A look back at 2009
Wow. Just wow.
It's hard for me to believe how much has happened in Balsamiq-land in 2009.
I feel like a completely different person than when I wrote the "A Look back at 2008" post, just 12 months ago. In a way, I am a different person, and Balsamiq is a completely different company as well.
In this two-part post I'll first look at what happened in 2009, then share some of our plans for 2010, which we are beyond excited about. 🙂
Mockups has definitely come a long way in 2009, but we like to believe that it's still the simple and focused tool we set out to build from the beginning.
Number of official releases: 48
As planned, we released almost every week, sometimes even twice in the same week...we also had a few "secret" releases to fix bugs before anyone noticed. 🙂
We are happy we kept the weekly schedule, as it allowed us to fix bugs quickly and showed our customers our commitment to the application.
The drawback of releasing this often is that it makes it harder for us to work on bigger, tougher features. Since we have a few of those planned for the near future - see next post - we might slow down the pace for a little while...maybe to releasing every other week, we'll see what feels right.
I also have recently realized that updating every single week might be more than most people have an appetite for. We don't want you to feel like keeping up with our releases is a job, know what I mean? What do you think?
Here are some of the major features we released this year:
Links! The no.1 new feature of the year was the ability to link mockups together. It's a good feature - no, it's an essential feature - but it's one that I didn't really want to do for a long time for fear it would change Mockups entirely, and one that took me a while to fully digest. That's why the initial release of it was a bit rocky, it took a few iteration to get it to a point where it was really usable. And guess what, we're still tweaking it, and we're not done either (we need to improve how we position mockups while in full-screen, for instance). In retrospect, we needed to include our awesome community earlier in the process for this important feature...I wanted to make it come out with a bang, which was a big mistake. That's when I learned that long-term value trumps any short-term marketing scheme.
Zoom! Probably the other biggest feature we released this year was zoom and pan. This was a direct result of having someone other than me in the code-base: the coordinate translation calculations required for zooming is one of those things that scare me (not sure why, it's irrational), so I was planning on postponing this feature for a while. Luckily Marco had no such fear: he jumped in and had it done in no time. Unfortunately, my excitement about getting this awesome new feature in the hands of our customers made me jump the gun and release it in a bad state, but we fixed it all up in a couple of hours in the end (see below).
Mockups for FogBugz! The other major release of the year was Mockups for FogBugz, Marco's first back-end integration project. We are really pleased with how it turned out and it's selling very well, both the on-premise and the hosted version.
In Mockups for JIRA, we got rid of the annoying watermarks and replaced them with a 30-day trial. We added the Personal (3-editors) license level first, then switched to full user-based pricing, which is more fair and flexible.
Other big features, specific to Mockups for Desktop, include the ability to export all of your mockups as a multi-page, interactive PDF, more native menus, the semi-secret but awesome "DropBox integration", the Open Recent menu, the switch from Comic Sans to Chalkboard on OSX, a new application icon and a cleaner application skin in general. We also added support for pasting images into a mockup and a way to reuse common images via the project and asset folders.
Some other editor enhancements worth noting are:
- early in the year, we added the ability to import images from Flickr
- we added iPhone controls and icons
- we added the markup syntax for *bold*, _italic_, [links] and -disabled- text, as well as supporting \r for multi-line support
- we added the ability to move the UI Library to where you like it best, optionally docking the property inspector as well, for a more "standard graphics program" feel
- for those who really want to use Mockups for more than wireframing, we introduced some Geometric Shapes, with lots of options
- we also added "snap on center" and "space out" buttons, which are very handy
We made hundreds of other changes and bug fixes, if you have a few hours to spare you can read our Release Announcements blog posts for the year for all the details.
There's still a lot to do before we can even say that Mockups is "implemented to vision", a milestone we think we'll hit late this year. I'll blog more about our "Grand Vision" for Mockups soon, I promise.
As stated on this blog post from 12 months ago, my goal for the year was to hit $400k in revenue, with a stretch goal of $500k. Well, once again I was reminded about how bad I am at forecasting financial results. 🙂
2009 Gross Revenue: $1,626,528.93
That's over 4 times my 400k goal and over 3 times my stretch goal.
To say that we are blown away by this success is a huge understatement, I never thought a little app like Mockups could bring in these kinds of numbers...and in a recession!
It's simply awesome...we are literally in awe, every day.
2009 Profits: $1,139,919.59
We were able to maintain a 70% profit margin even as we went from 1 full-time employee to 3, which I'm really happy about - gotta stay scrappy! 🙂
This also means that we are very well positioned for the years to come, with money to invest in the company and a solid little cushion in the bank to keep us going even if - God forbid - we hit a rough patch in the future. I love it.
