Startup Interviews: Balsamiq Studio LLC

What follows is an interview with Giacomo “Peldi” Guilizzoni, founder of Balsamiq Studio LLC, a fast growing micro-ISV. This is the first of a series of interviews I will carry out with interesting figures from the micro-ISV and startup scene. If you have a compelling story to tell, own or run a tech startup, and would like to be featured, please drop me a line via email.


1. Before starting Balsamiq you were working in the States. Could you please tell me more about your background?

First of all let me thank you Antonio for wanting to write about my little company. I aim for my products to reach ZenWare status, so being interviewed by a Zen-meister like yourself is truly an honor.

I started programming when I was 12, when my father bought me a “teach yourself BASIC” course on those big floppy disks. I remember getting stuck on the “for loops” section for a while, but the damage was done, I was hooked. I programmed all through high-school building software which my father gave out as part of his job (accounting stuff, written in Pascal), and then went on to study Computer Science at the University of Bologna, with a one-year exchange program at the University of California in San Diego. A month after graduating I went to San Francisco to look for a job, I always knew I wanted to live there, I wanted to “invent the future”. I was extremely lucky to land a job at Macromedia, which was my dream-company. I worked there as a Quality Assurance engineer for a year, then switched to a development job when we started building Breeze (now Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional), an online meeting application. I worked on that same product for about five years, changing job title almost every year and learning as much as I could in the process.

2. Like most programmers you got an early start and then later in life had the chance to specialize in technologies like Flash, Flex and Adobe Air, that would prove fundamental for your startup. How did you come up with the idea for Balsamiq?

The idea for Mockups came from a need I had personally over the years. As a programmer with a passion for user experience, I have been in many feature design meetings in my career, and was always the one jumping up to sketch things on the whiteboard to facilitate discussion – if I’m not looking at something, I cannot properly think about it, it’s just the way I’m wired up.

Whiteboards or pencil and paper are great because of their low fidelity which encourages discussion, but are also limiting because they are not digital – try resizing a container to make it bigger or collaborate on a design with someone remotely, for instance.

I couldn’t find a tool that would give me the same speed, usability and sketch-quality of the whiteboard but was digital, so I set out to build one.

I was also deeply affected by the new “Web Office” way to work, with our data and software to edit it moving to the cloud. Any big paradigm shift like this brings about lots of new opportunities, so I decided to build a company focused on adding ‘flavor’ to Web Office suites via small, focused, high-quality plugins… Balsamiq Mockups is my first one.

3. Did you quit your day job, move to Italy and start working on Balsamiq?

It was a bit more gradual than that, but that’s essentially what happened. I worked on Mockups during nights and week-ends for a while before quitting, and continued to work for 3.5 months after giving notice. My last day at Adobe was June 15th 2008 and I launched Balsamiq on the 19th.

4. What impact has disclosing sales figures and being very open about your results had on your business?

Although it was not my intention when writing those posts, it brought us a tremendous amount of publicity. I was sharing the good news to reassure existing and potential customers that Balsamiq would stay in business for the duration of their support contract. Little did I know it was going to be such a huge attention-magnet! 🙂

As a small and young company, I see extreme transparency as the fastest way to build up trust in the marketplace. Plus there’s no way to hide anything on the Internet these days, so why even try? I love it, you can just be yourself and be open about it, it’s very liberating.

Balsamiq Studio LLC

5. Could you disclose some of your current stats? How many people are using your application? What is the sales volume like these days?

Sure. I don’t know for sure how many people are using the application, as many customers bought volume licenses and sometimes site-wide licenses. My site’s stats also show about 1,500 people using the free web demo version every day, which is great.

Here’s the data that I do have: as of today (April 12, 2009) I have sold to 3798 customers for a total of $469,048 in sales. Sales keep growing steadily: the last 7 weeks have all been over $20,000, with a record $35k week for the first week of April. We are averaging around 200 new customers per week right now… all with such a simple little tool, how could this be? Someone pinch me! 😉

6. In my opinion desktop applications are far from dead. What’s your take on this topic?

Tell me about it! 🙂 When I started Balsamiq I never thought I’d be in the desktop software business… my plan was to only sell Mockups as a plugin to Confluence and other Web Office suites. The desktop version was meant to ease the “what if I want to keep working while I’m offline” complaint about working in the cloud. My beta users had to practically beg me to sell them the Desktop version as a standalone app… and now it accounts for 77% of Balsamiq’s revenue! 🙂

I also have to come to appreciate the software+services model that Microsoft has been pushing. By coupling the power of native applications with the awesomeness of saving your data in the cloud you get the best of both worlds… It’s no wonder Apple is going in the same direction with their offering and that Google is trying to turn the browser in a desktop app shell. These are interesting times, we’ll see what happens…

In the meantime, I like to play in all fields: I have Mockups for Desktop, Mockups for Confluence, Mockups for JIRA, Mockups for XWiki, soon a Mockups Hosted web-app, I will build “web connectors” for the Desktop app… We shall see…

7. What are the most important recommendations you’d give someone who wanted to start a micro-ISV or startup?

Oh gosh, I don’t know…I still feel like such a rookie, I’m in no position to give advice. I know that I get tremendous value from reading the experiences of others who have been through it before me: here’s my bookshelf; plus I read a ton of blogs and watch videos of conference talks as much as I can.

8. What’s next? And where would you like to take your company in the short, and, long term?

The short term goal is to finish the online version of Mockups, and to deliver the “linking mockups together” feature (our #1 request from customers). Oh, and to answer all the email sitting in my inbox! 🙂

The medium and long term goal is to build what DHH would call “a little Italian restaurant on the web”, a small company of 5-6 super-stars who love to work with each other and take pride in delighting our customers day after day.

Balsamiq is getting there a lot faster than I originally expected, but I am enjoying every minute of it so far, the ups and the downs…it’s been a fantastic learning experience already and I am excited for more… onward! 🙂

I really want to thank Peldi for his time and kind words, and I invite my readers to stay tuned for more interviews.

Credits: First photo © Matt Snow.

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