Do it like Balsamiq and become a kickass remote-first company

Starting as a bootstrapped business in 2008, Balsamiq has always placed transparency and trust high. Nowadays more than 20 people are part of this distributed company where vacation is mandatory and team retreats lead to a special kind of jet lag.

Surf Office caught up with their UX designer and writer Leon Barnard to find out what makes Balsamiq a great remote oriented organization.

Leon, can you briefly introduce yourself? What was your path to Balsamiq and remote work?

I am a long-time Balsamiq Mockups user and fan. I’ve been a UX designer for over 10 years and came to Balsamiq to help educate our customers about user experience best practices and how to make the most of our tool. I knew a lot about the Balsamiq culture from their blog before I started working here, so that definitely helped my transition to working remotely. I’d had one six-month remote gig earlier and I loved how productive I was at home, but often felt out of the loop because all the other employees were on-site. As an introvert, I sensed that working remotely would suit me, but it definitely helped that nearly everyone else at Balsamiq is also remote.

What does your role at Balsamiq entail?

I’ve worked as a UX designer for many years, so a lot of my job is connecting with our community of users, which include UX designers, developers, product managers, and entrepreneurs. I focus mainly on the basics of UX, since many of our customers aren’t experienced UX designers. I write and record most of our tutorials, I write blog posts, and I co-curate our Balsamiq Champions blog, about the cool things that our customers do.

How many people currently work at Balsamiq and where around the globe are you guys distributed?

We are 24 people. Eleven live within commuting distance of our only office in Bologna, Italy. Four more live elsewhere in Europe. In the U.S. we have three people in Illinois and six on the West Coast.

Balsamiq Team Picture
Balsamiq Team Picture

I’m hearing often that Balsamiq is “optimized for working from home.” What does it mean exactly?

In short, it means that even when people are in our only office in Italy (where about half of our employees live), they work as if they are working from home. In practice that means that our chat rooms and our wiki are our primary means of communication. All decisions happen there, rather than via in person discussions. If there is a meeting that happens in person that’s relevant to others, the notes are written up and put on our wiki. It’s not actually that hard to enforce in reality because there are usually only about 25% of our Italian employees in the office at any one time.

Being a distributed team, what are some of the challenges you face?

All the usual stuff, I would guess. We sometimes feel disconnected, especially on a personal level. And it’s often hard to know exactly what other teams are working on. But we’re realizing that, as we grow, you don’t always need to know what everyone else is working on. Before I started working here I used to imagine that it would drive a boss crazy worrying that everyone was “pulling their weight” when they weren’t in the office. But I don’t think that’s really been a problem for us at all. Our founder and CEO, Peldi Guilizzoni, shows a lot of confidence and trust in us. I would guess that we all actually work more effectively than we did in previous jobs where the most important thing was “looking busy” for the boss.

Another challenge, especially as we grow, is preserving our culture, which we really value. The best way we know to do that is to spend a lot of attention during the hiring process looking for the right culture fit.

Balsamiq Team Picture
Balsamiq Team Building
Balsamiq Team Picture

How would you describe Balsamiq’s company culture in one sentence?

We’re actually in the process of codifying that right now. We’ve always had a feel for it, but have never tried to state it explicitly. The phrase we’re working with now is “We take care of each other.”

And a bit more broadly — what do you value most in terms of company culture in Balsamiq?

Being so distributed, we couldn’t function without valuing trust and autonomy. Peldi doesn’t micromanage. At this point he couldn’t, even if he wanted to. Everyone is empowered (though we don’t really use that word, it’s too buzzword-y) to initiate projects (as long as they take responsibility for them) and participate in others (some developers participate in HR projects, for example).

Another key to our culture is that we are always learning, and all our employees have a desire to continuously improve in a variety of areas. We don’t focus only on skills, for example. We look for people who have the curiosity to keep learning and who will enrich our culture.

Finally, we don’t work crazy hours. We call this “pace, not deadlines.” I think it helps that most of our team is European. Spending time with your family and 3 week vacations in summer are standard there, so it’s great that valuing time off is a part of our company culture.

Any other aspects of your culture you could mention?

We’re experimenting with using video chat more to boost social connection. Our monthly all hands meetings are popular not only because we get to see what everyone has been working on, but because we get to actually see everyone. We also have a monthly “media club” where we pick a movie or TV show to watch beforehand and discuss together on a video call. We’re also thinking about having more “just because” social hours over video. It’s a good way to keep people connected during those long months between retreats.

How often do you host retreats and what is their primary goal?

We have retreats once a year. We’ve discussed doing them twice a year like some companies do, but they are expensive, take employees away their families and, because we organize them ourselves, take a lot of time to plan. The very first retreat was meant to be an opportunity for everyone to meet each other and “co-work” together for a week. After the third retreat or so Peldi realized that the best part of the retreats was the memories we made together and the fun we had. By then the company was stable enough to essentially shut down (except for customer support) for a week, so, since 2013 we’ve pretty much given up on doing any “real” work and just having fun together. Peldi will usually give a very short presentation on where we’re at as a company and what we’re planning for the next year and that’s it for the “corporate” stuff.

Balsamiq Team Offsite
Balsamiq Team Retreat Horse Riding

As far as locations go, we’ve decided that having at least one employee local to that area is preferred. We’ve had several in Italy, one in France, and three in the U.S. near our employees there. We’ve talked about going to Japan or Iceland or somewhere tropical, but that would be a logistical burden we don’t currently have the resources to handle. What we value most is quality time together anyway (and decent wi-fi!), so the location is often secondary.