Here are a few charts for your enjoyment. These all show data since we launched, 18 months ago:
Those are some sweet charts, I can't believe they're OUR charts! What a ride!
The feeling is the one of being strapped to a rocket, trying to hang on and somehow attempting to steer it a bit by shifting my body weight to one side or the other. 🙂
Sales seem to have stabilized a bit in the last 4 months, which is a nice break while we prepare to scale up more - though it could also be due to Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we'll see what surprises January brings... 🙂
Company Changes: From "I" to "We"
Looking back, it's funny for me to read the end of year post for 2008, with all those "I"s in there. First of all, I should have already been using "we" since Mariah has been helping out with design and support since 2008, but I guess 12 months ago Balsamiq still felt like "my little baby". That feeling is now totally gone, replaced by "wow I created this MONSTER-baby that now requires 3 people to tend to it full-time, with some part-time help as well! Argh!" 😉
It seems so obvious now, but I have no doubt in my mind that Valerie and Marco were essential to our success in 2009. When I started Balsamiq I thought I would go at it alone for years...I was really scared at the thought of hiring anyone, and I didn't expect this kind of success, by far.
Both in Marco and Valerie's case, I waited until it became clear as day that if I didn't hire someone quickly, I was going to hurt the company. In both cases I just woke up one day and KNEW that the time was right.
I also knew right away that Marco and Valerie were exactly the right people, and consider convincing them to join Balsamiq my biggest personal achievement of 2009.
I feel really blessed to work with such awesome individuals, sharing this adventure, learning together and from each other, every day. That's really what it's all about. I am so thankful.
Speaking of awesome people...the community that formed around Mockups feels like a huge group-hug, every day. We are so lucky to be surrounded by such smart, kind and supportive people. Michael, Adam, Mark, Jenny, Leon, Enrico, Vitorio, Theresa, and countless others. We are so lucky to know you! 🙂
To support the community we started off the year by launching MockupsToGo, which has been a big success (84 posts, 222 subscribers, 290,000 page views). It's so awesome to see the widgets you come up with! In 2010 we plan on making the MockupsToGo stencils more easily embeddable in the app, stay tuned for more.
Together we designed some of the most important features of Mockups, like linking, zoom, the UI library position and others. In 2009 I have learned that we simply MUST involve you in the feature design right from the beginning, or it won't come out right. Thank you so much for helping us with your use-cases and insight!
Later in the year we released a version of Mockups designed exclusively for UX trainers to use in workshops, which is starting to get some traction. We'll try to push it some more in the new year: whatever we can do help UX professionals in our shared quest to rid the world of bad software is a good investment in our book.
Last year also saw the beginning of a community of 3rd party tools that integrate with Mockups, starting with the WebOrb exporter by MidnightCoders, the excellent BMML to Image Maps converter by Vitorio Miliano, the BMML import feature of FlairBuilder, and of course Napkee, "Balsamiq's perfect companion." 🙂
We are thrilled with these efforts, are doing whatever we can to support them (we built the "custom properties" feature just for them, for instance) and would love to see more. Next year we plan on providing more APIs to allow easier integration with other back-end systems...see the next post for more info.
Last but not least, I estimate that we donated around $1M worth of our software to do-gooders, non-profits and other worthy individuals. It's our small way of making meaning, and we're proud to do it.
Conferences and Sponsorships
I was fortunate enough to speak at the Atlassian Summit (video: one and two), at WebExpo in Prague and at Red Gate in Cambridge, UK for the Springboard startups. Valerie attended and spoke at AtlasCamp, and Marco attended The Business of Software in San Francisco, where we also threw a massive meet-up / after-conference party (with the generous last-minute help of Atlassian).
I am looking forward to speaking at a few more conferences this year - I am confirmed to speak at the Business of Software 2010 conference in Boston (can you believe it? me neither!) and I'm hoping to get confirmed for FOWA London.
We have also been sponsoring the excellent Wireframes Magazine, as well as supporting groups like the Product Group in NYC, the Find Invest Grow and TechStars incubators, the Founders Institute and a few others.
I am looking forward to sponsoring more events, blogs and podcasts next year. But before you email me with a pitch, know this: our policy is to only sponsor things we love, things we want to make sure we can keep reading / listening to / attending in the future. In other words, we will find you, not the other way around. You just focus on being "so good we can't ignore you" and we'll come knocking. 😉
The Balsamiq Blog
Here are the posts from 2009 that got the most attention:
- Tools We Use for Running our Startup
- Tracking your Company's Mentions with Delicious
- Donating Your Software: A Whole Lot of WIN
- Why I haven't been blogging as much
- 999 Followers, or How my Twittering has changed
- An Apology
Twitter continues to be an integral part of our daily lives, and our usage of it is constantly evolving as we all learn more about it. The introduction of Twitter lists now tells us who we are in the eyes of the Twittersphere and allows us to show you a view of our whole competitive landscape, as well as what we consider to be essential startup tools. Even our Twitter background (below, click to enlarge) has received some nice praises, so thank you!
