Leon Barnard - Balsamiq

Nearly a decade ago, Balsamiq's founder, Peldi Guilizzoni, set out to build what he called "a little Italian restaurant on the web." A small, cozy company with a homey feel that serves up a great product you want to keep coming back to.

Now, as the team has grown to over two dozen people spread across Europe and North America, the company is figuring out how to keep that corner bistro feel with a larger group. We talked to Leon Barnard, a designer and writer at Balsamiq who has been with the company for four and a half years about what it's like to grow a remote team while keeping true to that home cooked concept.

What does Balsamiq do and what do you do there?

We make a user interface wireframing tool called Balsamiq Mockups. I was a UX designer for almost 10 years prior to joining Balsamiq in 2012. My role is primarily to educate our customers about UX and how to use our product.

How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?

We are currently 25, but have 4 new people starting later this month. We have a hub in Bologna, Italy (12 people), where most of our development is concentrated. We have a few other people elsewhere in Europe (France, Germany, and The Netherlands; 4 people). And there are 9 of us in the U.S., all working from home, but living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Chicago.

What personally drew you to remote work?

I kind of stumbled into it. I was living in Los Angeles with my in-laws while I looked for work in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my wife and I were planning on moving. A friend-of-a-friend told me about an interesting job with his company in LA. I liked the company and we agreed that I could continue working there, remotely, after I moved, with the plan that I would fly down about once a month. I ended up leaving that job a few months later, but was surprised at how productive I was working at home. I found that it really suited my personality and working style. A while later the Balsamiq opportunity came along and I mostly applied because I loved the product and the company. I didn't decide to work here because it was remote, although it helped that I had a positive experience with it previously.

How does Balsamiq keep the entire team feeling connected?

This is something we're constantly working on. When I started we were around 10 people and it wasn't very hard, because almost everyone was in every meeting. The company was one big team. But even before I started, Balsamiq had organized annual retreats for everyone to spend a week together. That has been crucial. As we've grown our retreats have become less of an opportunity to work together and more of a chance for us just to be together, to have fun and make memories. That bonding has to keep feeding us for the rest of the year. It's harder now, but for a long time we tried as much as possible to live together like a family for that week (by staying in the same house, cooking and cleaning together, etc.).

Your company has a home office in Bologna, Italy. Do you find that having part of the team in the office and others working remotely creates any problems?

Not really, actually. Our founder, Peldi Guilizzoni, worked with an Italian ex-classmate out of his house in Bologna when he made his first hire, but his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th hires were in California, France, and New York, respectively. So remote became the norm pretty quickly.

How do you keep a "two tiered" culture from developing?

Our largest contingent of "Balsimici" is in Bologna, but Peldi has always insisted that we all work as if we were remote. That means that nearly all conversation and decisions take place in chat and on our wiki. Most of our Italian employees only come to the office a few days a week, which makes it even easier to prevent that office culture from forming.

Do you think there's anything the people outside of the office miss out on? Or anything you lose when working remotely that you get when you all work in the same place?

Yes, definitely. I love working from home, but it can be lonely and you feel disconnected at times. I would love to be able to get lunch with my co-workers a few times per week. It's hard to make time to talk about things outside of work. We recently started randomly assigning four people to hang out together, with no agenda, over video chat every Friday. We call it "Friday Funtimes." It helps, but doesn't alleviate the problem completely.

How do you make sure people who don't work in the office don't feel like they're missing out on anything?

Chat (we use Slack) is essential. That's where everything happens. We also have monthly meetings to talk about company stuff (we call it Kaizen) that anyone can join. It's a good place to discuss big picture company things that you might miss out on in your day-to-day work.

I love working from home, but it can be lonely and you feel disconnected at times. I would love to be able to get lunch with my co-workers a few times per week.

What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded Balsamiq?