What is your most favorite thing about company retreats?

It’s hard to describe, but it’s a feeling that you notice at some point during that week. There’s something cool that happens at the retreats that weaves you deeper into the fabric of the company. I only really felt like a part of the company after my first retreat and I think that’s a common feeling here. There’s a bond that’s created during them when you realize that the company is really just the sum of the people. It’s special.

Balsamiq Team Retreat Agenda

Can you expand on some of your favorite team activities and exercises that you do on offsites?

One of the best ideas we had for retreat is to use them as an opportunity to learn new things. Our 2014 retreat revolved around this idea. Just before that retreat we asked employees to think of topics they could teach to other employees in an hour or two. The topic could be anything. It was amazing to see what collective knowledge we had as a company. Some examples: how to solve a Rubik’s cube, DJing, learning Raspberry Pi, astronomy, how to take better photos, and crocheting (probably the biggest hit). It was also a great way to spend time together and distribute the load of planning activities. We did the same thing for our 2015 retreat. It really didn’t matter that most of it wasn’t related to work.

We always encourage people to get out of their comfort zones at least once or twice during our retreats. This year we did horseback riding and zip lining, which were scary for some of us (and, of course, not required). We also did a night of karaoke, which was even scarier (and fun) for some of us!

One thing we’ve learned recently is to resist the urge to pack the time with scheduled activities. We realized that many of our favorite moments were unplanned and spontaneous. So we’ve started building in more “down time” to allow people to just hang out and be together.

I’ve stumbled upon an interesting term associated with your retreats, “Balsamiq Jetlag Syndrome.” Could you shed some light on what it is?

This refers to the let down and recovery after each retreat. Our retreats are always so fun and exciting that it’s a big adjustment when you come home, kind of like the feeling of jet lag (sometimes there’s actual jet lag as well). We spend A LOT of time together during our retreats (we have to make up for all the time we don’t spend together all year), so that first day afterwards you really miss everyone. It’s hard, but you’re also really tired and miss your family and friends at home, so there’s a feeling of relief as well.

The first week after the retreat it feels like we spend all our time sharing our photos and making plans for the next retreat. That’s how we recover from our retreat jet lag.

Balsamiq Team Retreat Cycling

In your opinion, what are the most important things to keep in mind in order to achieve a good work-life balance when working remotely?

In an office, productivity is generally measured by time, mostly how long you’re in the office. Working remotely often means that you are evaluated primarily by how much you get done. This can be liberating, but also dangerous. The most important thing is to figure out what’s best for your productivity. You can start early or work after dinner if you feel inspired, but if you notice yourself browsing Facebook and staring out the window at 2:00pm, let go of the idea that you “should” be working and go outside, or do some chores. Do not try to work when you don’t feel like working (unless you really have a deadline). Get out of the 9–5 mindset.

However, don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t had a productive day. It happens (kind of a lot, actually). Do not use it as a reason to work in the evening. Get over it and start fresh the next day.

Do you have any job perks and benefits at Balsamiq that are tailored specifically to remote employees?

We’ve always attracted great employees by providing good salaries and the flexibility of working remotely, but once we reached about 15 employees we started looking more closely at our perks and benefits. Before that, in some ways, we didn’t even feel like a “real” company, just a bunch of friends working together. But as we grew we realized that we could “grow up” as a company as well. We added a 401k plan and better health insurance coverage, for example. We also had an internal team dedicated to looking into perks and benefits.

We initially focused on perks and discussed things like gym membership reimbursements and other benefits that non-remote companies offer. But we realized that what Balsamiq employees craved the most was time together and the opportunity to grow. So we created budgets for “get togethers” and “professional development (PD)” to encourage these things. Employees who are far away from a “hub” of other employees can get reimbursed for travel to see other employees. And employees that are close together get a smaller budget (not quite big enough for flight and hotel) for group activities. Our “PD” budget covers things like books, classes, and a conference or two. Having budget categories gives us the flexibility to choose what we do, rather than having a specific list of things we reimburse for. So far it’s worked out pretty well. This year Peldi challenged us to use up all our budgets, because we didn’t use them enough last year.

Balsamiq Team Picture

As far as things like exercise are concerned, we realized that, even better than providing financial support, giving employees time was the best way to encourage this behavior. So, each employee is allowed to schedule five hours per week to exercise in any way that they choose. We have a wide range. Florian loves to swim, Francesca is a marathon-level walker, Joy does yoga, Val Zumbas, and Peldi and a group in the Bologna office enjoy tennis together. We also allot five hours per week for each employee to dedicate to professional development. Yes, that means we only require 30 hours of week for each employee! We think that those 10 hours of other activities will give you the energy to get more done in the remaining 30.

What would be your advice to people who want to transition into remote but don’t know how to begin?

First of all, I have to say that it’s not for everyone. It takes a long time to get used to and there are a lot of ups and downs. You’ll never see a blog post about how to work in an office without going insane, for example (unlike this one about working from home).

But my most practical advice would be to approach remote jobs the same way you approach non-remote jobs. We had a lot of applicants for our most recent job listings, which we advertised on sites like We Work Remotely and The problem we encountered is that many people couldn’t articulate why they wanted to work for us specifically, beyond the fact that they wanted to work from home. Being remote shouldn’t be the reason that you apply for a job. It can be a great benefit of the job, but if you don’t look at the job itself you might not notice that you’re not a good fit for that company or that the company isn’t a good fit for you. If you’re not a good fit, being remote is just going to make it worse.

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