2012 Balsamiq Company Retreat
My suitcases are not yet unpacked because I have Balsamiq Jetlag Syndrome (BJS). Luis defines that as "A complication of ordinary jetlag, where the subject is kept awake by the steady stream of inspiration resulting from the intense interaction with other at-risk subjects during group events such as a yearly retreat. There is no known cure and surprisingly, BJS s known to affect subjects not having experienced any real ordinary jetlag. Luckily, BJS is circumscribed to a small group of individuals spread out between Italy, France, Germany and in the New York and Bay Areas of the United States as of June 2012."
Last week, we balsamici gathered on Long Island, NY to work together, reconnect, and plan Balsamiq 3.0. It appears from photos that we mostly ate, drank and laughed, but truth be told, when we get together, mostly we learn. In this blog post, I'll review our recent retreat, and share lessons we'll remember when planning for 2013 in Northern California. Maybe this will help you plan a retreat, too!
Before the retreat
Have a designated planner/planning team. In a small company, things can easily become a group effort. Resist the temptation. This keeps surprises fresh and keeps business focused and humming.
Publish the date ASAP. It is a challenge to coordinate 10 calendars, and summers fill up quickly, so float dates as early in the year as possible. We start talking about things in January, to block the time. This helps us load-balance vacations, too, so some folks can come early or others stay late while we maintain pretty full coverage.
Make a retreat wiki page. (Restrict surprises to private pages!)
- Use it to brainstorm discussion topics, collect grocery requests.
- Post everybody's arrival and departure info, along with contact details. The Europeans got temporary US cell phones, so make sure you post those numbers, too. (When Luis' wife in Paris couldn't reach him on his French cell phone, she emailed email@example.com and got a response within the hour! That's service, huh Anne?)
- Give suggestions on what to pack. Mike brought some bluetooth speakers, US/Euro adapters, and I brought a ukulele, in case a sing along of YMCA broke out. (It did.)
- Invite input, comments, dietary considerations. Review suggestions from previous off-sites.
We prefer to rent a house over a hotel or conference center so we can cook together, comfortably break down into sub-teams, and stay up late/sleep in. We found a big house (we don't mind sharing rooms), and kept a grocery list on a wiki page so the first wave of arrivals could do a market run.
Plan to talk/Talk to plan. List subjects of discussions you hope to have. When you get to the retreat, add names of relevant folks. Anyone is welcome to listen in. Block out discussion time on the schedule, even if it's in the van on the way to a far-flung destination. We categorized them to help us track/plan and came up with: Seminars/lessons/training; Working sessions; Demos (iPad app by balsamiqMarco); Brainstorming/Design; Activities (like taking new team photos)
During the retreat
This time together is golden, our chance to teach and learn. Post a schedule where everyone can see. Provide downtime and respect solo online time.
The house wifi wasn't cutting it, and Peldi quickly bought a new wireless router the first morning we were there. Don't waste precious time limping along. If your required tech is feeble, fix it so it doesn't become a drag on creativity and mood.
Discover things together. Get out and see what's in the area. Feel the breeze on your face, the cool rain on your hair, walk around this new place. We felt safe, curious, excited, emotions we feel during the work day! We use this time to deepen our relationships (which are almost exclusively online, mostly in HipChat, sometimes in a Skype video chat, and very rarely, when one of us travels. (We have an office in Bologna, where Peldi, Marco, Paolo and Natalie often work, though they, too, regularly work remotely.
We took one day to visit the Big Apple, including our NY Office (AKA Mike's home). His family graciously hosted us for breakfast, and we saw in person what we had only ever seen on Skype. It was gratifying to finally see the natural habitat of a Designicorn! We ate like locals (Florian's first bagel) and were ready for our day in NYC.
Just like millions of other tourists, we visited the Empire State Building.
In the afternoon, we scored a VIP tour of FogCreek, where FogBugz is made. Thanks again for the gracious hospitality, Michael and Joel.
Have little fun surprises.
For about $40, Mike made temporary tattoos, but we also got some books to read/discuss, and each received a balsamiq-branded iPad. We love to do business with other companies our size, so Peldi ordered us each some of his favorite hot sauce made by a family-run business in Portland.
Cook together. We work well together, and it's obvious by the way our meals are one part Stone Soup, one part Cooperation, one part Planned and one part Random. The kitchen is where we live our values, and during meal prep, we talked recycling, composting, food ethics, hunger, waste all while making some delicious meals. Non-work is key in developing and maintaining our friendships. These were some of our favorite times. Make sure you rotate the clean up duties, too.
Florian's morning rolls, Kyle's bacon-grease scrambled eggs, Paolo's barbecue, lobster. So freakin' good.
Stay flexible. We booked an afternoon kayak trip, but when it starting raining, some of us decided to pack it in, do some relaxing yoga on the beach while the others kayaked back to the rendez-vous spot. Both groups were happy because we were allowed to pivot, to change the plans to suit our wants.
Break out. It's great to be able to finally have teams together to work through processes in real time.
Share pictures! We brought an external hard drive, and on the last night, we passed it around for everyone to load their photos and videos. After everyone had uploaded, we passed it around again to download the entire collection. Last year, we gave out Balsamiq-branded jump drives, but that turned into a time-consuming duplication project. We believe in a Self-Serve model, so the effort was distributed and everyone left with the pictures they wanted.
After the retreat
The time always goes too fast. We always learn more about each other than we expected (like how TALL Florian is!), and make great progress on our work, our apps, and our company. We also learn what we'd do differently next time:
Get books to attendees in advance. Peldi gave great books, but next year, we'll distribute them a few months in advance, to give us time to read them, and schedule a dinnertime discussion.
More work. We didn't want less fun, but we did want more time to work.
Repeat! We're considering doing small-group offsites more often, maybe including families every 5th Retreat, and continuing to rotate locations. (Next is the Bay Area, but after that, France? Germany? Back to Italy?)
I hope you've enjoyed reading about our annual retreat and can see the value of spending time and money to get together. Companies like ours are becoming more and more common, so if you've held retreats and learned lessons to share, please comment! Our community is one of the strongest aspects of Balsamiq, and we love to hear how you keep your distributed teams connected and in sync.
Be well, do well. Mock well. :-)
Valerie for the Balsamiq Team