I'd say work-life balance. I love getting to spend time with my son at this age and being able to eat dinner early together with him and my wife. One of our employees is fulfilling her dream of living in the country and farming. She lives almost two hours outside of San Francisco, there's no way she'd be able to work for us if we had an office there. I think we all get to spend more time with people who are most important to us (our friends and families) and do things that we really enjoy than if we worked in an office. We get to have a life outside of work, in other words. That makes us better employees, because we're happier when we're at work.

What are some of the benchmarks Balsamiq uses to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

We have always been allergic to metrics, so we don't track very many things, but we have started using tools to gauge how employees are feeling. We've been very pleased with Know Your Company as a way to get a sense of how everyone is doing. And we're experimenting with letting people other than the CEO do quarterly 1-1 meetings (we don't have managers, so, technically, everyone reports to him) because we still want to give everyone time to talk about their challenges and ideas without making that Peldi's full-time job.

What sort of culture does your company have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?

We really care about each other. I know that sounds trite, but I see examples of it every day. We don't talk about exponential growth, disruption, or valuation; we're just a small company that wants to make a product that helps people make better software. We hire people who are positive and like to make others look good. Everyone knows that our culture is a huge part of our success. It's not our features that set us apart, it's the ease of use of our product and the positive experience that our customers have with us.

We get to have a life outside of work... That makes us better employees, because we're happier when we're at work.

Is there anything unique your company does to connect everyone around common goals and values?

Not having a hierarchy is really important to us, even if it makes some things more challenging. Most policy and company decisions are made by sub-teams of volunteers. Everyone feels like they have a say in the direction and culture of the company. We are always changing and refining our company based on internal feedback and suggestions. Our company handbook has everyone's finger prints on it. Our company is like a garden that we all tend. I don't know how he does it, but, for something that's so important to him, Peldi gives us a lot of control over it. The result of that is that it feels like it belongs to all of us.

Describe your personal work environment.

I work in a converted garage behind my house. It's very basic, but cozy. This is what my desk looks like when it's clean (see below). I have a lot of posters and stickers on the wall that inspire me and remind me of good experiences I've had. There's a futon that I sit on for putting myself into a different thought mode. I'm sitting on it right now. My wife and three-year-old son are often home, so I see them a lot, which is great. Having my own dedicated space is crucial though, so that I can control my interruptions at home.

How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?

When I'm inside the house, it's hard not to think about non-work things I have to do. That's why the small separation between my house and my garage/office is great. When I'm in my office I'm usually not thinking about non-work stuff. I still struggle with transitions between home and work, though. Having a 5-second commute isn't enough time to re-orient my brain. Sometimes I take a walk around the block before and after work to flip the switch.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

I always feel like I'm less productive than I should be. It's easy to forget just how many interruptions and distractions there are in an office, not to mention the time most people spend commuting. I'm pretty sure I get way more done than I ever did in an office, but I still beat myself up for not making better use of my time.

As for distractions, about a year ago we realized as a company that our chat tool was slowing us down. We decided to be more selective about which rooms we read, participate in, and get notified about. That has helped me a lot. I don't need to know what the plugin developer team is talking about, for example. If they need something from me, they'll mention me and I can jump in then. I'm subscribed to less than half of our Slack channels, and most of them I have muted so that I can read them only when I feel like it. My five starred channels are what I rely on for anything important.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

Slack, Confluence, Google Hangouts, or Zoom for video conferencing. We've also created our own tool for managing projects.

What do you like to read?

Twitter is my main source of information relevant to my work. I mostly follow accounts that talk about UX, web development, remote working, and documentation. You can see who I follow here. Or you can follow me (@leonbarnard), I mostly just retweet stuff that I find interesting.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about working remotely for the first time?

The company you work for matters even more than it would in an office job. Don't just think about the duties of the job. Disfunction and lack of direction get magnified when people aren't co-located. Here are some revealing questions that can help you learn about a company's culture.

Also, I would much rather work for a company where most or all employees are remote than one where 25% or less are remote. You're swimming upstream if you don't go all-in on remote.

Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.