014.
Improvements specific to Mockups for Google Drive
Mockups for Google Drive wins our most improved in 2013 award. It went from being a little experiment full of bugs and with high churn into a well-loved, very advanced, fast-growing product.
Mockups for FogBugz and XWiki and new Integration Strategy
As part of our efforts to STREAMLINE ALL THE THINGS!, in November we said goodbye to Mockups for FogBugz and Mockups for XWiki.
We plan on integrating with these tools again (and many more) in 2014, by offering a few simple myBalsamiq APIs. This new integration strategy is a lot easier for us to maintain than writing our own plugins, and will result in more, cheaper, faster and more powerful integrations, all at once!
Mockups 3.0: native and project-centric!
The first part of this next-gen version of Mockups, a native BMML viewer for different platforms, will come out in early 2014. Building the different native editors will be our main development focus for 2014.
We have also been thinking about the UX of the Mockups editor, and have a lot of exciting updates in the pipeline. The focus is to make projects (i.e. collection of mockups) first class citizens of our app (all versions), simplify the UX of using Symbols, and a lot more...too much for this post, but know that we'll bring some of these improvements to the Flex-based editor first, and soon! :)
Our love for automated testing has been growing steadily, as has the amount of our code covered by our automated unit, integration and functional tests.
The focus in 2013 was still to have our tests catch up with our code, and that effort is pretty much complete. Now we just write tests for the new features as they come in, as well as add any tests that are necessary to prevent regressions from happening again.
We now have more, faster and more reliable tests. More of our developers write tests first, and we run more and more tests on our build machine after each build, as it should be.
We are expanding our load, performance and penetration tests and expect to do a lot more in this area in 2014. It'll be exciting!
Ops is another one of those totally-behind-the-scenes but vitally important parts of what we do.
We re-did how we do myBalsamiq builds to make for faster and safer zero-downtime updates (in short, we now generate AWS AMIs directly instead of WARs). We reserved a bunch of AWS instances, which will lower our Amazon monthly bill quite a bit (now around $4k/month).
We changed how we build our websites, from WordPress to a rock-solid HTML/CSS/JS (jQuery) + Hammer + Github + Jenkins + S3 workflow. We also moved our website's assets to a dedicated media.balsamiq.com S3 bucket.
We moved all of our code from our own Bazaar server to github.com, and are totally loving it. We also open-sourced a few repos while we were at it.
We now have per-branch online staging areas for our products and website, and on-deck areas for testing the final bits before they go live.
We switched from Eclipse + Flash Builder to IntelliJ IDEA as our only IDE, and are very happy about it.
We bought and installed new SSL and code-signing certificates, and even set up fancy DNS redirects for the many balsamiq.* domains we own.
We are very happy with our uptime report. Here it is straight from Pingdom:
Next up, let's talk about our websites!
Updates to our Websites
We partnered with Theresa Neil and launched uxapprentice.com, a small site designed to teach the basics of UX Design with an easy process to follow, and pointers for where to learn more.
We started a new Champions blog, and already has 15 interviews with our awesome customers.
At the beginning of November we went through EVERY, SINGLE, PAGE of our main and support websites, reviewed it for content accuracy and made sure it was up-to-date. We haven't fixed everything yet, but we're making good progress. We'll also be doing these kinds of scrubs regularly going forward.
Another behind-the-scenes project that made a huge jump forward for us this year is what we affectionally call...
Olio is an internal web-app that makes our company's engine run smoothly. It's a custom CRM + license manager + sales support help desk solution.
We debated buying vs building for a while, and after evaluating a lot of tools we decided to build our own home-grown solution. We are VERY happy with it: our customer database now has over 160,000 transaction, with about 4,000 more getting added each month. Because Olio takes care of managing keys, sending keys to those who lost them, generating estimates and invoices, sending automated maintenance reminders, making sending free licenses a two-click operation and more, we are able to serve a big global customer base with what totals to only two full-time sales-support people.
This year Olio became super-powerful: we started by making it generate estimates and invoices, then we made it send automated maintenance reminder emails, we integrated it with Stripe, generate all the reports our accountants need from us and even made it manage exchanges and refunds.
Starting in January, our accounting work will be MUCH easier than it's ever been, making us even more efficient. We are also working on replacing the current Buy page and shopping cart experience with an Olio+React-powered client-side, single-page, super-usable shopping cart application.
In case you're wondering, Olio is not for sale...we're keeping it as a little competitive advantage, at least for now. ;)
The rest of what's on the list are things that are pretty much invisible from the outside world, but that are just as important as product features! Without a solid company behind it, even the best product is nothing but a proof-of-concept. :)
Admin, Finance and More
Speaking of solid company: there's A LOT that goes into making a micro-multinational run smoothly.
