Happy 5th Birthday, Dear Balsamiq!
With the SuperMoon shining upon us, the friends who make up Balsamiq met in San Francisco to celebrate our company's 5th birthday. Our team is scattered around Europe and the States, so being together is rare and deliberate. Our goal is to ensure that our friendships are based on more than just Mockups. We get together to make sure we still believe every word of our Manifesto.
Planning a retreat for 16 (including a startling 7 first-timers whom most of us had never met) takes a caring advance team, some boots on the ground, and lots of detail-wrangling. Led by Joy, a team of 5 of us put together a full-to-bursting but balanced schedule that represented the interests and values of our company. We picked some activities that were work-related, community-based, and sometimes just straight-up fun.
Lessons from our 2013 retreat
Start with a "Day Zero" to give travelers a soft landing
Because of the distance between us, one group or another will show up at a Retreat with jet lag, regardless of where we meet. This year, to give travelers a soft landing, we organized Day 0. I met the four flights at SFO on Saturday, and brought the gang to the Peninsula to soak up some Vitamin D along the San Francisco Bay, and enjoy a casual dinner. Our friend Roberta prepared up a Mexican feast, and we spent the evening getting to know the new balsamici and laughing with friends.
Build on themes
The week was punctuated with group activities, presentations and field trips focused on themes.
Identity/Awareness: we walked to the San Francisco Zen Center to learn about the practice of managing stress through meditation. This sounded like it would be especially helpful for customer-facing jobs (like Sales, and Tech Support), but it was actually a very powerful experience for our group. Interestingly, during the remainder of the week, I noticed people repeat the final lines of the Loving Kindness Meditation, applying the lesson in a wide variety of situations. When I answer an incoming phone call, or write a complicated email, my little mantra is:
May he have what he needs and is best for him.
May he be happy. May I be happy. May all beings be happy.
To help us continue to get acquainted, Leon took us across the road into Golden Gate Park, to play some ice-breaker/improv games.
After dinner, we each delivered a 5-minute talk about our personal Heroes, to define our values and identify what inspires us.
Team/Communication: this was the nuts & bolts stuff: vision and roadmap, goals of internal processes, Olio - our home-grown record-keeping and License tracking tool - and more. A particularly successful event was a discussion about Communication led by Natalie, using partner dancing as a metaphor. That night, we took Group Swing Dance lessons. That's right. We took a bunch of software engineers to an old-fashioned dance club and we had a blast. Shut the place down. Surprise!
Ben led an outstanding session on Sketchnotes, a terribly creative and different way to take notes. Stay tuned here for a blog post about it, and check out the darling rollovers he did for our company page. Those are also featured on the T-Shirt we gave to Peldi at our birthday party.
Community: because it was important for us that our San Francisco Retreat include some form of volunteerism, we spent an afternoon packing pasta at the San Francisco Food Bank. In a remarkable, small-town surprise, we ran into a group from Adobe there, including some former Macromedia friends! Another good lesson: if you want good people, hire on compassion and empathy.
Think globally. Act neighborly
Make outings count! Fun + good for the soul = memorable. A week flies, so we kept all our activities in The City. We walked a lot, allowing us to transition easily through diverse events and offering opportunities for small groups to have side-conversations during each walk.
We thrive in close quarters
We rented an old Victorian split into two separate units, in the historic and personality-plus Haight-Ashbury. Maybe because we all loved summer camp, or maybe because we don't get to work together all year long, but we love living in the same house. We are just not hotel-people and we wouldn't know what to do with a conference center. We love casual, shared space, and a large group provides lots of opportunity for side conversations. Of course, when welcoming everyone to the Retreat, Peldi reminded us that we were free to duck out anytime, for privacy or just to get a break. The house worked out perfectly, even if it was a tad snug.
Allow for mini-breaks and the chance to create some inside jokes. Make sure you have a room that is big enough for everyone to be in at one time. We were about 60 sq ft short, but we made it work.
We built in time to relax in the park.
Don't forget sight-seeing. It's important the out-of-towners aren't distracted or feel like they are missing out on what the location has to offer!
It was great to have everybody in San Francisco, since that's where it all started, when Balsamiq was just Peldi. Peldi toured around the young whippersnappers through his old old neighborhood, where it all began.
In another old-timey scene, a passing car rolled down the window, honked the horn, and shouted, "Hi Peldi!" as our mob ambled down the street. Nothing makes you feel more at home than running into a friendly face and a warm greeting.
On Wednesday, June 19, we celebrated Balsamiq's FIFTH BIRTHDAY! Thanks to everybody who came out to celebrate with us. It was great to see so many old friends and happy faces. It really warmed our hearts. Our team, like any other, thrives on the electricity of real, healthy, face-to-face friendships. During our Retreat, we recharge the batteries on our team that will augment and sustain these two-dimensional on-line relationships.
It's almost scientific how a Retreat completes the circuit, generating between colleagues a deeper reservoir of understanding and patience, that we then slowly discharge over several months. We are nourished by the collective experience. At our Retreat, we work, think, eat, and play together, to recalibrate the vibes, adjust the tension, and synchronize the cadence to keep our company running at a sustainable clip. We've already started to plan next year's Retreat. We end each Retreat looking forward to the next time we can be together.
We'd love to hear how you keep a distributed team close and emotionally connected. Please feel free to share your challenges and experiences in the comments.