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The Balsamiq Mantras

Since starting out in 2008, we have tried to build a company we’d like to do business with ourselves.

We aim to be a company that’s human, respectful, transparent, inclusive, socially and environmentally conscious, and a good citizen of the world and the Web.

To help ourselves translate this aspirational goal into day-to-day practice, we recently created a handbook page which we call "The Balsamiq Mantras".

These are statements and concepts we try to keep in mind every time we interact with our community, and with each other.

It's all common sense stuff we've been doing to the best of our abilities for a long time, but we've only recently written it down, mostly for new hires.

Here are our mantras:

  1. Help our customers (and their users) be more awesome
  2. Genuinely care about our customers' success. Customer Service is the new marketing
  3. Be good servant leaders, be good citizens
  4. Be generous
  5. Be so good they can't ignore you. The Golden Puzzle
  6. Inspire with our culture

1. Help our customers (and their users) be more awesome

Everything we do is geared towards making our customers — and even their customers — more awesome at what they do.

Kathy Sierra talks about this idea in her talk about Building the minimum Badass User or her book "Badass: Making Users Awesome". Both are highly recommended.

It's not about our product, our company, our brand. It's not about how our users feel about us.

It's about how the user feels about himself, in the context of whatever it is our product, service, cause helps him do and be.

Just like a good UI, we should aim to disappear in the background and only be there when people need us.

That's why we talk about benefits instead of features, why we showcase people's success, why we made the high five page, and lots more.

When you're working on something, consider: how does this make our users more awesome?

Think: what else can we do to make our community more awesome? How can we help our customers help their clients/customers/users become more awesome?

2. Genuinely care about our customers' success. Customer Service is the new marketing

As our email signatures say, we're good people, and we care.

The central idea is to try and really put yourself in the customer's shoes.

  • This means really listening, reading their messages carefully, without rushing, trying to understand where they're coming from.
  • It means being patient, empathetic, compassionate and non-judgmental. Remember: An Enemy Is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard Irene Butter.
  • Then, it means imagining the user as someone you like, someone you'd like to help succeed in life.
  • In support, this results in really trying to imagine the best course of action for the user, including offering full refunds, suggesting a competing product, offering to recreate some lost data for them...
  • In marketing, this means being clear and honest about benefits as well as shortcomings, being respectful and never talking down to our users, and always trying to align our goals with theirs.

When in doubt, choose to trust people's good intentions. Don't waste your energy trying to decipher if someone might be trying to scam us, it's not worth our time.

Be human, warts and all!

Think: how can we make our customers more successful? Do our processes support this goal?

NOTE: there is a tension here: on one hand we want everyone at Balsamiq to have the freedom to do what's right for the user, but we can't afford to overdo it. A line has to be drawn somewhere.

For example: giving our software away for free to everyone would undoubtedly help more people be successful, but it would also drive us out of business. Another example: we used to give all open-source projects, even tiny ones, free myBalsamiq forever. After a while we realized that this put a strain on our servers, so now we require that open-source projects have at least 20 contributors. We offer smaller projects Mockups for Desktop instead.

In other words, let's try to be accommodating, but also keep in mind the long term sustainability of what we offer customers.

Think about it this way: going too far is actually something that hurts our customers in the long term, as it might drive us out of business.

3. Be good servant leaders, be good citizens

We try to be good upstanding citizens of our online community.

We realize that we are only a small part of a community that involves our customers, our users, our partners, our competitors, their users, industry experts, bloggers, event organizers, and many others.

We strive to be considered leaders in our community, but we know we have to earn it.

Here's a quote about Servant Leadership:

The point of servant leadership is to serve others by thinking of their needs, recognizing their needs and supporting efforts to meet their needs. Doing that requires strength, clear vision, and an undeterred drive. It’s not about taking a backseat and deferring to the whims and wishes of others.

Highly effective leaders are more interested in creating more leaders not in gathering more followers. They see themselves as equals to others. They adopt an other-orientation so they are able to be more effective in reaching their own goals, too.

We also try to be good citizens by sponsoring do-gooders, volunteering, donating 3% of our profits, and more.

How this applies to competition: we never speak ill of our competitors: they are people, doing their best, just like us.

We compete on usability and customer service: if someone has better usability and customer service than we do, they deserve to win.

We are respectful of our customer's time: that's why we believe in quality over quantity, and we are extremely mindful of not spamming our customers.

Think: how else can we be of service to our community? We have time and money: how can we use them to provide something that the community needs?

4. Be generous

Derek Sivers says:

All great service comes from this feeling of generosity and abundance.

We can afford to be generous.

We have the time, we have the money, helping people is what we should be doing. So, be generous!

  • We do it by keeping our prices low.
  • We do it by offering discounts and many, many free licenses.
  • We do it by sponsoring things we want to see succeed.
  • We do it by open-sourcing part of our code.
  • We do it with our time! Answering every email, tweet and phone call, calling people back, helping people who need advice. We write docs, tutorials, make videos, make free online courses...
  • We do it with our patience! With difficult customers, "meteorites", resellers, with copy-cats and pirates.

If the word generous doesn't do it for you, you could try compassionate instead.

Think: having a hard time with a difficult task, or a difficult customer? Think to yourself: am I being generous enough?

5. Be so good they can't ignore you. The Golden Puzzle

A big part of being REALLY GOOD at what we do is to really "GET" our customers. We strive to think outside the box in order to provide them with "the complete solution" and not just a piece of it.

Some examples of how we do this:

  • We show inspiring quotes while people wait for things to load.
  • We have an "I need inspiration" Help menu.
  • We have a What should I make for dinner? menu.
  • We lighten the mood of a support call by Rick-Rolling them with our hold music..

...all these things scream "we get you!" to our customers.

Atlassian calls this Always Be Marketing. We call it the Golden Puzzle: whenever someone writes something good about us publicly that's not about our core competencies (in our case, our product and our support), we call that a Golden Puzzle piece.

I spoke about this concept in my Business of Software 2010 talk (from 29:32 to 34:25), take a look:

This is, of course, easier said than done. It's a high bar to reach, and we will not reach it every time. But it's a good goal to have, it's a fun challenge.

When people copy what you do, rejoice! It's a sign that it was really good! 🙂

Think: whatever you're working on, how can you make it go to 11?

6. Inspire with our culture

This is something that's hard to do because we run the risk of seeming boastful or, even more annoyingly, humblebragging.

At the same time, this is something that people respond really well to, and some people actively demand of us.

People consider us thought leaders in many different fields:

  • Bootstrapping a micro-multinational.
  • Our progressive company policies.
  • Being "optimized for working from home".
  • Being "a learning organization".
  • Providing outstanding support.
  • Being human! (empathy, saying sorry, taking responsibility, REALLY listening).

Our community wants us to share what we learn along the way. We're just trying to figure this out like everyone else. Sharing our progress helps us digest it and invites ideas we wouldn't have on our own.

Think: what are some topics we should share? What are some guidelines we can follow when sharing these kinds of topics? How do we deal with content obsoletion?

Questions and challenges

Of course, this philosophy is not without challenges.

Here are a few questions we're pondering right now (we'd love your feedback for these):

  • How can we make sure we preserve these values as our company grows?
  • What risks does this expose us to?
  • Is this clear enough to be digestible by everyone at Balsamiq?
  • Is it too long? Too preachy?
  • Does this page inspire people to do more, do better?
  • Is this enough to ensure we have a consistent voice?
  • What's missing from this page?

A final note to our awesome customers: please hold us accountable! We try to live up to our goals, but we're only human. Don't be shy with negative feedback, it helps us serve you better! 🙂