Running a distributed team of 30 - the story of Balsamiq

Welcome to the Surf Office Show, where we talk about remote working, distributed teams and the future of work!

We talked with Leon Barnard, a designer and writer for Balsamiq. This distributed company has more than 30 employees spread across the world, and Leon told us:

Note: if you want to listen to the interview, you can find it at this link.

The story of Balsamiq

When the company first started, the product was called Balsamiq Mockups. It’s a tool for creating wireframes - low-fidelity sketches of user interfaces for a website or an app.

It’s built to help designers materialize their ideas and present them to other, non-designer folk.

Balsamiq is now 10 years old and it was started by Giacomo (Peldi) Guilizzoni, an Italian who worked for Adobe for several years in California. Once he moved back to Italy, he launched Balsamiq, writing all of the code on his own.

As the product took off, Giacomo hired a few more people, which now became a team of 30. About 20 people are located in Europe, with another 10-12 team members in USA.

There’s an office in Italy, but rarely anyone goes there – everyone else works remotely. The team tries to keep a flat hierarchy with no managers, but it’s becoming more difficult with 30 people on board.

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Early stages of Balsamiq vs. today

According to Leon, there’s not much difference between having 10 and 30 employees at Balsamiq, in terms of company culture. The feel of the company has remained the same, but the tools of the trade have changed.

As new team members come in at a pace of 2-3 per one year, everybody has a chance to get to know each other – which they do at annual retreats every year.

Earlier on, it felt like everyone was working on the same team. Nowadays, it’s one big team divided into smaller fractions. As a result, everyone talks more with their own team members and they’re isolated from other teams.

An office with no workers

As the company CEO started employing more people (especially in the USA), he wanted the company to become remote-first. However, no one was prevented from hanging around in the office in Italy. As Leon says, it’s really useful for some teams to be able to sit down together and talk, such as developers.

However, the office now exists purely for the sake of convenience. Peldi, the company CEO, lives just a few blocks away from the office and he eventually stopped coming in himself. That was a signal that Balsamiq had become a remote-first company.

As for the office – it’s just there. No one’s expected to come, but it’s a place for gatherings and social events, available to anyone who wants to use it.

Remote experience as a requirement to get hired

When the Balsamiq team puts out a job ad, they create a form for the candidates to fill out. It includes the usual technicalities, as well as asking if the applicant has relevant experience working remotely.

As Leon says, everyone has some remote experience, in some shape or form. Whether it’s as a freelancer or a part-time remote worker, most people who apply had some contact with remote work.

Balsamiq doesn’t disqualify candidates without remote experience. If someone had worked full time for a remote company such as theirs, it’s always a plus and it’s easier for this person to integrate. However, it’s hardly a priority when it comes to hiring.

Besides establishing a workplace handbook, Balsamiq also has a system where a new employee is paired up with a mentor to help them find their way. Employees aren’t expected to be fully productive right off the bat, as it’s an adaptation process, especially for first-time remote workers.

It can get really strange if the first time you meet your coworkers is months after you actually start on the job – so they take special care of onboarding.

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Battling time zones as a distributed team

One of the biggest challenges of working remotely in a big distributed team are the time zones. Balsamiq solves this by deliberately hiring great people for the job, but also those people that fit into their time zone schedules.

The entire development team is located in Europe, with support, admin and design teams scattered around the continent and in the USA. To put the entire team together, there is one hour of overlap per day, where everyone is available. This is 8-9AM in California, 10-11AM in Chicago and 5-6PM in Europe - it’s very important that everyone is online at this time.

Thanks to this arrangement, no one has to work crazy hours and the job gets done every time. Everyone is available in their designated time, except for the boss, who comes in and checks up on things every now and then.

Setting up Slack to facilitate remote work

The tool that makes this happen is Slack, and Balsamiq team relies on it quite a lot. As there’s plenty of Slack rooms, team members only join in those they’re interested in, to cut down on the amount of noise.

In fact, Balsamiq even has a handbook page dedicated to how to use Slack. The CEO set it up completely to his liking, so that it doesn’t disturb him in his off time, but it also keeps him informed of what’s going on.

He put his learnings in the Balsamiq workplace handbook for everyone to copy and adjust to their own preferences.

Finding the ideal project management tool

Several years ago, Balsamiq used HipChat for communication and PM work, but found it to be too noisy. After that, they tried out different tools, such as Asana, Basecamp and Facebook for Work.

In the process of testing, they realized that what needed changing is the way they communicate, not so much the tool. Then they switched to Slack because of its custom features.

Ultimately, they didn’t use a PM tool - the company CEO created his own. It’s a simple project management tool that lists the projects you’re working on so that everyone is up to date.

Nowadays, they have a developer dedicated to building internal tools. If they can’t find something that works for them – they simply build it on their own.

Learning the ropes of remote work

As Balsamiq has been working remotely for quite a while now (over 10 years), they are among the pioneers of remote work, next to Buffer and Zapier. They paved their own way, but they have also watched for what companies like theirs are doing.

They realized they were missing a personal connection as remote workers, which is why they have weekly standing meetings in Google Hangouts where people can talk about whatever they want to.

Besides this, they also have a monthly media club, where everyone watches a movie and gets together once a month to discuss it. Finally, there are Slack rooms just to talk about non-work-related topics.

Pechakucha presentations

As the company grew larger, it was simply impossible for everyone to keep up with what all of the teams were up to. As they got to a certain size, they realized that there was too much focus on the company, and not enough on the people behind it, so they decided to introduce PechaKucha presentations.

These have 20 slides lasting 20 seconds each, and every employee presents their own. These presentations are done at the end of the month and everyone is looking forward to them. Usually, they’re related to employee’s personal lives. It’s a great way to add some fun to meetings, without taking up too much time.

Office unity

Balsamiq is opening up a new office in Italy, to prepare for the company’s next ten years. As it’s a fresh start, they have a chance to test out some new ideas. One of them comes from Jason Fried of Basecamp.

Namely, everyone will have a standard work station set up. As new employees come in, all of them will have the same work environment – desks and other items that are the same across the world.

It will be completely optional, but it’s a great way to feel connected to someone who’s not close to you and working remotely.

Shifting the retreat paradigm

Like many distributed teams, Balsamiq also organizes retreats. In the very beginning, they were focused on work. As time went on, they realized that it’s more important to build a connection with people and there was less work involved each time they met.

About three or four years ago, they completely stopped having expectations about any work done during retreats. Of course, the support teams still have to do some work, but for everyone else, it’s time to get their minds off work.

They try to have everyone in the same place for the retreat, not a hotel where everyone goes to their rooms. The first retreat that Leon attended was in San Francisco, when they rented a whole house through Airbnb.

They lived together for a week, sharing bathrooms and cooking together. It was a week of intense closeness that lasts for an entire year afterwards. As the team grew bigger, things got more difficult, as it’s hard to find a house for 30 people.

In 2017, they were in Florence, where they rented a whole villa – it was like a hotel but with plenty of common areas. Two years before, they rented a large house in France. It’s harder to find places like these in USA – Europe seems to be a lot easier.

When it comes to downsides of growth, it seems that it’s hard to feel close to everyone in teams as big as 30.

From a startup with a handful of employees to a team that’s 30-strong, Balsamiq has paved the way as one of the first fully remote companies, and we look forward to seeing their next 10 years.

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