Here are a few examples, in random order: we updated our local LLC business registrations, we "got out" of NYC (Mike moved to California so we no longer need to pay NY-state sales tax). We bought furniture for our office in Bologna and rented and furnished a new office right under it. We hired 6 people and let go of 1, which entails quite a bit of paperwork, and training! We invested some of our reserve cash, switched 401k provider, updated our PCI compliance applications, as well as the Transfer Pricing documents we submit to the IRS and the Italian tax agency each year. We catalogued our fixed assets, took mandated safety and first-aid courses and started a quarterly review of many financial metrics. We established proper contracts with our external collaborators, and dealt with Natalie relocating from Italy to California.
We organized and ran an awesome company retreat in San Francisco during which we celebrated our 5th birthday and also had 3 other mini-retreats during the year: a developer one in the Marche region in Italy, a sales-and-admin one in Bologna and a UX-and-Docs one in San Francisco.
We politely turned away 29 emails from VC-types, answered 9,719 sales-related emails and 2,536 tech-support related ones (on top of the hundreds of GetSatisfaction forum threads). We also donated more than 2,000 free licenses this year.
Handbook + Kaizen
Our internal handbook got a lot of attention this year. We started using the term Kaizen - an old term to explain how we move forward in small, continuous improvements.
We started a monthly "Balsamiq Kaizen" meeting in which we discuss and review handbook pages together.
Here are a some of the pages that either were created or received major updates in 2013:
Company Equity & Ownership
Don't Create Work: The Curse of Maintenance
How we split Work
Dealing with Really Angry People
How we do GetSatisfaction
Sharing Updates with the Community
Hiring Forms for California Employees
Salaries and Benefits for Multinationals
Time off to Exercise
Office, Home Offices, Co-Working Spaces
Recurring Internal Meetings Etc
the sales support bible received a HUGE update
and many others...
If you're interested in knowing more about any of these policies, let me know in the comments and I'll be happy to write about it.
We started a monthly "Balsamiq Media Club" meeting - we all watch or read the same thing and then we get together on Google Hangout to chat about it, as a bonding experience - and a monthly "UX Club" meeting, where we discuss and teach each other about UX-related topics. We favorited hundreds of customer twestimonials, bookmarked hundreds of press mentions, ran lots of raffles and sponsored a ton of events, organizations and websites.
We experimented with live chat support on our website, and decided we weren't ready to offer it yet. We worked on Mockups for iPad quite a bit, then decided to put it back in the icebox until the shared code-base was ready to power it (but we did nail down the UX, which is awesome).
As a company, it felt like we went from version 2.0, to 2.5, to 3.0 and we're quickly getting to 3.5 (I'll explain more in a separate blog post).
Last but not least...
Conferences and Interviews
We attended the following conferences (* means we spoke):
I am also hosting an "Ask Me Anything" session about this post and anything else on Reddit (/r/startups) TODAY at noon pm PST / 3pm EST / 9pm CET. Hope to see you there!
We are SUPER excited about 2014. We have a rock solid team and company, we work very well together and love doing so, we're under very little competitive pressure, and a lot of the seeds we've been planting will finally bear fruit.
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! :)
We hope you'll want to come along for the ride.
Here's a question for you: after reading all of the above, what do you think we should do differently? What should we do better? Be blunt, make it hurt, we need it! :)
Thanks for reading this super-long post, and for helping us get to this point.
We hope 2014 brings you and your families health, happiness and success.
Hi all! Ben here again. As Val already posted, last summer we had our annual company retreat. This was my first opportunity to attend, and it was such a wonderful event. When we work remotely, having that intense week to get to know each other on a deep, personal level makes all the difference in the world.
One of my personal passions is sketchnoting - I posted a few in my first-ever Balsamiq blog post. If you have no idea what that means, it is a form of note taking that combines simple visuals with stylized text to create notes that are fun both to create and to review. Mike Rohde, the man who coined the term "sketchnotes", has written a great book explaining some of the basics that you can check out: The Sketchnote Handbook. As part of our retreat, I did an impromptu session teaching everyone about sketchnotes and how to get started. After we got home, I thought it would be a fun way to capture our experiences.
I deliberated whether or not to post the sketchnotes in our blog, because they were made primarily for those of us who were there. Without having had those experiences, they will mean less to you looking at them later. But we decided they would still be a fun way to share some of the activities we were able to do while we there, so hopefully you enjoy them!