If you live in Facebook, you have to thank Valerie for taking over our little page there: http://www.facebook.com/balsamiq
We now have over 1,100 fans, and use the page to share and discuss topics that are more informal than what we'd share on this blog, as well as release announcements, etc.
We're still figuring out to best provide value to you via Facebook, so thanks for helping us along the way! 🙂
Sales: starting to "Work the Channel"
In 2009 we started to dip our toes in different sales channels for Mockups.
For instance, we decided to sell Mockups for FogBugz both as an on-premise plugin, purchased once with an optional yearly maintenance fee (just like we already did for Confluence and JIRA), as well as a monthly subscription, using Spreedly as a payment processor.
On the Atlassian side, you can now purchase Mockups for Confluence or for JIRA directly from us and install it on your servers, or you can purchase it via a few selected Atlassian resellers, or you can purchase it from us and then install it on your Confluence or JIRA server that Atlassian hosts, or now even just purchase it as a monthly subscription on top of your Confluence or JIRA hosted package. In other words, you have lots and lots of options! 🙂
Each of these different ways to charge for our product has its pros and its challenges. One of the first things we're working on for 2010 is a nice "Which Mockups version is best for me?" wizard, to help you buy exactly what you need.
We are learning a lot from these different sales channels, and are happy to support them all for now. I am looking forward to learning a lot more in this area in 2010, as we expand to support more platforms, more resellers and start looking into affiliate programs.
Oh, 2009 should also be remembered as the year we stopped writing invoices and quotes manually in Word - we are happy Freshbooks customers now.
We also had to cave in and get a fax number - we use MyFax and are happy with it so far.
Competitive landscape: From "new tool" to "the one to beat"
My, it seemed that 2009 was the year of new wireframing tools. Someone even complained that we're drowning in them!
In just a few months Mockups went from being this quirky little new tool with a scrappy, never-seen-before hand-drawn interface to being "the gold standard", the one to beat.
Mockups is even required knowledge for certain jobs, which is hilarious given that it takes about 3 minutes to learn! 🙂
I really didn't expect this transition, and while it's a nice feeling, it's going to take me a little while to get used to this new role. Like Val says, it's easier to get to the top than to stay at the top.
We don't pay too much attention to our competitors - we'd rather spend our time on listening to our customers and giving them what they need - but from what we've seen a number of our features have been included in other tools, which is very flattering. 😉
It doesn't look like any other tool in our same price-range is gaining much traction, but even if they do, if we continue to focus on usability and customer service, I think we'll be fine.
We're always on our toes though...remember Friendster? Yeah, we don't either. 🙂
In general I am very pleased that so many people are trying to help others build more usable software...the more the better! 🙂
The Internet is a big place, there's plenty of room for multiple players. We know Mockups is not for everyone, and that's totally fine.
If you'd like to get a sense of the competitive landscape we're in, follow the tweets from all the wireframing tool makers we know of via this list: balsamiq/wireframing-tools.
Before we go I'd like to reflect on some of the mistakes I've made this year, or at least the ones I have identified as such - I might be making more that I'm not even aware of right now! 🙂
A really broken build: this was the most "visible" mistake of the year, when I published a bad build and left the house right after it. We were able to fix it in a couple of hours but now that we have so many customers, even a couple of hours can cost us. Here's my apology - look at the comments to get a sense of how great our customers are. 🙂
Accountants: this year I learned (through stressful mistakes) that finding accountants and lawyers who have the exact experience you need (in my case both international taxation experience AND being bilingual Italian/English) is both extremely hard and extremely important. Also, if you're a founder of a startup that has all of its employees in the same country, don't come to me wining about bureaucracy...you got it easy my friend! 🙂
Setting wrong expectations for the Web App: right, the web app. That's been "the other thing" that we've been working on all year, our "next big thing" that's been in private beta for a few months now. The mistake I made about the web app is to not realize that with all that we have going on, we'd really only be able to dedicate tiny amounts of time to it. We've been working with an external contractor on it for a while - and it's really very close to where we want v1.0 to be - but without having at least one person dedicated to it in-house, and zero revenue, it's been hard to justify investing the time on it. I guess I thought we'd have more time. We are fixing this staffing issue very soon, and are very eager to get the web app in your hands early in 2010. It won't be perfect, but it will be a start, and I consider it a key part of our strategy in the future. Thank you for your patience on this one, and sorry for promising earlier releases. We live and learn.
OK, this has been an epic post, I'd better publish it so that I can get started on part 2, where I start thinking ahead at 2010. Lots to share there! 🙂