The first day was a lot of this
The only person from Balsamiq that I had met before this retreat was Mike, so I was a little nervous about how I would fit in with everyone, and how well we would be able to get to know each in such a short time. However, it was wonderfully surprising how at-home I felt immediately with everyone. We had all interacted virtually for a while, so we weren't total strangers. I had no idea what to expect living in the same house for a week with a group of people I hand't even met, but it was just like a vacation with family and friends, although we did some work too! :)
This was amazing food!
One new experience for me was eating at food trucks. I had a job in construction long ago, and there was a greasy bucket of bolts that would pull in every day, and we could buy lunch from there if we hadn't planned ahead. You were never sure how long you would survive after eating that food, so it was a bit of an adventure. When I heard that we were eating at food trucks, that was the image that immediately came to mind. Luckily for me, this was a totally different class of food trucks.
A highlight of the last full day was getting to meet all the local families. Everyone came together for a tour through San Francisco and lunch in beautiful Alamo Square Park. We could see the whole city over the top of the famous Painted Ladies. It was the perfect way to wrap up our week together.
Saying goodbye was not easy
After a blindingly fast week, it was time to head our separate ways. We left armed with new inside jokes, renewed enthusiasm, and fast friendships. I can hardly wait until we get to see each other again next year!
Here is the complete set of sketchnotes. Enjoy!
(Click to enlarge; ← and → to move through the images)
Sketchnoting has been a fun way for me to capture and share experiences. How do you share meaningful experiences you've had with your company? Let us know in the comments!
It's been a wild 3 years since my last blog post about our office in Bologna. Since then, we've grown to 16 friendly faces, a whopping 8 in Bologna alone! (If you're keeping track, we are in Bay Area, France, Germany, Holland and Utah.) So, while it was super sad to say goodbye to our office mates, we moved the magic to a new location in Bologna last year. Last week, Joy and I went to visit Natalie and Anna for our first-ever Wow! Division Sales Offsite.
I took these pictures to show the rest of the team, and thought I'd share them with you, too. Enjoy!
The clocks in Bologna show both Wow! Division time zones.
Some fun press clippings, and a recent addition: a taped up mission statement
Currently, Sax and Andrea are next to the window/deck/view, and Peldi uses a standing set up. (Perhaps so he can see right over Sax's head. The view is really sweet, directly facing the famous Towers!)
There is a small but efficient kitchen with fridge, dishwasher and oven.
That little red espresso machine in the corner gets a true workout every day, and deserves its own shout out.
This door connects the "office space" from the back area, containing 2 rooms (perfect for overnight guests or meeting space), storage space, and two bathrooms, complete with shower/tub. In my wildest dreams I didn't think we could score anything so perfect. Great work, BO team.
First room (usually a dining room).
Second room (check out those windows!)
We also have a second office downstairs. We'll post more! :)
With the SuperMoon shining upon us, the friends who make up Balsamiq met in San Francisco to celebrate our company's 5th birthday. Our team is scattered around Europe and the States, so being together is rare and deliberate. Our goal is to ensure that our friendships are based on more than just Mockups. We get together to make sure we still believe every word of our Manifesto.
Planning a retreat for 16 (including a startling 7 first-timers whom most of us had never met) takes a caring advance team, some boots on the ground, and lots of detail-wrangling. Led by Joy, a team of 5 of us put together a full-to-bursting but balanced schedule that represented the interests and values of our company. We picked some activities that were work-related, community-based, and sometimes just straight-up fun.
Lessons from our 2013 Retreat
Start with a "Day Zero" to give travelers a soft landing.
Because of the distance between us, one group or another will show up at a Retreat with jet lag, regardless of where we meet. This year, to give travelers a soft landing, we organized Day 0. I met the four flights at SFO on Saturday, and brought the gang to the Peninsula to soak up some Vitamin D along the San Francisco Bay, and enjoy a casual dinner. Our friend Roberta prepared up a Mexican feast, and we spent the evening getting to know the new balsamici and laughing with friends.
Build on Themes
The week was punctuated with group activities, presentations and field trips focused on themes.
Identity/Awareness: we walked to the San Francisco Zen Center to learn about the practice of managing stress through meditation. This sounded like it would be especially helpful for customer-facing jobs (like Sales, and Tech Support), but it was actually a very powerful experience for our group. Interestingly, during the remainder of the week, I noticed people repeat the final lines of the Loving Kindness Meditation, applying the lesson in a wide variety of situations. When I answer an incoming phone call, or write a complicated email, my little mantra is:
May he have what he needs and is best for him.
May he be happy. May I be happy. May all beings be happy.
To help us continue to get acquainted, Leon took us across the road into Golden Gate Park, to play some ice-breaker/improv games.
After dinner, we each delivered a 5 minute talk about our personal Heroes, to define our values and identify what inspires us.
Team/Communication: this was the nuts & bolts stuff: vision and roadmap, goals of internal processes, Olio - our home-grown record-keeping and License tracking tool - and more. A particularly successful event was a discussion about Communication led by Natalie, using partner dancing as a metaphor. That night, we took Group Swing Dance lessons. That's right. We took a bunch of software engineers to an old-fashioned dance club and we had a blast. Shut the place down. Surprise!
Ben led an outstanding session on Sketchnotes, a terribly creative and different way to take notes. Stay tuned here for a blog post about it, and check out the darling rollovers he did for our company page. Those are also featured on the T-Shirt we gave to Peldi at our birthday party.
Community: because it was important for us that our San Francisco Retreat include some form of volunteerism, we spent an afternoon packing pasta at the San Francisco Food Bank. In a remarkable, small-town surprise, we ran into a group from Adobe there, including some former Macromedia friends! Another good lesson: if you want good people, hire on compassion and empathy.
Think Globally. Act Neighborly.
Make outings count! Fun + good for the soul = memorable. A week flies, so we kept all our activities in The City. We walked a lot, allowing us to transition easily through diverse events and offering opportunities for small groups to have side-conversations during each walk.
We thrive in Close Quarters
We rented an old Victorian split into two separate units, in the historic and personality-plus Haight-Ashbury. Maybe because we all loved summer camp, or maybe because we don't get to work together all year long, but we love living in the same house. We are just not hotel-people and we wouldn't know what to do with a conference center. We love casual, shared space, and a large group provides lots of opportunity for side conversations. Of course, when welcoming everyone to the Retreat, Peldi reminded us that we were free to duck out anytime, for privacy or just to get a break. The house worked out perfectly, even if it was a tad snug.
Allow for mini-breaks and the chance to create some inside jokes. Make sure you have a room that is big enough for everyone to be in at one time. We were about 60 sq ft short, but we made it work.
We built in time to relax in the park.
Don't forget sight-seeing. It's important the out-of-towners aren't distracted or feel like they are missing out on what the location has to offer!
It was great to have everybody in San Francisco, since that's where it all started, when Balsamiq was just Peldi. Peldi toured around the young whippersnappers through his old old neighborhood, where it all began.
In another old-timey scene, a passing car rolled down the window, honked the horn, and shouted, "Hi Peldi!" as our mob ambled down the street. Nothing makes you feel more at home than running into a friendly face and a warm greeting.
On Wednesday, June 19, we celebrated Balsamiq's FIFTH BIRTHDAY! Thanks to everybody who came out to celebrate with us. It was great to see so many old friends and happy faces. It really warmed our hearts. Our team, like any other, thrives on the electricity of real, healthy, face-to-face friendships. During our Retreat, we recharge the batteries on our team that will augment and sustain these two-dimensional on-line relationships.
It's almost scientific how a Retreat completes the circuit, generating between colleagues a deeper reservoir of understanding and patience, that we then slowly discharge over several months. We are nourished by the collective experience. At our Retreat, we work, think, eat, and play together, to recalibrate the vibes, adjust the tension, and synchronize the cadence to keep our company running at a sustainable clip. We've already started to plan next year's Retreat. We end each Retreat looking forward to the next time we can be together.
We'd love to hear how you keep a distributed team close and emotionally connected. Please feel free to share your challenges and experiences in the comments.
Our little team is growing again! This time I'd like you to join me in welcoming my good friend and old college buddy Salvatore 'Sax' Cammarata to the Balsamiq family.
Sax will take on the big and difficult job of making our plugin strategy move forward and grow, both by maintaining our current plugins and by developing new ones. We also have a long list of companies that want to integrate Balsamiq with their tools, and have some pretty exciting plans to make that possible in a scalable way.
I've known Sax since we were computer-lab mates in college. I remember us spending many long hours working on a Turbo Pascal compiler written in Objective-Camel. The project was extremely painful, but mostly thanks to Sax's skills and perseverance, we delivered it on time. It turns out that were the only team to be able to deliver it at all, so the professor had to change final assignment to something easier for the rest of the class. :)
I am excited and looking forward to working with Sax again. He will be based out of our Bologna office.
Please welcome him with a comment below, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is my great pleasure to introduce to you Andrea Serra, the latest member of the Balsamiq family.
Andrea is a client-side developer who will be focussing on our myBalsamiq wireframe editor, at least at first. He's only been here for a couple of days, had never done any Flex development before, and he's already checking in new features for the next release. W00t! :)
Andrea has been working on software to power Formula 1 race cars and other fancy cars. I'm sure that his knowledge of embedded software and the particular issues it comes with - performance, low bandwidth communication channels, coding against a shifting API, etc. - will come useful to our company in the future as well.